“Affecting Change” at the Open Eye

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While we were in Liverpool last weekend we called into the Open Eye Gallery which is located in one of the modern glass buildings at Man Island near the Pier Head. The photographic gallery is in it’s 40th year and it’s always worth  a visit to have a look at whatever exhibition is on. We’ve seen some excellent photographs and discovered some talented photographers during our visits.

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The current exhibition Affecting Change

looks at how real change is made today, and what role photography has in that process. The exhibition features five rising photographers working in the North West.

The works on show look into the daily lives of people working hard to transform the lives of others. The artists have worked in collaboration with various collectives across Liverpool, a city renowned for transcending insular politics by championing positive change.

There’s even an opportunity for visitors to contribute their views on how to affect change, originally by writing on the wall (see photo at the head of this post), but as this has become filled up (obviously plenty of people have views on this!) the comments have to be written on sticky notes that can be stuck to the nearby door.

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Addressing the issue of how migrants are treated, Yetunde Adebiyi has produced a series of photographs based around the work of Between the Borders, an organisation dedicated to improving the experiences of asylum seekers.

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I particularly liked the wall of photographs by Jane MacNeil 

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There are controversial plans to redevelop the North Docks area on the Liverpool waterfront. A lot of the publicity has focused on how the development could affect the look of the historic waterfront with talk of removing its Unesco world heritage site status. There’s been less written about the affect a major development will have on the people currently living and working there. Working with the North Docks Community Group, the photographer has produced a series of images , featuring people from the local community and the places where they live and work.

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Jane MacNeil usually specialises in street photography, so this series based on posed portraits is something of a departure for her. But a successful one in my view.

Upstairs, Danny Ryder has recreated the inside of the not-for-profit radical bookshop News From Nowhere. Now located in Bold Street, a street of independent shops, many years ago I used to spend many an hour browsing the shelves in the shop in its original location near the entrance to the Queensway Mersey Tunnel.

The replica bookshop also functions as a reading room and social space, with seating and hot drinks provided.

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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.

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

Mishka Henner at the Open Eye

The main exhibition taking place at the moment at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool feature the photographs of Mishka Henner, a Belgium photographer currently based in Manchester. The exhibition occupies two of the rooms on the ground floor of the gallery.
In the first room, there were a number of images from his Levelland Oilfeeds and Feedlots. These were created by obtaining images via the Internet from Google Earth and Bing Maps, combining multiple images together, manipulating them digitally and then printing out high definition, large scale inkjet prints. The images were quite striking and at first glance looked liked abstract patterns. But on closer inspection their true nature was revealed. I rather liked them.

The second room mainly focused on his Less Américains project. This involved taking images from Robert Frank’s influential 1958 book of photographs, Les Américains, and erased most of the visual content, leaving only solitary details from the originals, producing images such as this

Further examples from this work can be viewed on the artist’s blog, here.

I guess these works (from both rooms) rasies some interesting questions as Henner has not actually taken photographs. Rather, he has used images from other sources – the Internet in the case of Levelland Oilfeeds and Feedlots and a photography book for  Less Américains. I’m sure many people would consider this not to be “real” art as Henner hasn’t created anything from scratch and is utilising others’ work. Interestingly, we visited another exhibition recently, “In the Middle Distance”  at Abbot Hall in Kendal, which features works by a Swiss artist, Uwe Wittwer, who also creates images by computer manipulation of old photographs, he’d “found” on the Internet.

But “Found” objects and images have always had their place in art, particularly in artists who create collages and the like. Recent examples I’ve seen include works by Kurt Schwitters, the master of Merz, also at Abbot Hall (Tate Britain are currently showing a major retrospective until 12 May of the work he produced during his  limited time in Britain as a refugee from Nazi Germany) and  works by the “Affichistes”, Jacques Villeglé and François Dufrêne, at the  Musée d’Art Contemporain in Nîmes and some of the works of Peter Blake on show at the Peter Blake and Pop Music exhibition we visited at Salford Quays a few weeks ago. And both Picasso and Marcel Duchamps were masters in the use of “found objects”.

I think Mishka Henner and Uwe Wittwer are both credible artists. Their skill is in selecting images and they way the manipulate them to produce something new, interesting, challenging and in some cases, beautiful.

Edith Tudor-Hart, a committed photographer

During our recent visit to Liverpool we called into the Open Eye Gallery located in a shiny new building in the Mann Island development which stands on the waterfront between the Albert Dock and the Pier Head. The gallery, which was founded in 1977, is “the only gallery dedicated to photography and related media in the North West of England.” They moved to their new premises in 2011.

One of the two exhibitions currently showing featured photographs by Edith Tudor Hart selected from the gallery’s archive collection. There’s another, larger, exhibition of her works also taking place in Edinburgh in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery at the moment.

May Day Gathering Outside the City Hall, Vienna

May Day Gathering Outside the City Hall, Vienna

She was born Edith Suschitzkyin 1919 in Austria. The daughter of a socialist bookshop owner, she remained a committed socialist for all of her life. She trained in photography at the Bauhaus in Dessau, intending to work as a photojournalist. With the political climate becoming increasingly difficult, after being arrested as a Communist sympathiser, she left Austria in 1933 moving to the Rhondda Valley in South Wales with her husband, Alex Tudor-Hart, who worked there as a G.P. After they separated she moved to London. She died at the relatively young age of 64 in 1973.

Most of the reviews I’ve read of both the Open Eye and Edinburgh exhibitions mention her role as a Soviet Spy and association with the “Cambridge Spies”, Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt.

Her work reflected her political commitment.  There were three main themes evident in the relatively small collection on display at the Open Eye. First of all photographs from Austria of political gatherings, street demonstrations and other scenes relating to the political struggles taking place in that country during the period.

Barricade on the Operngasse, Vienna

Barricade on the Operngasse, Vienna

The photographs from her time in South Wales also depicted political demonstrations but also included industrial landscapes from the mining industry and scenes of working class life.

Demonstration, South Wales

Demonstration, South Wales (1935)

Photographs taken in London continued the latter theme

Gee Street, Finsbury, London

Gee Street, Finsbury, London (1936/7) – this could quite easily have been taken in many other parts of the country and could easily have been used as an illustration in George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier

and she also took a series of pictures illustrating the care and education of disabled children at the Fountain Hospital in London.

Fountain-Hospital, London (1951) ©  Edith-Tudor-Hart. Courtesy of Wolf Suschitzky

Fountain-Hospital, London (1951)

Her photographs were published in a number of magazines, including the Listener, but I suspect that here communist sympathies meant that she had difficulties in obtaining work and probably accounts for her being relatively unknown. By the the late 1950s she had abandoned photography altogether.

I found her photographs to be very beautiful, despite their often grim subject matter. The compositions were excellent. And they were effective at making her political points.  They showed the awful conditions in which working class people lived before the Second World War, but were not mawkish or sentimental. They serve as a reminder of how things used to be before the advent of the Welfare State which is despised so much by some of the people currently in charge of the UK.

Edith Tudor- Hart deserves to be much better known and the Liverpool and Edinburgh exhibitions are, belatedly, bringing her work to the attention of a wider audience.