Photomonth photography festival sits in East London and celebrates a vast collection of photography in galleries and venues until late November. Based in local areas including Spitalfields, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green in Tower Hamlets, Dalston, Homerton and Hoxton in Hackney. In these locations you can find an abundance of events, talks, pop-up shops and even a café-crawl that are still on for another month. The festival couldn’t be more different from those events usually held in galleries with white washed walls upon walls. The strength of this festival centring on the variety of locations that include a diversity of work that engages emerging photographers through to seasoned professionals, collections of archives and multimedia material. I strongly recommend CASS Gallery – where the title ARCHIVE: Imaging the East End is recognised with a curated show inspired by the East End Archive, an online photographic resource that collates historic and contemporary collections. Curators of the show were intent on including local archives to develop public awareness of the culture shifts and differences of the area, with each archive donating an image and text. This strong theme of archival material runs throughout the festival, most noticeably up in Hackney Museum with the exhibit ‘Strike a Pose: Portraits from a Hackney Photo Studio’. At CASS you get an introduction into Photomonth with a cleanly curated show set in the environment of an old bank with a decorative marble counter, a nice juxtaposition. Here I met and talked with Maggie Pinhorn, the director, who spoke about the history and development of photography in London:
Q: Why was Photomonth created?
A: Originally to assist in the regeneration of the East End. In the 1990s the Old Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market closed down, the local fashion industry was in serious decline and the area was largely bereft of social spaces. Photomonth East London was created to connect people with the area and encourage the development of emerging photographers and galleries.
Q: Why choose Photography to engage and help the area?
A: Well, photography has always been a major art form in the East End, it’s highly accessible and may be shown in various kinds of venues. East London is an extraordinary place, every changing and highly political. Waves of immigrants from different countries with different cultures and ideas have settled here over the centuries and made a huge contribution to our way of life. I knew about Le Mois de la Photo in Paris and photomonths taking place in other European cities and thought that it would be great to create something similar for London. Small galleries and new venues were gradually opening up and needed an idea that would bring them together and raise their profile. So in 2001 we invited them to host photography exhibitions by emerging and established artists during a given period of time ie from October to November, creating the concept of Photomonth East London and encouraging the public to enjoy exploring the area. In the first year 15 venues participated, by 2012 there were over 200 exhibitions and events held in galleries, museums, libraries, shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, hospitals, community centres, churches and in the street.
Q: What is the history of photography festivals in London? Why is Photomonth a success?
A: London has not really had a history of photography festivals. Photo-London did take place in the West End for a couple of years but could not really compete with Paris Photo which is very well established and is not really a festival. Photomonth’s open call policy has led to its success. Photographers are free to find all kinds of spaces to show their work and present events. Exhibitions are free, events engage the community and workshops encourage participation. The public is happy to view work in social spaces such as cafes, bars & restaurants and previews are open to everyone and not limited to private views by invitation only. Photomonth includes everyone who wishes to participate from exhibitions by renowned photographers in major institutions to new artists showing work in a corner café, empty shop or street market. We publish the brochure which is very widely distributed, produce the website, and promote Photomonth to the press and media.
Q: This year is the first time that Photomonth has had a theme: ‘Imagining the East End’, can you explain the purpose of this decision and use of the term imagining?
A: We have taken the theme ‘Imagining the East End’ from the specially curated opening show ARCHIVE: Imagining the East End which is inspired by the East End Archive (www.eastendarchive.org) an online photographic resource that brings together both historic and contemporary collections. We wanted to showcase the work of a diverse range of photographers whose work relates to the East End of London. The East End is understood here as both a geographic location and an intangible space, a perpetually shifting frontier within the urban sprawl of London that is part real and part imagined. As a reflection of this approach the images range from documentary practice to works of the imagination.
We have also included other important local archives to develop public awareness and focus on their contribution to our cultural life. In these archives there is a wealth of images to feed the imagination – to perceive the East End way beyond its conventional boundaries and inspire artists to take what has become known as the ‘archival turn’. A photograph is not just a photograph but a philosophy – it says as much about the artist as the subject, the idea – the story is all there. It explores the territory of the mind, what we see and what we think we see.
Opposite CASS is The Whitechapel Gallery whom hold a splendid section of photography books. A short walk takes you up Brick Lane and to the always-intriguing activities of The Old Truman Brewery. Non-surprisingly this ex brewery turned creative space and venue literally always has something to do and new to see. For Photomonth the brewery created a series of events under the name PhotoBlock that saw the likes of Leica’s Photography Unplugged and Hasselblad’s shootLDN taking part with incredible pop up stores, demos and activities.
PhotoBlocks exhibition PhotoMasters, showcased a fine selection of MA students work from across the United Kingdom with the curators selecting a very nicely balanced yet varied selection of talent. Ideally you would spend several days stopping of at key areas in London but from here travel counter-clockwise up Bethnal Green Road to Four Corners, stopping for a visit to The Muesum of Childhood for some fascinating work. Then move onto Hackney Central Museum for archival portraits, with Stage 3 at the Hackney Empire directly opposite showing glossy images of extraordinary circus performers. Dalston would be the next recommendation with The Print House Gallery and The Hundreds Gallery nearby. After this I would start to source out particular areas that spark personal intrigue or just wander the city hitting as many locations as possible, enjoying the ‘imaging’ of this East End. Certainly don’t leave the city without visiting the places mentioned above.