Overlooking the 126 galleries exhibiting at this year’s London Art Fair is Photo50, the fair’s annual guest-curated show devoted to the most distinctive elements of current photographic practice. This year, the curator is writer and gallerist Laura Noble who has assembled 10 esteemed female photographers all over the age of 50.
She’s done this as a gesture towards the fact that women are not generally well represented in the photography industry. Indeed, she informs me that 85% of people studying photography are female yet they represent only 15% of the industry. Older women fare even worse especially as competitions that are a useful way to promote oneself, often have age limits of 35 or 40.
The theme Noble has chosen is the concept of space that she has titled Occupy the Void. “The way in which people respond to space is very different – how we live, how we work, how we think about space in general, whether that’s the psychological space in our heads, whether it’s the space in our lives when someone’s gone,” she tells me.
On that last point, Wendy Aldiss took 9,000 photographs of the possessions of her father, the science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, after he died in 2017. It was a her way of coping with the grief. It includes her version of an old photograph, Dad as a Child Eating and Reading, that you can see as the top shot.
The exhibition begins with examples from British travel photographer Sandra Jordan’s Hidden Beauty series that feature the exteriors of high-rise buildings. Jordan is a fan of modernist and brutalist architecture which many find ugly. Her pictures emphasise the geometric patterns and the many shapes within shapes that give her colour photographs a certain abstract quality especially those with a flattened perspective.
Inside these buildings live people with all their own stories and histories and Jordan is using the idea of ugliness and perceptions of beauty as a metaphor for how women are so often judged entirely by their outward appearance.
We go from outside to within for Danielle Peck’s Many Original Features from her Dreamland series. She photographed rooms at the Cecil Hotel in Margate when the town was run-down and in need of investment. There’s nostalgia aplenty in the decor and the objects featured. The rooms have since been converted into a boutique hotel as the seaside resort was revitalised, becoming popular with artists who’d migrated from London. The town now boasts a refurbished Dreamland amusement park and a Turner Contemporary Gallery. Peck’s series echoes the tension between nostalgia and the reality of modern Britain, good and bad.
We stay inside , psychologically at least, with Miranda Gavin’s heart-rending Home Discomforts. Gavin was sexually abused as a child by her stepfather (since deceased). She was able to confront him at the age of 25 and wrote a poem about her abuse. In 1996, she revisited the now empty flat in London where the crime took place and scrawled verses from it over the walls. In so doing, she was reclaiming the space and, in a sense, re-possessing the house of horrors and giving voice to the abuse she bottled up for so long.
American photographer Elizabeth Heyert gained a masters degree at London’s Royal College of Art where she studied with Bill Brandt. Her Sleepers series is just what it says on the tin. Using a high-format camera, she has photographed people asleep either singly or in couples. By rendering the background black, her subjects look like they’re in balletic poses, suspended in a timeless space. Heyert has then projected these images onto walls (of ruins in Sicily) and re-photographed them again to make them appear as old stone statues. They are quite extraordinary.
Other artists featured in Occupy the Void are Samantha Brown who has made collages of women who once worked at a now defunct Clark’s shoe factory in Ireland, and Rosy Martin who has transposed photos of her parents onto silk as a metaphor for the transience of memories. American Kim Shaw has made a miniature gallery full of ‘improper’ landscapes as a rebuff to the lack of opportunity and inflexibility of the art world where women are concerned, London-based Elaine Duigenan fills the void in bubbles with wax producing tiny sculptures which she scans making them strange and ethereal, and Mercedes Parodi makes weird, twisted abstract shapes by photographing through water as a metaphor for the path through life and beyond. All the women prove that 50 years and more have in no way stifled creativity.
Photo50 is at London Art Fair within the Islington Design Centre, London N1 0QH from 22-26 January 2020.