Shirley Baker: Women and Children; and Loitering Men

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I’ve finally got around to writing up my impressions of the exhibition of photographs by Salford born photographer, Shirley Baker at Manchester City Art Gallery. The Gallery website tells us:

Shirley Baker (1932-2014) is thought to be the only woman practicing street photography in Britain during the post-war era. Baker’s humanist documentary work received little attention throughout her sixty-five years career.

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“My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them.”

The exhibition which was originally shown The Photographer’s Gallery, London.

specifically focuses on her depictions of the urban clearance programmes of inner city Manchester and Salford.

with photographs mainly taken during the 1960’s and 1970’s, the years when I was growing up – not in Manchester or Salford, but in a Lancashire mill town less than 20 miles away. The urban landscape was similar to that of the big city – with terraced streets and post war development. Other than the first year of my life (which I can’t, of course, remember) we lived in modern housing, initially on a Council Estate and then, in my teens, on a new build estate. But my grandparents lived in a terraced house on a typical street.

Shirley Baker was very much a “street photographer”, and took photographs of ordinary people – the women, children and “loitering men” who lived in the poorer parts of the “twin cities” of Manchester and Salford, in and around the terraced streets, bomb sites and slum clearances.

These photographs really resonated with me – as well as most of the visitors to the exhibition who I overheard talking as I walked around the galleries. The streets, the clothing and the activities depicted in the photographs, all brought back memories.

The young boy in the cowboy hat could have been me – I had one too and would have dressed just like that when I was a similar age.

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and when I was a little older I could easily have been one of these boys fishing down the grid for “treasure” or one of the children playing on the makeshift swing made from a rope tied to the lamp-post in the picture at the top of this post.

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The clothing the children and adults in the photos are wearing are very much the same as I remember. So very different from today’s “designer” outfits that even relatively young children wear today.

And the lady in this photograph is wearing very typical clothing for the time with her overcoat and headscarf – she could have been walking down any of the streets in my home town when I was growing up.

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Here we can see an older woman cleaning the pavement, and possibly whitening the step with a “donkey stone” . People were poor but took pride in their homes. With her patterned housecoat covering her dress, her atire is typical of that worn by a working class woman of her age in the 60’s and 70’s in the north of England.

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Inner city Salford and Manchester were poorer areas than the town in which I lived. So I don’t recall things as being quite as grim as in many of the photographs when I was a child. Nevertheless the photographs are representative of the world in which I lived.

I’d not heard of Shirley Baker before. It was difficult for women to establish a career as a photographer in the 1960’s.

(She studied) Pure Photography at Manchester College of Technology, being one of very few women in post-war Britain to receive formal photographic training. Upon graduating, she took up a position at Courtaulds the fabric manufacturers, as an in-house factory photographer. Working in industry did not meet her photographic ambitions in wanting to emulate a ‘slice of life’ style similar to that of Cartier-Bresson. She soon left to take up freelance work in the North West. Further study in medical photography over one year in a London hospital did little to settle her ambition to work as a press photographer. Hampered by union restrictions on female press photographers, she abandoned plans to work for the Manchester Guardian. Though she took up teaching positions in the 1960s, ultimately it was in pursuing her own projects where she came to feel most fulfilled. (Source)

More of her work can be seen on the Shirley Baker website.

When this exhibition was shown in London, many of the visitors (probably mainly middle class southerners) must have thought they were staring at a different world. But for me, and other visitors to the Manchester gallery, it brought back memories of our childhood and youth. (I’ve nothing against middle class southerners, by the way. I may have grown up in a working class family, but have to admit to being a middle class northerner these days)

In summary, this is an excellent exhibition which I will, no doubt, revisit, probably more than once, when I’m in Manchester over the next few months.

Addendum. I was in Manchester today to meet up with an Australian friend (like me a middle class professional, who grew up in a working class mining community) who was in the city for a short while. I introduced her to Lowry (she’d never heard of him) by showing her some of the pictures in the Gallery’s collection – and then took her to the exhibition to show her the world I grew up in.

About the Young Idea

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I was the right age to be a punk. However, although I liked some of the music, the aimless anarchism of the punk movement never appealed to me. But punk did achieve something significant– it renewed and refreshed popular music, taking it right back to the basics. Later, this allowed new bands to emerge, rediscovering older styles, but with a more contemporary twist. One band that did this was the Jam. Their music and style inspired by the Who, other 60’s Mod bands and the soul of Tamla Motown and Stax. And they adopted a retro, 60’s Mod style too. Now that was something that did appeal to me.

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So when I was down in London and had a few hours to spare the morning of the second day, rather than hide away in my hotel room with my laptop working, I decided to take some “me time” and visit the exhibition about the Jam which was taking place at Somerset House.

About the Young Idea (the title taken from their single In the City) was

the first comprehensive exhibition about the extraordinary band whose music immortalised life for Britain’s disenchanted youth during the late 70s and early 80s. Through unseen material and fan memorabilia, the exhibition charts the trio’s journey from Sheerwater Secondary Modern in Woking to superstardom, (Somerset House website)

The exhibition explored the origins and  history of the band, the influence of Paul Weller’s father, John (it included a video tribute to him), their music and lyrics, their style, memorabilia and their relationship with their fans.

The first room looked at the origins of the band and included some interesting photographs of a young Paul Weller

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and some drawings that he’d done

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There were examples of their instruments (I can’t resist a good guitar!)

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Clothing epitomising the Mod style

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Records and record sleeves

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and badges that would be worn by their fans (very popular at the time)

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The band’s music was radical, many of their songs addressing social issues and progressive ideas. Many of them are still relevant today – The Eton Rifles, being particularly adapt when Old Etonians and other ex public schoolboys are ruling the roost.

Not surprisingly, examples of their music featured heavily being played on videos at the beginning

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and towards the end of the exhibition

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There’s only so far you can go  with a style of music and they split in December 1982 when Paul Weller decided it was time to move on, exploring different styles with the Style Council and as a solo artist. He’s still going strong.

Open 1

A visit to the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, which is inside one of the black glass clad modern buildings on Man Island, between the Albert Dock and the Pier Head, is always worthwhile. We’ve enjoyed all the exhibitions we’ve seen there since we discovered it a coupe of years ago.

The Gallery, which was launched in 1977, was one of the UK’s first galleries dedicated solely to photography, which is poorly represented in traditional art galleries. It moved to it’s current premises in 2011. The current exhibition, Open 1, is the first of a series of three annual exhibitions showing work selected from photographs submitted by the artists themselves. It features the work of six artists concentrating on social portraiture – photographs of people but emphasising social issues and concerns.

I particularly liked Desk Job, a series of photographs by Louis Quail of people working in offices. With deindustrialisation more and more people have to work in office environments and to me the photographs captured the boredom that this type of work often entails and also the close similarities between offices in different parts of the world.

Desk Job #9. 2013 © Louis Quail

“As we have moved into the technical and information age, there has been a shift towards more office-based work. Whatever our job title or geographical location, our tools and environment are becoming similar. It is quite perverse; to travel around the world to photograph inside an office that looks like its in Croydon [UK].” (from an interview with Louis Quail  for Wired magazine quoted in the exhibition guide)

In G20 Double Takes, Billy Macrae took photographs of various locations during the G20 summit meeting in London 2009 and then revisited the same locations where he took a second photograph, including the original picture in the shot, positioned so that it fitted in to the landscape. Here’s an example

G20 Double Takes 2014 © Billy Macrae

So the frantic action from the demonstrations slots in and is superimposed on the more sedate later scene.

The most shocking images, though, were from the Juvenile in Justice project by Richard Ross, comprising photographs taken of juvenile correctional facilities in 31 states in the USA. There are, quite frankly, some shocking images and accompanying stories.  A sad testament to the tragedy of a divided society in the world’s richest country.

György Kepes at Tate Liverpool

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György Kepes was a Hungarian-born painter, designer, educator and art theorist. In 1930, he moved to Berlin, and later joined the studio of László Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian photographer who had taught at the Bauhaus Dessau. Moholy-Nagy left Germany to escape the Nazis, moving to Amsterdam, then London and then finally settled in Chicago where he set up the “New Bauhaus”. Kepes followed him and was invited to work at the new art school as head of the  department of Colour and Light.

Although he didn’t consider himself a photographer (he was a painter, a designer and a film-maker), he worked in the medium and produced some excellent images. The Tate exhibition shows 80 of his photographs, photomontages and photograms produced during his time in Chicago, around 1938-42

There were some conventional photographs, although not the subject matter was not entirely mainstream

György Kepes ‘Ear (AN 514)’, c. 1939–41
© estate of György Kepes

Ear (AN 514) c. 1939–41 (Source Tate website)

He also shot “still lives” using scientific apparatus, sometimes in conjunction with natural objects.

But many of the images on display were photomontages and photograms. A photogram is a photographic print made by laying objects onto photographic paper and exposing it to light. It was a favourite technique of Moholy-Nagy who began experimenting with them during the 1920’s.

The Tate website tells us

Kepes’s photograms, made without a camera, were instead produced in the darkroom by arranging and exposing objects directly on top of light-sensitive paper. The subjects – such as leaves, eyes, feathers and cones and prisms  – reflected Kepes’s varied interests and included scientific and mechanical items alongside objects from the natural world.

There’s a good review of the technique here, which includes a discussion of Kepe’s work

György Kepes ‘Hand on Black Ground’, c. 1939–40
© estate of György Kepes

Hand on Black Ground c. 1939–40 (Source: Tate website)

György Kepes ‘Leaf and Prism’, c. 1939–40
© estate of György Kepes

Leaf and Prism c. 1939–40 (Source: Tate website)

With it’s surreal images, the exhibition complements the Leonora Carrington exhibition also showing at the Tate. It also ties in with LOOK/15: the Liverpool International Photography Festival. This is the third biennial photography festival held in the city and there are photographic exhibitions showing at venues including the Walker Art Gallery, the Bluecoat and the Open Eye Gallery.

Leonora Carrington at Tate Liverpool

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About 18 months ago I visited an exhibition about the Surrealist artist, Leonora Carrington at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. I’d never heard of her at the time and was surprised that she’d been born in Clayton-le-Woods, just outside the town where I grew up. She didn’t find fame in her own country through. Rebelling against her upper class background she ran off the Paris with the Surrealist Max Ernst and then, during the war, following a series of events which included spending some time in an asylum in Spain, she ended up in Mexico, where she remained for the rest of her life and where se is recognised as an important artist.

The Tate in Liverpool currently have an exhibition of her work and we went to see it on Saturday. Their website tells us:

The exhibition explores Carrington’s diverse creative practice, taking a selection of key paintings made throughout her career as its starting point. A prolific painter, the exhibition explores how Carrington established her distinctive take on surrealism.

The Dublin exhibition was a major retrospective of her work. The Tate’s is more modest but still has a good number of her works, a few of which I’d already seen in Dublin. The majority were from her time in Mexico although there were some earlier paintings and etchings in one of the rooms, including some paintings of the “Sisters of the Moon”, painted when she was a teenager and which illustrate her early interest in fantasy,  magic and the occult.

It was notable that most of he works on display where from private collections rather than from major public galleries. I think this reflects her “status”. In Mexico she is considered to be a significant artist but she is relatively unknown elsewhere and overshadowed by more well known Surrealists who worked in Europe.

One aspect of her work featured in the Liverpool exhibition that hadn’t been covered in Dublin was her work for the theatre – including masks, costume designs and sketches. I particularly liked the three masks on display created for a production of the Tempest. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any pictures of them on-line and, of course, photography wasn’t allowed in the exhibition.

After visiting the Dublin exhibition I commented

I think I’d like seeing a small number of her paintings and other works but there were too many for me here to take in. To use a metaphor, her paintings were a little like rich food – good but too much at one go can make you feel sick and nauseous.

For me, the Liverpool was just right and I came away feeling satisfied rather than overwhelmed.

Letizia Battaglia

The current exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool is devoted to the work of the Italian photographer Letizia Battaglia. I’d seen a photograph of she’d taken of the dead bodies of a prostitute and two of her clients who had been murdered by the Mafia that had been featured in the Guardian a few months ago.

Palermo, 1982. Nerina worked as prostitute and was drug-dealing. She was killed by the mafia because she did not respect the rules © Letizia Battaglia

Palermo, 1982. Nerina worked as prostitute and was drug-dealing. She was killed by the mafia because she did not respect the rules © Letizia Battaglia

Gruesome, but moving, and a visual condemnation of the violence of the Mafia. And that statement sums up a lot of her work. She was a leftist photojournalist in Palermo and a lot of her photographs are about the Mafia and their violence.

Letizia was a journalist who took up photography in the early ’70s, when she realised that it was easier to place her articles in newspapers and magazines if these were accompanied by images. After working i Milan she returned to her native Palermo in Sicily working as Picture Editor for the left wing journal, L’Ora.

Many photographs feature dead bodies of people murdered by the Mafia

Palermo, 1988. Assassination with Palermo plate © Letizia Battaglia

Palermo, 1988. Assassination with Palermo plate © Letizia Battaglia

She also depicted a different type of victim of the violence, those who had to live with the aftermath and the consequences, such as in this photograph.

Palermo,1992. Rosaria Schifani, the widow of police agent Vito killed together with judge Giovanni Falcone, Francesca Morvillo and his colleagues Di Cillo and Antonio Montinaro © Letizia Battaglia

Palermo,1992. Rosaria Schifani, the widow of police agent Vito killed together with judge Giovanni Falcone, Francesca Morvillo and his colleagues Di Cillo and Antonio Montinaro © Letizia Battaglia

Her other main theme was the condition of the working class in Palermo with some moving and harrowing depictions of real poverty.

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Not a pleasant collection but very powerful and moving. She was a brave woman and talented photographer.

The exhibition – “Letizia Battaglia: Breaking the Code of Silence” is showing at the Open Eye Gallery on Mann Island, Liverpool until 4 May 2014

“Sculptural Forms” in Manchester

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One of the exhibitions currently showing at the Manchester City Art Gallery focuses on sculpture created during a the period from just before the First World War to the present day. Covering three rooms on the first floor of the modern extension, it features works from the Gallery’s own collection  together with others from the Whitworth Gallery, currently closed for refurbishment, and the Arts Council.

The exhibition

explores some of the imaginative ways in which the sculptural form has been re-invented from just before World War One to the present day. It does so by combining sculpture with two-dimensional works of art and designed objects to create some unexpected but visually stunning juxtapositions.

The first room – The Human Condition – concentrates on the human form. Some of the works on show are figurative, some abstract and some a bit of both.

This relief by Eric Gill is very typical of his work. A clear depiction of a human form, a religious subject, finely carved.

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The development of the abstract representation of the human figure can be seen in a piece by by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and early works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

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This ceramic head by Stephen Dixon (Liu Xiaobo 2012), created in honour of the Chinese human rights campaigner and recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize

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and this crystal skull replete with flashing interior lights by Tony Oursler

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were both very popular, attracting a lot of attention from visitors.

As well as sculpture the exhibition includes some “two dimensional works” some inspired by sculpture, some ideas for sculpture and some by sculptors including Henry Moore.

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The second room – Abstraction – did what it said on the tin featuring abstract works by artists including Anthony Caro, Alison Wearing  and Barbara Hepworth – this is her Sphere with Inner Form (1963)

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I particularly liked a couple of aluminium reliefs

Relief (1965) by Jean Spencer, which could almost have been a fabricated industrial component

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and, especially, the sensuous, curved forms of Icarus (1967) by John Milne.

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I’m a sucker for simple abstract sculptures like this (Rotterdam Relief, 2005, by Toby Patterson) made from a transparent perspex panel and which uses light and shadows to great effect.

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The final section – Transformation – concentrated on works made from everyday objects. They included this abstract beast by Lyn Chadwick,

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and this work Ridged Vessel, (2014) by Claire Malet. which was commissioned by the Gallery.

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It’s not immediately obvious but this remarkable piece started out as a commercially produced olive oil tin.

She explains her method:

I collect used steel cans and scrap copper with which to work. Each vessel is worked entirely with hand tools. The interiors are gilded with genuine gold leaf and copper leaf, bringing a distinctive richness and volcanic appearance to my work. I take an experimental approach to working with metal, allowing the medium to suggest a direction and often pushing it to the limits of workability, accelerating decay. This has led me to discover techniques that produce qualities similar to those found in nature. Through this process I aim to transform a mundane man-made object into a form to be treasured. The result is a fusion of intentional form and the natural characteristics of the medium.