Portraits from around the world including Frances

Portraits from around the world

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016 exhibition is currently at Sunderland Museum after opening at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition includes fifty seven portraits of very differing subjects from around the world including; young people on a riverbank in England, a tired worker in the UAE and young cyclist friends in Lithuania. The prize winning images are from South Africa, the USA and Israel. Some portraits are taken in the studio while others are taken in situ. Sometimes the subject is aware they are being photographed, sometimes not. The emotional range of the images moves from happy and carefree to harrowing and a cause for concern. The exhibition also includes differing photographic processes, such as photogravure and the wet plate collodion process or tintype. Something for everyone then.

School photograph 

The winner of the first prize in the exhibition has been described, perhaps with tongue in cheek, as the ‘ultimate school photo‘. The image is from a series by Claudio Rasano titled ‘Similar Uniforms: We Refuse to Compare’ which in the words of Rasano, as quoted by the British Journal of Photography, was focused on “preserving individuality in the context of school uniforms“. The subject of the photograph is Thembinkosi Fanwell Ngwenya, a student in Johannesburg. He poses in his school uniform against a neutral background. So far so much like a school photograph, albeit a very good one. But the photographer draws out his personality and you see him as an individual. As a result you want to know more about him; who are his friends, who are his family, what is he studying, what is his future. You are concerned for someone you’ve never met. The ‘ultimate school photo’? Well maybe but certainly an image that is skilfully taken, gives a connection to its subject and ultimately makes you want to know more about them.

Images of young people 

The prize winning portrait is just one of quite a number of portraits of young people in the exhibition. For me the following are three of the most outstanding sets of images. 

A pair of images by Sian Davey are of her daughter Martha, photographed at sixteen with her friends over two summers in what appears to be an idyllic rural spot. Beautifully taken there is an air of innocence in these honest images of Martha and her friends. At the same time they seem to show young people on the cusp of becoming adults and moving on from long summer days.

The strongly titled ‘Be Murdered’ by Judy Gelles creates a feeling of concern and worry for its subject. The image shows a young girl in a pose that is young, bright and confident. Her hands held as if she is skipping or dancing, one sock slightly higher than the other; she holds her body in a manner that suggests she won’t conform to how you expect her to pose for the camera. The image itself doesn’t conform to the accepted norm of a portrait either in that it doesn’t show the subjects face; it also includes text around its subject. The text on the image are the words of its subject and describe: her situation, her wishes and her fear for the future. Her fear for the future is where the title of the image comes from. 

An image of a Boy Scout in Lagos, Nigeria is, with its handsome subject, and the mustard yellow and deep green of the scout uniform against a yellow backdrop, strikingly beautiful. It is of a young person who wears his uniform proudly and, as with so many of these images of young people, you can’t help but feel concerned for their future. Looking at the image of the Boy Scout you get the feeling it may not be the only uniform he will wear.

The People’s Pick

The ‘Boy Scout’ took third place in the People’s Pick with ‘John’, an image commissioned by the Cheka Sana Foundation in second place. The image of ‘John’ is a companion image to ‘Anastazia’. Both photographs are of young and perhaps vulnerable people in Tanzania. Photographed against a white background both images show young people who comport themselves with great dignity despite their incredibly difficult lives. Anastazia looks almost serene as she holds her hands to her chest exposing her bare arms, one of which is badly burned. First place in the People’s Pick went to ‘Frances’ an image by Josh Redman that also won the John Kobal New Work Award.

Caravaggio and Frances

It is quite easy to see why ‘Frances’ won the awards it did. The photograph is an image of Frances, a woman who at 83 was probably quite new to nude modelling. If so she looks absolutely comfortable in her skin. The photographer Josh Redman was apparently a sculptor for many years and this training may account for the use of chiaroscuro and side lighting to render the image so renaissance perfect. The beauty, the worldliness and serenity of Frances combined with the photographers choice of lighting makes the image look like a Caravaggio, albeit one with a beautiful subject.

Rules of engagement 

Although the images are all portraits and moving through the exhibition you may expect to use the same aesthetics again and again, the images are so wide ranging in subject, presentation and gathered from so far across the world it’s difficult to be that lazy. You move from one image to the next adjusting your rules of engagement as you go; this one is like a renaissance painting, this one uses a different photographic process, consider this one with its text overlay, does the family relationship between artist and subject matter, does our European outlook change our point of view. The exhibition has similarities to the BP Portrait Awards which is also shown annually at the National Portrait Gallery. Different subjects, different methods, different relationships, but at the end it all leads to one absolutely fascinating exhibition of portraits that is so easy to connect with.

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize 2016 exhibition is currently on show at Sunderland Museum now until Sunday 4 June 2017.

Find out more about Sunderland Museum.

Find out more about the National Portrait Gallery.

Find out more about the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize.

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Punk 1976-78, a British Library exhibition

The starting point for the Punk 1976-78 exhibition is a bit of social history via newspaper cuttings to explain the backdrop behind the cultural explosion that was punk. The headlines chosen do give an accurate impression of the times. They remind us of those heady days of; industrial unrest, riots, rock royalty Eric Clapton drunkenly giving his support for Enoch Powell, the rise of the National Front, immigrants getting the blame. 

But while it’s necessary to explain the backdrop the exhibition isn’t about that. What it is about is the positive attitude that punk brought. Its DIY approach to music, the “be the change you want to be” attitude, the strength in numbers (thinking of the Anti-Nazi League here), the shot in the arm that it brought to the arts particularly fashion and graphic design (hats doffed to Jamie Reid), and why not be a film director (hello Don Letts) and if the media is not your message then why not write, print and distribute your own message (Mark Perry’s ‘Sniffin’ Glue’ first among many). The big artists of the era were the Ramones and the Sex Pistols and they, along with the Clash, do occupy quite a bit of space in the exhibition but certainly not at the expense of other artists including the women of punk who are very well represented. 

In addition to the newspaper headlines, a timeline and an excellent Pete Frame punk family tree also set the scene. The family tree is about the ‘New Wave Nine’ and is incredibly interesting but didn’t help me answer the question ‘who created punk?’. The answer for me is either the Ramones or the Sex Pistols but sifting through the evidence of the exhibition it is probably both of them simultaneously on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

Lets look at the evidence provided in the exhibition. In 1976 the Ramones released their eponymously titled first album to perhaps less than rave reviews and it stalled at 111 in the Billboard charts. The Sex Pistols didn’t get to release their album until 1977 but it debuted at number one in the UK charts. The Sex Pistols were beaten to the punch but were they following in the wake of the Ramones? The story of the Sex Pistols chaotic start to their recording career is well documented in the exhibition.

Mike Thorne, born in Sunderland and educated in Oxford, is a producer, arranger, engineer, composer, musician and was A & R man for EMI long enough to sign the Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols signed for EMI in October 1976 and the EMI pressing plants began production of ‘Anarchy in the UK’ releasing it on 26 November. That Bill Grundy thing happened on 1 December leading to EMI dropping the Sex Pistols and withdrawing the record. After a short stay with A&M, who it is said pressed 25,000 copies of ‘God Save the Queen’ only to destroy all of them, Richard Branson signed the Sex Pistols to Virgin. 

The Sex Pistols eventually got their music out to the wider public with ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols’, an album lyrically full of snarling wit held together by colossal playing from Paul Cook on drums and Steve Jones on guitar. Who played bass is a mystery but it was probably Steve Jones all along. 

The Sex Pistols sold incredibly well which was either despite of or because of the obscenity trial that dogged the release and distribution of the album, it was not stocked by many large chain record stores. 

So the delay in getting an album out had nothing to do with one band following the other and musically the Ramones and the Sex Pistols are very different. The Ramones with a song like ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’ and their cover of Chris Montez’s ‘Lets Dance’ sound at times like a pop group from the 60s. While the Sex Pistols never let up from being themselves, okay maybe a nod to Iggy and the Stooges and early Small Faces both of whom they covered but still uncompromisingly themselves.

Women in punk are well represented with a good deal of the exhibition including a filmed interview (Stories from the She Punks) devoted to them. A larger than life size image of Poly Styrene seems to dominate one wall and the Slits and Patti Smith have a presence too. It was perhaps the women of punk that were more innovative than the boys of punk. X-Ray Spex released four singles over 12 months between 1977 and 1978 and all of the tracks including the B sides are still relevant today. The Slits were formed by 1976 but didn’t get their album ‘Cut’ released until 1979 but everything about their absolutely classic album defies description and what a cover image. Patti Smith of course beat everyone to the punch by releasing her John Cale produced album ‘Horses’ to almost universal critical acclaim in December 1975.

Anything to dislike about the exhibition? Not really but there is one frustrating thing. The existence of one of the most important parts of the punk era, the fanzine, is well represented. All the big ones are there including ‘Sniffin’ Glue’ and my favourite ‘White Stuff’, it was largely about Patti Smith. But they are quite rightly locked behind glass meaning you can’t pick them up and browse through them. I wish it had been possible to duplicate them somehow to allow the visiting public to browse and re-read the heady days of punk.

Anything to really like about the exhibition? Well apart from the brilliant photography which blown up life size almost makes you swoon, it is how the exhibition realises it’s not just the music but everything around it that makes punk what it is. The times we lived in yes but more importantly things like; the design genius of say a Jamie Reid, the fans doing it for themselves with a fanzine, the incredible and just so right photography from many including Robert Mapplethorpe and Roberta Bayley and of course last but not least the peace, love and understanding of a generation that rocked against racism and won.

Punk 1976-78 a British Library exhibition is at Sunderland Museum until 26 February 2017.

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Nissan and what work means

Nissan: 30 Years On

A wonderful exhibition called ‘Nissan: 30 Years On‘ combines great photography and video with words that, not only compliments the images but also gives both an insight into Sunderland’s industrial heritage and the reasons why we work. The exhibition is at Arts Centre Washington.

Backstory 

Nissan began production in Sunderland in 1986, a time of relatively high unemployment for the area following on as it did from a sorry end to the miners’ strike and a period of decline in shipbuilding. Although Sunderland does well in industries such as digital and creative and has a lively cultural scene it would seem that it is its automotive industry that is making the major contribution to the cities prosperity and wellbeing. 

Photography and words

The major part of the exhibition are photographs of the Nissan plant in full work mode (something worth seeing in itself) alongside photographs of a number of Nissan workers both past and present. The photographs of the plant are combined with words and phrases that reflects both Sunderland’s industrial heritage and the reasons why people work at Nissan. The words are more than titles, they are part of the photograph, placed either at the head or foot of the photograph in a fairly large font. Similar in look to a watermark but more an intrinsic part of the story the photograph conveys. In one photograph which bears the words ‘Coal Face’ a Nissan worker labours close up under the bonnet of a car. An aerial photograph of robotic arms whirling, twirling and spot welding has the words ‘Open Cast’. Both of these are of course references to Sunderland’s industrial heritage but a question posed by the exhibition is why do today’s Nissan workers work there? One of the photographs has the words ‘Security Blanket’ – possibly a reference to the financial security work brings. Another has the words ‘Hobby Horse’, as in a child’s toy or pastime – possibly both a reference to being able to buy toys for the bairn or pursue a favourite pastime. A photograph of the interior of a car door looks like an aerial view of a golf course and has the words ‘Nine Iron’ – maybe some Nissan workers enjoy playing golf, who’d have thought.  

The photographs of the plant and the words chosen are a great combination and equally so are the portraits of Nissan workers with quotes on why they work at Nissan. Some of the Nissan workers give reasons such as gaining knowledge of the industry and extending their skills. Naturally some reasons are centred around money and what that can give you; provide for families, pay bills, have holidays and generally have the wherewithal to pursue life goals and do what you want in your free time. But there is another reason for working which has nothing to do with career or earning money. At least two of the workers quoted spoke of friends and friendship and maybe that is a large part of what work is or can be. Friendship, camaraderie or just simply having mates. On a bad day, in a post-caring world, that can seem a bit of an alien idea.  Just some nostalgia for the days when work was the shipyards and the mines, a time when we looked out for each other, maybe this exhibition proves that those needs still exist.

The exhibition also includes an absorbing video of the work processes in the plant called Tact Time (the title refers to the time spent on the allotted task). And, perhaps as a nod to Nissan’s Japanese history, some excellent haikus, my favourite begins “Female on forklift…”. 

The creative people

The photographs and video are by fine art and documentary photographer James Sebright. His portfolio website has some wonderful images from China, Tokyo, Hong Kong and the quite moving ‘… Syria before the War’, check out the barbershop photographs. The well chosen words are by the equally talented creative writer Rachel Cochrane. Her website showcases an array of her creative talent including podcaster and playwright and the statement that she is “particularly inspired by photography”, with this exhibition that certainly shines through. Both are local, a fact that probably accounts for the great degree of empathy they have with their subject. 

Exhibition book

Would I want to see anything more from this exhibition? Well yes I would. With all exhibitions I’ve enjoyed it’s always nice when a book of the exhibition is produced. A record of the wonderful images and words in the exhibition with a little bit of background information. This exhibition is an incredible record of Nissan and its place in the community and deserves to have a book made from it. Besides, and I’m not wishing this, post Brexit those jobs may be lost. Here’s hoping that kind of disaster is averted and we have the real thing a little while longer rather than just this very wonderful record of the way we worked.

Since first posting this Nissan’s Chief Executive, Carlos Ghosn, following on from guarantees by the government, has announced that Nissan is to make significant investment in the Sunderland plant. Sighs of relief all round… but a book of the exhibition would still be nice.

The exhibition ‘Nissan: 30 Years On‘ is on at Arts Centre Washington until 4 November 2017. 

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Dora the weeping woman and Felicia one of the first to fall

Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War at the Laing Gallery

Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War at the Laing Gallery

The Weeping Woman

As you walk through the door of the second gallery of ‘Conscience and Conflict’ you can’t help but be stunned by the Picasso on the wall facing you. ‘The Weeping Woman’ or ‘Femme en Pleurs’ gives voice to the emotions the Spanish Civil War had on us then and now. The mute anger that is pent up inside that can only resolve itself in tears. The weeping eyes reflecting the cause of the horror and the handkerchief gnawed at by teeth held in a bone white jaw that seems to be stripped of flesh and the mouths sensuality. ‘The Weeping Woman’ is Dora Maar, Picasso’s then lover and a woman he had painted with so much beauty that same year in ‘Portrait of Dora Maar’.

In the eyes of ‘The Weeping Woman’ are reflected the same aircraft that bombed Guernica a Catalan town of no military importance that the Luftwaffe, at the behest of Franco, chose to use as a dry run for the Second World War. This act of aggression gave fresh impetus to the need for ‘Air Raid Protection’ or ARP in Britain and this concern shows itself in the work of at least one of the British artists in this exhibition.

Guernica

Picasso’s response to the bombing was ‘Guernica’ a mural sized oil painting in black, white and grey which now hangs in Madrid following the death of Franco in 1975. It’s difficult to overestimate the impact that Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ had on the British artists work shown in this exhibition. The painting ‘Premonition’ by Walter Nessler which appears to the modern eye like a Pink Floyd dystopia drawn by Gerald Scarfe, shows London’s landmarks in a twisted landscape with an ARP gas mask swinging from one of its tallest buildings. It is a premonition of the air raids on London that would occur within a short number of years.

The impact of ‘Guernica’ on other works in the exhibition is also evident, particularly in ‘Spanish Head’ by F.E. McWilliam. ‘Spanish Head’ is a sculpture of an elongated head with pointed teeth in a wide open mouth. The head seems to be modelled on the fallen warrior at the bottom left of ‘Guernica’ who lies on his back, facing skywards, mouth wide open with teeth bared in a silent scream.

Clenched fist

F.E. McWilliam in the sculpture ‘The Long Arm’ gives us the clenched fist salute of the anti-fascist Republicans and this symbol of defiance is elsewhere in the exhibition. Joan Miro includes the clenched fist salute in his work ‘Aidez L’Espagne’ which was originally meant to be used as the design of a new one franc stamp which would be sold to benefit the republican cause. Joan Miro’s design is of a person painted in red and yellow with detail picked out in black on a blue background. The colours are the same as those used in the ‘Lone Star’ or ‘Estelada’ Catalan flag.

Hearts and minds

Winning the hearts and minds of the public was necessary if the Republicans were to win the civil war. This can be seen in the paintings of Clive Branson which document ‘Noreen and Rosa’ reading a book on Spain published by the Left Book Club, a ‘Demonstration in Battersea’, and ‘The Daily Worker’. The book which accompanies this exhibition tells us that an exhibition of works on the Spanish Civil War which included Guernica attracted more than 15,000 visitors in working class East London. From that it may be said that the daily worker was already won over to the cause of the Republicans.

To help with this effort, public posters were produced by designers working with some excellent photographers. Pere Catala Pic’s poster ‘Aixafem el Feixsme’ shows a ‘peasants’ foot wearing a Catalan sandal coming down on a broken swastika. While another shows a background of a sky filled with bombers with a foreground of a dead child with the words ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ a harrowing image with a harrowing and instructive text. And yes it is the title of a Manic Street Preachers song.

Felicia Browne

While all of the work seems to come from artists who are trying to come to terms with the Spanish Civil War and ‘do their bit’ by filtering their emotion through their art, one artist seems to be more representative of the common man who just simply wants to do the right thing.

Felicia Browne’s work seems to be devoid of any message about the civil war. The drawings she did, while very well executed, seem to be just direct reportage of the facts without any politics or sentimentality. But Felicia Browne fought and died in the Spanish Civil War. Her role was to be one of the foot soldiers, one of the common people, who sadly lose their lives while doing the right thing against impossible odds.

Felicia Browne wrote of the boredom of war, the long periods when nothing much happens. But when it did and she was called on to join a group tasked with blowing up a munitions train she went. 

When fired upon by fascists a colleague fell and Felicia went to give first aid. The fascists turned their fire towards her and she fell dead with bullet wounds to the chest and back. The first British volunteer to die.

Maybe because of this – the sacrifice, the doing the right thing – Felicia Browne seems to stay longer in the memory than all of the very fine art around her in this very fine exhibition.

Find out more about Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War.

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BP Portrait Awards from down south to up north

BP Portrait Awards from down south to up north

BP Portrait Awards from down south to up north

Have to disagree with ‘Time Out London’

In a ‘Time Out London‘ review of the BP Portrait Awards at the National Portrait Gallery the writer asks the question ‘the problem with portraiture is the people. You have to ask yourself if you care about any of the faces staring out at you… and the answer almost overwhelmingly is ‘no’.’

The writers viewpoint is almost mocked by the first portrait in the gallery attached to the article.

The portrait is by Geoffrey Beasley and is titled ‘Eddy in the Morning’. Eddy is a slightly disheveled young man with bed hair, stubble and a crumpled white t-shirt. His eyes stare out of the canvass not at the viewer but into the day; the classes and lectures he will attend, the pals he’ll meet up with, the night out he needs a clean shirt for and beyond that into the future of summers touring Europe, a year out backpacking and then getting that cool job in London. ‘Eddy in the Morning’ is every mothers son, every fathers pride, every guys best mate.

‘Eddy in the Morning’ didn’t win a prize, although being one of the fifty five portraits chosen from 2,377 entries to be displayed in the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘BP Portrait Awards’ is prize enough.

And first prize goes to…

The first prize went to Thomas Ganter for ‘Homeless Man with a Plaid Blanket’. This portrait as Ganter tells us takes a homeless man and portrays him the same as any noble or saint in any portrait through the ages when only the rich or the church could commission it. Ganter makes us ask questions of ourselves. In our streets we don’t look at the homeless people, we give them a wide birth, we stare intently forward ignoring the question ‘do you have any spare change please?’. Would it matter that much if we dropped a coin into the cup or stopped to chat? Just because we spoke to them doesn’t mean we have to take them home and give them a better life. But the conversation may make both of us a little better.

Great chefs make great subjects

Like ‘Eddy in the Morning’ many of the portraits are of a son or daughter, partner or a good friend and maybe because of this the empathy the artist has with their subject can be seen in the paintings.

One of the portraits that doesn’t seem to have a family or friend connection and could be a commission is Henrietta Graham’s ‘James Martin’. Commission or not the empathy is still there and we seem to understand this great chef more because of the portrait. Maybe that is what a very good and skilled artist can do, bring out the heart and soul of their subject regardless of the connection. Of course painting a great chef in his kitchen where his heart and soul probably are probably helps.

There is a very happy connection between the painting by Tim Hall and his subject. The ‘Henrietta’ of the portraits title ‘Henrietta and Ollie’ is the painters wife and Ollie is the family pet. ‘Henrietta’ is of course Henrietta Graham and in the portrait she is seen working hard surrounded by the tools of her trade on a portrait of another great chef ‘Rene Redzepi’. At Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens where the exhibition is currently on show the two portraits stand side by side maybe to emphasise this connection.

My favourite things

Visitors to the exhibition often ask each other which is their favourite; with so many to choose from it could be ‘Juan Mosca’ by Rodrigo Hurtado, where the subject seems to be everyone’s granddad or ‘Princess Julia in Meadham Kirchoff’ by Ben Ashton, where the clothes by Meadham Kirchhoff seem to lift off the painting. ‘Northern Bather’ by Gareth Reid reminds this viewer of the work of Dame Laura Knight, but perhaps a favourite favourite is ‘Jordan’ by Alan Coulson, a rather wonderful painting of the quite handsome Jordan – a person who in the video ‘What the Artist Saw – The Judging’ by the National Portrait Gallery says rather bashfully ‘I’m a nobody…’. Well nobody is a nobody and maybe it takes art, culture and above all these portraits to remind us of that.

Artists and old lace

A set of portraits that shouldn’t go unsung are the portraits by Dutch artist Sophie Ploeg the winner of the BP Travel Award in 2013. Her winning proposal for the award in 2013 was to interpret the use of fabric and lace in seventeenth century portraiture. This she has done by visiting many galleries including the Holbourne Museum in Bath, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem to study portraiture where lace and fabric is an integral part. She also visited modern lacemaking centres such as Bruges and Honiton. What has came from it is a fascinating set of portraits that echo the seventeenth century and yet appear so contemporary with the sitters being very modern women. The portraits on display include amongst others the original 2013 winner ‘Pleating Time’, ‘The Long Wait’, The Handkerchief Girl’ and the fascinating ‘She Becomes Her’ where the sitter wears the toxic Venetian Ceruse to whiten her complexion and provide a mask between her real self and the viewer.

Sunderland’s next big exhibition

Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens have the BP Portrait Awards from the National Portrait Gallery possibly because of the success of their last major exhibition which was Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’. The museum is the only gallery in England, apart from the National Portrait Gallery of course, to host the exhibition and that is testament to the cities burgeoning status as a home for art and culture in all its guises. Wonder what they’ll get next…

Find out more about the BP Portrait Awards.

Find out more about the National Portrait Gallery.

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Dame Laura Knight Portraits at the Laing Newcastle

Dame Laura Knight artist, rebel and proto-feminist

Dame Laura Knight artist, rebel and proto-feminist

Dame Laura Knight is one of arts rebels, eccentrics, early feminists, an artist with the common touch and someone who achieved much but given easier economic circumstances could have achieved so much more.

Economically things could have been easier. Dame Laura’s parents parted quite early and the children were brought up with the help of a grandmother known as Big Grandma and a great-grandmother known as Little Grandma. Her mother, who was an art teacher, died of cancer at an early age and relied on her daughter to take the classes she became too ill to attend.

Her mother, who had studied at an atelier in Paris, is said to have told Laura that one day she would become a member of the Royal Academy. Dame Laura Knight became the first female member of the Royal Academy and secured her reputation as someone who could take the boys on at their own game and win and in doing so became an early feminist.

Dame Laura Knight’s slightly eccentric image was probably secured when she began turning up at Gypsy encampments in a vintage Rolls Royce which she had turned into a makeshift studio in order to paint portraits of the Gypsies. Her ability to empathise with her subject comes across in all her portraits but no more than in these paintings of the Gypsies.

Dame Laura painted members of the Gypsy Smith family many times including, Lilo Smith, the matriarch of the family, the beautiful Freedom Smith, who was deaf, had little speech and who she referred to as ‘Beulah’ and Gilderoy Smith the son of Lilo Smith. Gilderoy is the subject of ‘The Gypsy’ painted in 1939. Gilderoy with his weather lined face, deep and slightly weary expression and beautiful eyes has to run every other subject in this group at least a very close second.

Empathy with her subject is also seen in the group of paintings of coloured children at the racially segregated Johns Hopkins Hospital where she spent many months with her husband Harold while he completed his commissions. The now politically incorrect title of ‘The Piccaninny’ painted in 1927 is one of great beauty and charm. While in Baltimore she also found the models for her ‘Madonna of the Cotton Fields’ also known as ‘Mighty Like a Rose’. Whilst there she also attended civil rights meetings with Pearl and Irene Johnson who were campaigners against segregation.

Her feminism continued into her war work where she made many paintings of women in the forces or in industry. Her most famous painting is ‘Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring’. A painting that comes with the epitaph that Ruby had mastered in a very short time the ability to make a breech ring for a Bofors gun that would normally take up to nine years training.

Dame Laura’s rebel status is confirmed by ‘Self Portrait’ painted in 1913. In art school in Nottingham female students weren’t allowed to paint nude models instead they had to make do with clay or wooden models. Her ‘Self Portrait’ shows the artist at her easel painting a picture of Ella Naper who poses for Laura nude. All three appear in the painting, Laura Knight, the nude model and the painting of the nude model. Apparently it was all done with mirrors I would guess the Royal Academy wished it had never been done at all.

A favourite painting of fans and one of the lead images of the exhibition is ‘Ballet Girl and Dressmaker’ painted in 1930 for Chicago industrialist Earl Hoover. The painting shows the ballerina Barbara Bonnar sitting presumably waiting to go on while her dressmaker puts the finishing touches to the outfit the ballerina is wearing. The dressmaker appears intent and focused on making the ballerina perfect while the ballerina appears powerful and athletic even in repose. This mistress and servant relationship also appears to good effect in ‘Gwen Frangcon-Davies’ which she painted in 1924. In the ‘Ballet Girl and Dressmaker’ the painting is lit from the upper left and the ballerina also looks out of the painting to the upper left as if in anticipation of the dance to come and her time in the limelight. The painting seems to live inside and outside it’s frame.

Dame Laura Knight rebel… probably, proto-feminist… probably, eccentric… maybe, wonderful artist… definitely.

Dame Laura Knight Portraits is showing at the Laing Art Gallery until 16 February.

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Sunderland… photographs and video art are just everywhere

Greame Street 1972 in a wonderful set of black and white photos and videos

Greame Street 1972 in a wonderful set of black and white photos and videos

Everywhere you look in Sunderland you see photography and video art. It’s in the galleries, museums and on the streets. The Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art and Sunderland Museum are showing ‘You Are The Company in Which You Keep’ and the rest of Sunderland appears to be showing photographs everywhere as part of the month long festival ‘The Social: Encountering Photography’.

Sunderland Museum has the work of seven artists who use photography and video as their medium.

Among the seven are:

Natasha Caruana

The work from Natasha Caruana is entitled ‘Fairy Tale for Sale’. It is a series of photographs from the online adverts placed by women who for various reasons have decided to sell their wedding dress. In order to sell their now redundant wedding dress they have put online photographs of their dress shown in the best possible light and of course the best possible light is when it was worn on their wedding day. To anonymise these photographs the faces have been covered with sticky paper or blue tack, scratched over, scribbled on and in one instance covered with distorted smiley faces.

There are so many of these photographs that you realise that women selling their wedding dresses aren’t in the minority although I’m sure, or maybe I’d like to think in my romantic mind, that some kept them even if they just ended up in the kids dressy up box.

The photographs ask so many questions, the most obvious being why? If you bought into the fairy tale enough to buy the cake, the ring, the dress, why jettison part of that fairy tale? Is it economics, weddings can be incredibly expensive, merely practical, where do you keep a meringue like confection of a dress in any reasonable kind of state until death do you part, has the dream turned sour and you are now contemplating divorce? It may also ask the question do woman really buy into this ‘is the most important day of your life’ idea that they have been drip fed or do they feel obliged by society norms?

There is one photograph in the ‘Fairy Tale for Sale’ series of a bride walking towards the camera in her finery with a guy walking beside her holding her hand and dressed in a t-shirt, track suit bottoms and trainers. If he was the groom I guess he wasn’t buying into the fairy tale.

If you visit Natasha Caruana’s website you can view some of her other work which include; ‘The Married Man’, which is a series of snapshots taken on 80 dates she had with married men, and’ The Other Woman’ which is a series of portraits of the other woman in a relationship.

Both series of photographs ask many questions both in their subject matter and how they have been photographed. The images in ‘The Married Man’ are a series of snapshots and seem almost as furtive as the men she snapped must have been. While the portraits in ‘The Other Woman’ series speaks volumes about the women through their expressions, how they present their bodies and the settings they are in.

With this kind of subject matter Natasha Caruana appears to be almost fearless in her use of the camera to take on and explore difficult subjects.

Daniel Meadows

As a photography student in 1972 Daniel Meadows rented an empty barber shop in Greame Street in Manchester’s Moss Side. The shop then became a free photo studio. To have your photo taken there was free because, as Daniel Meadows says, he was learning his trade and was unsure of the outcome.

It may be that Daniel Meadows was being unfair to himself and his abilities as the photographs produced are a joy to see. Rich in their black and white textures with an almost oily feel to them. I would loved to have known what combination of film and paper he used or if it was it all down to how he lit them?

It may be that if the studio hadn’t been free we may not have had such a broad spectrum of children, teenagers and adults turning up to have their photos taken. The images include a hard-working mum, (is there any other type) with her hair brushed back to tidy it up a bit, a handsome, possibly middle-aged guy in his Sunday best, sharp suit, sharp dressed guy, a foster mother with four of her foster children, a lovely looking guy called Jazz Cole, a young mum with her baby on her knee and more cheeky kids than you can imagine including Angela Loretta Lindsey aged 8 with her brother Mark Emanuel who together make one of the lead images for the exhibition.

Although the series of photos is a chronicle of that particular time in Manchester’s Moss Side and Manchester does have a very strong character of it’s own, the images could still be a chronicle of any working class area in any relatively large conurbation; yes it could be Newcastle, Gateshead or Sunderland in the 70s.

Daniel Meadows has been known to say that he is a fan of Ivan Illich’s ‘Convivial Tools’ and he speaks of the democratisation of media. With Greame Street in 1972 Daniel Meadows certainly democratised photography, what could he do to make it more democratic… drive around in a double decker bus inviting people in to have their photos taken?

James O Jenkins

James O Jenkins has produced a series of photographs of people dressed ready for taking part in various annual activities that take place the length and breadth of the United Kingdom and he has given the series the title ‘United Kingdom’. It goes without saying that the photographs are incredibly well taken and produced but one thing that James O Jenkins has done is take the people out of their natural setting of the festival or occasion and placed them against a white backdrop. The result seems to accentuate the eccentric nature, if that is fair comment, of the characters the people dress as.

The photographs include amongst many others; The Hunting of the Earl of Rone, the hunt according to their website ends with him being thrown into the sea; The Whittlesea Straw Bear Man Festival, which appears to be a person dressed in a huge black beard and a hat of ivy; The Burryman, which is a man covered in burrs and sporting flowers both as a hat and about his person. There’s many more wonderful characters in the series and with some of them you realise that the ‘Mighty Boosh’ may be more real than we think.

There’s a lot more to be seen in and around Sunderland at the moment and just considering these three wonderful photographers hardly scratches the surface.

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