Genuine gaze

What makes a student project stand out from the crowd? A lot of work done on degree courses in photography threads the same well-worn paths, but there are some happy exceptions. Edward Barber picks out five of his favourites

Proliferation. There has been an outbreak of photographic courses over the past decade. Right now there are nearly 200 colleges across the UK offering courses, and in a world of so-called rising academic standards, MA is the new BA.

Differentiation. In an overcrowded market there is increasing pressure to stand out: on-line picture sales are on the increase; micro-stock sites, selling low-price amateur images, are just the latest digital phenomenon undermining the professional market.

Developing your own approach and signature style is more important than ever. Networking – getting your work seen and building a public profile – is the key to success, making your work visible to editors, art directors, gallery owners, collectors, dealers, curators and publishers: the tastemakers.

So what ideas are emerging? Are there themes and schools of thought, where staff really do inspire people to produce groundbreaking work? Or are students trying to second-guess the tastemakers? Instead of producing authentic work that comes from the heart, they lapse into predictable subject matter, pursuing the same old modes.

Sadly, there is a lot of that about. We have navel-gazing and introspective projects focusing on subjects close to home, or the fake conceptual, playing to the tune of the tastemakers, I-wanna-be-famous-next-week approach to art photography. Then there’s the worthy school of social documentary. The future’s bleak – the future is yet another student project on an ageing relative, a care home or an orphanage in some war-torn country.

Creation. There are some individuals producing work that does shine through – that has depth and commitment, and isn’t trying to second-guess the next fashionable look or subject matter. Take, for example, the work of Leila Miller, a recent graduate of the MA Photographic Studies at the University of Westminster. Her Unspoken Words project takes the potentially tedious subject of power relationships in offices and offers us a series of painstakingly staged and unnerving group portraits.

Miller comes from a background in dance and performance photography mixed with picture-editing. Her professional experience, nurtured by the critical/ideological nature of the course, has produced this remarkable set of stylised colour images. They breathe new life into the corporate portrait – in much the same way that Brian Griffin’s stark monochrome images did in the 1980s.

Staged portraits also feature strongly in the work of Elena Inga. Her final project for the MA Photography at the London College of Communication, Mum I Hate Your Cakes and All the Things You Make, centred on her seven-year-old daughter. Unlike many of the other post-Sally Mann/Tierney Gearon projects on children, Inga’s images put her subject in control. It’s pure performance. Her daughter is the star of the show. The results are playful and exuberant colour images that perfectly capture the energy of childhood. Inga is currently raising funds to shoot a project about growing up in her native Sicily.

Intimate relationships are explored to powerful effect in the work of Kelly Dearsley, a recent graduate of the MA Image and Communication at Goldsmiths College. Using 5×4 Polaroid material, window light and long exposures, 41 Reasons (to be Happy) strongly references the work of Julia Margaret Cameron and offers a set of dramatic portraits that are the antidote to the over-used vacant gaze so popular with art photographers. Dearsley’s subjects look out at us with unswerving and intense eyes. The people are all family or close friends, but these are no mere snapshots. Instead, we are presented with a coherent and haunting set of portraits. No surprise then that Dearsley is about to develop this work into a PhD.

Another highly engaged body of work was produced earlier this year by Alastair Strong on the MA Fashion Photography at London College of Fashion. His aim was to examine the alternatives to the visually and culturally boring estates that surround our major cities. Inspired by the work of Stephen Shore and Joel Meyerowitz, Strong produced immaculate-quality colour landscapes of suburban environments in the UK and the Netherlands. With patience and perseverance, he travelled with his large-format plate camera to track down the housing developments he thought should be built in the UK.

The physical environment is also the subject of a project by Lynn Wray, who just graduated from the Royal College of Art’s MA Communication Art & Design. Her book, This Did Not Happen, is an eloquent and strangely spooky study of the E’42, Esposizione Universale in Rome. Exploring the EUR district, which was built for the 1942 World’s Fair that never took place, Wray’s low-key colour photographs combine with texts from period documents to form what she describes as an ‘anti-catalogue’. Wray uses a presence-through-absence approach, which has strong echoes of Walker Evans. She is committed to producing a small limited edition of the book, but recognises that the work needs to be exposed to a wider audience, which can only be achieved by finding a suitable mainstream publisher.

These photographers all have one thing in common – a love of the medium and a genuine interest in their subject matter. All they need now is to gain the attention and exposure they deserve.

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