What to see at Format, Britain’s biggest photography festival

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Format Festival, the Derby-based photography festival, returns this week with a special theme of ‘Evidence’, taking its cue from the legendary series of the same name by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel.

The main exhibition, which takes place at Derby’s Quad arts centre and is co-curated by Format Festival’s artistic director Louise Clements and independent curator and photo editor Lars Willumeit, is a contemporary take on the series and its associated book, Beyond Evidence – An Incomplete Narrative of Photographic Truths. Sultan and Mandel began the projects as young men fresh out of graduate school; gaining access to the picture archives at a California NASA office, they selected and recontextualised archive images from public and private American institutions, agencies and companies, creating a work that seemed to express American frontier mentality in the space race era.


Format’s exhibition includes work from the 1977 project and adds images by Natasha Caruana, Edmund Clark and Cristina de Middel, to “explore the relationship between image and knowledge, reminding us that not only does the camera test our ability to trust but also provokes us to ask how we determine beyond a reasonable doubt, what is true”, according to the festival release. Mandel will also give a talk at the opening weekend (Sultan passed away in 2009).

Format’s opening weekend starts on Thursday 12 March, boasting a busy programme of debut work, portfolio reviews and talks, as well as a photo book market. The exhibitions will stay open until April 12. Established in Derby in 2004, the biennial festival is now firmly established as one of the UK’s leading photographic events, and this year includes work by over 200 artists, in exhibitions divided between Focus shows (by invited artists and curators) and Exposure shows (selected from the festival Open Call).

Three exhibitions at Derby’s Art Gallery and Museum will examine the role of the archival documen: Renhui Zhao’s pseudo-scientificstudy, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World; Nick Sargeant’s take on family photographs, The Album; and Sarah Pickering’s reworking of the Met Police investigation of forger Shaun Greenhalgh, Art and Antiquities.

Photography critic Sue Steward is curating an exhibition of Derby Police Museum’s archive of mug shots and crime scenes, while Anusha Yadav from the Indian Memory Project will show visual evidence from Indian criminal investigations at Pickford’s House Museum. Nicolo Degiogis will show work from his award-winning book Hidden Islam, while Paul Lowe, Lewis Bush and Monica Alcazar-Duarte have curated an exhibition called Media & Myth – Mass Media and the Vietnam War.

The Open Submissions Call attracted over 1000 entries from more than 50 countries this year, from which 76 series were selected by an international jury including collector WM Hunt; curator and art director Erik Kessels; Chinese Photography Magazine editor Wang Baoguo; Fabrica head of photography and Colors Magazine editor Enrico Bossani; and director of Y&G Art, Seoul Photo Festival, Joanne Junga Yang.

The exhibitions include shows by internationally established artists such as Simon Norfolk, Lisa Barnard and Chris Shaw, who are showing work from Afghanistan, about drones and the Wirral respectively. Underrated Irish artist Sean Hillen will show a series of collages titled Searching for Evidence, while emerging artists including Peter Watkins, Jana Romanova and Jack Carvosso will also exhibit work.

The 2015 festival will also embrace interactive technology, with The Mobile Photography Network staging a mass participation project via Instagram, the Focus site telling stories via text, sound and images, and the Evidence App bringing a game-playing element to the festival by allowing visitors to collect clues as they work their way round. In addition, Quad will host a conference on 10 April, taking the theme Evidence as a starting point but also considering topics such as authenticity, evidence, photojournalism and politics.

“Selecting a theme is one of the biggest challenges I have as artistic director,” Clements told BJP. “It is important to find an idea that fits in with the contemporary zeitgeist and is wide enough for artists and visitors to engage with but not so broad it loses its direction. I had been thinking about Evidence as a theme for a long time, inspired by early forensic photography and of course the seminal book Evidence by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan. Once Format13: Factory had been wrapped up I researched in depth and it became clear ‘Evidence’ had great potential and relevance. I have been thrilled by the response we are getting, and in particular the really high quality of international entries we had to our Open Call.”

“I have worked in the photographic business for many years and one of the things I like about the Format is its ambition to bring the excitement and buzz of Rencontres D’Arles to a British festival,” adds Bridget Coaker, KTKT. “Format is truly international and much of what is exhibited has never been seen in the UK before, making the trip to Derby all the more worthwhile.”

More information here.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy