This exhibition brings together works from The AmberSide Collection, works made and gathered by a collective originally born in London over 50 years ago and based in Newcastle since the late 1970s. Since then, the group has charted documentary photography in the United Kingdom and further afield, through their own photography or through work acquired, with a focus on images highlighting socio-political situations. These range from depicting the council estates of the North East to wider global scenes, always from a left leaning stance.
Stills exhibits photographs by ten women who make work as part of Amber or works the organisation has acquired or collected. With over 20,000 photographs, 100 films, 10,000 slides and 400 stories housed in the AmberSide Collection, the exhibition brings together a small number of the array of images and histories the collection is custodian of.
Before entering the exhibition, the viewer may wonder how these works - which span Gaza, San Francisco, Byker and Nicaragua to name but a few - will hang together other than linked through the gender of their makers and their being in this collection.
Yet the themes - spanning several universal socio-political circumstances and issues - unify the photographs into a compelling exhibition. Everyday life goes on, defiantly, for the grimacing, disenfranchised and unemployed North East youths captured by Tish Murtha, as it does for Laura Junka-Aikio’s Palestinian holiday makers, rarely afforded an opportunity for leisure time in occupied lands. A mixture of despair, hope, oppression and being caged by politics and circumstance, marries the works.
The legacy of Thatcher’s Britain and what came next is shown, as Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen visits Byker in the late 1970s and 2007. In Byker she captured portraits of joy, making do and everyday life during the 1970s early 1980s; children on derelict land, a joyful image of a young girl on a Spacehopper and a picture of gentlemen congregating in a barbers. She returned in 2007 to capture current residents, who by then included Middle Eastern Asylum seekers, victims of Thatcher’s Neo-liberalist successors.
The socio-economic history of the North East is further laid bare for the viewer through Isabela Jedrzejczyk’s portraits from 1980, taken in a pub known locally as The Jungle and frequented by the collective. Histories given by Amber about the way they operated, and still do, as part of the community, are easy to comprehend when observing this set of photographs. Jedrzejczyk’s subjects appear relaxed and at ease with the camera; clothing, haircuts and poise all a snapshot of the mood and style of the time. The size of the series shows no lack of willing participants to have their images taken. These were, at the time, hung in a ‘Rogues gallery’ in the pub itself.
A Leftist concern for the impact of global foreign policy (which, at the height of the Amber’s activity, was twinned with the aggressive deconstruction of UK industry) can be seen in the internationality of the photographs, especially of Latin America with Susan Meisielas’ images of the Nicaraguan conflict and Graciela Iturbide’s Mexican portraits. Yet Meisielas’ photograph of a Monombo woman carrying her dead husband home during the Nicaraguan conflict of the 1970s and Iturbibe’s of housework and motherhood, when placed next to ‘Mother’s Day Off’ by Grace Frank and a lone one portrait by Diane Arbus of a topless San Franciscan dancer all conclude, in their own ways, from different perspectives, and spanning more several decades, that a women’s labour, domestic, artistic or otherwise, is never done.