British-based artists query documentary art
Aplay with images combining reality with illusions is on display at an ongoing exhibition at Shanghai Center of Photography at the West Bund.
The exhibit “Another Way of Telling” displays around 100 works, by leading UK-based photographers Anna Fox and Karen Knorr, challenging the authenticity of traditional documentary photography art.
“I would rather call myself a story-teller, rather than a documentary photographer, because I think documentary models up too much,” Fox told Shanghai Daily, referring to the traditional notions of documentary photography being “objective recording.”
“It’s never being possible,” she added. “The word of ‘documentary’ is invented by John Grierson (British documentary maker). It means telling stories on some kind of truth. But it’s about an author telling stories.”
In the 1980s, a new documentary movement emerged in the UK, under the influence of both conceptual art and color photography budding in the United States. It became all the more reasonable for young photographers “to break the boundaries of traditional documentary practice ... to look at things more ordinary, and more close to them,” Fox said.
“It’s about looking at the overlooked.” Selected works from both photographers’ representative series are showcased this time, giving a diversified presentation on the subjects and the audience a wider picture of British Expanded Documentary Photography.
Knorr’s signature “Belgravia” series shows the photographer’s light-hearted irony and satire, with playful pairings of images and texts.
The series, taken from 1979 to 81, captures the high-class Belgravia neighborhood of well-educated people with international backgrounds. Starting from the subjects and place she was familiar with (her neighborhood, neighbors, friends and family) Knorr staged them with their complexity. One of the series shows a well-dressed lady sitting on sofa, and under the portrait reads the text:
“The first pronoun ‘I’ here could be me ... but it could also be her,” Knorr said.
All the captions were taken out of myriad conversations Knorr had with the subjects when working on the project.
“They are like keywords that bring you back to the images, and winking at you, saying that, ‘this is poking gentle fun at them as well.’”
Fox, who was studying photography at the West Surrey College of Art and Design in Farnham at that time and a student of Knorr, was strongly influenced by Knorr’s distinctive play of images and texts, and developed her very own explicit approach.
Fox’s two series “Basingstoke” and “Work Stations,” both exhibited at SCOP, highlight the working class and ordinary everyday life in the UK.
Commissioned by Camerawork Studio and the London Museum, the “Work Stations” series depicts the office life of the late 1980s London workers.
Under the reign of Margaret Thatcher’s government, the Britain at that time saw high unemployment and yet a pursuit of individual fortune. Through Fox’s lens, the fiercely competitive office life unfolds, along with the long-time gender stereotypes in that the females are subordinated to the positions like secretaries and other social disciplines and rituals.
“When I was making a work, it was in the middle of this time, so you don’t always know the significance of it,” Fox noted. “But I was trying to make a point about the nature of the blooming consuming society that had conservative values.”
Offices, homes and leisure has long been the topics she’s interested in. In the “Basingstoke” series, she discloses how the promising satellite town of London failed to provide the moved-out people a “so-called better life.”
One of the five selected photos of the series on display features a Christmas labelled as “genuine” in the place where there usually were plastic ones. In the caption she uses a quote from the newspaper about the town trying to sell itself.
“I was making an ironic comment about the idea of selling yourself on something genuine, that this artificial genuineness has become a prize,” she explained.
Other works on display include Fox’s “Resort” series on the theatrical nature of the leisure industry, especially the holiday maker company Butlins.
And Knorr continues to construct scenes in her recent works “Fables” and “India Song,” but this time, blurring the reality with illusions by bringing images of animals into landmark architectures across France and India.
The exhibition wraps up on November 18 so don’t miss out on being enlightened by creative story telling.
1 1. One of Karen Knorr’s “Belgravia” series