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FORMAT 17 – Initial thoughts on Derby’s Photo Festival

Posted on March 23, 2017 by Admin under Derbyshire, Musings
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Today I went on a press tour of Derby’s FORMAT 17 photography festival.  
The theme – HABITAT – is complex and wide-ranging and has, I feel, been a little over-intellectualised, which I suppose is to be expected in the photo exhibition world, but it has at least led to a great variety of work on show.
There is something else I expect to encounter in a photo festival.  
It lies behind the idiom: ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’  
This refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single still image.
However, what I find with the photo art world is that more often than not a picture can only show its worth WITH a thousand words.  
Indeed, as the curator of the QUAD exhibition said as she prepared to show us the assembled images: ‘I need to say a few words because these works need contextualising.’  
I do tend to rail against photography that contains wordy, elaborate explanation.  
One exhibition here tells me that ‘the images discover a place where documentation becomes appropriation, transformation leads to reconfiguration and all expectations disappear before they arrive… if photography as a medium is capable of change, acclimation and physicality, it will speak natively to a life in flux.’  Is this the kind of text that clarifies a work?  Or obscures it?
As with previous FORMAT festivals, the work on show provoked contrasting emotions for me.
When it comes to exhibition photography, I am always conflicted.
I came to photography through the camera club world and eventually became a commercial photographer.
Throughout my absorption in photography,  I have come to view good photography as a marriage of adept technique, astute composition and fine pictorial qualities.
For me, Wolfgang Tillmans – the only photographer to ever win the Turner Prize – is as fraudulent a photographer as Tracy Emin is an artist.
So, it will come as no surprise that some of my favourite images shown here from FORMAT 17 (so far, at least – more to see in the next few weeks) have strong aesthetic qualities:
Liz Hingley’s exploration of the world of brass band music in Bolsover produced some fascinating images, especially the face of a young player reflected in his instrument.
Sheng Wen Lo’s depictions of polar bears in captivity are powerful and concerning.
Laurent Chehere’s images of houses in the sky delightfully summons up both Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchhausen and Pixar’s Up.
Julia Fullerton-Batten’s Feral Children images are like stills from an epic movie, all based on real cases of children who have grown up isolated from human contact.  In the image you can see, this boy lived on the streets from the age of four for two years. He developed a relationship with a pack of wild dogs, and shared the food he begged with the dogs.
Best of all, though, from an exhibition entitled Balkan Trails, is the image of a young Syrian refugee, looking terrified and alone… an image I just couldn’t tear myself away from.
So, that’s FORMAT so far… more to explore and discover.
Like previous FORMAT festivals, I have found exhibitions that range from the impressive to the impenetrable, the powerful to the pretentious, the beautiful to the baffling.  Maybe that’s how it should be.
One more thing… why are we seeing videos and installations?
This is a photography festival and, as such, should show the power of the still image over the moving image.

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