Creating a Cathedral: Building the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. Photographs by Stewart Bale
Liverpool Anglican Cathedral
8th May to 27th May 2011

This modest exhibition of thirty vintage prints, curated by the art historian Dr Emma Roberts of Liverpool John Moores University, raises a number of issues central to contemporary photography. The exhibition is part of the wider programme of events for the Look 11 Photography Festival taking place across Liverpool in May. The exhibition, in the unusual setting of the imposing Victorian Gothic Anglican Cathedral, has to contend with the overpowering scale of this building and its function as a religious space.

Roberts has succeeded in being sympathetic to this environment; she has achieved this with the very simple device of using black music stands to display the black-framed prints instead of musical scores. The photographs are arranged in a circle in the Cathedral transept thus creating their own ‘architectural space’ without visible walls that would be obtrusive in this setting. The exhibition asserts its presence even though the scale of the photographic prints is relatively small by contemporary standards.

Roberts’ exhibition contributes to the current trend that emphasises the importance of archives and attempts to address the lack of appreciation that these traces of our photographic heritage have suffered. The accompanying catalogue, that describes each exhibited image in full, is an excellent starting point for further research into this important archive. Stewart Bale Ltd was a family-run photographic practice that was based in Liverpool from the early years of the twentieth century until the 1980s, which has left behind a significant archive of negatives and prints. The Anglican Cathedral has its own small archive of Stewart Bale prints from which Roberts has drawn her exhibition. From this small selection it is clear that we are faced with a body of work that could be a parallel to that of the photographer of Paris, Eugéne Atget. This might seem to be an extravagant claim but with nearly 200,000 negatives in the larger Stewart Bale archive there is a lot of work to be done.

Stewart Bale Ltd specialised in commercial, architectural and industrial photography. The exhibition of these photographs as part of the Look 11 Festival highlights the debate between photography as art and photography as commerce. Although these images were made to document the building of the Cathedral, many of the images are works of art in their own right, as Roberts points out in her catalogue text.

The prints on display are vintage prints and as such have their own distinct characteristics. The attraction of these prints is physical, in the tones and qualities of the photographic papers that these images are printed on and in the marks that they have accumulated. Stewart Bale worked with large format cameras, 12” x 10” and 10’ x 8” negatives, and therefore the prints in this exhibition must be contact prints. In comparison to large digital prints that we are used to seeing in galleries, these archived prints are unassuming.

With this exhibition Emma Roberts has managed to address the issues of site specificity, the archive, and the changes in photographic technologies. To accompany this exhibition a panel discussion on Monday 23rd May at 7.00pm will consider the architecture of the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. It will be interesting to hear how the Stewart Bale photographs sit within the context of this discussion as a record of the creation of this landmark building.Stephen Clarke-----------

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