Monday, December 19, 2011

Mitch Epstein and Chris Steele-Perkins (Open Eye Gallery Liverpool)

Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, UK
Gareth Dent, OCA CEO, and Peter Haveland, OCA tutor for photography and visual communication, met students inside the entrance to the Open Eye Gallery on Mann Island in Liverpool which opened in 1977 and has been the only dedicated photographic gallery in the North West of England. The building itself is something of a work of art being black on the outside and white on the inside with a skyscraper extending above.

initial meeting with Gareth, Peter and students
After Gareth had spoken to us all about what the meeting involved, Peter asked us to consider the way the exhibition had been staged. These days exhibitions are not merely hung in an available space, in a gallery like this they are very carefully planned and photographs are placed in particular positions.

photograph by Mitch Epstein; the odd one out in this collection from "American Power"
For instance, there is only one photograph which might be considered as portraiture, it pictures a mixed race couple assembling what is left of their possessions after a natural disaster has struck (Martha Murphy and Charlie Biggs, Pass Christian, Mississipi 2005); this photograph is hung on it's own wall, the only image to be separated thus since the others are all joined in someway by the wall running around the two rooms in which the exhibits are found.

Gareth mentioned that Mitch Epstein's 8 photographs that under the title, "American Power" which formed the first exhibition we saw, had been made with a large format camera using a 10 by 8 sheet size; Epstein uses colour negative from which large C type prints are made, a few feet across and high. To do this, he uses a small team of assistants apparently, and it can take an hour to set up the camera to make an exposure. A great deal of thought goes into this operation and one can see the photographs have been expertly composed with the result that the prints have a phenomenal quality.

Gareth had been some despondent about Epstein's work before seeing this exhibition, regarding Epstein as being a rich American who can afford to jet around America with a team and loads of equipment to make his images. Yet he conceded that these immaculately made images really do establish Mitch Epstein as a world class photographer and a worthy winner of the Prix Pictet, an environmentally based award.

OCA students make notes about one of Epstein's photographs 
My own concern with this exhibition was what actually Epstein means by "American Power". It is certainly not the power of military might that has become so prominent in an age that has seen the horrors of war broadcast from Vietnam and Iraq. There seemed to be a different kind of power in each image and this is emphasised by Epstein himself in a quote I read after seeing the exhibition; he says, "About a year into making this series of pictures, I realised that power was like a Russian doll: each time I opened one kind of power, I found another inside."

One of the first images one sees, is of a view over Las Vegas made in 2007 (all photographs are dated by the year and this is probably significant because the images are documents of particular places at a particular moment in time). To the right of the image, is a large black pyramid, the angular form of which leads one into the picture; slightly behind this are some Disneylike fairy tale castle towers that contrast with the overall bleakness of the city itself; there is plenty of parking space to the left of the image and the vista includes arid mountains in the background, a reminder that this city has to generate it's own power. There is another kind of power in the vast area covered by this image and the way it is communicated so effectively. 

Writing in the introduction to her book "Art Photography Now", Susan Bright says " … the increased use of large plate cameras and the consequent slowing down of the photographic process have also had an important impact on how artists deal with the city. Panning out and taking a wider view causes one to see the city as a layering of moments in time, belonging to no one, more like an archaeological site - albeit one in which people live". She could have been looking at Epstein's image as she wrote these words as they so accurately describe some of it's meaning. She continues, "The mysterious spaces where cities stop and suburbia starts, or the sites one might hurry past in everyday life, are rich pickings for the many artists in this chapter."

A final remark from Bright helps to put this exhibition into perspective; "The act of photographing has the ability to turn what might be ignored into something much more profound". This statement can be applied, as intended, to photography as a whole.

Peter and students viewing Iowa 80, Truckstop, Walcott, Iowa 2008
Another image, "Iowa 80 Truckstop, Walcott, Iowa 2008" shows intricate detail of perhaps 1,000 or so objects of merchandise above which there are four large photographs of trucking people and their trucks. The use of different parts of the image to create contrast runs through this body of work (it is also evident in "Century Wind Project, Blairsburg, 2008" where the lower part of the image portrays suburbia and the upper third the wind farm) and recalls modernist approaches as does the frequent use of other contrasts (one and may, small and large etc) in the images. Peter Haveland mentions that Epstein appears to be mirroring established artistic approaches and I can't help be reminded of John Davies by Epstein's image of people playing basketball with towering chimneys in the background although here a more concentrated perspective, usually achieved via a telephoto lens, has been achieved. One wonders how consciously Epstein is working when he references other art works; Peter also mentions Picasso as an influence and I am reminded of Gurtsky's supermarket scenes while viewing "Iowa 80 Truckstop, Walcott, Iowa 2008".

What I like about this exhibition is the fascinating amount of detail that is rendered yet the theme is also highly relevant since the environment rather than merely the landscape is being portrayed here. At the present time, an extremely important Climate Change conference has been taking place in South Africa and yet received scant attention by the media who are fixatingly interested in the economy and in particular Britain's opt out of the Eurozone. If we do nothing of significance for the environment, and this seems to be what is happening as the unanimous findings of leading scientists are often questioned and regarded with suspicion, then we won't have an economy to think about and possibly very little of what we like to think of as civilisation. Epstein draws out attention to things that really matter. Perhaps the underlying message to this work is that nature is a much stronger power than American power and so the title is deeply ironic.

Peter talks with Gareth and other students over coffee

Over coffee in a nearby Starbucks, Gareth bought us all drinks (courtesy of the OCA) and we discussed the Epstein exhibition. One topic of interest was the difference between the different ways of presenting photography. Large well made prints allow one to see the photograph in a different light and images that once appeared intriguing but not easily comprehensible suddenly reveal their meaning. One example of this, is in "Biloxi Mississipi 2005", an image that has appeared in newspapers and on the net to advertise this body of work. Seen in a gallery, one can see that it shows the aftermath of a natural disaster, with an upturned car in the background and a large mattress implied on a tree in the foreground.

Of course, photographs can look better in the pages of a book, but the book "American Power" which could be found in the gallery book shop, seemed a very poor substitute for the exhibition; one might be better off going to the website of the exhibition where the images can be found along with some comment. In regard to the next exhibition though, the book might be preferable since the photograph's meanings are still discernible in a smaller format.

Peter Haveland made the point that much of Epstein's work is referencing art history with oblique references to artists such as Picasso. I can't help thinking that photography history is also being referenced with the image (pictured above with a couple of OCA students making notes in front of it) reminding me of one of John Davies photographs.

To conclude my thoughts about Epstein, they still continue as I try to unravel the plethora of meanings to be found in his images, I have to say that a lot is is not found within the image; they need contextualising. Hearing stories about the images which are not found in the captions does help to bring out their meaning.

Sean O'Hagan who writes about photography for The Guardian, describes these images as "timeless" and I wonder why since so many do seem to relate to places that are obviously temporary; for instance, the view over Las Vegas made in 2007 must have already changed considerably as I write this at the end of 2011.  Peter replies that "timeless" is being used more as a journalistic term here rather than an academic one; this is characteristic of much writing about photography these days. Of course, the images are representative of man's relation to nature which is timeless while the images do not represent a definitive moment; perhaps, they can be considered timeless in the sense that they will last a long time in the canon of photography because they are outstanding. The word "epic" comes to mind.

Chris Steele-Perkins' exhibition The Pleasure Principle is in the archive room upstairs

The other exhibition we see is "The Pleasure Principle" by Chris Steele-Perkins. Made in the 1980's and produced as a body of work in 1989, this exhibition is in the archive room. It recalls the Thatcher years, she features in one photograph looking almost demurely at the camera while a character to one side pulls the most ghoulish face, and reveals class divisions of the time as well as segments of English life. For instance, there are photographs from a party of the elite in "Berkeley Square Ball" where Prince Edward is cleverly caught in what looks like a panned shot, his face being in focus while those around him are blurred although one can see the idolisation in the eyes of one ogling female; another photograph from this series shows the rich behaving badly as one man appears to be shouting as he holds his glass of alcohol (probably champagne) and a couple of snog vicariously in the background, a reminder that the rich are better off than most but are themselves no better. Socialist politics encourages us to hate the rich which is further given fuel by envy that is bound to surface when there are others who have so much more than the average man. Yet these photographs show the rich as they actually are, no better than the ordinary man; it is only their clothes that are better perhaps as well as the luxuriance of their surroundings.

Another image, this time of a night club shows a threatening stance being made towards the photographer. Each image has a story to tell here and it is why the exhibition seems to also work in book format; a copy is on a table in the gallery downstairs and contains more images than those on show.

Chris Steele-Perkins was separated at an early age from his Burmese mother when his father brought him back to England to be educated. He has never felt at home in Britain stating that "If you are not entirely white, you are never entirely British." I wonder if such a statement can be made with such confidence today where the reality of Britain is much more multi-cultural and multi-ethnic although the British National Front remind one that not everyone accepts this state of affairs. Chris S-P made these images when he came back to Britain from a time abroad in the East.

Chris Steele-Perkins may feel like an outsider but he photographs like an insider. However, his images pale rather when seen alongside those of Mitch Epstein. The prints would appear to be digital made from transparency film scans; their quality is nothing like that seen nowadays and one wonders at their exact mode of preparation. They are C prints made in 1989; beyond that we know next to nothing.

The OCA does not last long but one is left with an array of impressions that need to be considered and filtered into a more intelligible form!


  1. Norma Bellini aka norjacksJanuary 5, 2012 at 2:30 AM


    This makes an interesting 'read'. I have already played 'Devil's Advocate' with my down to earth comments on C S-P's exhibition and really look forward to reading other students' views. Thanks for yours. Far be it from me to be critical, but may I point out that this OpenEye gallery opened in 2011. The original OpenEye gallery nestled somewhere in the streets of the city from about 1980 until it moved to its new home last year.

  2. Thanks a lot for the clarification over the location of the gallery.