Study Visit Format Photography Festival Derby

This study visit was on Saturday April 1st, there were eight of us including Andrew Conroy the OCA tutor leading the visit. As always, it was good to put faces to work and online posts and inspiring to feel part of a tangible group of students.

Format is a biennial festival that is headquartered at the Quad Arts Centre. It runs for a month and shows the work of over 200 artists at fifteen venues. We only took in a tiny fraction of the work and venues, though I was fortunate enough to be able to see more work in the afternoon after the visit ended. The theme is Habitat. I’m not documenting everything I saw, but some of the highlights.

Outside the Quad.

I had completely underestimated the scope of the visit; the web site didn’t give an accurate impression of the range of static displays.  Had I realised, I would have travelled much earlier on the Friday and taken a whole extra day to look around. I’d never been to a show with more than two venues before.

We started on the ground floor of the Quad, after coffee and introductions. The first work comprised two giant video screens by Lida Abdul. The left screen showed a very slow film, at some points you could barely detect movement. It panned out from a face to a man in a lake. He is dressed in black, wet, and holding a black flag. The right screen shows him walking, then swimming, out towards the distant mountains. There is minimal text, but it made me think of people wanting to be safe, of lost homes. It’s one of those pieces of work that will stay with me, although I’m not sure why. One of the other students commented that the film was two frames out which spoiled it for him; I didn’t notice.

Ester VonPlon’s work I had seen in the BJP. She photographed giant sheets that Swiss residents put over glaciers to try to stop them melting. I found this intriguing in the BJP and compelling as an actual exhibit. One of the sheets was there too, piled on the gallery floor. Her black and white landscapes make the glaciers, draped in white sheets, look like a mausoleum or a grand house with the furniture moth-balled to save it for the future or protect it from the present. Indeed, I have preserving and protecting in my notes. It’s very surreal. There was no wall text, and I think if I hadn’t already read about the work I might have struggled to engage as fully.

Sohab Hura’s The Song of Sparrows in a Hundred Days of Summer felt vast. In reality it was 28 landscape images mounted and framed in portrait frames. They were arranged in two long lines with some spaces. The images are taken in the hottest part of India and the dry and dusty colour palette shows this perfectly. It was the overarching theme of tenderness that stayed with me,  the idea that life there is very hard but it is life nonetheless. We see an outstretched open hand holding a hatching chick, hands stroking a child’s back, a family group with the mother gently blurred.

People Places and Things was the most mainstream and definitely the most accessible work I saw. It’s a collection of work from WW Winter’s photographic archive. The business goes back 150 years in Derby, 165 if you count the very first business. You can see from the extensive exhibition that the history of Derby is documented as much as the history of its population, the two are entwined.

My favourite image was one of a young rower. Taken in 1900, he is sleeveless and looking straight at the camera. The picture could have been taken 60 or 70 years later, there’s only the slightest of motion blur to give away its age by the long exposure. There was no photographer credited, the image below is reproduced from the catalogue I bought.  After the art work of the Quad this exhibition was definitely grounded in the every day, and the every day budget. This was one of the shows that moved away from the ubiquitous jpg and massive prints – we saw tiny gilded albums, postcards, big books and gilt-edged prints hung from metal wires.


In the afternoon I went to the Derby Cathedral to take the tour to see the two exhibits housed in the bell tower. The first one was a remake of a 1980s photobook by David Moore – Pictures from the real world – remade as miniature 3d models of the shoots, displayed in vitrines on plinths. A copy of the book was also available.


My first comment is that I don’t think the work gained anything from its relatively inaccessible location. My second is that I found it very engaging, I liked the idea of making 3D reconstructions from 2D prints, and especially including the photographer. The level of detail was stunning. I was reminded of the work of Clarisse d’Arcimoles, who build an entire set at the Photographers’ Gallery from a black and white photograph (see here. )

Up still more steps was an installation of rapidly changing space images set to an audio clip from the Disney movie “The Black Hole” (made by Rebecca Najdowski). Where it got interesting/chaotic was that the Cathedral bells rang every 15 minutes adding an extral layer of sound. One of the tour guides accidentally turned the power off rather than the lights and it was surreal that what had been a flashing installation with a beating pulse was suddenly vanished and silent and we were back, 189 steps up a bell tower.

To summarise, I kept wondering how different this festival would be were it held in London. I enjoyed the understatedness of it in Derby, and the financial accessibility (no entrance fees to the works I visited, save a £1 donation in the cathedral). I regret not travelling earlier and seeing more work – the Venue button didn’t work on the website so I had no idea how much there was to see. As it is, I don’t have the contextual frame work to fit everything I saw into… I need to wait and see how my brain processes this. I will put details of all the work I saw into my Evernote so that I can find them again, including several works seen but not documented here. Definitely a worthwhile trip, many thanks to everyone who attended, the OCA office for organising and Andrew for leading.



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