Format International Photography Festival 2011: Review


Over the weekend I had the joy of visiting the Format festival in Derby. It’s a fantastic event that brings together some of the best street photographers in the world across a number of venues in the compact city of Derby in the East Midlands.

Visiting photography exhibitions is, as you can imagine, one of my favourite things to do. Often though, I’m left disappointed that the exhibition wasn’t comprehensive enough, or it just wasn’t really my cup of tea. Probably the best exhibition I ever visited was the Diane Arbus exhibition that was showing in The National Museum of Wales in Cardiff a year or so ago (or perhaps longer… losing track of time.)

So, it’s probably natural then that I would enjoy Format too. It’s fantastic to have a huge festival like this taking place outside London. I often find myself incredibly jealous of Londoners, because although they have to put up with living like a sardine, they do have far too many photo galleries for their own good… so to have this in Derby is refreshing.

Format is not a new festival. The bienniele affair was set up in 2004 and although I’ve never visited before, I’m told this is probably the best it’s ever been.

It’s difficult to know where to start with this review, so I’ll start with where we headed to first, the ‘main’ exhibition at the QUAD centre. Here was a mix of street photographers from around the world, with a couple of videos too. The highlight for me here was the 8mm films of the recently discovered street photographer from the 1950s and 1960s, Vivian Maier (by the way, I highly recommend you click on that link to see some awesome photos). I sat in the room watching these for a good 20 minutes taking them all in.

One big criticism I have for this part of the exhibition, in fact for a lot of it, is the way information about each artist/set of pictures is presented. Sadly there was nothing on the wall for any of them, aside from the name, and if you wanted to read any of it you had to find it in the fairly user un-friendly plastic laminated sheets on the bench in the middle of the room, which also contained spelling/grammar mistakes. I saw quite a few people had left notes of this nature in the guestbook so I’m hoping it’s something they can improve on for 2013.

Outside QUAD is an outdoor display of Magnum photographers work. Although by the time I was looking around these properly my hands were starting to drop off from the cold, these contained some great work, I particularly liked Chris Steele-Perkins‘ portraits, and the quotes that accompanied the standing boards that the photos were on.

In an empty shop down one of the city streets (forgive me I can’t quite remember the name) is housed the work from some of the Format workshops that have been going on during the month, including those led by Magnum photographers. This was one of my favourite parts as it was interesting to see what “ordinary people” had come up with, and how they had been influenced by their mentors.

We saw some work in The Silk Mill, an industrial museum which I’m sad to be told is about to close down for museum cuts. In here there was a fascinating display of beautiful landscapes in Yugoslavia that concealed landmines, probably one of the most thought provoking of all the exhibitions.

Finally we visited Derby Museum and Art Gallery which contained one of the star attractions, the Bruce Gilden exhibition. Also here was a set of pictures taken by young people from Kolkata and Derby Colloborative, which I found to be some of the more insightful photos, perhaps due to the inexperience and freshness of the photographers. Some of the more ‘famous’ street photographers were upstairs in the In-Public exhibition, so the likes of Nick Turpin, David Solomons and co could be found here, along with a great film about how Matt Stuart takes his photos.

As for the Bruce Gilden exhibit, this was also one of my favourite parts (I know it’s beginning to sound like it was all my favourite part, which, in a way, it was). The presentation of these images was slightly different from the other exhibitions in that they were all portrait, and all quite large. Bruce Gilden is an intrusive ‘hunter’ photographer. That is, to get his distinctive photos he walks up to people in the street, sticks a whopping great flash in their face and snaps and walks off again, all in the space of time so quick the subject probably doesn’t even have time to react. There’s a great video of him doing this on the streets of New York here. For FORMAT, Gilden had been commissioned to shoot people in Derby, I’d love to know what their reaction was – you can imagine New Yorkers being unfazed by it all…

So all in all, a fantastic festival with just one niggle about the display of information. I wish I’d had time to explore more parts of the festival which is dotted all around the city. You’ve still got until this Sunday to visit, so if you can possibly get across to Derby then I really, REALLY, strongly urge you to visit.

Check out some of the pictures I took of the exhibition on this page, I decided to shoot almost exclusively in Hipstamatic – seemed to fit the feel a bit more – and if you want to see even more, have a look at these from Flickr. For more information on the festival, please visit the Format website.

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