21 July 2011

Foto8 Summershow, London

Photo: Jane Stockdale

Now and then it’s refreshing to go and see a photo show that takes things back to basics. At the Foto8 Summershow this year, there’s no obligation to wade through a curatorial justification of the arguments, themes or influences behind the selection of work; nor do you feel like you’ve missed out on anything if you haven’t read a photo-critical tome before leaving the house. Those things might heighten your viewing experience of course, and all of this isn’t to say that the show isn’t serious or rigorous… but in reality, it’s this simple: Foto8 accepts submissions for the show in any style, size or format, with a remit to ‘engage or challenge the viewer’. This year, 1000 entrants answered the call with 2,853 images, out of which the team at Host Gallery and Foto8 magazine picked 150 to hang, ‘salon-style’, in the Host Gallery space.

The criteria for selection is ‘single image impact alone’, which might suggest that the single biggest danger for the curators is succumbing to the photographic equivalent of the ‘quick thrill’ – images that rely on shock value or tired visual tricks for their appeal. However, in the two years that I’ve visited the Summershow (it’s been running for four), I’ve found the opposite: the pared-down, almost ‘naïve’ curatorial mission statement results in a fresh, absorbing selection of works. The relaxed, open format of the show (which must belie some pretty furious organisational manoeuvrings) translates into a selection of photographs that feels contemporary, unpretentious and bursting with life.

Photo: Neil Craver

The style of the exhibition hang itself is simple and democratic – the walls are filled, floor to ceiling, with prints of different sizes and framings.  More significantly, in my opinion, and surprisingly, given the emphasis on photojournalism and reportage in the selection of work, none of the prints are accompanied by caption information of any kind – not the photographer, title or date of the works. To find this out, you have to refer to the little exhibition catalogue that is on sale (or on loan, in my, cash-poor, case) from the nice people at the Host gallery front desk. This, by the way, is also a complete steal at £2; all of the works are presented in full colour in the little A6ish guide, with more impact somehow than in the most lavish coffee-table books.. In the exhibition itself, this unfussy presentation does the extra work of giving back to even the most literal photographs some of their mystery, and throwing the viewer back on their visual responses to assess the work.

Photo: Sebastian Meyer
Going back to the ‘quick thrill’ problem for a moment; many of the works here, as previously mentioned, are photojournalistic. I love this kind of photography, but with certain exceptions. Not to diminish in any way the remarkable bravery and creative ability under pressure of documentary and ‘news’ photographers, but I personally find it frustrating, in an exhibition context, to be faced with images that are judged to be striking because their subject matter is so. Blood, conflict and explosions are all ‘dramatic’, but I often feel that these images are done greater justice in the context of series or editorial presentations. However, this one (probably mealy-mouthed) criticism of mine doesn’t apply to many works here and there is one – Sebastian Meyer’s ‘Smoke Screen, Zhani, Afghanistan’ – which really stood out for me in this genre, combining the presentation of factual, ‘documentary’ evidence with that essential ingredient, the ability to communicate thought and feeling to and through the viewer, by visual means. The smoke here is so thick as to be almost tangible; the individual soldiers are just the opposite of that – unindividuated. The photograph embodies, for me, how it might feel to be out in that smoke – without anchor or orientation and without visual identity. I’m not sure whether the thought is calming (the image is strangely calm, luminous) or terrifying.

Photo: James Morgan
My favourite works in the show are all photographs that have this communicative quality, and that’s leaving out the ones which are appealing simply for their beauty, their technical mastery or their enigmatic subject matter. It’s hard not to mention a photograph like James Morgan’s remarkable ‘Enal with Pet Shark’, from a series dealing with the lives of Indonesian sea nomads, in which the little boy of the title is shown gliding, grinning, through clear water, clinging to the tale of the shark with enviable confidence. Neil Hall’s photograph ‘After The Crash’ (given an ‘Honourable Mention’ by the competition judges) is also compelling, showing UKIP MP Nigel Farage staggering from the scene of a light aircraft crash in an otherwise banal rural landscape. The aircraft wreckage itself cuts through the composition, drawing our attention to Farage’s strange, contorted expression.

Photo: Lydia Panas
And… well, I could go on for hours. Revisiting the Summershow’s website the day after I went to the exhibition itself, I had the aim of restating to myself some of the themes’n’memes I had identified in the work at first hand – the lives of children, vulnerability, visual identity, the individual figure’s relationship with landscape. This aim dissolved as I came across one after another photograph that demanded analysis on its own merits. Some of my favourites include Lydia Panas’ portrait of the unidentified ‘Kitty, Christine and Kira’, shot in some indistinct rural location, the sense of transience the portrait evokes heightened by the way in which the photographer has caught her beautiful subjects at odds, posturally, with themselves and each other. Martin Osborne’s studies of ‘Dogs in Cars’ are strange, condensed snippets of fear and aggression, and ‘Untitled’ by Lydia Goldblatt is a glimpse of what a single, well thought out, frame can achieve in terms of encouraging the viewer to reach for narrative outside it. Seen as if through a door stood ajar, bare legs rise up out of soupy green bath water, facing towards an unseen light source as if the bather has stood to catch a glimpse of an unexpected dawn.

Photo: Lydia Goldblatt

What more can I say? It’s a joy to visit this exhibition and I heartily recommend it – four superbly qualified judges – Richard Billingham, Charlotte Cotton, Emma Morris and James Reid – have selected their official ‘Best in Show’, but my advice is to get down to EC1 and choose your own (not just for this reason)!

The Foto8 Summershow 2011 is on display at Host Gallery, 1-5 Honduras Street, London, EC1Y 0TH, from 8th July – 12th August 2011. Monday to Friday, 10.00–18.00; Saturday, 11.00–16.00. Entrance Free. A catalogue is available from the gallery shop for £2.

All photos courtesy of Host Gallery, London.