Open 1 at Open Eye: Take a long look

Laura Harris
Someone holds a photograph of a once crowded, now empty street.

First in a series of exhibitions showcasing photography submissions to Open Eye in Liverpool, Open 1 makes a powerful argument for the art form’s relevance today.

Open Eye Gallery’s newest exhibition, themed around ideas of social portraiture, whisks you around the world as seen through the lenses of six photographers. From a dirt-brown dessert on Indonesian Java to an office in Dubai, with a stop off in an American Juvenile Detention Centre, Open 1 gives an intimate insight into the lives and customs of people the world over.

The projects on display blur the line between photojournalism and art; think Louis Theroux meets Adam Curtis meets Steve McCurry. As such, the exhibition fully supports the idea that photography is a profoundly socially relevant and important artistic medium, well worth its place in a gallery. It brings into focus (sorry) Open Eye’s position as one of Europe’s leading photography centres, and its dedication to supporting and promoting new photographers.

Open 1 features six artists who have responded to the gallery’s continuous and open call for submissions, and is the first in a series of three annual exhibitions that will do so. In Louis Quail’s work, an office worker stares wistfully into the middle distance, the stars and stripes of the American flag looming over his untidy desk. Deborah Kelly’s photographs show families posed in the manner of ‘Old Masters’ paintings, proudly displaying children conceived using assisted reproductive technologies. Sonal Kantaria presents us with Australian migrants of Indian descent and Billy Macrea offers us an important reminder of the G20 riots.

Open 1 whisks you around the world, as seen through the lenses of six photographers

These seemingly disparate subjects slip seamlessly from one to the next, as the photographers challenge viewers to rethink and contemplate a variety of social realities. The first room of the gallery is given over to Helen Marshall’s Project Tobong, which looks at one of the last theatre troupes in Java. It captures performative, posed and colourfully-costumed characters confronting the camera, before a backdrop of contemporary Java with its gas stations and expansive desserts. You are drawn into a world of drama increasingly alienated from its roots.

Richard Ross’ Juvenile in Justice fills the final room of the exhibition, presenting images of young inmates in American detention centres, accompanied by short blurbs profiling each case. This dual use of text and image serves to give a voice to the blurred out faces. The stories are full of social injustice and crimes motivated by inequality and oppression. The project leaves you with an acute and unsettling awareness of a complex issue, epitomising the curatorial theme of social portraiture that runs throughout the exhibition.

Susan Sontag famously wrote that the value of photography is to say, “This too exists. And that. And that.” This exhibition reflects this, and demonstrates a powerful synergy between documentary and art. This exhibition takes time, and in a world of photostreams and Instagram, it’s a welcome change of pace.

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