Liverpool International Photography Festival: Through the Looking Glass

“Photography is like a cracked mirror – it reflects us and distorts us at the same time,” says Patrick Henry, director of the Liverpool International Photography Festival, or LOOK/13, which this year takes as its theme the slightly confrontational question: ‘Who do you think you are?’ He continues: “It can be used positively to explore and experiment with self-image, or negatively to stereotype and categorise us.”

The biennial festival is only in its second instalment, having launched in 2011 as a response to a series of events initiated by Manchester-based photography network Redeye in 2007 (LOOK07). But the title of this year’s edition suggests it has already grown in confidence, with its titular question aimed squarely at the jugular of visitors, exhibitors and the city all at once.

To help answer its query, the festival is bringing a diverse selection of work to the city – some by late names we may not have encountered (August Sander, Weegee), and some by current big hitters (Rankin, Barbara Kruger). Within its programming, the festival attempts to place Liverpool within the history of photography (through the work of Merseyside photographer Keith Medley, and a compare/contrast exhibition bringing together Martin Parr and Tom Wood), and to blur the line between insiders looking out and outsiders looking in (an example being a new body of work by Kurt Tong – The Queen, The Chairman & I).

It seems as if almost every gallery in Liverpool is about to close its current exhibition to reopen for LightNight on 17 May, and the launch of LOOK – and the variety of venues involved – is testament to the medium’s chameleonic nature, as well as its enduring appeal. Central to the festival, of course, is Henry’s former home, Open Eye Gallery, which, since its opening in 1977, has earned itself a reputation for working with photographers that interest other photographers, without excluding the non-specialist audience. For LOOK/13 it maintains this balancing act by introducing us to Swedish artist Eva Stenram and French photographer Charles Fréger.

Stenram’s exhibition at Open Eye comprises suggestive images from her Drape series, in which women are obscured by – or almost become one with – their soft furnishings. There is a retro-pop quality to her images, not dissimilar to that of Richard Hamilton’s famous collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? – but with a feminist bite. They leave nothing for females to aspire to or men to gaze upon, apart from a hint of leg. By contrast, the ‘Wilder Men’ in Fréger’s portraits – part of his The Wild and The Wise exhibition – use disguise to, as he says, “allow them to cross the line between human and animal, real and spiritual, civilization and wilderness, death and rebirth.” On his travels, Fréger has found strikingly similar folk traditions all over Europe, leading him to observe that human behaviours might be more innate than we realise.

Elsewhere, for the duration of the festival the Bluecoat seems to be taking on the role of a national meeting point, co-producing an exhibition of early to mid-20th century portraiture and photojournalism by August Sander and Arthur ‘Weegee’ Fellig with Newcastle’s Side Gallery, and also hosting Brighton’s Miniclick, who are leading an afternoon of short talks, entitled Photo Pulse, which will bring together ten of the UK’s leading photographers to discuss the festival’s theme.

The festival is full of juxtapositions – not least of older and contemporary work. Within the Walker Art Gallery, the not too distant history of photography will be represented by Every Man and Woman is a Star, comprising the work of Martin Parr (who, Henry reminds me, “forged his signature style [in Liverpool] in the mid-80s”) and Tom ‘Photie Man’ Wood – while the ultra contemporary will be on display in new work by Rankin, whose stylised cross between fine art and fashion photography has earned him an international reputation. The ‘enfant terrible’ who co-founded Dazed & Confused magazine in the early 90s brings to the Walker a surprisingly tender and emotive series of portraits that, entitled ALIVE: In the Face of Death, examines mortality with unexpected results.

Understanding the importance of local talent as well as the work of artists with a national or international profile, in March LOOK issued a call for submissions responding to the brief ‘Made in Liverpool.’ Adam Lee, the project’s manager, suggests that interpretations of this theme could include references to “things like the docks and port, football, music, fashion, art and politics,” but that the images could also find a way to visualise Liverpool’s “humour and friendliness.” The difficult task of deciding which of the submitted images best and most creatively fulfil this brief falls to Liverpool Daily Post arts editor Laura Davis and photographer John Stoddart – and the works they select will be prominently presented as a giant slideshow during the festival’s opening event at Camp and Furnace.

Elsewhere, for his exhibition Processing – opening on 7 June under the banner of LOOK’s fringe, or ‘parallel programme’ – artist-curator Jack Welsh has taken the written critique of and response to artworks as his impetus. Having noticed a trend towards good quality critical writing in the Northwest, but feeling that it could go even further, Welsh says: “There is still much work to be done [to increase the] level of debate about art. It won’t be a quick fix. With Processing, I consider critical writing not just as a response but [also] as an intrinsic part of the overall artistic process.” For the exhibition, he has partnered three documentary photographers with three writers, but has given them an open brief: the only certainty is that what will result is an exhibition at The Cornerhouse Gallery, Hope University.

As might be expected, the big galleries (Tate, FACT, etc.) have strong offers linked to the festival – but it is in some of the smaller spaces that you will find the most intriguing exhibitions. At Liverpool John Moores University’s Exhibition Research Centre, Henry and Imogen Stidworthy are curating BLACKOUT, bringing together the work of four artists to ‘consider the relationship between viewer and (photographic) subject.’ At another, very different university gallery, the Victoria Gallery and Museum is presenting the work of Kurt Tong, a former health visitor in Liverpool who describes his work as a “quest to trace my own ancestral history… It incorporates new photos, found photos, found items and writing,” and “explores the story of Hong Kong of the last 100 years and the Asian Diaspora.”

With its new-found assertiveness, LOOK/13 seems to be galvanising an already extant passion for photography within the city – as well as a belief that there is still value to be had in the gallery encounter. As Stenram summarises: “The fact that I have made an effort to physically travel to a gallery space makes me take the time to consider the work more carefully, spend time with it and have a bodily interaction with the photograph as an object.” In so doing, who knows: you might even find out who you are.

First published in The Skinny North West, May issue

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