Saturday, 6 August 2011

Gallery Visit 24th July & 4th August



Pallant House Gallery – Chichester

I looked at four exhibits here, three connected to the artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The fourth showed the work of documentary photographer Anna Fox: "Resort". Anna Fox's website shows more images and those included in the exhibition:


This exhibit was the primary reason for my visit to the gallery. The Butlin's holiday camp at Bognor Regis (my home town) played a not insignificant part in my life as an adolescent. The old style camp was a popular venue for days out in the summer and the only place to go in the town for a brief spell when the camp opened it's doors to locals in the winter as the Butlin's Winter Social Club. (My father, a local magistrate at the time, banned us from here as it was a "den of iniquity". I think this says more about him than it does about Butlin’s. What better reason for going!)
The photographer was commissioned to make these photographs by the gallery to coincide with Butlin’s 75th Anniversary. My first impression of the exhibition from the publicity (and the title) made me think I was going to to see something along the lines of Martin Parr’s “Last Resort”. This was however, very different. The images were big, brightly coloured and beautifully lit. The photographs did look carefully staged but at the subsequent talk, Anna Fox explained how it was done. This exhibition concentrates on the Family Breaks offered at Butlin’s. There is another collection of images, different in character which may form the “Adult Breaks” exhibition in the future.
Anna Fox was born in 1961, the year following  the original camp opening at Bognor. The preamble to the exhibition states;
"...captured the British at leisure………..vital and highly charged insight into the contemporary Butlin's holiday experience", which is described as "truly democratic and accessible to all". The work was informed by the John Hinde postcard collections' of Butlin's in the 1970's. by photographers including Edmund Nagele and Elmar Ludwig. I've looked at examples of the old photographs and there is definitely a direct comparison, with the careful staging and vivid colours.
I read Edmund Nagele's account of his early career with John Hinde Studios: in the introduction to the book "Nothing to Write Home About": in which he describes the way in which the colour separations were made and the content and colours were altered to provide the perfect holiday memory and to make the postcards stand out from the competition on the display stands.. So, the early photographs were staged; pre and post production.

Talk by Anna Fox Thursday 4th August 2011

Professor of Contemporary Photography at UCA. Studied at UCA Farnham under Martin Parr (among others)
Her body of work is detailed on the URL above. She chatted briefly about this before describing her current exhibition.
The exhibition was commissioned by the Pallant House Gallery to document the contemporary Butlin's holiday experience at Bognor Regis at the 75th anniversary of the company. (see above for my interest)
The scale of the project was daunting, with a crew of up to 18 people including a lighting director. The project was shot on 5x4 sheet film with a Hasselblad digital MF camera as back up. 6 - 8 lights to completely light the set. Although the images have the "staged" look about, them the normal activities of the holidaymakers were interrupted as little as possible. The location was set up and the photographs were taken as the activities unfolded. Beyond asking the participants to "freeze" as the shutter was fired, and being told what was happening, they received little or no direction. (f16 was used to give adequate depth of field in most cases, ghosting of movement at shutter intervals as slow as 1/4s was unavoidable) The John Hinde photographers would freeze the action by careful posing for up to four seconds.  There were several comments in the visitors book and I had noted this myself, many of the children looked bemused, not smiling and less than happy. The comment was passed the perhaps we had enough pictures of children smiling. I think Ms Fox recorded things as they were. She did make the valid point  that as soon as you produce a camera, people’s behaviour changes, sometimes subtly, sometimes (as in the case of some of the children featured) dramatically and unreasonably. I know, I have grandchildren! 
From the discussions, there seemed to be a bit of a conflict between the artistic/documentary endeavours of the photographer and the commercial interests of the company, mainly to do with the inclusion of certain images and the insistence (understandably) that the family holiday images be kept entirely separate from the adult weekend images which may form another exhibit at a later date. A clear indication in which the way society’s attitude to photography has changed since the 1960s comes from the Splash Water world picture, which Butlins would not allow to be taken with holiday families. The photographer had to work when the pool was closed and with families of the crew as volunteers.
The majority of the photographs exhibited were from colour negative stock with a few from the digital Hasselblad. Several images were digitally made composites where frames were blended and layered to give the best image of what occurred over a short period. Questioned about the voracity of this approach for a documentary photographer, Ms Fox defended the practice, saying that nothing was added to the scene that wasn’t there, only the time that people appeared in the scene was altered.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera Exhibit

These paintings, mainly self portraits of Frida Kahlo were interesting to see but weren’t a major attraction. There was however a collection of photographs by her father Guillermo Kahlo (1871-1941).
These were silver gelatin prints of sacred buildings in Mexico City made between 1904 and 1908 for showing at the Mexican Centennial Exhibition in 1910. Also interesting were several colour Carbro print portraits of Frida Kahlo made by Nickolas Muray (1892-1965)
See link below for details of the Carbro process.

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