The International Street
Right Here, Right Now – Format Festival – Louise Clements (Curator) Quad Gallery 4th March – 8th May 2011
Review by Mick Gidley
On entering Quad’s exhibition space, opposite the door, the first group of images to demand our attention are six colour prints by Joel Meyerowitz, one of Format 11’s two patrons, and it soon becomes evident that he – in his practice as an artist as well as through his critical admonitions in Bystander (with Colin Westerbrook, 2001) – has been a guiding light for this generous show of street photography curated by Louise Clements. So much goes on within his images: in Blind Man, Malaga (1966) the obviously sightless male figure at a café table concentrates on his drink, oblivious of the diverse activity around him that we take in, including behind at middle distance a large woolly animal, itself displaced from some other world. As well as a talk, Meyerowitz’ other specific contribution to Right Here, Right Now is his selection of mostly unpublished Gary Winogrand colour photographs made between 1958 and 1964. It is a privilege to be able to see so many of these works, which parallel and punctuate Winogrand’s prolific black and white output. Almost every one of them, despite countless imitations (including some in this show), are still eye-catching.
There is almost too much worthwhile international work to assimilate, certainly in a single visit, whether Polly Braden’s bemused figures amidst the changes wrought by the Chinese government’s imposition of Special Economic Zones (she seems to have caught the very light of China), Orville Robertson’s African-American studies in the visual and political ambiguities of black and white, or Guilad Kahn’s views of Afghanistan through the metallic rectangle of a US military Humvee on manoeuvres. Thus framed, everything (including human beings) is estranged, as if it might indeed become a target. Amy Stein’s Stranded is a study of post-Katrina USA, with some of the pictures made in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. Though intriguing, her images need more by the way of caption to justify their presumed symbolic weight. By contrast, the impact of Empty Bottles by WassinkLundgren (Thijs Groot Wassink and Ruben Lundgren) lies almost wholly in its context as a conceptual project: the pictures – elaborately assembled in books – depict Chinese scavengers attracted to pick up (‘recycle’) bottles strategically placed by the photographers.
A richness of pictorial content and odd juxtaposition – in both individual compositions and sequencing – recurs throughout the exhibition. One of the thoughtful works by Slovak photographer Martin Kollar shows a lorry that has apparently just crashed down an embankment, while nearer a man in his underpants quietly inspects the fruit in his orchard. Again, in Ragha Rai’s large Office goers at Victoria terminus, Mumbai (2004) – itself a taster for his concurrent solo show in nearby Nottingham – our eyes are arrested equally by a gesticulating man in the crowd and by the orientalist splendour of the Victorian architecture beyond. One of the most interesting sequences of juxtapositions is provided by Douglas Wallace in his Reflections on Life. Mounted on the stairs to Quad’s cinema, these present the faces of commuters from different cities around the world as glimpsed through the windows of departing trams. Technically brilliant, they make you want to know the stories of these people: are they subjects of seemingly universal melancholia or locked in purely private grief?
As is appropriate for a festival titled Format, the Quad show offers a range of formats. The most individual one is the office set aside as ‘The Derby Detective Agency’ for the resident photographer Graeme Vaughan. Installed as if its occupant has just gone out on a case, a battered typewriter on the desk, copies of the local newspaper piled on the floor, steam radio on the back shelf, cameras scattered around, a pin-marked wall map indicating sites where various displayed photographs were taken, it reminds the viewer of Walter Benjamin’s insight that certain street photographs resemble crime scenes. More conventionally, veteran Brian Griffin, this year’s second patron, contributes finely framed silver prints from the 1970s, with one lone image of a textured wall surrealistically ‘supporting’ a head (actually behind it) taken in 2009 in Flint, Michigan, while pages from Frederic Lezmi’s recent colourful book Beyond Borders: From Vienna to Beirut are pinned directly to the wall like a frieze. Witnessed askance, or through mirrors or windows, or as pictures within pictures, these scenes visualize a journey eastwards, ‘ending’ at a street car in the Lebanon. Michael Wolf’s views are street scenes, but they were not taken out there in the street. They capture his computer screen, enlarged pixels and all, with their virtual roadside conflicts exaggerated (or punctured?) by the visible intrusion of the cursor.
The format featured perhaps most effectively is the slide show. In separate intimate viewing areas around the gallery, there are particularly compelling long slide sequences by the huge international collective known as Hard Core Street Photography (notably Grand Day Out 1), by a gathering of photographers from the Baltic nations (some of the bleakest sights in the festival), and England Uncensored by the incredibly industrious Peter Dench. Alternating agitated directness with cool precision, he presents some pains and pleasures of living in a multicultural society. The highpoint for me is the extensive representation of the compulsive photographic and 8mm film work produced – but never in her lifetime shown – by ‘folk’ artist Vivian Maier. Taking time out from her regular employment as a 1960s nanny, she wandered the streets, suburbs and stockyards of Chicago, making a curiously vivid record of what she saw, replete with frustrated narratives, naïve but knowing. In Maier, as in all the best of the street photography here, in whatever format, we see the effects of huge forces – whether economic, political, geographic or cultural – as they bear down on nameless individuals who, caught in this interaction, become representative.