Sunday, 3 April 2011

Format Photography Festival

Just a couple of days before it finished, I managed to squeeze in a visit to the East Midlands for a day wandering around the exhibitions at Format, Derby's international photography festival.

Format was established in 2004 by Louise Clements and Mike Brown, and is now one of the UK's leading non-profit international contemporary festivals of photography and related media, it states on its website ( The theme of this year's month-long event is street photography in all its guises, under the strap line 'Right Here, Right Now' - exposures from the public realm.

Street photography is a branch of the religion of photography which is closest to my heart. The best examples of this genre illuminate the everyday and offer the viewer a personal critique of life around us. Street photography can be funny, poignant, informative, moving, bewildering and can reinterpret many of the aesthetics of the furniture of the city. It can act like a jigsaw, revealing small clues about what our  world is really like away from the polished perfection we are often presented. But street photography can also be irrelevant, whimsical, mundane and lacking in any sense of a narrative. It also lacks an intellectual heft, or, put brutally, a story. Snapshot is probably the word which best describes the genre, with all the positive and negative connotations which derive from that term.

But there's now also a second debate around street photography which is taking place. This revolves not only around its legitimacy as an art form, but also as practice. In recent years, photographers have started to feel a vice tightening around their work. Public concern about what motivates photographers and the all-pervasive nature of the internet which allows, almost uncensored, the distribution and publication of anything from the public space, has led to a backlash which, at its most extreme, has seen France enact privacy laws which ban the publication of almost all forms of what could be traditionally termed 'street, photography.

But there is a fightback. And ironically it is being led not only by the professional photographer but by the vast mass of people who are the children of the digital revolution and who feel inspired to pick up a camera and record in detail life around them. This is all part of the democratisation of photography, an oft-used, but still ill-defined term.

It is into this space that Format steps. And very successfully. Its city-wide programme of exhibitions shows off the many individual talents of photographers using the street to communicate. Also the collective is well represented. I run into Nick Turpin, an old colleague from the Independent who founded a 20-photographer collective named In Public. This international collective boasts quite a few well-known names from the world of photojournalism, and the show of work is interesting and valuable. As Nick pointed out to me, commercially, this way of working doesn't bring much, but as a creative exercise it is both rewarding and fulfilling.

The main hub of the Format takes place at the Quad, a multi-arts venue in the heart of the city. During the festival it is peppered with photography. Every available wall has something while the main gallery space displays work from across the globe. There are seminal works by Brian Griffin, Raghu Rai and Joel Meyerowitz; a standout contemporary commentary on England by Peter Dench and as one would expect, several series depicting life in China, notably a series by Zhang Xiao entitled 'Coastline' and WassinkLundgren's 'Empty Bottles' series, which is presented using the display of pages from a published book.

While Quad is the slick centre of Format, my interest in visiting photography festivals is usually sustained by what is somewhat drearily described these days as 'visitor experience'. I enjoy seeking out the often secreted venues and a bit like a treasure trail try to find hidden treasures. Derby does not disappoint here either. The remodeled city centre is pleasant to stroll through and as a response to the work on show I make some images for myself. Although not overburdened with prime exhibition locations and gallery spaces, Format is visible in Derby and even on a week day you can tell there's a festival going on. The Royal Insurance Building, resplendent with 'for sale' sign above it is just the sort of place I am thrilled to discover. Slightly shabby and anarchic-looking, it is busy with people: some looking at the work on show, some participating in a hands-on project labelling the locations in which they have made their street photography. A couple of lads with skateboards seem to be at the heart of it all, and it seems lively and interactive. Beyond them, the work by Rawiya, a collective of women photographers from the Middle East stands out.

Street photography has many forms: from Bruce Gilden's visual assaults (he was commissioned to work the streets of Derby; the results, on show at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, are superb, although it made me grateful I wasn't in Derby at the time he took the photographs) to quiet, reflective work such as Orit Ishay's series of Israeli bomb shelters (at the Silk Mill), the street photography on show at Format reveals itself to be as interesting, and - well - diverse, as the streets of the world themselves.

To view my street photo diary of the day visit

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