This is the new Open Eye Gallery, located in a corner of the dreadful Mann Island development, the three wedge-shaped blocks whose black glass facades hide offices and apartments, as well as blocking the iconic view of Liverpool’s Three Graces from the Albert Dock. Not that that has anything to do with Open Eye.
The new gallery has been open for a month now, but it was only today that I finally made it to the first exhibition in the new premises – American photographer Mitch Epstein’s first solo show in the UK, entitled American Power – which I’ll get to shortly.
Open Eye Gallery was first launched back in 1977 by Colin Wilkinson, as part of an organisation called the Merseyside Visual Communications Unit (MCVU), which had been established in 1973 with a mission to ‘make more people aware of the many positive ways in which film, photography, video and sound recording can be used in a social, cultural and educative context’. In 1976 MCVU moved into the former Grapes Hotel, on the corner of Whitechapel and Hood Street, in central Liverpool. Open Eye Gallery followed a year later, occupying what had been the public bar.
In those early days Open Eye was a heady mix of art and activism, a DIY operation run on a shoestring by artists, volunteers and a tiny staff team in premises on the corner of Whitechapel. For a couple of years in the late 1970s I was part of a small band of film enthusiasts who ran Another View Film Society at Open Eye on Tuesday evenings, dedicated to screening independent and radical cinema, One season featured Nick Broomfield introducing a season of all his documentary films.
There’s another old photo of Open Eye in the Whitechapel premises here.
Open Eye was one of the UK’s first dedicated photography galleries, at a time when photography was pretty much excluded from art galleries. At its Whitechapel location until 1988, Open Eye became one of the Liverpool’s creative and social hubs, with a popular cafe next door and the radical bookshop News From Nowhere just down the street.
In 1989, with the Whitechapel building’s increasingly dilapidated, Open Eye moved to Bold Street. Then, in 1996, the Gallery was re-launched in an architect-designed space in an Edwardian workshop on Wood Street in the Ropewalks quarter (as the revitalised network of cobbled backstreets was now ‘branded’).
The new gallery at Mann Island and is twice the size of the Wood Street space which will allow for larger exhibitions and the accommodation of the large-format images favoured by many contemporary photographers (such as Mitch Epstein in the current display). The new gallery is also split over two floors and the first floor gallery will present exhibitions from Open Eye’s own archive of 1,700 photographs. The first of these displays a selection of work by the British photographer Chris Steele-Perkins.
Mitch Epstein: American Power
American Power, a project completed between 2003 and 2009, examines how energy is produced and used in the American landscape, exploring the effects of mass consumption and the interaction of nature, government and corporations. The Open Eye exhibition displays eight key works from the series.
The project began when Epstein photographed a small town in Ohio that was ‘in the process of being erased’ by the American Electric Power company. Residents had been paid a lump sum ‘to leave, never come back and never complain in the media or in court if they became sick from environmental contaminants.’ Back in New York, Epstein could not get
the experience out of his mind. Over the next six years Epstein travelled through 25 states, documenting power in a variety of forms using a large format film camera: ‘About a year into making this series of pictures, I realised that power was like a Russian doll: each time I opened one kind of power, I found another inside,’ Mitch Epstein has said.
These are huge, complex and detailed images: reproductions on a web page cannot do justice to the level of detail contained within them, close study of which reveals the photographer’s perspective and purpose.
BP Carson Refinery, California 2007, one of the project’s definitive images, shows an American flag draped over an oil production plant. ‘It points’, suggests the exhibition guide, ‘to the inseparability of oil and politics in contemporary America’.
Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, Nevada – Arizona presents one of the engineering marvels of the 20th century. Built in the 1930s to harness water and foster the growth of the American West, Epstein’s photograph speaks of the dam’s grandeur but also of nature’s depletion. A diminishing waterline marks the edges of the lake, known as ‘the bathtub ring’. This is the
result of a ten-year drought, as well as the siphoning off of water to luxury hotels and golf courses in nearby Las Vegas, the subject of another photograph in this exhibition. This pair of images evoked for me the ancientness of the land in which these towering monuments to American power are located (in the Vegas image, shot from a high point in the city, we see the implacable desert shimmering beyond the city limits). Shelley’s lines came into my head as I stared at these images:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The exhibition guide retells a revealing story
Poca High School and Amos Coal Power Plant, West Virginia 2004 offers a view of small-town American life alongside energy production sites. Poca was one of the many places Epstein was prevented from taking photographs by the police, FBI or private security. He found that in the wake of 9/11 the nature of photographing in public places completely changed. In a Pennsylvania town Epstein was reported to the police for carrying a missile launcher down Main Street. The missile launcher turned out to be a tripod, but Epstein was escorted out of town and told that the power company didn’t allow pictures. The local police, it turned out, ‘enforced corporate instead of Constitutional law’.
The two photographs that had the greatest impact for me both concerned the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Epstein had already planned a trip to Louisiana when hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Six weeks later, he photographed the storm’s devastating effects.
Martha Murphy and Charlie Biggs, Pass Christian, Mississippi 2005 shows two residents gathering the remains of their belongings on what appears to have been the front porch of a home that has gone. Epstein’s camera stares at the pathetic collection of belongings that the couple have gathered: plates, bowls, a mug, some saucers, hand-painted statuettes, a sea shell, glass objects, floats and assorted fishing tackle. The man, who has ‘Love’ tattooed on his arm stares thoughtfully at these objects. It’s a deeply-moving image.
Recently, The Guardian featured Mitch Epstein in their best shot series. He chose Martha Murphy and Charlie Biggs, Pass Christian, Mississippi 2005, and this is what he said:
I was working on a project called American Power and wanted to take some pictures in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. My theme was energy; scientists were making it clear that deadly weather had some relationship to our consumer society. I’m not a photographer who follows the trail of disasters, so I found a way to make work that wouldn’t feel voyeuristic or exploitative, through meeting people.
A friend told me about Martha Murphy, who was from Pass Christian, Mississippi. Her ancestral home sat on the Gulf of Mexico and was washed out in its entirety. But she wanted to do something for her community, setting up a big tent and offering free food. I spent a day with her and Charlie Biggs, the family gardener, who was collecting the remains of her home as mementos.
Although it’s a situation, the picture was directed. They are positioned on a remaining porch. Like a proscenium theatre, it was a way to have them above ground but sitting among all the articles they were clearly moved by.
There are a lot of references to the burden of very different American histories they carry. He is an African American living in the south, with its history of slavery; she is landed gentry. She is looking up towards him with tremendous affection and reverence; the word love is tattooed on his arm. They both wear jeans, but his are soiled from work, hers are pristine. Sitting at his knee is a golliwog doll; by her a glass art piece.
There is a tension between beauty and terror. Here they are with all the evidence of Katrina, and yet it’s a beautiful day by the sea. Nature has no memory of its wrath.
These pictures were taken during the era of George W Bush and Dick Cheney, and a lot of my project was coloured by their ill-thought-through environmental policy. Yet, despite the pervasive sadness of Katrina, we were at this moment of new possibility. As I finished the project we had an African American president. I think this picture ties into that: they were harbingers of change to come.
Biloxi, Mississippi 2005 is an extraordinary image of American Power turned upside down leaving nothing but detritus: the wreckage of an upturned car, blankets and a mattress draped over a tree. The scene is lit by an ochre sunset: light fades, the land will return to darkness.
Mitch Epstein was born in 1952 in Massachusetts, and lives and works in New York. He studied under the celebrated
photographer Garry Winogrand, and has been highly regarded for his work with colour photography since the 1970s. This is his first solo exhibition in the UK. The quotations here are from Epstein’s afterword to the book American Power (2009).
‘England is a strange place – funny, complex and sad. Distance yourself from it, experience other cultures, then look again. That strangeness becomes almost overwhelming.’
– Chris Steele-Perkins
Upstairs, the first exhibition from the Open Eye archive features the work of British photographer Chris Steele-Perkins. The exhibition guide explains:
The Pleasure Principle is a searing photographic portrait of England in the 1980s. Steele-Perkins recorded the rapidly changing social landscape he found after returning from extensive travels in the third world. Pursuing the theme of pleasure, he explores public rituals that cut across class and location. The project also probes his complex relationship with the country he’d grown up in but had never fully felt part of. His father was English, a military officer who left his Burmese mother and brought his son back to England at an early age.
In his introduction to the 1989 book of The Pleasure Principle Chris Steele-Perkins wrote, ‘I suppose that if you are
not entirely white, you are never entirely British’. Since the 1970s, Steele-Perkins has documented Britain – through protests, racist marches, rich and poor at play and the general day to day lives of its people. His photos observe it all with a cool detachment that often yields humour. Nowhere better so than in what is probably his best-known image – the superlative Blackpool Beach, 1982, shown above (a large version of this image can be viewed on The Guardian website here).
The blog Iconic Photos provides an excellent reading of this image:
So perfect is the composition and the cacophony of the photograph above that on your first glance, you can almost wonder whether it is all staged. In his photo of holidaymakers at Blackpool, perhaps the best known of all the English holiday resorts, the photographer Chris Steele-Perkins delivered a masterclass in revealing the allure and the absurd behind deceptively simple surroundings.
The milieu was very British; the weather is gloomy, and the beach is littered. Blackpool’s omnipresent donkeys with their silly bows looked as if they have wandered into the wrong photograph. A muzzled dog urinates against the windbreak. But the central character of the scene looks imperturbable amidst the beaches’ sights, sounds and smells. The lounging man, his lunch lying next to him, is still wearing his formal socks as he rests yards away from the sea. He has ostensibly come to the beach to enjoy the elements, but his attire and demeanor suggest that he is as cocooned from the nature as sandwiches he has carefully wrapped away in aluminum foil. Beneath all his stoicism, his sense of discomfort is palpable. It was Steele-Perkins’ commentary on “Britishness” that invokes the best works of the satirist William Hogarth.
There’s a studied detachment in this photo, taken at a British Movement demonstration in London in 1989.
I was struck by several images of the rich at play: observed in a London night club, at a ball in Berkeley Square, and this one, entitled Juliana’s summer party 1989. These are images of people drunk and deshabille. It’s common for the tabloids (especially the Daily Mail) to depict those it tags ‘chavs’ in this way: we rarely see those at the other end of the social spectrum behaving in the same manner.
Steele-Perkins studied Psychology at Newcastle University (1967-70) before moving to London in 1971 where he worked as a freelance photographer. He worked extensively in Britain and abroad throughout the 1970s, and in 1979 published his first book, The Teds. He joined Magnum in the same year and began working on projects in the third world. He continues to work on large-scale projects in the UK and abroad. Another iconic image for which he is famous is this one – Margaret Thatcher and admirers at Conservative Party Conference, 1989:
The man on the left is having the most intense experience of his life!
Thatcher was a dreadful blot on the landscape; here’s another: