Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Educating Peter

When we heard that three Middlesex University Students had won place in the National Portrait Gallery as part of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition we wanted to know more. More than a decade ago photojournalist Peter Dench graduated with a first-class degree in photography but no idea how to make a living, so we sent him back to school to see how today's photography students are being prepared for the real world.

I am standing in the National Portrait Gallery looking at the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibits. 60 images selected from 6000 submitted by 2400 photographers. Perhaps more startling than the tumescent My British Wife is three of the entries are from students. Students of Middlesex University (MU). Last year they had two exhibitors. In the awards previous incarnations I had success in 1999, 2001 and 2003. The last seven years a cold slap in the face. MU are clearly doing something right and I want to know what. I give BA Photography Programme Leader David Simmonds a call and enrol for a day. It’s time for this snapper to go back to school, Educating Peter, the sequel.

Like any student before their first day I’m nervous. Will I fit in? What shall I wear? Jump on the tube to leafy Cockfosters and ponder the day ahead, a day talking with students. I suppress my inner Paul Calf and scan the Metro for research; Gillian McKeith is not pregnant, Morrisey’s been a naughty boy. I pause at the gates. It’s been 15 years since I walked out of University and I momentarily doubt my ability to return.

David strides forward, Royal College of Art Graduate and respected photographer in his own right. Thankfully he’s not wearing an elbow padded jacket and cravat. He introduces 26 year-old BA student, Asef Ali Mohammad. Asef was given a brief to produce a series of photographs that use ‘America’ as a starting point to the creative process. While others in his year took off to the studio flinging cream pies at the statue of liberty, Asef took off to Kabul. MU didn’t discourage him and advised he text his daily progress. Foreign communications often being what they are, they weren’t always received. While concerned, staff trusted Asef’s ability to complete the assignment safely. His resulting Photo Essay ‘Stories From Kabul’ is a series of colour portraits featuring ordinary Afghan people, Caterers, TV executives, Beauticians, The Police. It premiered as a 4m 45s multi media piece on the prestigious FOTO8 website. Subsequently US Newsweek published the reportage across four pages paying around $1600. I decide not to mention selling, as a student, a portrait of Sir Richard FitzHerbert Baronet, Squire of Tissington for £25 to Derbyshire Life & Countryside.

Asef is exceptional and may be the exception. I navigate the 30+ Macs in the digital suite looking for his antithesis. The Macs only have Photoshop installed. Social networking addicts must vacate. Over the shoulder of one student I spy images of a stunning model. I introduce myself to Rokas Darulis. The model is his girlfriend, who is a model, ranked among the top 50 models in the world. Lithuanian-born Darulis, who wouldn’t look out of place on the catwalk, graduated from MU in 2009 with a first. In a year working as a pro, commissions from Magazines Pravda (in Lithuania), Monika and Tank are casually referred to. Elite Model Agency and Svyturys Beer tick the commercial client box. Accolades already on the shelf include the AOP Open Awards and Taylor Wessing. Aha! one of the years MU inclusions. I flick through the brochure and find the entry Ernest and Ernest from his project; It doesn’t matter who you sleep with, a series of portraits of people of the same sex in bed together. A subtlety lit portrait portraying two of Darulis friends. I note ‘same sex relationships’ as a possible ingredient in the Taylor Wessing victory sauce.

I reflect on the projects from my University 'class of 95’. Roger photographed himself naked. Debra photographed herself nearly naked painted white. Sharon portrayed herself smoking a cigarette. Sarah chose a child’s plastic farmyard cow to document. Jane simply snapped the BBC Soap Eastenders playing on the TV. To be fair, Sarah went on to graduate from the RCA; Aperture has published a Monograph of her photographs. Debra is co-proprietor of a gallery in Brooklyn, New York. Perhaps the MU liberty statue pie flingers will end up chairing a World Photography Organisation while a Photojournalist like Asef will graft for recognition in a world of grant refusals and shrinking budgets. It’s a common tale.

Back at MU, Squiz, already a brand, (, shows striking work in progress from a self-funded 10 day fashion shoot in Japan. Estimated cost, a dedicated £2500. Tottenham resident Inzajeano Latif, a 31-year old mature student and graduate from the MA at MU, is also in attendance. Latif has already impressed picture editors finest Cheryl Newman with commissions for the Telegraph Magazine. Among other achievements, an Ian Parry Award Show Finalist, work featured in the FOTO8 Summer Show and D&AD Awards. The 2009 Taylor Wessing poster was Latif’s inclusion, Female Boxer Number 3. I scribble down, female boxers in bed together?

After being ejected from the digital suite a tour of further facilities follow. A historic smell permeates one room. Stepping in, through the amber gloom, over 30 traditional black and white enlargers morph to attention. David explains the importance of teaching the craft. He deplores the quick fix digital prints produced by students as if an afterthought. He encourages them to treat the process with the same develop, stop and fix precision you would an Ansel Adams landscape. David is constantly slowing people down. The frantic ‘shoot 1000’s of frames something must be good sort it out in Photoshop later attitude’ must stop.

It is not unrealistic to compare my experiences of 15 years ago. The principals of education remain the same. Equip a student with the necessary skills for a career in their chosen industry after education. I sped through my University doors with a First Class (Hons) Degree in Photographic Studies and headed for London. I would join Reuters (I’d seen a photograph I liked credited in a newspaper) and travel the world. The folio was lost in the Reuters system. Two years on the dole followed. I had no realistic concept of how to approach the industry. On reflection, my impressions are the lecturers were self-serving. Their own personal projects a priority. It is important for a tutor to have a profile outside of education but not at their students expense. Their efforts are still as bemusing now as they were then, Portraits of fish, found objects outside photographed inside, views on top and under a table. It was with a sense of the inevitable that our final year degree show was called Introspection. Academically the work of Jo Spence, Cindy Sherman and Nan Golding prevailed. It took me years just to remove the lens cap without feeling a misogynist. My dissertation on Dr Diamond and his use of photography in the treatment of female lunatics has not been useful.

It is with these concerns that I head to lunch with David. Over wine and calamari David explains how the course reflects the industry. Deadlines are non-negotiable, lateness an immediate markdown. Students are introduced into the industry as much as possible and Industry to the students. There is a healthy visiting lecture programme from retouchers and photographers to magazine editors and gallery curators. The only visiting lecture I remember was a philosopher who posed the question, ‘does green exist’? For two hours. It does. I seriously questioned if I wanted to. Internships and competition submissions at MU are compulsory. Assisting is encouraged. Tim Walkers’ assistant of five years, Alison Tanner, is on hand to advise. Rather than a ‘Jack of all trades’ approach to portfolios the strategy is to produce one substantial coherent body of work that the creator is passionate about. There is an open door policy from staff to students. The course is young and has already made a significant mark. David is realistic enough to suggest only 15% of graduates may go on to make a living taking photographs. Other employment opportunities within the industry are covered. Being a Technician is not considered a failure.

Back on Campus, David is keen for me to meet Steven Barritt (35) another MU MA graduate. I’m not so keen to meet Steven. The Taylor Wessing brochure introduces it’s protagonist as a product of the 'I photograph myself naked’ approach. Steven’s portrait The Solitude of Pygmalion from the series Analogous Mythography is based on the Greek myth of a sculptor who fell in love with his sculpture. Steven said: “I made a lot of effort putting on lots of weight and letting myself go, even resorting to not washing for weeks.” Essentially, a dirty Steven sits naked on an unmade bed surrounded by booze and with walls covered in posters and magazine articles on Britney Spears. I warm to him immediately. Steven wants to make enough money from photography to get out of London. He prefers the influence of Truro on his photography. His Anachronisms portrait series for his MA show are beautifully considered, meticulously planned 5x4 film portraits. It took him around nine months to shoot the first frame. That’s academics for you. Eight years discipline as a former computer programmer has left an imprint. Steve’s umbilical connection with MU has him lined up to interview for a teaching position.

All of the students I spoke with expect to hit the ground running as working pro photographers. They all have a print folio and eschew the argument for iPads. Cited influences are the ones that have shaped previous generations of snappers - August Sander, Bruce Davison, James Nachtwey, Walker Evans, Cecil Beaton. They speak fondly of their tutors and hope to retain a relationship with the University. We talk through the afternoon amicably as equals. Industry names are exchanged with familiarity. I even note down a few new ones. Social networking is understood and embraced. I consider myself a bit of a player ( 500+ Facebook friends!) and suggest they keep in touch. I leave them my card. There is nothing in the inbox when I get home, or the next day. I search them out. Squizhamilton has 4956 Facebook friends. I request to be his 4957th. Rokas Darulis 2365, most of them I assume beautiful. Inzajeano Latif, 1333. Steven Barritt, well at least he’s clothed in his profile photo.

Curious to find a few students not drafted in for my benefit and craving female company I peel off unescorted to the studio. It’s industrious and populated. A jewellery student sparkles on her back. Photo student Holly, fragrant clipped and sartorially crisp is setting up for a shoot, a series of portraits on red heads. A young man poses awkwardly on a stool. I make a note to remember his face, a potential Taylor Wessing 2011. Reminded of my pursuit of domination I show students the portrait prize brochures from the previous decade, pen poised to jot down the winning formula. Discussions suggest not much has changed. There was a bit more black and white. The dominating digital 35mm format has conquered the square but the content is constant; the ginger, puberty, teenage girls, nakedness, muff and combinations of all represented. Back at my studio, well The Villers Terrace in Crouch End, I re-assess my own successful entries, verdict - guilty: naked old man; a ginger woman on a urinating horse; two awkward looking children. Seems I’ve been entering content along the right lines all along. I have an idea for the next submission, pick up the phone and dial. “Hello, is that Anne Robinson?”

A version of this feature first appeared in the February 2011 issue of Professional Photographer Magazine

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Year Of Living Dangerously

An independent gallery located at the top of a period building in Cardiff is showcasing some of the most exciting contemporary photography in the UK. On its first birthday Peter Dench catches up with the owners of the Third Floor Gallery to discover if it really is tough at the top.

Maciej Dacowicz is not comfortable. He presses a splayed hand hard into his face and rubs. It’s not the disco ball lights peppering his face that is causing distress. It’s the questions. Maciej doesn’t like questions and doesn’t like to answer them; in fact he doesn’t like to talk much at all. We are at the Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff that he launched with Joni Karanka (Bartosz Nowicki joined some months later). Today is the gallery’s first year anniversary party. I ask Maciej (pronounced mach-ic) what he enjoys about running the TFG, he rubs harder, “Ask Joni.” I’d arrived a few hours earlier. Approaching the gallery Joni and Maciej had parked up outside with a car boot full of beer. It had taken them three hours to choose it checking for the best deals. “Give us a hand Peter,” no one is beyond being asked to help and we take turns to deliver the crates up the 60 stairs past an Indian Dance Class and Taxi Rank to the top-floor premises.

On the 22nd December 2009 I received an email from Joni that said; ‘Dear Peter, I wander if you’d be interested in exhibiting LoveUK in Cardiff. Maciej Dakowicz and I are opening a small photography gallery in February, and we wanted something with a bit of a nice bang to open up. Any reply is good for me, ranging from interest to rejection with alternative suggestions J.’ Feeling festive I answered in the affirmative. A call from the considered and unassuming Joni followed and the details required softly spoken through a Finnish, Spanish hybrid accent. The gallery and exhibition opened on the 12th February 2010 to a warm welcome from the Cardiff media and community. Located in the Bay area of Cardiff a short bus ride from the centre, TFG sits comfortably opposite the Millennium Centre and developing Mermaid Quay. A sandwich board at the door of the period building, padlocked to the railings quietly introduces the venue.

One year on I am back visiting the gallery to find out how the first year has progressed for the team and what is involved in running a successful exhibition space. A theme quickly dominates, moneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoney. No one has any and how to get it is a constant time consumer. Joni heads down to Iceland to get some nibbles for the evening bash. The budget is £7-8 but he splurges. 75 piece Tex Max Platter, £4. 36; Chocolate Strawberries, £2; 14 Filo Wrapped Prawns, £2; Blackforest Gateau, £3. I throw in some crisps and buy a couple of pasties to keep us going. TFG has achieved charitable status but the benefits are yet to be realised. Around £700 a month comes from donations, any shortfall is made up from the pockets of each proprietor. There is an Amazon well wishers list that to date has provided an A4 Multifunction Mono Laser Printer, TV, professional trimmer, pair of scissors, tape dispenser, screwdriver set and some white tack (the sandwich board was a wish list gift). In the initial business plan, it was hoped the rent would largely be funded by print sales from each exhibition. Collective sales so far fall short of double figures, this is surprising, since the LoveUK launch the list of exhibitors have been impressive including David Solomons, Jocelyn Bain Hogg, Carolyn Drake, and Magnum royalty David Hurn and Chris Steele-Perkins.

To exhibit, the photographer is approached and direct submissions discouraged. The three gallerists chat informally, usually in the £2-a-pint Captain Scott pub nearby about what work they want to see and what photographers they would like to work with. Volunteers lubricate the gallery, a central pool of around a dozen help with the day-to-day running. This allows Joni, Maciej and Bartosz to concentrate on off-site matters. The volunteers call ponytailed Joni ‘The Thinker’ for his Zen like presence and Maciej ‘The Director,’ because of his matter of fact way of explaining how and when things should be done. There is no nickname for the open faced Bartosz, ‘The Smiler’ wouldn’t be inappropriate. Each team member has no specific role. Tasks are taken as and when by who has the time or most suitable allegiance. Joni and Bartosz are perhaps better with the PR and communication side of it. Maciej with the details, or as he would describe it, “Dealing with the shit.”

Thirty-five people visited the exhibition on the first anniversary day, taking the estimated annual number to over 4000. 50+ guests are jostling for position in the 60ft Sq gallery space tonight. It’s an open-door policy, invites were sent via social networks and word of mouth. The crowd is eclectic with Poland heavily represented courtesy of Maciej and Bartosz. The mood is friendly and familiar. Also well represented is the University of Wales, Newport. Students from the prestigious Documentary Photography – BA (HONS) course gobble beer and peer at the pinned Laura Pannack prints. The University is very important to TFG. It’s proximity, as well as providing a ready and willing rotation of visitors print some of the exhibitions in return for having their name on the fliers and in the gallery space. Photographers often consult the course leader at Newport, Ken Grant, for his opinion before deciding to exhibit at the gallery.

Joni, Bartosz and Maciej are all keen and productive photographers as well as appreciators of photography. However, Joni is on hiatus from taking his own photographs, too busy with his paid day job and the gallery. Bartosz, a recent graduate from Newport is quickly finding his voice. Maciej has already pinched the industries consciousness with his pictures and has his 5000 or so Flickr followers anticipating each update. Cardiff After Dark, his burgeoning project on the city’s nightlife is where he thrives. Five images over four pages from the project were included in the Street Photography Now book and the work helped him to achieve an honourable mention in the reportage competition for National Geographic Polska magazine for Polish National Geographic. His work has appeared in many national and international publications, The Guardian, Independent, American Photo and Der Spiegel among them.

I have walked with Maciej along St Mary Street where the bulk of his project is shot. The spectacle of the street has held his attention since the Pole moved to Wales from Hong Kong in 2004. I’ve seen my fair share of Britain’s bad behaviour and St Mary Street is top ten. A nightly production penned by the devil himself, choreographed girls shiver, totter and titter through the litter warmed only by the click flick of cigarette lighters - the Police and the bloodied never far away. On this occasion Maciej was fidgety in his skin. He admits to a lull in creative libido, researching too many pictures on the Internet to be interested in taking them. I’m sure it will pass. He usually shoots in tandem with another snapper for safety, each watching the others back, the imbibing stars of Cardiff After Dark haven’t relished the attention (although the council did deliver a yellow skip to the street to help with the mess after seeing some of the work). Certain bars are out of bounds, the security recognises him, his name is down and he’s not coming in. I left Maciej at 3am; he stuck around for a while, just in case.

In The Claude Hotel over lunch the following day I asked him how his night went. Clicking through the results I spot some keepers. What Maciej enjoys about photographing he won’t say. What inspires him to take photographs he doesn’t quite know. What’s the best thing about running a gallery? It’s difficult to explain. Is he happy with his situation? Stopping on a frame of a couple kissing in the rain under a black leather jacket, I would suggest that for 1/200th of a second each night spent on the street in Cardiff - he is.

At a recently attended private view in the West End of London, the glass-fronted and lighthouse bright interior felt intimidating, the thousand pound prints inhibiting and the bar staff prickly on repeat returns to refill. There wasn’t a Tex Mex Platter in sight. Bounding up to the Third floor Gallery you know you’ll be welcome, to have a drink and a chat or just to look through the donated books. There’s an adjoining artist studio where Ian Smith is currently resident that gives the place a feel of a work in progress and one you are encouraged to take part in. Exhibitions come and go every four to six weeks. TFG is your friend, an arm around the shoulder, a social club for the creative and surprisingly forgiving. At the party I see an ejected fist from the opening show event that one-year ago put a hole in the wall so big it could have been appropriated for use on TV by Anton Du Beke, “Bring on the wall!” As the anniversary hour approaches, shots are distributed and speeches delivered. A comment in the visitors' book catches the eye, "With all the technologicel (sic) advances, people don't change that much. Loved the show. Came with my daughter Amy who is studying photography in college, and is a big fan. Also, good to know you're not only alive but vital." I sniff the 50% proof Finnish vodka and down a toast to the Third Floor Gallery being alive and vital in another year.

A version of this feature first appeared in the April 2011 issue of Professional Photographer Magazine