Signs & London Festival

Let This Be A Sign

I was pleased to arrive at Swiss Cottage Library last night for the opening of what I think is the first show of the London Festival of Photography, “taking place throughout June with a focus in King’s Cross, Bloomsbury, Euston & Fitzrovia. ”  A little outside this both physically and temporally, ‘Let This Be A Sign‘ by Simon Roberts opened last night.

My journey had not been a good one, thanks to a broken-down train at Acton Wells that shut down the Overground service from Richmond, followed by lengthy delays on the longer alternative route via Clapham Junction with trains too packed for everyone to board and I almost gave up and went home. It was perhaps an appropriate introduction to a show that deals with the political and social effects of our continuing recession here in the UK, with nothing in our lives and economy quite working as it should.

This is an interesting show and it continues until 1 July, open with the library 7 days a week, combining 4×5 images printed large with collages of small digital images of protest placards and closed down shop fronts, text,  graphs, and a collection of actual posters and placards on the floor below (and I’m sure I’ve missed something.)  Although I’ve nothing against such a multifaceted approach, I felt it worked rather better in the free newsprint publication ‘This Is A Sign‘ by Roberts, available free at the library which I read at some length on my rather smoother journey home, than in the showcases and on the gallery wall.

We’ve seen several such newsprint publications in the past couple of years, and this, designed by FUEL and printed in an edition of only 2000 is like some others probably destined to become a collectors’ item, so go there soon and grab your copy.  It’s always difficult to know the constraints in mounting a show such as this, but I didn’t quite feel it gelled, and in particular the separation of the posters and placards, possibly dictated by security considerations, was unfortunate. Perhaps too this collection lacked the strength and diversity that those of use who regularly visited Occupy London or go to protests are accustomed to.

Roberts has taken on a large and important topic, and certainly one which is difficult to do justice to. It is also one which politically presents some problems for the council owned venue, and Camden is one of the Labour councils that last year saw angry protests blocking streets outside the council offices and an occupation of the council chamber as well as a high-profile campaign against cuts in its Library service.

Possibly fortuitously, his pictures of protest were made elsewhere, including a couple in the neighbouring borough of Islington, from Occupy Finsbury Square, where Islington Council, who had for many months supported the Occupy movement’s right to peaceful protest announced earlier this week that they would take legal action to regain possession of the site after many living there had ignored a legal notice ordering them to leave by last Friday.

But what I missed most in the show were people as people. Protesters were largely shown as crowds, and other images had people mainly as co-incidental inclusions, standing for example on a street corner looking – as was the photographer – at the after-effects of the riots. In the newsprint a page digital collage of images ‘Brokers with hands on their faces’ stands out from the rest of the work – not because the photography is better (it isn’t) but because it concentrates on people. Later I read the small print at the back of the publication and found that these pictures were not by Roberts but from the Brokers With Hands On Their Faces blog, images from Wall Street rather than the UK. Perhaps for me the strongest image in this publication/show was the one exception, placed deliberately after the brokers, it showed people queuing outside a Sheffield Credit Union.

Perhaps too the strengths of large format are not best suited to covering protest, and the images on display to some extent reflected its lack of flexibility. There are times when the extra resolution of 4×5 film adds a great deal, but I seldom felt it in these images, and in some the printing didn’t help to make the case. Seeing the work in newsprint works better because we have no expectations of higher quality, but also it helps to unify the various aspects of the show.

But this is a show worth seeing – and go soon and get your copy of ‘This Is A Sign’, complete with a blank placard on the cover for you to supply your own slogan.


Memories of Swiss Cottage & the Death of Large Format

Of course like most openings it was perhaps more interesting for the people that I met and talked to, and few of those present seemed to be paying a great deal of attention to the pictures – though perhaps they had done so more before I arrived. Among those there was an old friend, Mike Seaborne with whom I organised a show  in the central space of this same library in 1993 of work by members of London Documentary Photographers, which included couple of dozen of my own pictures of shop-fronts and interiors, some of which are in the web project ‘Café Ideal, Cool Blondes, and Paradise‘, including this example.

© 1990 Peter Marshall
Lewisham, 1990

Soon after I also helped to organise and took part in two shows in the same venue for London Independent Photography. Apparently it was not possible to put anything from this current show into this larger central space, a shame as this is considerably more visible to the many users of the library who pass by on their way to take out and return books. At least they may see the placards on the ground floor entrance, although I managed to walk past without noticing them on my way in.

Mike and my conversation turned to new cameras, and in particular the Nikon D800E, which we agreed looked likely to make 4×5 totally redundant, so long as it is teamed with the high quality prime lenses which Nikon is now bringing out. Frankly I seldom feel the need for that kind of quality, and have always preferred to work with smaller formats – and if necessary with smaller prints. Curators and photographers I showed the ‘Café Ideal...’ project to in the 80s and 90s often said to me “If only you worked with medium (or large) format …” to which my response was always that for several reasons the work would simply not exist if I had done so, and that the prints were of more than adequate quality for what I needed, particularly as I’ve never been a great fan of large prints – for me part of the essential power of photography has always been that it is an intimate medium, producing objects that one can hold in your hands.

I’m still thinking of getting an 800E, but if I do so I would expect to be using it as a DX rather than an FX format camera for perhaps 99% of my work, and to continue working with my current Nikon zooms. I’ve found the 16-35mm f4 and the DX 28-105mm pretty amazing, at least with a little help from Lightroom’s automatic corrections, and you just don’t need huge files most of the time, though it’s great to be able to make them when you do.


Frederick Wilfred

More about the LFP at a later date. Glancing through the festival guide perhaps the most intriguing show is of work from 1956-62 by Frederick Wilfred (1925-2010), who I’d not heard of before despite the fact that we were both at times active members of the same photographic club (though perhaps at different times, and I saw the error of my ways in the early 1980s) which doesn’t open at the Museum of London until 16 June (it runs until 8 July) although you already can see a fine set of his work on line. Probably when I was around he was busy with his commercial work and portraiture.

One thing the two LFP shows have in common is that both include an element of audience participation. In the case of Wilfred, one thing I found annoyingly lacking on his web site were captions, and the museum  which has recently acquired 124 of his pictures is appealing to anyone who recognises the locations (some are of course obvious) or the people in the pictures are being asked to let the museum know.

But it is also a good reminder for us as photographers to make sure that our prints have captions on the back and our digital files include appropriate metadata.

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