The second iteration of the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards exhibition showcases work from its prizewinners - Alejandra Carles-Tolra, Sam Laughlin and Lua Ribeira. The prize is awarded to exceptional early career photographers with innovative approaches to the medium, and provides each artist with a bursary of £5000, as well as mentorship from photography experts. Over the last year, the artists have been creating a new body of work with the award’s support. The results are diverse, touching on femininity, belonging, nature and death. Yet, despite their differences, an underlying premise surfaces - each work is charged with a desire to escape contemporary life, either by creating fictions or by returning to our pasts.
In ‘Where We Belong’ (2017), Alejandra Carles-Tolra documents a group who devote themselves to the recreation and celebration of Jane Austen’s novels. The subjects wear tumbling Regency gowns and come together to attend balls and recite the author’s words. In the images, we are afforded an arrestingly intimate look into the relationships between the group’s participants. Sleepy heads fall onto shoulders, fleshy hands clasp, limbs entwine and press against paisley-patterned fabrics and lace. The scenes are sensual and dreamlike. Despite their clothing, remnants of the modern world are still present – the girls dash across grey pavements and flecks of foundation linger on their cheeks – but this does not break the spell. Carles-Tolra’s images draw us into the imagined world of the Austen devotees and convince us of their authenticity. It might be tempting to dismiss the group’s devotion as English eccentricity, but Carles-Tolra’s depiction reveals genuine camaraderie and sisterhood at the group’s core. By actualising their fantasies, the subjects have created a clan with a strong collective identity and a sense of belonging. As loneliness in Britain becomes a national epidemic, with almost nine million people today suffering from lack of companionship, Carles-Tolra reveals a reality where escapism cultivates friendship, and so proves a lifeline.
In Sam Laughlin’s series, ‘A Certain Movement’ (2017), we depart from Carles-Tolra’s anthropocentric images and cast our gaze to the natural world. Presenting a meditative series of low-contrast, black and white photographs, Laughlin asks us to pause and look anew at the complex workings of nature; seasonal migration, nesting, reproduction. His work is a far cry from the saturated vision of wildlife photographers today, addressing moments of less heightened drama. In ‘Boatman Surfacing’, only the white, ghostly smudge of a water-dwelling insect interrupts an expanse of grey. In ‘Woodpeckers’, our main character doesn’t even show up. Instead, three stacked panels depict a life-size tree trunk, pierced by suspiciously beak-sized holes. Laughlin repeats the theme in the triptych, ‘Whitethroat’, a study of three abandoned nests. Here, the rhythmic patterns of the branches become the focus, exaggerated by monochromatic tones that transform nature’s intricacies into something more abstract. Laughlin seems to be telling us that nature can offer otherworldly sights, if only we give it the time. Observing the industrious bees tend to their honeycomb and seagulls colonise cliff sides, we are privy to the physical manifestation of millennia of evolution – here, escape into the natural world becomes a return to our ancestry.
Lua Ribeira’s series ‘Subida Al Cielo (Ascent to Heaven)’ (2017) explores a perennial theme: our fear of death. In the images, a diverse group of subjects play out unsettling sequences on plush grass and in graveyards. Legs are detached from bodies and flesh appears too fragile – a formidable warning of eventual realities, quite literally depicted as a coffin in ‘Para Titular (To Be Titled)’. In ‘Pesdilla Ligera (Weightless Nightmare)’ a supine girl clutches at her red, furred cloak and cackles, her mouth agape. Ribeira is interested in the discrepancy between the morbid reality of decay and the flamboyant depictions of it prevalent in mythology and allegory. In the images titled ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ we are confronted by a masked figure dressed in red and black, then, a second masked figure grasping an apple and, finally, the two masked figures wrestling. Borrowing tropes from Greek tragedy, Ribeira’s representations of fate deviate from factual reality, and instead occupy a world of theatre. Symbols of Christian myths also emerge, with bucolic backgrounds and fields of daisies evoking Eden’s paradise. In a world of rational thinking, Ribeira pines for the past’s mythological significance, one which might provide respite from our ontological woes, and looks for escape from life without wonder.