Thursday, 21 June 2012

London Festival of Photography, a critical tour

A strong showing this year from the still-growing London Festival of Photography, and just a week left to take in all the exhibitions and events. I cycled around some of the shows on the first weekend and still haven't caught up with the rest of the things on my must-see list. Clearly the street photography shows are among the most interesting, but there are some unexpected gems in the smaller shows.

There are 24-hour displays at both Kings Cross and St Pancras, Contemporary Street Photography at Kings Cross and The Great British Public, from the book of the same name, at St Pancras. Half the fascination, though, is not so much the actual photographs, as getting carte blanche to walk through normally closed doors. In a borrowed or temporary gallery on the top floor of a seedy Oxford Street building is the International Street Photography awards show, where windows uncleared for decades look out over the taxis and buses. The photos are original and striking, although I was sorry to see the winning view of Mexican workers sleeping in the back of a moving pickup truck, had been repeated with endless variants.

Repetition is all too common in photography - making series of images instead of thinking up new approaches - but unique images are much more interesting. One of the shows at the Fitzrovia Community Centre, Behind Closed Doors, is another case in point. The stories of abuse suffered by female domestic staff in France are well worth reading, but all those images of anonymous apartment buildings, the scenes of those crimes, really add very little to the project. So much easier than photographing the abused women, or stalking the perpetrators to publicly shame them, but the buildings tell you nothing except that there must be thousands more cases of exactly the same kind of bad treatment. The Single Saudi Women show by Wasma Mansour similarly disappoints: the women barely appear and their surroundings are merely ordinary.

The Horse Hospital, normally un-noticeable around the back of Russell Square tube station, is suitably weird, a ramp instead of stairs and a miniature stage draped in red velvet. The family history recorded there by Kurt Tong is reasonably engaging, but only if you can be bothered to read all the background information.

Two shows near Euston are much better versions of the personal narrative. At the William Road Gallery, which is actually the reception area for architects John McAslan and Partners, are several intense and fascinating collections, especially Celine Marchbank's record of her mother's terminal illness, put together with considerable wit and barely a hint of pathos. Also striking are Evgenia Arbugaeva's images from Siberia, showing at Calumet: revisiting the small and desolate town in Siberia where she grew up, she finds a young girl to pose, in a sense, as her younger self. The poverty of the post-USSR town is striking, bleak concrete apartment buildings and battered interiors, contrasting against the moonscape beauty of the landscape. The girl poses in her bedroom, on the prow of an icebound ship and balancing on rusty machinery, throws her shadow against an abandoned building, runs with a meteorological balloon nearly as big as she is, stands balanced on a tiny raft on the icy waters of a lake. Again, imaginative and unsentimental. I've taken the liberty of copying one of her images above. There is more to enjoy on her website, or get down to Calumet while it's still on.

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