Belfast Photo Festival

Three venues, three artists and three very different approaches to photography

Inaugurated this year, the Belfast Photo Festival is spread over more than 20 main venues showing a diverse selection of practitioners in the photographic arts, both from both a Northern Irish and international perspective.

To provide a brief overview of the shows open in the first week, I visited three venues displaying works by three photographers with very different approaches to their art.

Common Place

In the Ulster Hall is Common Place (pictured above) by Eoin O’Conaill, a series of urban landscapes taken in the strange half-light of the evening or under the snow-laden clouds of winter. The images are, in the main, devoid of people, though a couple have them front and centre. I can only presume that they are residents of the area in which the photographs were taken as their stances have a kind of defiant pride in the space they’re in.

It’s the empty shots that work the best however – petrol stations, empty shops to let, a taxi office in the night. There’s an atmospheric abandonment to these images, the diffused light from streetlights or fluorescence coupled with the low clouds and occasional snow blanking out the canvas, the only evidence of the people this space is created by and for being the tyre tracks left by cars as they’ve come and gone.

In these images these streets become an unprettified urban anywhere that work because they’re as familiar to us as they are alien.

In the new Creative Flux coffee shop and gallery space on Queen Street is American photographer Eliot Ross’ Animal (pictured above), a series of stark black and white portraits of various animals, from the commonplace duck to the exotic rhino.

The photographs are high contrast with spectral grey tones which, at their best, provide a luminescence and fine detail. Any part of the image that isn’t animal is blanked out in a flat sea of deep black so that the focus rests entirely on the animal itself. You can tell from the animal’s stance and so on that these were not taken at a zoo, for what it’s worth.

The fine detailed beauty of the images at times veers into kitsch, like that of a velvet painting, an impression augmented by the sometimes banal choice of image like that of a giraffe demurely lowering its head or a manta rearing up from the gloom.

It’s difficult to present images of animals that are entirely without anthropomorphism and I don’t think this exhibition, nobly as it may try, entirely succeeds, though at its best it finds a strange spectral beauty all of its own.

Under a Grey Sky

Over at the Golden Thread Gallery is Dublin based, Bangor born photographer Simon Burch’s Under a Grey Sky. This exhibition documents the peatlands of central Ireland in a series of large images that are either of mountains of the peat when removed, or of the large blank expanses where the work takes place.

It is in these flat expanses, where the only thing to see is where the horizon meets the sky, that the most effective photographs are. Despite the statement’s attestation that the 'expansive horizons convey a sense of freedom and possibility', the low skies of grey cloud can’t help but have an oppressive effect, serving as they do a mute counterpoint to the desolation below them.

Despite the palette of flat greys and mossy greens, and the heavy atmosphere that pervades them, these images have an odd fascination, especially since they are of a place that has its own unfamiliar processes, its own distinctive feel and represents many different possibilities, not simply destruction.

Common Place continues until August 20 in the Ulster Hall. Animal continues until August 30 in Creative Flux, Queen Street. Under a Grey Sky continues until August 25 in the Golden Thread Gallery.