Photography in a Period of Change

David Langham, from the series Illusions < Deceptions, 2015 This year’s exhibitions at the FORMAT Festival in Derby provided a deeply considered, eclectic and thought-provoking overview of the role of photography in contemporary cultural discourse. The first festival was in 2005 and now in its seventh installment, FORMAT has once again grown in size, scope and ambition. The festival is so big in size that a review cannot possibly cover all the artists that have shown there, nor can it report on all the events that were part of this expanding enterprise. Rather, this review is an attempt to provide a flavour for the festival, which is spread across a variety of different venues across Derby, and perhaps what it can tell us about the role of photography today. ka-boom-andrea-botto-5
Andrea Botto, Ka-Boom #17, Rapallo, 2009

The theme for this year’s festival was ‘Evidence’ which can be interpreted as an attempt to tackle photography’s often troubled relationship with truth, documentary and what is often referred to as indexicality – or photography’s presumed ability to function as an ‘index’ of the real. Much like the festival itself, this is an ambitious theme which, in the first instance, can be observed in a wide variety of photographic works that document specific events or social conditions. In that regard, Andrea Botto beautifully captured controlled explosions, focusing not as much on the explosion itself but on the public spectacle that these created. Jiehao Su’s work on the other hand explores rapid urbanization in contemporary China with a series of photographs that functions as a physical as well as a psychological portrait of a culture experiencing dramatic social, cultural and economic changes.

Jiehao Su, from the series Borderland, 2012

Giorgio Di Noto, from the series The Iceberg, 2015

Yet it is quite clear that the festival organizers, lead by the intrepid curator Louise Clements, were keen to highlight instances where the role of photography is, literally, more obscure. A darkened corner in the Quad galleries is the stage for Giorgio Di Noto’s installation project which uses photographs from the ‘deep web’ – an encrypted part of the internet far removed from search engines and therefore operating hidden away from the public eye. Cunningly titled ‘The Iceberg’, thus referencing the fact that the deep web is estimated to be many times the size of the publicly accessible internet, Di Noto presents a series of rather banal photographs originally used as avatar images by online vendors of illegal materials (mostly drugs). Set amongst these photographs of birds, landscapes and odd trinkets, Di Noto printed images of this illicit material with a special ultra-violet ink. Similar to a forensic team searching for drugs at a crime scene, the viewer is presented with a special ultra-violet torch where these photographs become visible on what would otherwise appear to be blank sheets of paper.

Ed Watts, Sculptural manifestation of the William Eggleston photograph, Greenwood Mississippi 1973 (2015)

Located in the solemn surrounding of St Werburgh’s Church, Ed Watts presents the viewer with the physical re-creation of a William Eggleston photograph titled ‘Greenwood, Mississippi’, 1973. The ceiling painted in glossy red colour, the light bulb located in the centre of the image and a strange poster depicting a variety of sexual positions are all perfectly re-created in this installation. The viewer is challenged in a number of ways such as by being asked to question the original context of the image. What is this room used for? What is its purpose? Why was it photographed in this way? These questions are primarily facilitated by actually being able to physically enter into the space. Yet the installation also invites the viewer to represent the space by taking a photograph of it. By doing so, the viewer becomes the producer, infringing on the territory of the artist and questioning the notion of an original artwork.

Simon Norfolk, film still from Time Taken, 2014

Simon Norfolk who is probably one of the best-known artists participating in the festival this year had a small room in the church dedicated to his video piece ‘Time Taken’. Best known for his carefully composed images of war-ravaged countries, the video work is a digital montage of a series of photographs produced in Afghanistan. In this work Norfolk revisited several sites at different times of the year, and perfectly matched the photographs in HD video to produce seamless transitions from one season to another. In one image the 1500-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan, which were famously destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, can be seen in the background while village life unfolds in the foreground. As the traditional Afghan music echoes in the exhibition setting inside church, the colours from the super fine resolution video piece bounce off the walls of the darkened room with dramatic effect.

Tom Stayte, Selfie, 2015

Amongst the sprawling network of galleries and exhibition spaces connected to the festival is the Grade I listed Pearson Building on the north end of the city. Once a private residence and educational establishment, the exhibitions continue in a part of the building that is rundown and derelict. What must have been a theatre stage of sorts in the past is now the location for a cleverly devised installation by Tom Stayte. For his project Stayte accessed the publicly available RSS Feed on Instagram with images tagged as #selfie. Processed in real-time by a computer located at the centre of the former theatre stage, every few seconds a thermal receipt printer produces small prints of these selfies which are then gently falling on the floor. The viewer is welcome to touch these prints, pick them up and spread them across on the stage. These selfies, otherwise lost or forgotten in cyberspace, have now become tangible objects – the fate of which is entirely under the control of the viewer. Stayte’s project, partially because of the space in which it is presented, is a brilliant commentary on the complex relationship between today’s celebrity culture, identity, narcissism and the instantaneity of photographic technology.

Swen Renault, Killing Becher, 2013

Looking at the dozens of artists whose work was exhibited at this year’s festival, I wonder whether we are witnessing a dramatic change in not just how photography is perceived such as via selfie culture, but also how it is practiced by emerging and established artists. In that regard, it was noticeable that a great number of works – a few of which I pointed to above – actually embraced aspects that are usually perceived to be outside of the realm of photographic practice. These aspects include installation or sculptural works, video pieces as well as interactive or participatory artworks. Also part of the exhibition were quite a few photobooks such as a collection of contemporary Chinese photobooks and a selection of photobook dummies. As a whole the artists selected for the festival really pushed against the traditional boundaries of photography and provided a refreshingly new perspective on a medium that is – judging by this evidence – experiencing a period of great change.

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