Thursday, 15 December 2011

Is less more and bigger better?

Again, I write this before viewing other blog posts to ensure I don't dilute or confuse my own thoughts.

Today I shirked my parental responsibilities and headed down for a day out in Liverpool. I joined Gareth Dent, Peter Haveland and fifteen or so fellow students for a study visit to the recently opened Open Eye Gallery. We went specifically to view the work of Mitch Epstein and Chris Steele-Perkins. The two offered contrasting styles in photography, presentation and ethos.

I'm not sure quite what I was expecting from the visit but the gallery was smaller than I envisaged it would be. It looked palatial from the outside, but housed a mere twenty-four images in total...a few fewer than I thought there would be...but I am misleading you, as it wasn't just any prints, eight were gargantuan in size!!

Mitch Epstein
And as the post title alludes to, perhaps size does matter. Epstein's images are 'Gursky-esque' in their proportions being several metres in height and width, four in one room and four in another - quite in keeping with the minimalist, almost spartan space the pictures were hung in. I am already a fan of Epstein's work so seeing his work up close did not alter my opinions necessarily. However, it was fascinating to see the images in such detail and how the clarity, even blown up large, was unfettered.  What struck me most was the rigorous and ruthless editing process he must have gone through to cull his work from 63 images in the American Power Series to just 8 hung in the Gallery. What was his rationale and motivations for doing this?

With Epstein's work it seems to be less about satiating our visual appetite (which he doesn't fail to do) and more about introducing a troubling and carefully considered mix of fascinating vistas and uncomfortable ironies. He confidently communicates his view of America's Power struggle.  The images confront you with tormented rural landscapes transformed by gravity defying engineering feats; urban vistas 'hideous' in their angularity; suburbia and recreational space nestling adjacent to energy-creating monstrosities!

Yet the images are, ironically, still beautiful...technically and compositionally they are exquisite. His use of light is unusually soft and aesthetically pleasing, belying the severity of the message.  The flood-ridden Biloxi view has beautiful warmth to it and his choice in timing with regards light at the Hoover Dam reservoir image is intriguing. It is also interesting that he has taken, in most of the landscapes, a somewhat authoritative viewpoint, looking down on the world like 'our creator' may do, with disdain, exasperation, observing the contradictions that is 'us'.

The inclusion of people in the vistas appears to be secondary, perhaps to emphasise scale or to observe as a scientist would, how the human species interact with their environment...except one notable anomaly which Gareth picks up on here.  This image of Martha Murphy and Charlie Biggs is somehow at odds with the rest given its focus on two people.  It seems to be politically driven and there is plenty to read in to the picture. Perhaps he wishes to illustrate the human and personal aspect of devastation, which would otherwise be missing from the galleried series.  I will be looking at Epstein's work further as part of my landscape module.

Chris Steele-Perkins
I hadn't read the blurb about Chris Steele-Perkins beforehand so I didn't know what we were going to see. From a selfish point of view, sporting my 'landscape hat' now, I was hoping to see more work from 'My England' or 'Northern Exposure'.  The sixteen images on display were predominantly people-based street photographs from the Pleasure Principle series. The quality of the framing, mounting and prints themselves was, hmmm, not really what you come to expect in a gallery.  But perhaps I'm missing the point here as it was a retrospective of the 1980s and it is possible the presentation of the images reflects this.   There were some classic images within the set like the one of Margaret Thatcher, but I found myself flitting from image to image not really settling anywhere.  If there was a sequence or narrative binding these images together, it went over my head...I searched for colour connections, subjects, topics and you could establish mini-sets, but no overarching link between them apart from the decade in which they were taken. I also suspect however, that my radar has shifted from street to landscape so was slightly less engaged than I could have been.

I am interested in looking more at the two books mentioned above, which I think has more relevance to my current line of thinking and will look these up further.

Thank you Gareth and Peter for organising, and it was lovely to meet fellow students too.


  1. Interesting to hear your thoughts on "large" - on seeing Struth down in the Whitechapel, I was extremely dissatisfied because of the quality. They were ok if you stood well back, but not if you moved in. It's part of a rediscovery of small prints for me.

    I'm a little annoyed I won't be getting down to see this exhibition, especially as Liverpool isn't too far away. I really must try harder next year.

  2. I've just spent the best part of a morning looking at Epstein - didn't really know him until I read your post, so thanks for that! And I am now also a fan. The link you provided opens up to 63 images but just as illuminating and disturbing was the ANSWERS section. The political context was interesting - the framed print of an Orwellian quotation (which is referenced again at the beginning of the "about the project") - coupled with his own stated fear of "Big Brother".
    I was also struck by some of the statements about power in the political sense, about how the state is now intervening in trying to protect the establishments, whilst in the back of my mind is the Stuxnet Virus that attacked Iran's nuclear power plant just over a year ago (from where did that originate??).
    The photographs are compelling and inspirational and I wish I could have been in Liverpool to witness them. I will seek him out in the future.

  3. Hi Rob and John, the presentation and quality of the images is such a big part when visiting galleries that I rarely consider when looking at images online. Epstein's images were flawless technically and they were presented flawlessly. 'Big' worked for me on this occasion!...what was less easy to understand is how he chose which to exhibit...he has some amazing images in this series that didn't make the cut. It is pretty impressive work!!

  4. A fascinating review of the exhibition Penny. You have ceratinly made me want to look more deeply into Epstein's work - I knew it before but hadn't really looked at it in any depth.

    With regard to C S-P: is it necessarily a bad thing if an exhbition doesn't have unifying themes? Certainly it's somethong I always work towards now as a student in my assignments. But maybe there's an argument that sometimes an apparently chaotic representation is a good refection of the artist's perception of their subject?

    Good luck with landscape!

  5. I have just ordered the book 'work' for it at a really good price on Amazon market, can't wait to go through it.

    And yes, you are probably closer to his intentions than I was for the C S-P's work...and chaos, rebellion expressed through his subjects and how he himself fits in to British culture are addressed within this too. I guess it is all relative...seeing Epstein's work earlier in the day meant seeing his work in the afternoon perhaps lost some of its own magic!

  6. Nice meeting you Marmalade and your write up is interesting.