In a photography exhibition, a few questions need to be answered. Why are these images on public display? Are they all from the same artist? Why are they on show, together, in the same gallery – what’s the theme? And then there’s the bigger questions regarding the images themselves; what was the person behind the camera trying to capture, and why? There’s a nice section in Susan Sontag’s On Photography that outlines the form’s subjective nature, despite its apparent authenticity:
…despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth. Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience… In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.
But what makes An Independent Eye – currently on display at Oriel Colwyn – stand out, more than any exhibition I’ve ever seen, is its journalistic nature. The difference between photojournalism and regular photography might not seem like much, but a paper needs to sell. It needs attention-grabbing shots to catch the everyman’s eye, not artsy images for photography students to write a 4000-word thesis on. So, when we take Sontag’s analysis into account, what standards are photojournalists imposing on their subjects? They want to provide a visual accompaniment to a story, and they want this accompaniment to fit in with the general mood of the story.
Colin McPherson worked as a freelance photographer for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday from 1995 until 2016 – when the paper ceased to print and became digital-only. This exhibition is based on a book he published, also called An Independent Eye, which celebrates his work for these publications.
The first thing that caught my eye in the gallery was an image of Tony Blair standing at a podium. Next to each A3 print of an image is the original newspaper print, showing the photograph in historical context – I learned that Blair was at a Scottish Labour Conference; the year, 1996. McPherson, being based in Scotland at the time, closely followed the Scottish devolution campaigns and the reopening of the Scottish parliament – which strongly resonates with the second-referendum hoopla of today. Perhaps this is why this image was chosen for the exhibition. Although New Labour were yet to win the election, Blair was already clashing with a Scottish Labour executive over benefit cuts. The future prime minister looks defensive in the image – an appearance he would have to get used to. Half the picture has been ominously darkened.
This is an impressive and bold photograph, which isn’t a surprise given the reputation of The Independent, which was known for its ground-breaking imagery – a short piece on the wall states that it “placed equal or more importance to a picture as a means of telling a particular story”. When the paper ceased to print last year, it meant redundancy for the entire picture desk staff. In printing An Independent Eye, McPherson chose images that represented a “personal idea” of his journey with the paper. Oriel Colwyn curator Paul Sampson proposed the idea of putting these images into an exhibition, which opened on March 26th – the anniversary of The Independent’s final print.
My favourite image was part of a story of Cistercian monks Sancta Maria Abbey, Nunraw; at the foot of the Lammermuir Hills in Scotland. Their order, an offshoot of the Benedictines set up in 1098, is supposedly distinguished by their appetite for communal life. The chosen image shows, with impact in black and white, the backs of two monks washing some dishes. For me, even in the age of the dishwasher, nothing sums up communal living more than sharing the task of washing up. To see two monks, all robed up, engaging in this banal chore – it just makes us like them. The image contains both comedy and, somehow, pathos. I wonder whether it was a staged or candid shot.
McPherson certainly isn’t slowing down since his redundancy, however. Not only has he published his book, but for a year, starting next month, he’ll be documenting the 2018 Queen’s Baton Relay across over 30 countries. It’s easy to see why he was commissioned; his work is honest, objective, and – as is The Independent’s way – it tells an interesting story. Us writers hate the idiom “a picture is worth a thousand words” because, begrudgingly, it’s true. McPherson’s pictures are worth tens of thousands of soulful, poetic sentences – some in free verse, some in strict iambic pentameter, some in Joycean prose. The exhibition is in Oriel Colwyn, Theatr Colwyn, until May 30th. It’s well worth a look.