Thursday, May 29, 2008

A trip to the frozen North

On Wednesday I made a trip up to the Borders to see two touring exhibitions. They are both from the Hayward Gallery at the South Bank. I do not know what I really expected to see. The first exhibition "No such thing as society" is hosted at the Tully House art gallery in Carlisle which comprises just two or three rooms in a larger museum. The second is that the Queen's Hall in Hexham and again occupies just two small rooms and part of the foyer. There is always a danger when visiting provincial centres that the exhibition you travel to will turn out to be some token gesture with just two or three pictures of interest. That was emphatically not the case with these.

Going in reverse order my second gallery visit of the day was to the Queen's Hall in Hexham. There they are showing a collection of Walker Evans prints. These are not vintage prints in that they were not produced by Evans in his lifetime but are recent silver gelatin prints made directly from the original negatives which are kept in the Smithsonian. Unfortunately there are copyright issues with the images and the Hayward have not been able to issue a catalogue.

All in all there are some 50 prints on show all displayed in a simple manner. They are printed at a nominal 10 x 8 and framed approximately 16 x 20 with a cream coloured mount matted directly to the edge of the image and in a dark natural wood frame. The images shown include most of the images I was familiar with from the FSA and Now let us praise famous men.

The images which get the most reproduction are probably the portraits of sharecroppers but I was particularly taken by the sets of images of shop fronts, town scenes and vernacular churches. The lack of a catalogue was disappointing because despite making notes it is certain that my memory of the prints will fade over time but I am came away knowing that or feeling that I had seen something important.

It is perhaps unfortunate that I made the trip in the direction I did because my first port of call was in Carlisle for the "No such thing as society" exhibition. This is a huge display and with an impeccable catalogue. The images vary in size depending on their age and author and as for as I am aware the majority of images are vintage prints. A catalogue of people shown is a Who's Who of British documentary photography with so many names a lfull list would be tiresome: but includes Brian Griffin, Martin Parr, Paul Graham,Tony Ray-Jones,David Meadows, Chris Killip etc. etc...

What is more each photographer was given a reasonable amount of space. Brian Griffin had two images in the exhibition but most of the others at between six and ten each. In such an embarrassment of riches it is difficult to pick out any for special mention. However in no particular order there was some stunning work from Tony Ray-Jones including some of his seaside work. One picture which stood out was part of a series by Homer Sykes documenting village customs. It is sobering to realise that the customs depicted were still around albeit dying out when I was at university the first time, one image which made a special impression was "Tar barrel parade" at Allendale from his exhibition "Once a year". With my interest in landscape and topography I was drawn to Ron McCormack's images made in the late 70s and to some of Chris Killip's work.

I have seen reproductions of "Tyne Pride" which shows a back alley between terraced houses leading down to a shipyard and a large ship being built. That image was made in 1976 and it seems strange to recall that there was still a thriving shipbuilding industry in the North-East at that time. The reproductions have all looked pale and grey but to see the real thing printed approximately 24" as a silver gelatin black and white print is another thing entirely.

This half term has been very good for visits. The Open Eye exhibition left me confused but the "Art in the age of steam" at the Walker the Walker Evans at the Queens Hall and especially "No such thing as society" are some of the best exhibitions I've seen during this course.

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