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Reflections of a Society: Paintworks’ fab new photography hub

The new headquarters of a stalwart photography institution, opening this month, will make Paintworks a real local destination for cutting-edge visuals and social commentary

As of 7 February, Bristol will have itself a new arts venue at popular Paintworks, courtesy of an international organisation with a membership of over 11,000. A fully accessible photography hub, The Royal Photographic Society has made like the Martin Parr Foundation (established in Bristol at the end of 2017) in choosing the creative hotspot for its home which makes Bath Road a pretty cool new quarter for contemporary camerawork. Photography will be the focus across an all-new exhibition space, auditorium and education centre housing a library and historical materials, and exhibitions at Society HQ will be accompanied by a dynamic learning programme of lectures, talks, film screenings and workshops to support the education initiative.

Futuro I by
Tom Blachford

“Our building brings a public exhibition space back to The Royal Photographic Society for the first time since 2001, so that it can show the best of photography to inspire and excite the public,” says Mike Taylor, chief operating officer. “The building restates the RPS’ commitment to photography and reinforces its own place within the medium it has been integral to for the past 165 years. It’s part of the charity’s wider strategy supporting photography, engaging photographers and educating the public – looking to the future at a time when photography and the moving image have never been more relevant to the human experience.”

…Photography and the moving
image have never been more relevant to the human experience…

Heightening the society’s public presence, the new cultural attraction – whose close environmental control will allow for the display of everything from fragile photographs from the 19th century to multi-media installations – opens with the 161st annual International Photography Exhibition. Furthering its mission to educate and inspire a passion for photography, the theme for 2019 is discovery and the launch show will share visually arresting work of established and young photographers. The 100 featured images, by 54 international photographers, cover a wide range of practices from portraiture and landscape to the use of photography to comment on contemporary issues and highlight personal stories.

We found out more from COO Mike Taylor…

So what was the thinking behind the new Paintworks centre?

We wanted to create a space that was really special and welcome. We are an organisation rich with expertise and a love for photography, so we’d like to bring more of that to bear. Having a home, not just for the RPS but also for photography, is an important part of that. Investing our resources in that home is a tangible demonstration of our commitment to share photography with more people. We investigated locations all over the UK but ultimately decided on Bristol as it’s a powerful creative community to be based within. We really feel that the city will help us amplify our voice. We are based beside the Martin Parr Foundation which means Paintworks has become a real destination for lovers of photography.

Portrait of Winona by Alex Grace. As well as portraiture, the exhibition covers practices including the use of photography to comment on contemporary issues and highlight personal stories

Which photographers’ work is most intriguing you at the moment?

Juno Calypso (junocalypso.com) – a UK photographer who explores themes of feminism, identity, isolation and loneliness. She creates fantastical, dream-like self-portraits dressed as alter-ego ‘Joyce’ in unusual locations. For her series ‘What To Do With A Million Years’ she worked in an underground bunker. The photographs are eerily beautiful, stylised and disturbing. She was awarded The Viv Odden Award at the 2018 RPS Awards.

Any Bristol photographers being showcased in the first show?

There are many Bristol photographers and local connections. We are thrilled to feature work by Fergus Coyle, Samuel W.J. Fordham, Jamie E. Murray and Luke Withers. Aaron Schuman (course leader for UWE’s photography MA) was on the selection panel.

…Bristol is a powerful creative community. It means a lot to us to join such a vibrant cluster. The city will help us amplify our voice…

What do you think of the scene right now, and how it’s changed?

More women are getting involved in the photography scene which, traditionally, has been male-dominated. We really hope this continues and to see more female photographers receive recognition; I think there is a real appetite for more diversity in the industry. We recently ran a campaign called Hundred Heroines where we celebrated women in photography to add our voice to the global discussion and assist in promoting unsung heroines. This campaign marked 100 years since the women’s suffrage movement in the UK. We’re currently working on the legacy of that project and will have an exhibition for the final 100 photographers. These voices are being amplified and, we hope, recognised all over as they should be.

Coney Island by Christopher Bethell

What will your new space allow you to do that you couldn’t before?

The opportunity to expand our educational activities and encourage the appreciation of photography by yet more people. People talk about the Octagon [the RPS’ former home] in the centre of Bath with a huge amount of affection. It was a place people returned to and liked to be in. The quality of the environment is a reflection of both the quality of staff and the work we want to do. It will set a new standard for how we work. We are a charity and what we do is for the public good, so we must think about the value we have to society and how we can make more of an impact.

What are your aims for 2019?

To present exciting, enriching activities and contribute to the Bristol art scene through collaboration. We’re incredibly proud of our programme and will be announcing our next exhibition soon. All I’ll say for now is our team have come up with some original ways of exploring the theme of discovery with fantastic international photographers. We’re also in the process of redeveloping our website which we are excited to unveil in summer.

…More women are getting involved in the scene, which has been male-dominated; there is a real appetite for more diversity in the industry…

Which dates should we pop in the diary?

The International Print Exhibition 161 opens on 7 February, accompanied by events exploring themes like identity, travel, science and political commentary. We’ll also be presenting our distinction assessments in our state-of-the-art auditorium; photographers present their work to a panel of experts to be accredited. The spring is booked out but we do have availability in summer, so book early. We’re also planning a party for Paintworks residents and hope to host other arts organisations events. It means a lot to us to join such a vibrant creative cluster; we plan to contribute as much as we can.

Daniel With Rugs by Luis Alberto Rodriguez

How do you see the future of the art form?

It’s such an interesting time for photography; there are so many people interested in analogue and digital. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive which means the possibilities are endless. Also, to some extent everyone is a photographer these days with the rise of smartphones, which is wonderful – you can get some fantastic results using a phone and it makes it more accessible. We’ve recently added smartphone photography for beginners to our workshops and its proven really popular.

Who will receive more recognition in the next few years?

I’m incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by a wealth of photographic talent so it’s difficult to choose. In my humble opinion, I predict young, London-based Ellie Ramsden – who specialises in portrait, music and street photography – is going places.


Featured image: Frances And Nunu by Jonathan Knowles