I’m a writer but sometimes I get sick of writers. Then I hang out with visual artists. I like to listen to agonising about light, shade, colour, shape, framing etc. I feel they are indirectly talking to me about my own work. Recently, I found myself looking at the work of Benji Reid. He escapes easy labels but to have a stab at it, he’s a choreographer / dancer / theatre maker / photographer. What I learned from watching him is the extraordinary demands he places on himself as an artist, the precision he summons to a task – which I guess comes from his time as a dancer, his patience waiting for the right moment, and his open-heartedness in allowing that moment to emerge in its own time. Here’s my write-up of his debut exhibition of photographs.
“A Thousand Words” Review
There seems to be a tide that’s turned in black visual arts. The era of reportage style photography, the experiential , realist mode of photography is being eased to one side and in the space created more metaphorical, idiosyncratic styles are emerging. The ‘A Thousand Words’ show is one terrific example of that.
Take one photo. There is a jumble of stick furniture – a sound system box among it – and a character is clambering over it all. He’s wearing a ten gallon hat, and behind him is a Sherlock Holmesian blue smoke backdrop of Victorian-like fog. In one hand he holds a lit, light bulb. There is something Potteresque about the assemblage, there are notes of the Western (the hat), something of the musical, Les Miserables in the orchestrated furniture shambles of the scene and the way it is lit. The photograph is steeped in a rich, theatre blue – it’s obviously a shot that has been arranged and it does not hide that. As the character clambers over the furniture there is a faint expression of surprise on his face. He’s almost off-balance but not quite – on edge. It’s cool. I can leap these obstacles. The viewer’s eye travels along the line and meets the surprise of the photo – the trainers (blue & white). Those trainers spring the image out of all those trad tropes into something hiphop, something completely different.
Then the photo hits me as a metaphor of how to deal with life’s setbacks – as if to leap over failure, defeat, disarray all the other obstacles of black life, the magic shoes being the springboard – those shoes being the shoes of your culture: don’t be fooled into devaluing its contribution to your well-being.
The character in the photo is the photographer himself. The exhibition can be read in two parts – the photographer’s self portraits and his portraits of others. I got the feeling that he was exploring the difference between these two modes: photographing others v photographing himself. There is something Dali-esque about some of the self-portraits. The communication loop of subject and photographer is not needed, so the narrative in self portraits can be truer, deeper, by-passing civilities and the need for a dialogic photo – one in which there is communication / a shared vibe, an act of expression for the dialogue partner / between photographer and subject.
So that’s just one photograph! There are may more, equally intriguing. The exhibition is on until late December at Contact , Manchester. Details here: http://contactmcr.com/whats-on/exhibition/31-benji-reid-a-thousand-words/