FINALLY THE NOORDERLICHT INTERNATIONAL FOTOFESTIVAL

TAXED TO THE MAX was the title of this year’s iteration of the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival. The rather jaunty subtitle being: “ . . . at least you are not afraid to live life on the brink of chaos“.

And that, in my opinion, is the best kind of subtitle. Cryptic with multiple meanings. Make of it what you will.

I couldn’t see it all. Too many events, too much socializing, not enough time. But the breadth of subject matter, and the photographers’ approach to that matter, was breathtaking.

Below you will see a bit of what I saw. This is not a “best of” list, merely some of what I noted . . .

The idea behind the festival was pointed enough: “The 26th edition of the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival examines the social tensions that international mega corporations create with their enormous accumulation of capital and influence on national and global politics. How does this affect the lives of ordinary people?

Good question.

The festival provided some answers . . .

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The traditional way of living of the Khanty, an indigenous nomadic people in Western Siberia, is severely threatened by the pollution of the oil and gas industry. Igor Tereshkov documents this and then processes his film with leaked oil from the region. You can feel it.

Installation view and 3 images from Oil and Moss. ©Igor Tereshkov

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With Overflow, Martin Leuvrey addresses the visual aspects of hyper capitalism and its self destructive plethora of technology and artifacts. The images were shot in urban places of transit, special economic zones, etc.

Installation views and 2 images from Overflow. ©Martin Leuvrey

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Embroidered bankers. In an effort to break the hyper constructed image of the financial world Lana Mesic interviewed London bankers and translated snapshots of them into embroidered portraits.

Installation view and 2 images from Souls, Ties and a Pile of Carrots. ©Lana Mesic

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Keijiro Kai records testosterone-fuelled festivals around the world. Here we see ritual fistfights in Bolivia and a Japanese fire-starter festival.

Installation views. Kaijiro Kai.

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In Agreement, by Brigitte de Langen, shows the original, signed, final versions of a selection of trade agreements that the EU closed with other parties. Looking at the covers you can see some of the text and signatures inside, but you have to imagine what is contained within. Except there’s also an audio component with parts of the agreements, read out in different languages. Nevertheless . . . the words are almost incomprehensible to the average person.

Installation views and 2 images from In Agreement. ©Brigitte da Langen

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Cryptocurrency is immaterial in itself but needs powerful material infrastructure to exist. With The Flood, Ivar Veermäe investigates crypto-money and its mining and energy needs using documentary images and simulated 3D objects on video.

Installation views and video stills from The Flood. Ivar Veermäe

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Then I bumped into David Klammer (who, smart guy, had brought his bike with him from Cologne). We made our way to Fotogalerie Lichtzone, a cool photographer-run cooperative space in Groningen, to see his exhibition.

There were huge images stuck to the wall, surrounded by some of the battlements and debris from the site where he shot these images, which showed aspects of the lives of the occupants of Hambach Forest, west of Cologne. Since 2012 the forest has been occupied by anarchists and forest-savers who are trying to protect it from the energy company RWE, which wants to expand their open-pit operation into the forest.

Completely tired I made my way back to the hotel for a lay-down. The next morning I would leave for Amsterdam and Den Haag.

Next week I’ll have a bit about my trip to The Royal Academy of Art and some final thoughts on the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival.

(Need more Noorderlicht info? Just scroll down and keep reading.)

GETTING TO NOORDERLICHT FOTOFESTIVAL

In which I make my way to the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival . . .
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Ottawa to Amsterdam by plane. Leave Thursday afternoon, arrive Friday morning. Six hour time difference. They’re ahead.

Airplane, Amsterdam

Amsterdam to Groningen by train.

Dutch countryside

Arrive Groningen.

Groningen Station

Walk through drizzle to the Noorderlicht offices where I meet Regina Broersma, who cooly and calmly coordinates the festival. She wrangles a million little and large details, makes the whole thing smooooth.

Regina

She takes me down the road and up a flight of steep Dutch stairs to the hotel they have arranged for me. A modest place where 8 or 10 other Noorderlicht exhibitors will be staying. I smile. It’s my kind of place.

My room
The view from the roof

Won’t sleep. Walk around Groningen, get a feel. It’s still Friday.

Friday night, thirty six hours without sleep. I crash. Twelve hours later, eight Saturday morning, I get up and bump into David Klammer, who has work in the festival. A funny, enthusiastic guy. He’s here with his friend, Herbert Wiggerman. We go for breakfast. I’ll end up spending a lot of time with these two. Big, eccentric fun.

David Klammer at breakfast

Back at the hotel David and I trade books. His, FORST, shows the time he has spent in a forest outside Hamburg. A mining company wants to clear those trees so they can dig more. Anarchists and forest-savers are occupying the forest. Putting up a fight. David hangs with them, photographs.

David showing Herbert the dummy of his book. Below, a small version of FORST.

All that took a while. Lunch and then a walk to De Zwarte Doos where my work was hung.

I had sent files of the 27 images in the show. The folks at Noorderlicht would print, frame and hang the work. A scary prospect because you’re never sure how that’s all going to turn out. I enter the building with some trepidation. Please let it look good.

As soon as I saw it I relaxed. No, that’s not exactly right . . . I didn’t relax, I became excited by how great the prints looked and how wonderfully the work had been hung.

I looked at my wall of pictures and couldn’t figure out how they had done it. Each image a block in a puzzle that, somehow, meshed perfectly.

The Dutch are masters of exhibition design and that inventiveness and attention to detail was apparent at all the exhibitions at the festival.

Here are a couple of examples: Photographs by (top) Marvin Leuvrey, at the Oude Conservatorium and (bottom) Daniël Siegersma, at the Noorderlicht Gallery.

And speaking of design, have a look at the catalogue. The folks at Noorderlicht wanted to make it affordable (in keeping with the theme of the festival this year). Foldable/pocketable newsprint for €5 (less than $7.50). Lots of photos, lots of writing. Context.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get to the opening.

Some drinks at the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival opening

On second thought, I’ll end this here. This is already too much information. You have other stuff to do, right?

Tune in next week when I’ll finally have a look at some of the work exhibited at Noorderlicht . . .

OTTAWA NOTES

CHRISTINE FITZGERALD AT STUDIO SIXTY SIX

Christine Fitzgerald has been photographing at-risk/threatened species for a while now. Her commitment to this is hard to ignore.

Captive, her new work on display at Studio Sixty Six, shows us parrots.

Installation shot: CAPTIVE, Christine Fitzgerald at Studio Sixty Six

Parrots are trafficked. Sometimes someone “needs” a parrot and, like a good consumer, they buy one. After a while the thrill is gone so they resell the bird or let it “escape”. As well, like any animals “owned” by humans, a certain amount of abuse and neglect occurs. The lucky (if that’s even the right word) parrots are rescued and rehabilitated. These are the birds that we see here.

The images are shot with a digital camera and then transformed through a number of complicated and labour intensive historical techniques involving glass plates and exotic chemicals and pigments. This results in very beautiful prints. But here the sentimentality, heroic scale and overwrought qualities that infused much of Fitzgerald’s earlier work has been dialed back.

Hyacinth McCaw ©Christine Fitzgerald

What we see are images that, while romantic, also have a slightly forensic feel. As well, the modest scale of the prints lends them a feeling of intimacy which suits the subject matter. These tweaks to her approach make the images in Captive Fitzgerald’s best photographs yet.

With work like this, though, it’s difficult to know where to draw the line between the commodification of a commodity (precious prints of trafficked parrots) and the photographer’s deeper agenda.

At any rate, these images have me thinking and talking about parrots. I suggest you go have a look and draw your own conclusions.

Cacuta moluccensis ©Christine Fitzgerald

UNPACKING THE BLACK BOX

Next week drool. will bring you a full report from the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival . . .

This week, though, it’s all about the anatomy of the exhibition at De Zwarte Doos. This was one of eight locations scattered throughout Groningen that mounted exhibitions for this iteration of the festival.

Invitation, front and back

The folks who run the festival, I’m pleased to report, are a smart, caring, together, totally professional bunch. A joy to work with.

As well, the fact that they traditionally pick political themes draws me to them. I’m so tired of the decorative, lyrical approach to photography that just caters to the bread and circuses aspect of this modern life, in these unsettled times.

Anyway . . .

De Zwarte Doos

As I was saying . . . Noorderlicht (translation: Northern Lights) happens in various venues throughout Groningen. De Zwarte Doos (translation: The Black Box, which is what the locals call this building) is where my work is being shown, along with photographs by (in alphabetical order) Michele Borzoni (Italy), Alan Gignoux (UK), Sergey Novikov & Max Sher (Russia), and Martin Toft (Denmark)

Martin Toft taking the photo below . . .

De Zwarte Doos is a recently vacated government Social Services building, and most of the photographs hung here are enhanced by that association. (Not to mention the fact that the theme at Noorderlicht this year is Late Capitalism and the effects of neoliberalism.)


Michele Borzoni‘s photographs are shown to great effect in the tiny rooms that had been used to conduct one-on-one interviews with social assistance seekers when the building was being used for that. This placement of these images is just so fitting.

Open Competitive Examinations portrays the bureaucratic procedure aspiring police officers, nurses and teachers must undergo to have a chance at a job. Workers Buyouts shows group portraits of employees who had taken over their companies when the original owners of those companies were threatening to shut them down.


My work, on the main wall, is from After the Fact, which imagines some possible future. Here’s an excerpt from the statement I sent to Noorderlicht:

The Earth is changing, our societies are too. These changes are causing upheavals planet-wide. The rich don’t need to worry though, the constant crisis provides opportunity for them. They have the resources to construct their own realities and safe havens. The rest of the world is becoming, for them, redundant.

After the Fact imagines what life in the First World might look and feel like for those who have been deemed, in these changing times, surplus to requirements. 


From the UK, Alan Gignoux traveled to the oil sands in Northern Alberta. There, mostly from a helicopter, he photographed that blight on the landscape.

Attached to many of these aerial photos are smaller images that show aspects of life on the ground . . . farmers, monster houses, churches and the like.


Sergey Novikov & Max Sher are exhibiting large panels of photographs with text. This work visualizes the ideas, techniques, tactics and narratives the ruling powers in Russia use to exercise their power.


Finally, Martin Toft, originally from Denmark but now living in the Channel Island of Jersey, uses that proximity to probe aspects of that island’s transformation into one of the world’s leading offshore International Finance Centres (read: tax haven).

The images shown here are but one aspect of a long, deep investigation Martin has been conducting that tells the story of Jersey’s contemporary prosperity.

The five projects in The Black Box consider various aspects of the times in which we live, and the show is stronger because of that. It’s so great to be involved in an endeavour that features and contextualizes photography that’s about more, really, than just what’s in front of the lens.

The festival runs until December 1st. If you find yourself within striking distance of Groningen you should go have a look.

The Noorderlicht venues in Groningen

NOT A RANDOM KIND OF GUY

Let’s start with the continuing saga of me and my camera. If that bores you, well, there’s also a thing about the Dave Heath show at the Nat’l Gallery of Canada and an excerpt from the Jonathan Blaustein review of After the Fact.

So . . .

PRELIMINARY CONCLUSION

The X100F is a perfect tool for snap-shooting, carrying everywhere, making random notes. And that’s how I thought I might use it.

But after a few weeks of doing that I’ve come to a preliminary conclusion. And that’s that I’m not a random kind of guy.

Hold on, maybe I am a random kind of guy, but only in life. When it comes to photo projects I need some kind of hook to hang on.

Of course we all need some kind of hook, even if it’s just I’m-going-to-photograph-random-street-scenes. Or I-shoot-birds. Or yes-portraits-that’s-what-I’m-interested-in.

At the outset of this new project I set out just to see and react, and to bring the results of that seeing and reacting home so I could look at it, think about what I’d done. Then, as often happens, I saw one image and something in my brain went ping! An association was made, some synaptic path opened up and I saw a way forward. Focus was found, or at least intimated.

This is the photo that set it off. I don’t really like this image, will probably never use it.

It did, however, serve a purpose . . . it fixed a word in my brain, one word. And that word, which I am not yet ready to say out loud, has given me direction. Like a sign.

When all this was going through my head I bumped into this description of the process behind Brian David Stevens book: Doggerland. It was timely for me and seems to hit the nail on the head, about how I will pursue this thing I’m doing now . . .

“. . . found images, but images all looked-for : sought, perceived even a little in advance . . .”

The beauty of the camera I’m using is that it facilitates that mode of working. I’ve been enjoying carrying the thing around, and now I have a better idea of what I’m looking for.

OTTAWA NOTES

The Dave Heath exhibition, Multitude, Solitude, at the National Gallery of Canada is a must-see. A slightly overlarge view of much of the work he did in Korea and, famously, New York City in the ’50’s and ’60’s. Plus recent colour work, book maquettes and a bit of miscellanea.

Perhaps a little too sentimental in places for my tastes, but there is no denying the power and (specific) universality of these renderings. And, having known the man, it must be said . . . the work is true to his sensibilities, vision and outlook. These photographs are impossible not to look at closely, and that looking will affect you. What more can you ask for?

The NGC link here will take you to a place where you can read all about it.

Anyone who wants to take a deep dive into Dave Heath should check out this video made by Michael Schreier: Dave Heath, In Concert With The Silent Witness.

A REVIEW OF AFTER THE FACT

A while ago Jonathan Blaustein, over at aPhotoEditor, reviewed my book: After the Fact.

I have to say, he really got it, not only what it was about, but also the cyclical form of the sequence. Here’s the main bit of his review.

And, by the way, there are still 20 copies left. Go here to see the sequence, and here to buy a copy. Support independent publishing.

The cover is a dream-scape in silhouette of black on blue, with ravens and a tree and the sky.

This will be a repeating motif within, birds, and while I was OK with it, maybe it did seem a bit obvious.

Open it up, and there’s a globe. The North Atlantic Sea is prominent, and I think it’s a pretty damn smart way to ground the story.

Then, a disaffected portrait of a tall guy crammed under a short ceiling.

Then bleak, cold, yet undeniably beautiful landscapes of what I take to be Canada in Winter.

We start with a smart quote by Bertolt Brecht about singing in the face of darkness, which I took to mean that we need to make our art, to speak our peace, to sing our songs, in particular when we think things are going to shit.

(And of course many people regard our current situation as a particularly dangerous one, relative to the Post World War II era.)

Then, some redacted text, and then a slew of excellent images.

Like I said, the bird theme is a bit on-the-nose for me, and I normally don’t use that expression. But I’d also like to ask that people stop including pictures of trash on the street or sidewalk. (We had them in last week’s book too.)

What do you say, folks?
A moratorium on garbage in the street pictures?

But other than that, the photography is spot on.

The portrait of the dog in the muzzle?
Amazing.

The yellow brick road, the policeman’s gun, the bloody bed, the sad portraits, the public places, it all adds up to a feeling of dread and impending doom.

Impending doom is the same as maybe-not-yet arrived doom. You can feel it coming, but is there still time to affect the outcome? To hope? 

There’s a guy in camouflage unfurling a wire of some sort. Mennonite women, a power-company worker at night, more sad portraits, dead-people feet, power washing a building, and then that little girl looking right at you, from the side, like a young-21st-century-Mona-Lisa.

Towards the end, the book’s title page, “After the Fact.”

Then, another quote, this time from Martin Heidegger, “The possible ranks higher than the actual.”

Idealism before realism, I suppose?

Next, another portrait of a guy looking away, (behind the hoodie,) the birds, and a cold Canadian landscape.

A last credits page, which quotes Joe Strummer, “The future is unwritten,” and states, unequivocally, “This book is a work of fiction. The real people, places and incidents portrayed are used fictitiously.”

The end.

Is it, though?

If you open it in the back, and start here, doesn’t the book make just as much sense?

You get opening quotes for context, and you’re explicitly told to see this as a work of visual fiction.

It opens similarly, motif wise, (birds/landscape/dude portrait,) and this way, it includes the title page in the beginning, where it would normally be.

Plus, it’s just so easy to flip-it back to front, given its design.

There are narrative waves and repeating motifs that work just as well this way, and even better, you can reverse direction whenever you want.

It’s a good reminder, perhaps, that we not get too rigid in our thinking. That books should be made this way. Or that.

NOVEMBER (SNOW)

Yesterday it snowed.

Overnight the dismal, forlorn fields and forests I was using as the landscape that would represent November have turned into picturesque, crystal fairytales.

During this project I’ve been wondering what kind of weather to use. I wanted it to be, well . . . atmospheric, but not melodramatic. I love how the dreariness of the brown land on a grey day seems like a harbinger of tough times.

(Of course, there’s nothing you can do about the weather. In my day-to-day life I rarely complain about it. What’s the point?)

As a photographer I get to choose what light and what weather will best suit my purposes. Typically I’m not a golden-hour photographer, I mostly prefer high-noon. I usually like everything lit and the content of my photos to be mediated by the thing in front of my camera rather than by some atypical, melodramatic atmospheric condition.

So I guess I’m more of a New Topographics guy than a proponent of the Todd Hido school (which, for me, seems like photographic hyperbole and melodrama enabled by too much Photoshop . . . akin to a velvet painting. Mind you, he is pretty darn famous and successful. And you can make of that what you will).

Anyway . . . I’m not completely wedded to shooting at high-noon and having everything I shoot look, well, clinical(ish). Parts of USER were shot at twilight and my most recent project, After the Fact, was shot in low light.

With my new project, November, I’m pretty much splitting the difference between clearly showing the thing I’m photographing and using typical November weather (grey, sleety, miserable) to facilitate some feeling.

But for this project the snow changed everything, it knocked me for a loop. Out today, looking, walking, thinking, framing, I was overwhelmed by the pristine prettiness of it all. But pristine, pretty and picturesque are not what I want.

We all take this World and mold it into some thing that represents our outlook. And photographers use a camera to manifest their viewpoint. So I’ll take what I’ve been given and warp it to my sensibilities. Snow or no snow.


AFTER THE FACT:: ANOTHER REVIEW

A very interesting review by Delaney Turner, where in he draws parallels between Official Ottawa and After the Fact.

While Official Ottawa specifically presented Canada’s capital city as the seat of federal power, After the Fact widens its viewpoint to powers we can neither see nor elect.”

You can read the review here. And buy the book here.

Makes a swell Xmas gift. Get one for someone you love (or just like).