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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

Bright Lights from the Dark Ages

Idler launch / New Economics Forum seminar

Written by Tom Russell

By definition, patient treatment Documentary Photography as an artistic genre attempts to capture truthful, web objective, accurate images which are undistorted by interpretation. They provide a record or ‘evidence’ of social and political situations with the aim of conveying information. According to film theorist Paul Rotha, “Documentary defines not subject or style, but approach. It justifies the use of every known technical artifice to gain its effect on the spectator.” While it may be best described as a mindset of the photographer, the purpose of this approach to photography greatly varies; from the straightforward need of recording, revealing or preserving, to more passion driven motives such as persuading or promoting, analyzing or interrogating.

Kiryl Smaliakou

With these understandings and interpretations of this interesting arts category in mind, I attended the preview of Wake: Newport’s Documentary Photography show at the Candid Arts Gallery and was pleasantly surprised to find such a range of response and method in the graduate’s work on display. I have picked out a handful of students that really stood out for me; not just for their technical ability or mastering of the medium, but for their rationales, their background stories and their enthusiasm for their chosen subjects.

Siobhan Canavan: The Remembrance of Things Past


Reminding us that ‘when our memories of people and places fade and blur, the photograph may be all that remains as a replacement’, Canavan used a once mass-produced but now retro-esque cheap ‘toy’ camera, the Holga (designed in 1982) to create these fanciful, eerie, dreamworld images. Using the Allt-yr-yn View Nature Reserve outside Newport as her backdrop, Canavan explored the nostalgic childhood recollection evoked by dusty forgotten family albums, carefully complemented by the format and presentation of her work.

Kiryl Smaliakou: Saturday Nights


From the beauty and wilderness of rural Wales, to the shock and awe of the happy-go-lucky capital, Cardiff. Smaliakou described her venture out into the city on a series of Saturday nights ‘more exciting than my dreams and more frightening than my nightmares’. Less out of focus, red eyed or unflattering than pictures drunkenly taken at arm’s length on your mate’s disposable camera from Boots, but just as brutally telling, insightful and honest, these photos taken on black and white film accurately depict the lifestyle and activities of a generation of young adults, and will provide beautiful if not cringe-inducing evidence of a capital’s sordid goings-on for decades to come.

Ivar Kvaal: Tethered To The Polestar


I was fascinated by this project, and Kvaal’s detailed written accompaniment to the photographic images provided a wealth of interesting background that without the images would have surely been understood in lesser depth.
The Samis, indigenous people of northern Scandinavia, have experienced mistreatment, hardship and struggle in preserving their heritage and culture. Kvaal cleverly highlights the anchor-like quality that the Polestar, an omnipresent night sky navigation point, has for the Sami people. In an atmosphere of lost identity and cultural oppression the Polestar serves as a shining reminder of their history and traditions.

Francis O’Riordan: Black Valley


Another photographer exploring political-geographical themes was O’Riordan, who singled out Ireland’s Black Valley in his project. Interested in human behaviour, technological advances and our growing dependence on modern amenities in a quest to live easier, more convenient lives, O’Riordan chose to capture the last community in mainland Ireland to have been connected to the national electrical grid, which happened as surprisingly late as 1979. Using night photography as a tool to underline how light represents our modern existence these photographs use the less is more principle and it works perfectly.

Piers Cunliffe


Examining what draws different people to climbing or mountaineering, whether for stress relief, for excitement, for payment or competition, Cunliffe portraits ordinary people who are linked, if by nothing else, by a pursuit of cliff faces and dizzy heights. The photographs are intended to provide a visual link to the everyday person and provide us with a clue as to why they climb.

Meg Rumbelow: Only Animal


This project focuses on specific species or breeds of animal that are currently being tested on in UK labs. The photographs have titles originating from the defining codes used by the Home Office when in correspondence with the laboratories. Rumbelow states her aim as being ‘to rekindle the relationship between viewer and animal, questioning the way in which we view animals today’. Animal testing is just one way in which humans have disconnected from the magical intuitive relationship they once had with nature, though she remains hopeful that her pictures can put us back in touch with the value and respect these creatures deserve from us.

Tobias Beach-Wyld: The Summer Isle Project


This project had me wondering whether the intent was a hopeful or a rueful reaction, as I experienced both in short succession. The documenting of a community that is amidst a substantial population shift, such as this isolated group of islanders in the harsh and dramatic Outer Hebrides, has been timed carefully to ensure enough remains of the ‘old way’ to give a fair impression of the way things were, and the remaining inhabitants who are witnessing their community transform to a settlement that Beach-Wyld calls ‘as homogenized as the rest of the United Kingdom. Immigration and integration are surely positive, forward-thinking and inevitable human phenomena, the images beautifully captured here seem full of imminent loss and awkward transition.

Hugo Feio Machado: Requiem to a dying planet


In Merzouga, a small settlement in the region of Er-rachidia on the Moroccan border with Algeria, a devastating lack of water dominates and dictates the landscape, and all life that surrounds it. Machado wanted to represent the beauty and colour that exists in these barren terrains despite the odds being set against them. He is also interested in the ecosystems that are maintained there and explains ‘the farming is of a sustainable nature, where plants need each other; but it is the hand of man that makes these plants a symbol for life’.

Corinne Flynn: A Case Of Clothing


If you’ve ever wondered what happens to unclaimed left luggage once the last passenger has left arrivals, Flynn can fill you in. After three months all the suitcases, backpacks and holdalls are auctioned off and the contents are reborn and re-worn in strangers’ wardrobes. This little-known discovery makes a fun and observant commentary on perceptions we have of the clothed body, our ties to our possessions, and the invention of certain narratives and identities for these belongings with unknown histories.

William Edward Head: Humane Errors. Vol.1


For me the bravest project and the one which haunted me the most after leaving the exhibition was Head’s photographs from Talgarth, a mental institution which was closed in 2000 after the best part of 100 years of housing patients. Each ward had its own selection of repeated wallpapers, perpetuating the uniformity and dividing nature of the institution. The prints may suggest a bright, cheery optimism but in truth they hide a terrifying reality of the treatment and segregation of some of the most vulnerable members of society. The inclusion of bird carcasses, the last living beings to inhabit Talgarth, are a macabre reminder of it’s dark history and they seek our empathy for the residences and furthermore the experience of all who were institutionalised during the 20th century in uncompromising conditions.

Wake: Exhibition of Newport’s Documentary Photography Graduates

Candid Arts Gallery
3 Torrens Street
London EC1V 1NQ

1st – 4th July
10am – 6pm

Free Entry

More information about each photographer mentioned and the others in the exhibition can be found here.
Black’s Club in Soho isn’t the fortress of hostile posh/cool superiority the words ‘private members’ summon up – that’s a prejudice entirely based on my watching London-based police drama, page no great (or terrible) personal experience. So, find last Wednesday, story sent skittling down the stairs (the front door has a friendly notice with instructions to that effect) to the quiet bar, then looking uncertain until I can ask someone about the Idler launch gathering, I’m in all quite reassured by the haphazard layout and sofas.

Here for the launch of the Idler magazine, which is to take the form of a discussion led by Andrew Simm of the trendily lower-case acronymic ‘nef’ (the New Economics Forum), I wander into a crush of journalistic conversation and gentle lute music : the Princes in the Tower are here to liven up any lull.

Illustrations by Krishna Malla

The gathering is all about throwing a few ideas in the air, taking inspiration from medieval ways of doing things, and breathing in the Idle way of doing things – taking the time that the crush of city living can easily squeeze out. Up top are guilds, co-operation, the idea of a just price (setting, say, a loaf of bread, at a certain immovable price), and explorations of interest, the basic stories we tell about money, and usury.

There is a generally very rosy medievalism, which can be traced back to John Ruskin and William Morris, big names of the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th century. Morris’s hero in ‘News from Nowhere’ wakes up to a future world of friendly anarchism, floaty dresses and carefully home-made everything before being plunged back into the ‘stinking vapour bath of discontented humanity’ as he realises he’s too rough for this future state of content. Perhaps this discussion will ground us in a slightly more hopeful reality.

Andrew Simm takes us back to the era that built the cathedrals and frowned on overwork – at least in the guild system, to spend too long working was seen as a way to put everyone else at an unfair disadvantage. Pat Connaughty whistle-stops a tour through everything guild-like in history. Peter Kropotkin (best beard in a strong 19th century field), known as the Anarchist Prince and hero of Oscar Wilde, wrote ‘Mutual Aid’, seeing much more solidarity than competition throughout human history, looking back to Rome where artisans were allowed to get together to bury people – the start of professional association – and to the Shreni Indian craft movement. In 1567, Queen Betty’s Law took power from the guilds, seizing land from the master craftsmen. This forbade trade associations and saw the rebirth of friendly societies, which eventually saw the building society and co-operative movements and the founding of labour exchanges.


David Boyle speculated on a Victorian curriculum-writing conspiracy – anyone remember doing 1066 over and again at school, never quite reaching back into the not-so-dark ages (and quite ignoring that most of the world wasn’t at all directly affected by the collapse of the Roman Empire, and so hadn’t even a nominal dark age) – nor getting on much in time to the twelth and thirteenth centuries when the people were pretty much as tall (and so, presumably, well-nourished) as we are today, when the universities got going, and the local economy was apparently quite thriving.

One idea worth hanging on to was that of ‘black money’ – tin coins circulated from the town or cathedral, which were only valid locally. You had to hand them in to be reminted every five years or so, and were given back proportionally less each time. Excellent encouragement to get them off your hands quickly, and this money moving about plenty was a great motivator for those local economies.


Ann Pettifor, director of Advocacy International and occasional writer for the Guardian, spoke briefly about her own experience with debt and ideas of usury. So the basic story people tell about money is this. I plant some tomato seeds, grow some tomatoes, eat some and take the rest to market. The money I get is a result of this production. This is quite an old-fashioned way of looking at it all : the old-style usurer has a commodity of money – a pile of gold in his lordly cellar, that a peasant can come along and ask for, to fund some tomato-seed-buying, to be paid back with (usurous) interest.

The ‘bank money’ story is the one that the directors of national banks will tell you. The bank will enter a number in a ledger – the amount loaned to buy tomato seeds – and this money comes into existence at that point. Money is then the stimulus for economic activity, not the result of it. The director of the United States Federal Reserve apparently recently said, when asked by an innocent journalist where the money for his multi-billion dollar stimulus was coming from, that he just entered a number in a computer. Ann says that this is great – greater government spending will eventually pay for itself. This is almost endlessly debatable, but worth having in mind.

The whole story of usury is a fascinating one – and long to trace with any decent detail, so I’ll spare you it (mostly) for now. Suffice to say that the Old Testament says you should lend money to your brothers without expecting any gain, but it’s basically ok to make money off strangers. Then Jesus comes along and says all men are brothers in the eyes of God, shifting the balance. Next big change is John Calvin in the seventeenth century, with his ideas of the ‘elite’ – an interpretation that apparently makes it ok to lend to absolutely anyone at a profit. Lewis Hyde has a great anthropological look at the whole thing in a chapter in his book, ‘The Gift’, if I’ve whet your appetite much.

Coming home, I felt nicely treated to a smorgasbord of intellectual fare, as well as the best goats cheese and sundried tomato quiche I’ve seen in a while – I steered a little clearer of the authentic ‘medieval’ turnips. Perhaps finally unsatisfying, though – so much seemed either intriguing one-issue policy or merely historical round-up, there was little real addressing of the way to get to agrarian harmony or utopian co-operation from this world we find at our feet.


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One Response to “Bright Lights from the Dark Ages”

  1. murty malla says:

    This is fantastico; What a wonderful graphics on illustrations..certainly top marks for it….Good luck

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