Reflecting on ’21st Century Leeds’

by • April 6, 2011 • Featured, General, ReviewsComments (5)1772

Photographer, Adam Kingston, recently commented on our article 21st Century Photographers – in which he questioned the selection for the exhibition. As with all art forms we think it is imperative that we question that which has gone before and so we asked Adam to add a little more to his thoughts – here is what he came back with:

21st century Leeds inherited the architectural heritage of 20th century Leeds: many beautiful buildings, a number of neglected but architecturally sound buildings and some buildings that should probably never have been built. It also inherited myriad planning and social housing issues that are managed with varying degrees of success. Irrespective of the architectural merit of certain buildings isolated from the context of the City, all of these buildings contribute to the unique character of Leeds’ built environment in the 21st century.

It is my understanding that the ‘21st Century Leeds’ exhibition was conceived with the intention to show this character, but in this respect I believe that it has failed. Many aspects of photography are necessarily subjective: my criticism is not of the worth of the individual images but that the selection of images exhibited fails to offer a balanced representation of Leeds’ built environment. Credit should be given to Tim Munsey and others for their good work appearing in Marketing Leeds’s Live It Love it brochure, but where are the pictures of the bits of Leeds that Marketing Leeds would prefer prospective visitors to the city never see?

I realise that the size of the exhibition space at Dyson’s Chambers has somewhat limited the range of prints that could be presented, but there seems to be a clear bias toward a polished aesthetic, including cityscapes shot at night and others that seem to have undergone heavy post-production or tone-mapping. These images have a place in such an exhibition but would benefit from being hung next to pictures that represent a different view of the City, with such a collection of images offering a more honest representation of what it is to live and work in Leeds in 2011.

Leeds extends some way beyond the city centre boundary and is a city of contrasting architectural styles. For the exhibition to have communicated this, the judges should perhaps have not considered aesthetics to be the primary consideration when selecting all of the winning pictures. I also wonder if the title of the exhibition led photographers to focus too much on isolating contemporary buildings from the context of the rest of the City. I believe some encouragement in the brief to wander outside the city centre boundary and to point lenses at buildings other than the usual suspects would have led to a more diverse range of submissions. It would be interesting to see the ‘21st Century Leeds’ project revived with the brief and selection criteria refined, and presented in a bigger space: with some changes I believe the exhibition would be of much more interest rather than resemble a marketing exercise by the City Council.

Adam offered a set of images by Gillian Holding (which includes the above image) to act as a counterweight to the images he mentioned from the 21st Century Leeds exhibition.

Director, Jon Eland adds…

I’ve accredited this post to myself as it should be obvious that this post is placed with my backing and represents my belief in how Exposure Leeds should be open to this form of discussion. For my part, I felt the exhibition did a great job of showing a snapshot of the best of the architecture of the city as it takes it’s position in the early part of this century. Our own ‘Best of – part one‘ exhibition in September showed a more diverse side to the city – something a lot easier with 100+ photos rather than the smaller selection here.

Exposure Leeds exists to promote better photography in the city and, as part of this, we have created the ‘Looking Good, Leeds‘ – a project that aims to show the good, interesting and positive sides of the city – irrelevant of how gritty the surroundings they appear in. There is also a strong need to represent the people of Leeds; the buildings just provide places of shelter in the city; the people who occupy it are largely missing from the 21st Century Leeds exhibition. The exhibition isn’t wrong; but I agree with Adam in so much that there is room to better portray a wider vision of the city – and to include more than just a few buildings that have, at least locally, some level of iconic status.

So, that’s what Adam and I had to offer – what do you think? How would you like to see Leeds better or more accurately portrayed? What were your thoughts on the exhibition?

Image © Gillian Holding, all rights reserved.

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5 Responses to Reflecting on ’21st Century Leeds’

  1. Russell Dixon says:

    I think the points Adam has highlighted above are true with regards the 21st C Leeds exhibition, i did not get to see the whole exhibition, only what appeared online. What i have seen are excellent photographs depicting a small section of Leeds, but is this because that is what photographers choose to shoot, thereofre there was not the breadth of content required to fullfill Adams requirements? Perhaps this comes down to the brief not being detailed enough, or because the photographers themselves only sought out the newest/most modern architectural designs? The set offered by Adam as a counterballance do show another side of 21st C leeds, an accurate one at that, but if no such images were submited to the exhibition then they could not have been choosen. Were such gritty innercity images passed over, or just never submited?

    That is the question that needs to be asked.

  2. Mark Jaffe says:

    Maybe it’s just an impression that any artform that presents only one aspect of a widely known truth runs the risk of being seen as ungrounded and of not being built on firm enough foundations.

    It’s good to have a theme to pin images to or we just end up with a collection of everything; but even that theme should have highs and lows, shades of dark and light, elements of good and bad – or it will inevitably feel top heavy and unbalanced and so unsatisfactory in some way.

    We often like glossy adverts for their aesthetic appeal, their wit and their humour – but do we trust them? Do images that appear too marketing-based by their very production values lose something by association with untruthful salesman and the glossy sales brochure in the MFI mould?

    We’ve all been tricked at some time by a weasel phrase here or uncheckable ‘fact’ there; enough to know that the shiny image seems now to have been always designed to trick us by concealing some truth that’s rather unpalatable with an over-rich sensory overload that buries all the faults somewhere in its photoshop layers. I for one would want to know the bad news upfront, I know it’s going to be there somewhere and if I don’t see it at first glance I simply won’t trust it.

    Some TV advertising now uses increasingly effectively-drawn humorously fake stories of the downsides of car insurance quotation systems and bank investments to smooth down hackles raised by years of overstated and unrealistic implied guarantees – with ever better results for their sponsors. So they clearly sense a trend in the collective mood.

    Surely art should reflect the larger society within which it exists and so would perhaps be better advised to steer away from an over-sweet intake – or output and to present itself in a more wholemeal, roughage-included, high-fibre manner to avoid a sense of mental heartburn that we can sometimes all suffer from.

  3. John Sour says:

    I took the trouble to seek out the shop window exhibition and I must say how disappointed I was – amongst the problems I had were

    poor curation – very few captions or other information – were all the images untitled??

    poor dispay – the lighting and viewing through a window lead to various reflections which made to images hard to view

    I agree all the comments about the content of the images – too much of a celebration of all that is vacuaous about the new leeds.



    • Jon Eland says:

      Hi John,

      Thanks for taking the time out to visit the exhibition; and for sharing your views. I’ll not contradict them as they’re quite valid; however I will flag up one response; the exhibition was hung in and for winter months – it should have come down in February. Strong lights have been set up to illuminate the images once the light draws in and, in winter, the reflections weren’t so much of an issue.

      To everyone reading this – concepts, ideas and other constructive thoughts around future exhibitions and competitions would be very welcome…

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