Photo Oxford 15th September 2017

PhotoOxford is an annual event organised by volunteers.  This year there were five exhibition spaces, mainly in town centre university buildings.  I visited four of them:

The People’s Project – My Normal, Your Freak  Kate Mahoney and Aaron Williamson have been working with a local LGBTTQ+ group to create studio images using a range of props, chosen spontaneously by the sitters to reveal an aspect of themselves which would otherwise remain concealed.  Every sitter chose to use facial concealment, employing materials which they felt simultaneously concealed and revealed. All shot against a black background with similar softbox-style lighting.

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This was an outdoor exhibition mounted in panels – at the time of my visit it was attracting a fair amount of attention from passers-by.  It needs the text to give the viewer a head start on understanding the basic premise of the work, but once appraised of this it’s quite effective.  Predictably chains and other ‘bindings’ featured quite prominently, but other visual metaphors made interesting appearances.

Russian Prison Tattoos was a good deal more engaging than I had anticipated.  This is a touring exhibition featuring the work of Sergei Vasiliev and Arkady Bronnikov, neither of whom set out to produce this body of work as a piece of art – they were employed by the authorities to make the documentary records as a monitoring and identification system.  Tattoos in this setting are a complex and secretive way of communicating status and history among prisoners.  The skills of the practitioners are keenly valued and inmates will often try to be placed in prisons where the best artwork is to be had.  As photographs they hold an odd fascination; even without the explanatory wall text the content is highly charged.  As portraits, rather than plain documentary evidence, they speak of individuals whose characters have been formed by hardship, violence and deprivation.  These are a poignant example of photography serving multiple purposes.

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Martin Parr: Oxford   Work from Parr’s recent book was shown at the Weston Library foyer and was well attended.  He spent a couple of years on and off, working the Oxford ‘events’ which are scattered through the academic year, some of them arcane and bizzare, others more quotidian and purposeful.  In every photograph Parr has made an eyeline choice: direct or not at all.  In the direct form the subject looks straight out of the frame to the camera, engaging frankly with the viewer.  In the others, Parr has managed to join the throng and make intimate, close-up photographs without once allowing anybody to glance outside the frame by acknowledging the camera.  This is part of Parr’s style and it works by allowing the viewer to scrutinise the subjects without catching a facial response; we are voyeurs  in the proper sense of the term and it’s an approach which Parr has employed to great effect.  All in colour, though not as vivid as much of his previous work and without contrived ridicule or mockery – any that is detectable is present through the efforts of the subjects,  who must have been an absolute gift to Parr.

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The fourth show was all single images from a juried competition and I have not included them in this review.