Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Carlisle Photography Festival 2012

A trip to England's far north west frontier, appropriately enough on St. George's Day, to visit the inaugural Carlisle Photography Festival.

Billed as a focus for emerging international talent, the 11-day event is the brainchild of Danish-born photographer Tania Gibson and is being staged at some half-dozen sites all within walking distance of each other in the centre of Carlisle.

While it might have been bravado on the part of the organisers to state that they preferred not to utilise 'traditional' gallery spaces to present the work, the truth is that the Cumbrian Hauptstadt is somewhat badly served in this department. Nevertheless, the decision to colonise an assortment of non-gallery venues actually works well and gives the feeling of a treasure hunt around the town. Rather like the Brighton photo Fringe, albeit on a smaller scale, this proves interesting and arresting.

Much of the work has been produced by students at Cumbria University, where the degree course continues to attract plaudits. The work is varied in content and well-presented, but it is the stories behind much of the work which intrigue.

I am lucky enough to meet a high proportion of the exhibiting artists and am grateful for the time they afford me explaining the themes, inspirations and techniques behind the work. Although I feel at times like a Royal visitor being toured around, it does give me an insider's view of the work, which is illuminating.

Whilst some non-gallery spaces work better than others, the work has been programmed to take account of the settings (a bar, a restaurant, the backyard of an artist's house and a solicitor's office), and the most striking body of work resides at the latter in Lonsdale Street, where a collection entitled 'Seeds of Change' is presented on two floors of empty office space. It is here that I encounter Frances Hawkins with a sample of images from her project entitled 'Semper in Exubitu Vigilans' - the motto of the RAF apparently and a subject close to Frances' heart having grown up on RAF bases across the UK (see above). She is now photographing many of them and the photos demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of the spaces vacated by the airmen once these places are closed down and become repossessed by nature.

A similar military theme emerges in the work of Gillian Gilbert who traces her parent's past during World War II through photography and installation. This multi-layered project brings to life the past, not in a sentimental way, but in a manner which documents not only facts but feelings and is all the more powerful for the way it is presented.

Much of the work is deeply personal and affecting. None more so than Sarah Louise Jackson's images responding to her and her family's (in)fertility (above). She bares not only her soul, but her body in the images in a brave and honest way. I wonder what's next for her having exhibited such an intimate project but she tells me her next project is set in a munitions factory which makes me think we'll hear and see a lot more of her and her work in the future.

There are works by 29 photographers on display at this small and perfectly-formed festival. And there seems to be the enthusiasm to carry on the project and to offer as Tania Gibson puts it: "new interpretations of both traditional and contemporary photography techniques and to meet new aspiring artists."

As I board the train south, I just miss the arrival in the town centre of a shipping container which will house the final show of this year's event. I am sorry to miss it, but it strengthens my resolve to return next year to the 2013 Carlisle Photography Festival.

For more information on the festival which runs until 27th April, please visit: www.carlislephotography-festival.blogspot.com

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