Tony Mayne

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Tuesday talks
London Contemporary Photography Fair
LIP Local Groups

Not with a Bang but a Whimper

The very last Tuesday Talks

The Photographers' Gallery is closing for refurbishment, so the recent Tuesday talks at this venue look like being the last for a very long time. The first two attracted 20-26 people and the final one ended unCorked.

The theoretical underpinning of the two speakers ranged from the PreSocratics to the PostModernists. John Stathatos favoured traditional aesthetics - the Symposium through to Sontag. Stevie Bezencenet's aesthetics had its roots in Recent Continental Philosophy - from Freud to Feminism.

Both offered eclectic `takes' on Art photography and were refreshingly irreverent in their attitudes towards both the `masters' and contemporary stars of photography. John Stathatos argued that every photograph has a link with reality - that all photographs are representations of the past .However, some photographs have a temporal red-shift (they elide the substance of our memory):-like the Cheshire cat, we think that we know them, but when we examine them all that we are left with is the Grin.

Stevie Bezencenet's Performance Art stance gave interesting slants on commonly accepted photographic values. The Sign, for instance, she saw as being less stable than its appearance might suggest. Our own Identity, through photographic representations of ourselves, is not consistent - it is `a series of fragmentary slippages'. Indeed, the thrust of her talk was an examination of the self-portrait: her argument being that performers/ photographers keep repeating the process of their art because what they seek to capture constantly eludes them - the problem not being in the Process but the Performance. This `doubling' may go on because the perceived original (person/ performance) is not copied to the photographer's satisfaction.

John Stathatos said that early photography seemed to promise that everything could be recorded and explained - that it could seize significant moments from the Heraclitan flux - but that the public became disappointed with its impartiality. It has had a hard job trying to establish itself as an Art form, only to become absorbed into `Lens Based Media' when on the verge of success.

Ms.Bezencenet's best illustrations for her thesis included Ingrid Pollard's self-portraits in the lake district (her blackness thwarting our Wordsworthian expectations with incongruity), Mapplethorpe's blackened and blurred illegible self-portraits, and Lee Friedlander's jumbled streets with him reflected as a fragment in a car mirror. Unsurprisingly, Helen Chadwick, Cindy Sherman and Jo Spence scored highly; but Gilbert and George didn't. One memorable illustration was an astronaut on the moon - you couldn't see his face, but he was representing both himself and America.

On Art, John Stathatos argued that Atget, Bellocq, & Co. never aspired to be artists (you had to pay more tax on the photograph if it was a Work of Art). Often it is the man who sells the work (the agent) who declares the work to be Art, so he can charge more for it. `This man is not just a photographer - he's an Artist.' He showed a slide of a wino in a toilet. This would normally pass as photojournalism, but when the wino is the photographer's (Billingham's) father, then it's Art.

Richard Cork cancelled his talk at the last minute: a suitable headline for his newspaper might be `Cork's talk balked'.

Photography Stranded at the Palace

London Contemporary Photography Fair, Strand Palace Hotel, November 14th-15th.

Mel Brook's Old Man used to have a shop in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. When asked whether he ever saw Jesus Christ, he replied: `Yeah. Used to come in the shop with a dozen other guys. Looked around a lot, never bought anything.' The same was true of the punters at the Photo Fair. The event was well organised and publicised, but many people sold nothing, and some people sold between £100 and £150 worth of work (only just covering their expenses). There were always rumours of someone in another room whose pictures were selling like hot cakes. However, on investigation, these claims tended to be (like Mark Twain's comment on the rumours of his own death) `greatly exaggerated'.

The people wandering round looking at work tended to be either other stallholders looking at the competition, other photographers looking for ideas and making plans to take a stall next year, students from central London colleges sent to look at the work, or (more rarely) the odd buyer. By day two, most stallholders were somewhat dispirited and resigned to their fate. When I walked past other stalls I was ignored, until I went out to do some shopping and came back past the stalls with my outside coat on - then I looked like a punter and the stallholders perked up (briefly).

If you were cynical and merely wanted to sell, then you should have produced sexy nudes that could pass as Art and colour travel pictures selling for less than £50. What the few buying punters mostly wanted were upmarket posters.

This analysis only seems depressing if you hoped to make a lot of money out of selling your work. If you enjoy making and exhibiting photographs with a high aesthetic content, then you will have an audience for the foreseeable future (and maybe even sell some). If you want to make money, then you will do better stacking shelves at Sainsburys.

The lack of sales cannot be laid at the door of the organisers of the event. Their promotion and supervision were excellent. They provided a free packing service for buyers, were supportive to stallholders, and gave good advice about aspects such as security. I am sure that there will be another event next year and that some of you will take a table. You are unlikely to see sufficient financial reward for all your printing and mounting for the weeks before the event. The reward will be in having lots of visitors looking at your work, and chattering about it to more people in two days than would normally see it in a year.

My guess is that the sales of Art Photographs - always more
hypothetical than real - are in an irrecoverable downward spiral in Britain. The market here never compared with America or France, and even its most successful exponents could never live off its proceeds (needing to teach or do commercial work to survive).

Support your Local Group

I don't know what percentage of LIP members attend local group meetings but, for those who don't, they are usually worth turning out for on a dark wet evening. I attend the Twickenham group, hosted by the hospitable Jim Barron, who provides coffee and biscuits, and more large prints than you can shake a stick at. Attendances vary between four and twelve people. Some people only show up when they have a new body of work that they would like feedback on (which is perfectly permissible). One feels that some people don't turn up only because they do not have new work ready for showing yet, which is a shame because they would be welcome. The best compromise is to turn up with work-in-progress but to delay showing it until a later meeting if there is a surfeit of work on show on the day.

I attended a meeting on November 25th with my wife, Carol Hudson. Len Salem, LIP's treasured treasurer, and Carol both took work but neither showed it because there was ample work to discuss from the other attendees. Janet Hall, known to all, brought along many fine 5x4 architectural colour transparencies. I had seen her ballet work before and knew that she was doing more architectural work (indeed, had assisted her on a couple of early projects) but was very pleasantly surprised at the quality and aesthetic merit of her portfolio.

Jim Barron treads the streets of London every day documenting the ephemeral city and its character actors. He shoots between one and three rolls of film a day and appears to do a 20 x 16 print off every negative. Each time we visit he has achieved yet another success - got an exhibition in the Photographer's Gallery, won yet another competition, sold work to the National Portrait Gallery. His images are like rich plum cakes - full of interesting details interrelating with other tasty morsels. Many of the images have inbuilt captions.

John Banting, new to the group, turned up with a book of photographs which he had taken, for a college project, in an intensive care unit for babies. His work had much to recommend it, its performance was pleasing and promised better to come. Everyone encouraged him to go out into the world and return to us with more of the same - an excellent example of what a group can do for an individual. I would hope that he went away enthused to do more, and I look forward to seeing his future work.

One regular attendee was absent - Peter Marshall, LipService's esteemed editor [if that doesn't get the piece accepted, nothing will!], always has new work and will travel for miles to see other people's new work. I sometimes think that if you told him that you were picking up your holiday snaps from Boots at two o'clock, that he would turn up outside the shop just to have a look. On this occasion a parent-teacher evening kept him from us.

I have given a snapshot of one meeting of one group. For members who have not attended any group, I hope that this snapshot will persuade them to try a local group at least once.

Local Groups

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