A more illustrative title for this year’s Brighton Photo Biennale - arguably UK’s most important photography festival - could easily have been ‘Identity, Portraiture, Self-Expression’. All three subjects are intertwined together in every BPB exhibition across the city as the representation of the body is approached through key themes, such as sexuality, gender, race and age.
The logical place to begin is the University of Brighton Galleries where two powerful shows have been mounted. Entitled ‘The Dandy Lion Project’, the first exhibition focuses on the contemporary global phenomenon of Black Dandyism. It is a group show curated by Santrelle P. Lewis that has already toured through the US and touring it to Brighton is a key addition for the festival, as it introduces a comment on the monolithic models of maleness and race into its discussions on identity. While the straightforward simplicity of the heavily staged portraits of black men and women in bespoke suits echoes the compositions of both ethnographic and fashion photography, the sartorial choices here are neither associated with a inherited sensibility of a particular tribe, nor a mere expression of the sitter’s personality. Instead, they become a tool of politics and of a performance which plays out into a space of personal freedom, or as the historian Ekow Eshunhas described it “a place beyond the white gaze, where the black body is a site of liberation rather than oppression.”
The second exhibition brings together the works of Olivia Arthur and Bharat Sikka, a British and an Indian photographer respectively. Commissioned by FOCUS festival Mumbai and Photoworks, both artists visited the LGBTQ+ communities of Mumbai and Brighton to photograph some of their members, Arthur in black-and-white and Sikka in colour. The resulting interrelated series, which are set side-by-side on the gallery walls, not only form an elucidating comparison of the Indian and British LGBTQ+ community, but most importantly challenge the validity of the traditional distinction between the insider, subjective photographer and the outsider, voyeuristic one. However, the show’s intriguing point is partly missed with the bizarre curatorial decision to exclude Sikka’s photographs of Mumbai.
Down by the city centre in the Regency church turned contemporary art gallery (Fabrica), Ewen Spencer is showing his brand new series focusing the festival’s recurring theme of identity on age. It is titled ‘Kick over the statues’ and injects into the former religious institution a subculture that has historically been rejected by it. The billboard-scale of the photographs that depict youngsters in British public spaces, is as integral to the show as the video featuring images and songs from Spencer’s personal archive and the rave party he organised as an event in the church. They are all emblematic of Spencer’s mischievous spirit, and the origins of his work in the fashion and music industry. Spencer’s outdoor settings and sharp flash calls to mind Philip-Lorca di Corcia’s striking street portraits, but upon the realisation that the images are staged and suggestive of poetic scenarios, his work relates best to the likes of Cregory Crewdson. It is, however, less controlled - aside from choosing his sitters, he does not appear to instruct them in any rigid sense - and less epic.
Identity and youth culture meet again in Tom Wood’s collateral show at Spectrum, one of Britain’s most famous printing labs. In his spontaneous, so-called “real-life photographs” on display we see young British men and women sitting on cars, smoking cigarettes and dancing in nightclubs. They engage in similar activities to Spencer’s youngsters and they, too, define themselves by the music they listen to and the clothes they wear. Had the 1980s and 1990s fashion been less distinctive, it would have been almost impossible to identify that Wood’s photographs were taken thirty or twenty years ago, an observation that makes us question how much the representation of youth culture has really changed within the last three decades.
Of the Biennale’s remaining satellite projects that spill all over Brighton perhaps the most compelling is Chynna Guyat’s ‘Peacocks on the Pavement’. Poignantly, in one of her images we see a man’s back standing in front of a shop window. Although black and in full suit, he is not in a photograph that could have been selected by Lewis for the Dandy Lion project; he appears ordinary, wears a wrinkled jacket and holds a biodegradable carrier bag. Additionally, his face is turned away from the camera suggesting that he probably wasn’t even aware that he had his photograph taken. But do these elements render the portrait less identity-revealing than the photographs hanging at the Dandy Lion show?
This is precisely the question that the festival does not adequately address, revealing a troubling implication that a photograph has necessarily to be a portrait - and in particular a frontal one - in order to deal with identity. However, apart from this lapse, and for all the above mentioned fascinating exhibitions it is definitely worth visiting Brighton for this 2016 edition of the city’s Photo Biennial.