Category Archives: Inspiration

Book reviews of Don McCullin’s images and autobiography

Shaped by War by Don McCullin

I was just browsing my local library for some books to help me with some background research for one of my assignments when I stopped off in the photography section as per usual. Seeing this, I just grabbed it and thought it was worth looking at at home.

I was only familiar with McCullin’s name from a documentary that was shown on the BBC (and which I have recorded and not yet got around to watching) and hadn’t previously seen any of his work. For anyone not familiar with the book, it’s a large hardback, perfect for presenting photographs in it and allows you plenty of scope to look at and absorb all of the detail.

I started off by skimming the book and reading some of the text, in just a few paragraphs I was enthralled with the story and wanting to know more, decided to order the more detailed book ‘ Unreasonable Behaviour’ which is an autobiographical book written by McCullin with Lewis Chester. (A further review on this to come once I’ve finished reading it)

Looking at this in conjunction with Unreasonable Behaviour is quite advantageous as they complement each other well by allowing me to review larger images that feature in the former or to see an image that was referenced. The text just adds to the horror seen in the images, and it isn’t an easy book to look through; however the photographs are eye catching and are to be looked at and studied. As with any war photography where the subjects of the images can often by horrifying and hard to look at, only by seeing what’s gone before can we look to change anything.

Unreasonable Behaviour

I ordered this after a quick look through Shaped by War, usually I don’t have that instinct where I need to order a book pretty much straight after reading a few lines but in this case, I just had to read more. Luckily the book came a couple of days later and I’ve been gripped from the start. Going from McCullin’s roots with a hard childhood with poverty and gangs in London through to him discovering photography, buying his first camera, and getting his big break with an image of ‘The Guv’nors. An image that is evocative of the Kray era but could equally be the cover of a band’s album. While the book contains a number of his photographs to supplement his narrative, the extended text compared to ‘Shaped by War’ is the highlight. While the subject matter is not easy to read at times, it flows well and is easy to read, even when discussing the political situations McCullin was in the middle of. I was gripped from the start and would recommend this to anyone, not just photographers as its more about the man and the situations that he was in, not the photography, although the camera both allowed him access to areas and put him in many dangerous and life threatening situations. To come through all of the conflict, death and destruction with near misses yourself and still be living and sane is miraculous, especially when compared to the colleagues in photography and journalism that lost their lives along the way. The book is moving and inspiring and I felt very much that my photography will never live up to anything McCullin has done as I don’t take risks, I haven’t pushed myself and I’ve stuck to safe subjects but I’m sure there are plenty of other similar views. In the presence of what it think is greatness, I can’t help feel anything but inferior.

I’ve finished the book now, it ended on a sober note, McCullin survived countless warzones, conflicts and life threatening situations including badly damaging his arm and ribs after a fall off a roof only to be let down by the newspaper he had undertaken all this for and then the illness and death of his first wife Christine. I had to admit being stunned, shocked, horrified and moved to tears through reading this. I hope I get chance to see his work exhibited and one day I’d love to shake his hand and let him know that his work is still having an impact now.

Painting with light

Just seen a film on the BBC’s One Show looking at photography in the Peak District and around Stanage Edge. While this is one of my favourite places to visit and photograph, nothing I’ve done compares to the long exposure images by Dan Arkle.

Climbers with different coloured head torches climbed up Stanaged Edge and the cameras set up (7d’s) set to a 15 minute exposure showed the rocks and these fantastic light trials.

I’ve googled this and found this link that shows some of the work:-

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2232207/Peak-District-path-pictures-Dan-Arkle-head-torch-long-exposure.html

Its well worth looking at, even if its not something you’d do yourself, or have access to people who could do this. I love the fact that there are always people with new ideas and that there is always something more you can add to your photography.

Study visit 9th February 2013 at the Open Eye Gallery

‘A lecture upon a shadow’- Open Eye Gallery Liverpool

This was a well attended study visit, when I arrived the foyer was full of fellow students all mooching around the excellent but far too tempting Open Eye shop.

As this was a split study visit we spent some time looking at the images, some time discussing them in groups and then a break partway through for discussion and coffee before moving onto the second part of the visit. A lecture upon a shadow was a mixed exhibition between artists with three artists from the North West and three from Shanghai and this had already been exhibited in China. Based on the title of a John Donne poem, A lecture upon a shadow certainly gave us all plenty to think about. For me the work was too mixed and I struggled to see a connection between the UK and Chinese photographers as well as a running theme throughout. Its only now looking back and doing some more reading about this that I can see a link between some, loneliness is very key in the work by Fan Shi San, composite images looking at the one child policy within China and the effect this has on the ‘only child’ of each family. This sense of loneliness and sadness pours out of the images and while it affect people differently- as an only child who has always been content as just me, I didn’t feel moved by this, yet others did, but again it goes back to not only seeing what the photographer wants us to see and feel from an image, but also what we bring to it and also how we feel on that particular occasion. Referring back to the theme that I feel is evident in some of these, when thinking about the standout piece ‘Eldon Grove’ by Liverpool based photographer Tabitha Jussa, it goes from an abandoned housing estate but then gets you thinking about the area, the people who were there and the fact that it’s now fallen silent but traces of life are still there. Not all of the exhibits worked for me, David Penny’s ‘Dutch Paintings’ where the photographs sit behind yellow and blue coloured glass were visually striking but the impact wouldn’t have been there without the colour. Also the work that struck me with a strong visual impact and shape on the wall was ‘Corpus Mercatorium’ by David Jacques, it’s very interesting to look at but for me feels out of place with its mixture of photographs cut out and stuck to different shapes from books. The whole mixture was reminiscent of Victoriana and not only did it not fit into the rest of the exhibition, for me it left me cold (and I did feel it was a bit creepy)

Part one of the study visit

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David Penny ‘Dutch Paintings’

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Liang Yue ‘Numerous Continuation: Summer Autumn Chaos’

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Man Yi ‘Memory of Water’

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Looking at Fan Shi San’s ‘Two of Us’

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Tabitha Jussa ‘Eldon Grove’

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David Jacques’ ‘Corpus Mercatorium’

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After we’d looked around this we then all decamped where the sheer number of us dictated some re-organisation and takeover of the coffee shop! We split into groups and had discussions on many topics not least what we had seen at the gallery, as usual we all had our own like and dislikes and our own take on what we had seen. These discussions are really worthwhile as while we might disagree there is always acceptance that someone else’s thoughts are just as valid as your own.

Archive exhibition- Landscapes by Edward Chambre- Hardman

The second part of the visit was to see the archive exhibition by Edward Chambre-Hardman. I was looking forwards to this as I hadn’t seen any of his work and Keith was able to give us some background information on this as he is working on the archive at the moment and could bring an insight into the work and collection of the photographer. While Chambre-Hardman was more known for this commercial work and portraits, his personal work included landscapes. Amusingly when he sold his collection to the Liverpool record office, he neglected to include some work including his landscapes. I did like some of the images, his use of strong shapes in the images and very heavy clouds (obviously timing is a key component in a good landscape) that give some of the images a strong atmosphere really stood out for me. However I didn’t like the overly yellow tones of the images, which I don’t feel were helped by the warm cream border around them. I like landscapes but I personally prefer strong colours in mine so while these were excellent examples, they weren’t to my taste. The gallery was quite busy while we were there and members of public were coming in and out, one woman spent a lot of time looking at the images while Peter Haveland was giving us some thoughts on Chambre-Hardman, he said something that struck a chord with this visitor who took offence and declared that what he was saying was incorrect and that she knew Chambre-Hardman. Unfortunately she wasn’t willing to stay around to add to the debate and left us all quite amused.

 

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Examples of work by Edward Chambre-Hardman

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Highlights of the visit

Meeting Keith Roberts- we’d spoke via email and phone during my last course

Catching up with some of the other students some that I hadn’t seen since the Leeds study weekend

Being introduced to new photographers- loved Tabitha Jussa- definitely my kind of work

Getting a different take on landscape from a photographer that I hadn’t previously been introduced to

After the visit ended, I wandered around Liverpool looking for suitable buildings and locations to photograph for my next exercises and assignment. On the way back from Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, I just happened to pass Chambre-Hardmans house in Rodney Street which is now owned by the National trust. While it wasn’t open at the time, I’ll certainly make an effort to return and to have a look around

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Jim Mortram ‘Small Town Inertia’ Study Visit

Pre-Exhibition and introduction

This was my second study visit to the Bank Street Arts centre, and was no easier to find this time around! The subject of this visit was an exhibition of prints by Jim Mortram “Small town inertia” which was curated by OCA tutor Andrew Conroy so we had both the benefit of a tutors experience with the background of putting this work on show. We began the visit with a coffee and a discussion, the usual pointers of what we should be looking at, some background on Andrew’s involvement and an overview of Jim and his work. Having already seen Jim’s work in the BJP and on the BBC webpage, I was looking forwards to seeing this in reality. Part of the pre-reading for this visit was to look at Julie’s story by Darcy Padilla and to read comments on the We are OCA pages to fuel a debate on documentary photography. Thoughts on Padilla’s work were varied as expected and there was very much a feeling of exploitation, while a relationship was developed between the photographer and Julie, it seemed to be a case that it was more one sided than the other. We were bearing this in mind as we all then headed upstairs to view the gallery.

The exhibition

Refreshingly the prints were just mounted to the wall with white push pins, no framing or mounting and the simplicity of this certainly gave me hope that putting on an exhibition would be within reach at some point.

The plan was to look at the images and then to get together and discuss a few key prints that had been identified. All the images were monochrome, with the varied ranges of tone adding to the atmosphere with the subjects; it also added a feeling that you couldn’t always date the images. One image had an old silver cross style pram in it but when you looked further, you could see a shop advertising sim cards so putting it in more recent times. I certainly got the feeling from the subjects that they were comfortable with Jim being in their homes and taking photographs, and then later on this was explained further by our discussion with Jim where he explained his process of getting to know them, listening to their stories and then taking photographs when the time was right, not having a set agenda, if it didn’t happen there would be another day.

After we’d all looked around the images, we then discussed a number of images and how we felt about them. Some of us were struggling to feel anything about the series, there was a sense of detachment from the subjects within. I thought that in my case it was because I’d seen quite a few before in my pre visit study, but there was some discussion that it was more to do with the lack of captions (a considered curatorial choice) and information on the subjects. When reading the images, we were very much looking at the camera angles, the positioning of the subject, the surrounding location and possessions and making a view that was influenced by our own backgrounds. The choice behind no text or captions was very much designed to force us to make our minds up and to make the connection.

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Video and Discussion

We then went downstairs to watch some videos of the subjects. The first one was images set to music, the other two were photographs mixed with an audio of the subject talking. At this point I think we all suddenly clicked, seeing images and being able to relate them to a voice speaking about an accident where they went blind, or losing their partner because they couldn’t get an ambulance to come really hit home and when the videos finished there was just stunned silence. That would have been more useful before we saw the images as now we really did have the emotional connection. The highlight of the visit had to be when we were all huddled around an ipad having a skype conversation with Jim, this wasn’t without interruption on both sides as we were moved out of the room we were in, and Jim had his enthusiastic dog wanting to join in but that’s very much in keeping with his photography- fitting it in around his commitment as a full time carer, and for us students who often have to juggle work and family commitments with our studies, snatching opportunities where we can. Listening to Jim wasn’t like listening to a photographer, it was like a conversation with a friend or a fellow student, his passion and enthusiasm came through and having that insight into his work and the processes was illuminating. We got from this conversation information that you would never get as a part of a photography exhibition. Jim gets to know the subjects and builds a relationship with them, not planning the images but just taking them when he feels its right to, some days it’s just conversation and a chance for both him and the subject to have some contact with the outside world. Whereas some photographers have their subject and once they’ve got the image that’s it done, Jim keeps in touch with them. While we wondered whether some of the subjects had seen their images, especially with a debate over the less flattering of images, we discovered that no-one had ever complained. I admit I took pages of notes, not all of them are here, and some are just in my art journal as I don’t think I can do justice to the day.

The people

While Jim was passionate about his photography, what really came across was his enthusiasm and dedication to listen to peoples stories, to document his local community and to provide a positive voice to people who aren’t being heard. This isn’t a short term project, this is a lifetime of work, a collaboration of trust and community, taking and giving back. To hear and see these people brings them to life, I might never visit their town but I can know who they are through this work and it does provoke a desire to do the same in my local area. As Jim said “these are the stories that need to be seen”

Summary

– Conversation with Jim- being able to hear first hand his thoughts and processes around the images and how its an involved process giving a voice to the community

– Seeing images presented in a non framed way- much more immediate

– Catching up with other students

Henri Cartier- Bresson- A Question of colour. Somerset House, London 12th January 2013

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I was looking forwards to this exhibition, I’ve never seen any of Cartier-Bresson’s work displayed and after looking at his ‘A propos de Paris’ book recently; I was interested in seeing some in person. Curated by William A Ewing, this features some images by Cartier-Bresson that had never been exhibited before, and the title ‘a question of colour’ was certainly apt, comparing the Cartier-Bresson’s well known black and white images with those in different shades of colour from similar tones, to zingy and vibrant. Capturing the decisive moment in these, the question is not now about whether it should be colour or black and white. It’s more about the subject, the composition and what that photographer is showing you. Looking onto a snapshot moment on the street in most cases, a strong subject will be that whatever colour it’s viewed in.

The fact this exhibition was a mixed set interested me and allowed me to get to know some new (to me) photographers that I like and some that I don’t. The outstanding photographer within these for me was Karl Baden; I liked his strong use of shapes and colour and how he made use of objects such as car windows to frame the subject.

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Some of the images taken by Joel Meyerowitz caught my eye, especially the woman in the Fifth Avenue, NYC image.

 

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The closeness of the subject and the fact she is holding a book entitled ‘The American Character’ shows that he was in the right place at the right time to capture an interesting character; again going back to my earlier comments on the comfort level of the photographic in a well-known area comes through. For me the exhibit shows that colour can equal black and white and in some cases surpass it. Strong, vibrant colours make the images seem more real, black and white tones make the images seem more hard hitting and gritty in some cases. The choice is there and I don’ t think you can opt for one or the other as they both have their strengths and weaknesses yet when done well, possess and extraordinary power.

Colour highlight for me was the Ernst Haas image of the Frigidaire in Paris, France 1954. The blue tones of the shop compliment the colour of the cars and the white bonnet of the woman walking past just ties it in with the signage.

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The monochrome highlight was Cartier-Bresson’s ‘Fish Market- Foulton Street’, it’s very atmospheric and you feel like you are looking back into time and I have to think that if this was in colour, it would not have that same feel.

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Overall thoughts

– It’s the content of the image that matters more not the colour

– Colour can add a feeling to an image but it still needs a strong subject

– Worthwhile for seeing the comparison between Cartier-Bresson and the photographers that have followed him as well as a good introduction to the different works and photographers that you might not have come across

– Exhibition catalogue would have been good but looks to have sold out

Tim Walker. Storyteller- Somerset house, London 12th January 2013

While I was in London I’d earmarked a couple of other exhibitions that were free to get in and not too far away from the Tate. Originally at Somerset house for the Cartier-Bresson exhibition, we actually came to this one first after lunch and a break to refresh ourselves after the Tate. Unfortunately it was really busy in there so I wasn’t able to take as much time as I would have liked looking at the images, and secondly it was in a number of smaller rooms that weren’t helped by the large props placed around.

Walking in, my eyes were first drawn to the prop of a giant Spitfire plane at an angle as opposed to the image it featured in. I love the mix of fantasy and reality in photography and this seemed to follow on nicely from some of the Photoshop experimentation that I had undertaken as part of the exercises in the previous module, Digital Photographic Practice. The outstanding feature was that everything in Walker’s images was carefully considered and meant to be there, there wasn’t anything left to chance and the details really drew me in as a viewer. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently with other work, and am now trying to consider that everything in there should be there and to be aware of all the components of the frame not just the main subject. While some of the images were grotesque and others beautiful, because of the colours and detail, I still enjoyed looking at them and some were quite humorous such as the people mocking up traffic signs or flowers and lips overlaid onto a photograph.

Again it was a shame that photography wasn’t allowed as it was a really well put together show and the little rooms and large props such as the giant swan carriage and giant snails helped to give a magical feel as you walked through. In contrast to the fantasy and the fashion images were a series of portraits that have to be my favourite so far. All of the portraits of these famous people had the same location, a white background and a white desk to sit at, the rest was the subject and any props they’d chosen/had chosen. The non cluttered background made the subject quite striking and really stand out and for sheer amusement; the series of the Monty Python cast with smoking bowler hats was striking, being clever, witty, amusing and technically perfect. Certainly something to aim towards in my portrait work. It did feel a little bit like a throwaway exhibition being in a gallery off the courtyard and through the smaller rooms but after viewing it, it certainly deserved the attention it was getting and I’d certainly recommend a visit to this and the Cartier- Bresson show.

Overall thoughts

– Wow

– Composite images can be as valid as a standard photograph

– Presentation can help the experience and to echo the contents of the collection or the subject matter

– Giant dolls are scary especially when filling a room but giant snails are fun

– Photography doesn’t have to be serious

– Consider everything little element in the frame

 

Giant snail prop                                         Some portraits

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William Klein and Daido Moriyama. Tate Modern, London 12th January 2013

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I hadn’t been to London for around 7 years, and this was my first visit to the Tate Modern, finding it was relatively easy, it’s a huge imposing building on the side of the Thames next to the Globe theatre. Already impressed, I wasn’t expecting so much of the inner space to be vast and empty but this was just an indication on how huge an exhibition could be here. Collecting the tickets and gaining entry went smoothly, although it was frustrating not being able to take any photographs of the exhibitions or of the notes on each piece as I had to scribble the details down frantically and hoped that I’d managed to get most of it correct. As the exhibition was split between Klein and Moriyama, I’ll discuss them both separately and then summarise what I felt on the exhibition as a whole.

Stepping through the entrance into a dim room lit by a large video screen playing what I now know is’ Broadway by light’ was certainly overwhelming, on one side bright flashing video and soundtrack, the other had a wall stretching high above me with advertising images on them. It wasn’t what I was expecting from an entrance into a photography exhibition but it made more sense as I’d been through the different rooms. I felt that Klein was very mixed, and while I can appreciate his progression through the different methods, the way this was presented was jumbled, perhaps it was to show us that he has never really moved away from the ways of thinking and work in each area, coming back at a later data to add paint to contact sheets for example in ‘Club Allegro Fortissimo’.

For me, I would have preferred a logical move through time so that I could see how he had grown and progressed but then I guess when do we actually work in isolation and keep it all neatly segregated. Unfortunately as the exhibition is close to finishing, I won’t be able to return to have another look which I am sure it would benefit from. The wide open spaces certainly benefited this exhibition with walls full of blown up almost floor to ceiling images, highlighting that some images such as ‘Evelyn, Isabella and Nena’ with the models echoing the tall skyscrapers in the background still have as much visual appeal as they did when first photographed with striking contrasts of the black and white. I liked the posed fashion shot, even though some of the models look quite severe, it got me thinking about planning and the set up that goes into what I’d refer to as a fashion portrait.

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From these two iconic model images, we moved onto a huge wall of different portraits and then this flowed into more conventional hung images at eye height. His street photography covered different cities and some I found to be really interesting, and others such as the Tokyo 1961 series were a little disturbing. Without any clear narrative, when viewing a couple of the images such as the man on a bike grimacing and the man making what seemed to be wax heads, these seemed quite sinister and I was uncomfortable viewing these and it made me wonder whether Klein himself was at risk and how much acceptance did he have there? In direct contrast to that, the image of Tokyo night-time with its neon lights providing a fascination contrast between light and dark and then later in the exhibition I could see echoes of this in the painted wooden panels and the abstract patterns.

Street photography is one of those styles that I think a lot of students aim for but struggle to do and after viewing the New York images by Klein, I feel that he was stronger in these as he knows the area inside out compare to some of the other ones. They have a more coherent feel and while he cameras is right there in the middle of the situations, and the subject is often aware and looking at the camera, I feel there is more of a respect there than in the other image series such as Tokyo. Moving on from this, there was a video of excerpts from some of his films. I watched some of ‘Mr Freedom’ but didn’t really understand what it was about, the costumes and look of the film were eye catching but it just didn’t grab me. Following on, the final gallery of Klein’s looked at his contact sheets that he had revisited with enamel paint. After all the monochrome, the splash of colour on these was really eye catching with the organic painting providing a frame for the viewer to focus on. The only negative in this was that the impact of coloured paint on a coloured image of the funfair felt out of place and didn’t have the same power as the monochrome images.

A sample of Klein postcards

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Daido Moriyama

The next gallery was the start of the Daido Moriyama exhibition, in contrast to the Klein presentation, a lot of the images were presented as a smaller size and even in book form within cabinets, with an exception being the large work ‘Memory 2012’

Walking into this gallery, the first difference is the size of the images, they were smaller and on one wall all together like a collage and to see the details within these, and you had to stand close to study the image. As a comparison to Klein, the subject matter was much darker, and for some such as Provoke no 2 and Shibuya, this provoked thoughts and feelings of confusion as the images were blurred, confused as to why this image was taken and voyeuristic looking onto a moment that should be private not shared. It felt that Moriyama was showing two sides, one capturing a shadowy and hidden world where people are exposed in different ways and amounts, from the woman naked on the bed through to the aftermath of a car crash. The other of showing the mix of Japanese and western cultures merging, such as the stacked patterns of jars and boxes within a shop, later moving onto the larger images of commuters on a tube and an alternative portrait of a woman. Differing from this and really catching my eye were some of the abstracts such as Hysteric no 4, comprising of what seemed a large round fan in one images and spotted walls on another. It was hard to see what they were as objects but in monochrome the shapes and patterns were very striking and it was an interesting change.

One wall was taken up with Memory 2012, a large collage of a number of his works and I struggled to see how a number of what seemed random images fitted together into a coherent narrative. I stood there looking at them and I could group some into smaller themes but not one running through this. I bought one of his books and within this were some of the images and on their own with a couple of lines of narrative, they were much stronger compared to how they were displayed.

The Light and Shadow series of close ups of everyday images really stood out to me. While the rest of the exhibitions challenged me, this was much more comfortable as it’s similar to work I’d do. I found that because they were all monochrome that you focus on the shape and form of the subject, not what it or the overall image is. While for close up and everyday objects I tend to favour punchy colours, I’m going to try and experiment a little and see what they look like in black and white. The final outstanding piece for me was the room build built out of Polaroid’s, the idea to take hundreds of different colours, objects and rooms and then put them all together to project a room was very clever and there was so much to take in and look at within this installation. The exhibition closed on a video interview of Moriyama and some sample books before we exited through the gift shop.

Postcards and book by Moriyama

 

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Overall thoughts

– Too much to take in, too many rooms and images.

– Hard to see it all in one visit- would need to go back a couple of time

– Not always a clear narrative

– Felt I missed the input from other students and tutors which for a large and complex exhibition is really needed

– Personally I preferred Moriyama over Klein as I could identify with some of this work and the unusual subjects and compositions he showed.

Summary

Overall the exhibition was not about colour or black and white, but it was more light and dark, of the moods and content, different tones, how the content made us feel as viewers etc. I feel that both Klein and Moriyama were strong enough to hold their own exhibition in the whole of the space as opposed to sharing, and that the connection between the two wasn’t always that clear to the viewer. I’m pleased I managed to see it; not least it’s good to have the comparison of a large London show with what I’ve seen in my local area.