Belfast Photo Festival provides fertile ground for debate in a new programme titled ‘The Verge’

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With new commissions and new urgencies, Belfast Photo Festival is back with a bang for its latest edition, themed ‘The Verge’

Belfast Photo Festival has commissioned Alexandra Lethbridge, the winner of last year’s Spotlight Award, to create a new body of work for this year’s event. The immersive exhibition, on view at the Golden Thread Gallery, is titled An Object of Vision and draws the viewer into a conversation around the absence and presence of women within historical narratives, particularly within art history and material culture. 

Lethbridge’s distinctive and intuitive style of collage, which incorporates found archival material, is presented as a combination of large fabric hangings and dense wall-based work. Removing sections of photographs of classical busts, antique sculptures and idealised female forms, the artist fills the negative space with excerpts of texts, detailing accounts of discrimination against women and studies on trans experience and the menopause. 

The work deals with the specific issue of gender, honing in on the unjust exclusion of women and the objectification of the female form in the art history canon. In her expertly crafted collages, and sourcing of archival material, she reasserts power structures and challenges our reading of imagery, inviting the viewer to re-imagine an alternative narrative, tapping into a much more psychological realm. 

Also on view at the Golden Thread Gallery is ‘A Bigger Picture’, an important exhibition organized by the Northern Irish Art Network and the Belfast Photo Festival that invites visitors to view Northern Ireland through the underrepresented gaze of feminist and queer artists from alumni of the Belfast School of Art

Alexandra Lethbridge

Over at Belfast Exposed, Thomas Albdorf presents an exhibition that playfully enquires into the nature of photography and probes at our relationship to the idea of representation in the contemporary world. 

The artist uses familiar objects to create a series of staged sculptural assemblages. At first glance, the forms propose an enigmatic observation of the everyday. Stacks of cardboard boxes on a street corner and arrangements of watermelons on a table appear to defy gravity; a sheet of translucent material hung outdoors shimmers in the sunlight. The pristinely produced images imply a high level of intervention at the hand of the artist but we cannot be sure where the manipulation begins and ends. On the opposing wall of the gallery, the same images are repeated but this time we see the explicit signs of technical interference. In one image, a glitch on a screen dances across the surface of the photograph, disintegrating the subject. In another we view a staged scene but from a fractionally different angle which lifts the curtain on how the work was created.  Albdorf activates and disrupts the still life conceit in a visually spectacular way that reveals the endless mechanisms of representation. The effect is one of the uncanny and the exhibition invites us to revel in the fantasy and sheer potential of the photographic plane. 

Upstairs at Belfast Exposed the recent graduates from University of Ulster’s prestigious Photography MFA programme present the excellent group exhibition, ‘A Trace of Ownership’. 

©Thomas Albdorf

The Ulster Museum houses one of the most powerful exhibitions in this year’s festival, Against the Image: Photography. Media. Manipulation.  

The exhibition is rooted in a local context with the inclusion of several early works by Northern Irish artist Victor Sloan. Sloan’s works were pivotal in terms of artistic responses to the Troubles and were made by painting, marking and scoring directly onto photographic negatives of images of the conflict. The parades, riots, police checks and roadblocks that Sloan prolifically documented had become part of the fabric of his life. He often captured moments of waiting around, peripheral action, or his subjects at rest; contrasting with the types of images sought after by the influx of visiting photojournalists in the 70s and 80s. The raw energy and anxiety implied through the surface of his images reminds us of the physical toll the conflict had on those that lived through and witnessed it.

There is a charge in seeing Sloan’s work alongside the work of Tabitha Soren. There are aesthetic similarities in terms of the marks that cover the surface of Soren’s photographs, creating an almost painterly abstraction of the online press images that form the subjects of her work. However, the marks that are amplified in her images are the magnified fingerprints, smudges and smears on the surface of her hand held device from the constant scrolling and swiping of images. Seen together, the artists’ work illuminates the rapid changes in photographic technologies of the past 30 years and also our changing relationship to consuming images of conflict.

©Tabitha Soren

This exhibition also includes Alexandra Rose Howland’s large installation Leave and Let us Go, a five year project documenting the Mosul Road that connects Erbil and al Nuri Mosque in Iraq. The installation includes the artist’s photographs as well as those gleaned from strangers creating a nuanced web of interconnected relationships, experiences and emotions that go beyond mainstream coverage of the region. 

The final work in the exhibition is ‘Now You See Me Moria’, an ongoing project of a series of posters that have been made in collaboration with refugees documenting their life in the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, and designers. The project campaigns against the inhumane conditions of the camp and provides vital communication around a site that restricts photographic access. 

In addition to these central exhibitions, the Festival includes a variety of large outdoor group exhibitions, such as  Decade of Change in collaboration with the British Journal of Photography and 1854 Media at City Quays Gallery and a rich variety of works throughout the Botanic Gardens and the Queens University Campus. 

©Tommaso Rada
©Margaret Courtney-Clarke

Belfast Photo Festival 2022 is on until 22 June