Photography fans have long awaited the Open Eye’s relocation to its new home on Mann Island, and we’re happy to report that the new gallery – the only such space dedicated exclusively to the art of photography in the north of England – is most definitely worth the wait. For all the debate around the planning decisions and architectural choices, Open Eye makes Mann Island a destination in its own right that nicely bookends the cultural attractions along the waterfront.
The new gallery has a more open feel to it, the glass fronting bringing a welcome increase in light levels to the space. While the ground floor galleries don’t seem much larger than those on the previous site, the upper gallery dedicated to changing displays from Open Eye’s archive is an excellent addition and hopefully some real gems will emerge over the coming months, like those featured in the exhibition of Chris Steele-Perkins’ photos from the 1980s, titled The Pleasure Principle. A diverse and interesting line-up of talks and events for visitors and photographers is scheduled until the end of the year.
Saturday morning isn’t when you expect gallery-goers to gather, but due to the constraints of Mitch Epstein’s schedule, an event was creatively organised that gave visitors something a little different from the wine and canapés of a typical evening private view. It was well worth an early start to hear Epstein introduce and contextualise the work in American Power, which is, rather surprisingly, his first UK solo show.
Epstien’s garnered some impressive accolades over a career which spans four decades and locations across the globe; in person he comes across as soft-spoken but committed to a photographic practice that uses filmic and digital techniques to bring out the best in the medium.
He opened with an overview of how the ‘American Power’ project developed out of a commission from the New York Times Magazine in 2003 to photograph the families of a rural Ohio community who refused to leave their homes after a compulsory purchase order from an energy corporation (main pic above). He began to think about how energy production and consumption in America affected communities and the ways corporations and government were becoming increasingly interconnected during the Bush/Cheney years.
Using a large format camera to capture sweeping views, Epstein said he wanted to make large prints to reflect the American obsession with ‘bigger is better’ and the need to protect individual rights above all else. The full series comprises over sixty photographs, but eight carefully curated ones are on display at Open Eye.
Epstein walked us through the context of each image and expounded on his artistic intent and technical execution, but in terms accessible enough for those who are not well-versed in photographic practice to follow along. A stunning landscape of the Hoover Dam and Colorado River is hung next to a cityscape of the most famous example of American sprawl, Las Vegas. The level of detail recalled Ben Johnson’s ‘Cityscapes’ series such as the view of Liverpool on display at the Walker. Epstein draws on a wide art historical knowledge in the creation of his images and they certainly have the feel of Old Master landscapes in their execution and rich level of detail. One picture of a small farming town and fields of wind turbines in Iowa draws the eye in to pick out details in the foreground but simultaneously pulls you outward to gaze into the distance. The vantage point is actually from the top of a nearby grain elevator, and many of the other images on display have similarly elevated views.
An interesting sub-theme of the exhibition is the power of nature as demonstrated by the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Epstein visited the Gulf coast of Mississippi after the hurricane and documented some of the devastation, such as a front garden with a mattress impaled on tree branches and a car flipped upside down, like some sort of 21st century Hieronymus Bosch landscape. Epstein shows us the human scale of dealing with the aftermath of Katrina in the photograph of Martha Murphy and her family’s gardener, Charlie Biggs. They’ve laid out items recovered from the storm on what used to be the front porch of the family’s home. She looks at him with affection mixed with a curiously optimistic smile. He gazes sombrely on the remains they’ve gathered. It’s a picture that opens up questions of dynamics of race and class in the American South whilst remaining a carefully composed tableau of devastation.
Welcome back Open Eye. You’re looking better than ever.
Mitch Epstein: American Power and Chris Steele-Perkins: The Pleasure Principle are on now until Dec 23.
Open Eye Gallery,
Mann Island, Liverpool Waterfront
Open Eye pic: Mark McNulty