The second exhibition I saw at the Photographers’ Gallery in London last week was Mark Neville’s ‘Deeds Not Words’. It’s a study of a local community in the former steel town of Corby in Northamptonshire, shot over 2009–10. If like me you attend the exhibition with no prior knowledge of the subject matter, the unfolding of the different layers of the content is fascinating, slightly jolting even.
Three layers of interest
On the face of it, the 32 images on show here are a yet another celebration of working class rituals in a community that’s seen better days; with the bright, saturated colours, there’s a hint of Martin Parr in both the subject and the aesthetic.
Then on closer inspection another point of interest emerges: the prevalence of Scottish imagery. At this point I’m thinking, hang on, Corby’s in Northamptonshire, so why do they have Highland Games, drink so much Irn Bru and so on? It transpires that the town has a large and fiercely proud Scottish community, from when Glaswegian steelworkers brought their families down south three or four generations ago. This element in itself gives Corby a particular character and offers up imagery that justifies why a photographer would centre a project around the town. But the real purpose of the project crept up on me. I stared at a triptych of a young boy popping a balloon; the first point of interest to me was the moment the balloon splits apart, frozen by a fast shutter speed. A second point of interest was the expanse of red that formed the not-yet-deflated balloon. Then eventually my eyes fell onto the hand that held the balloon; it only had a thumb and two fingers. A second triptych at the other end of the room repeated this balloon-popping pose in mono, and with an older youth. Again, the same deformity of the hand, missing two fingers. In a side room a single image in close-up: blue balloon, same deformity.
Photography as activism
So once the (uninformed) viewer finally peels back they layers of meaning, what emerges is a project about the Corby 16, a group of families who spent over a decade fighting legal battles with the local council about the misuse of contaminated former industrial land and the cluster of childhood deformities ultimately traced to the unsafe disposal of toxic waste. A short documentary film playing in a side room explains all. The court case was ultimately successful. What Mark Neville did with the accumulated material is interesting; he produced a hefty photobook, half images and half text, explaining the case and its effects on the community. However, the book was never for sale: he simply sent a copy to each of the 433 local authority environmental health officers in the United Kingdom, and selected international environmental agencies – an audience he believed might actually have an influence on policy and practice around reuse of contaminated land and disposal of toxic waste. He used his particular brand of documentary photography to raise awareness and instigate change. The velvet glove of the glossy photobook contained an iron fist of activism!
I thought about this exhibition a lot over the couple of days following the visit. My views may be entirely coloured by the fact that I wasn’t aware of the subject matter (as I was drawn to the gallery by the simultaneous Mass Observation show, which didn’t stay with me anywhere near as long as this) and maybe the forearmed viewer would see things a little differently. The lasting impression is of an exhibition in two unequal parts. The ‘slice of life’ shots of carnival queens, working mens’ clubs, highland dancing and so on are interesting in themselves, a real portrait of a vibrant community doing its best to cope with long-term economic decline, and the Scottish undercurrent adds more colour (I particularly liked the child standing in front of a huge Irn Bru display in a supermarket). The images of the children affected by the deformities, however, are in a different style, posed not candid. And only seven of the 32 images in the exhibition covered the affected children. To me it felt like the message was somewhat diluted by the prevalence of the candid community images. I didn’t see any overlap, where the kids from the posed shots were also part of the more tableau-style group images. I see the connections: families sharing experiences, all ultimately the outcome of the same socio-economic factors – the community first built around the steelworks, then bonding around its decline, and the specific effects of the way the council handled its dismantling – but in terms of visual representation, it felt a little like two exhibitions pushed together. Copies of the book were on display, along with informative posters to take away. These, and the aforementioned short film, redress the balance in favour of covering the Corby 16 story in much more detail. I’m sure the photographer and the organisers chose the images and their sequencing very thoughtfully and deliberately, but my personal opinion was that the important message was left a little too subtle in the exhibition itself. An absolutely fascinating project nonetheless.
As I learn more about photography, I’m starting to see aspects I might otherwise not have noticed, and/or can articulate more clearly why certain images appeal to me. One of the visual aspects of Neville’s style is the corner-to-corner sharpness that renders every part of his images in clear focus; this man does not do shallow depth of field. In an interview I found in Hotshoe  he explains his deliberate choice of small apertures:
“The large depth of field and detail I employ in my photographs is driven by the desire to record everything, to make a social document, to historicise. It is democratic, and it implies that no element of the picture is more important than any other […] Thus, the colour of someone’s nail varnish is as important as a car number plate, or the design of a cocktail glass.”
This approach works particularly well for the community shots, where there are usually multiple points of interest for the eyes to find. It also suits the large prints that an exhibition such as this will provide. My other observation was about the presentation of the images. The images on the walls looked so much better – more colourful, clearer, sharper, more vibrant – than the equivalent images in the photobook. I’m not sure I’d had noticed any issue with the quality of the book if I hadn’t seen the mounted, framed, appropriately lit large prints on the walls in the same room, but it did bring home to me for the first time how much the viewing experience can be affected by the presentation, and the limitations of book printing in this regard.
1. Hotshoe, issue 184, June–July 2013