New photography festival takes over Northeast England

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“We are interested in how photography can be received and accessed socially,” says Carol McKay, co-founder of The Social: Encountering Photography, a new festival in Sunderland and the Northeast of England that presents a month-long series of exhibitions and events in and around the region. “The idea was to present Sunderland as ‘a hub’ for photography, to bring the focus to the city. Part of the thinking behind it is the notion of encountering photography in gallery and non-gallery contexts so we have shown work in a wide range of venues across the region such as metro stations, advertising spaces, old historic buildings as well as galleries.”

Two years in the planning, The Social, programmed by McKay and Amanda Ritson of the North East Photography Network (NEPN) with Alistair Robinson, curator at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art (NGCA), grew out of the activities of the NEPN, which was founded in 2009 to provide a platform of opportunities and support for photographers and artists living and working in the region. Featuring both commissioned work and submissions received through an open call, The Social presents a varied programme of work by both established and lesser known names.


The festival’s core exhibition, You Are the Company in Which You Keep, shown across two sites – the NGCA and Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens – takes a “quasi-anthropological approach” to portraiture, particularly studio portraiture, says Robinson, addressing themes such as the relationship between individuals and their community, and the rituals humans encounter at key points in their lives. Featuring more than twenty artists and photographers, amongst the work on display is Natasha Caruana’s ongoing series Fairytale for Sale as well as Daniel Meadows’s 1972 series, The Shop on Greame St in which Meadows set up a free photographic studio in Manchester; Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring, Martin Parr’s Beauty Spot and work by John Stezaker also feature.

One of the biggest names on the bill is Simon Roberts, whose large scale, colour works commissioned for the festival document everyday life in Sunderland and are on display at various public and gallery sites across the city. “We were really interested in the idea of the social landscape,” says McKay. “The concept Simon developed was how a place can have multiple uses; [the images explore] how sites that used to be associated with heavy industry have become places of social or leisure activity; and there are plenty of those in and around Sunderland.”

Another important aspect of The Social is the notion of exploring the shifting role of photography in a digital age and its relationship to new media and the internet, say the organisers. The festival’s response to these issues comes through works such as a commissioned video piece, Recorded Amendments: The Carboniferous Epoch, by Stuart Whipps that explores how some British towns have become sites for unemployment or mass consumption, and a commissioned multimedia installation by former soldier Craig Ames, which explores the commodification of contemporary warfare.

Elsewhere, John Kippin’s installation featuring cutout photographs of ships in the windows of the National Glass Centre gives a nod to Sunderland’s shipping heritage, while Marjolaine Ryley’s series Growing up in the New Age recently published as a book explores 1960s and ’70s counterculture in south London.

Emerging talent is also well represented. Notable work submitted through the festival’s open call includes Glasgow-based photographer Daniele Sambo’s photographs of light installations in urban wastelands, Andy Martin’s portrait and landscape tintypes, Gillian Gilbert’s documentary series Walter, Michele Allen’s series Forgotten Fruit and Louise Taylor’s Shoot! which documents the shooting season in the Northeast.

“A large amount of the programming for The Social came through the open submission process,” says Ritson. “We had a really great response, and received both national and international submissions, so it was important to us that all the work shared the same platform. Consequently we have tried to integrate this work across the programme.”

Juliet Chenery-Robson's series, Portraits of a Postmodern Illness, on display outside Sunderland's Old Fire Station. Image by Gemma Padley

Juliet Chenery-Robson’s series, Portraits of a Postmodern Illness, on display outside Sunderland’s Old Fire Station. Image by Gemma Padley

Stand out work at the festival includes Sunderland-based photographer Juliet Chenery-Robson’s series Portraits of a Postmodern Illness beautifully displayed on the outside walls of the city’s Old Fire Station. Her portraits of ME sufferers, elegantly-lit and sensitively photographed, visually explore this sometimes misunderstood illness, and are a real highlight. Also worth seeking out is Arabella Plouviez’s portrait series Connected and Virus Portraits, displayed inside the city’s shopping centre and in its windows. The former series explores notions of identity and the nature of communication in an increasingly globalised and digitally connected world, while the latter takes collective anxieties, particularly global illnesses, as its central theme.

Netherlands-based photographer Ananda van der Pluijm’s series Martin documents her relationship with her half-brother, and also came through the open call. The evocative black and white portraits presented as a film strip in the grounds of the city’s university possess a compelling quietness and are a real treat.

Sarah Pickering's exhibition Aim and Fire at Durham Art Gallery features a new series, Celestial Objects, commissioned for The Social. Image by Gemma Padley

Sarah Pickering’s exhibition Aim and Fire at Durham Art Gallery features a new series, Celestial Objects, commissioned for The Social. Image by Gemma Padley

Also worth a look is former Royal College of Art student Sarah Pickering’s exhibition Aim and Fire at Durham Art Gallery. Her first solo exhibition in the Northeast, the exhibition features a new body of work, Celestial Objects, commissioned by visual arts organisation Locus+ and the NEPN. A powerful body of work, the images depict the various stages of a revolver fired in complete darkness and lit only by the gunshot. Work from her earlier series, The Explosion, Incident and Fire Scene is also on show.

The Social also includes a group exhibition at the NewBridge Project Space in Newcastle, an artist-led exhibition space, studio complex and newly-opened bookshop, which is worth a visit in its own right.

A complementary programme of portfolio reviews, walking tours, talks and slide show events rounds off this ambitious programme.

The Social: Encountering Photography runs until 16 November 2013 at venues across Sunderland and the Northeast