Artist-Led St Helens

A Mini Road Trip to Lancaster

Last weekend (Friday) saw me heading north on a mini road trip to Buxton, St. Helens and Lancaster.

Buxton, first, to meet up with my friend Liz Maxwell for lunch in a little coffee shop come gift shop opposite the Opera House, where I managed to park for free courtesy of the local council’s defective parking meters, yay 🙂

It’s been a while since we last met – for a cycle ride in the Peak. She’s not been well and I’ve been busy. An amazingly interesting, but little known fact – we were born on same day. How weird is that? Anyway, it was great to catch up and the food was good – toasted oatmeal bread, soft brie, rocket salad and a couple of cups of coffee.

Moving on, literally, to St. Helens where I dropped off my things, a quick cup of tea and a natter with Christine and Dana Beckett before carrying on up to Lancaster. Given I was now travelling during rush hour the M6 was surprisingly free-flowing.

Despite overstaying at Christine’s (we do like to natter) I made it to the ‘Image Control’ exhibition in Lancaster with time to spare before the artist/photographer, Joe Fenna, gave a talk about his Berkofsky Arts Award collaborative photography project, ‘Rebranding Gender’.

Joe explained that in creating his images through conversations with his subjects, representations can be developed which challenge gender perception and work towards new ways of seeing and understanding contemporary identity management and the privileged gaze: “I’m hugely interested in fashion, performance, identity and representation in photography, and aim to work as an editorial fashion and art photographer.”

What caught my interest originally was Joe’s approach to working with trans and non-binary people. He basically acted as a technical adviser, facilitating the final outcome of the images, but relinquished his part as a traditional photographer who usually drives the creative process. Instead, he concentrated on providing the means for the subjects to achieve the visual representation they wanted to portray.

I feel this is so important in a world where trans and non-binary people are struggling to have their authentic voices heard. And although Joe isn’t trans/non-binary it looks like he’s shaping up to be a great ally and I wish him well.

After the talk, I looked round the exhibition, reading the text that the subjects had written about their experience of participating in the project, which was overwhelmingly positive. Unfortunately, none of the subjects could make the exhibition – now that would have been the icing on the cake.

Joe’s father, Simon, came over to chat with me. He explained that before Joe got involved with the project trans/non-binary people had never crossed his radar, and that it was a real education for him to see the results of Joe’s work – he’s justifiably proud of his son.

Before leaving, I spoke to Joe and asked him how he felt about giving up the photographer’s traditional power dynamic in the photographer/subject/viewer triangle – the colonial status quo. He said he had no issues with that and enjoyed the whole process.

I sincerely hope Joe goes on to have a successful editorial fashion/art photography career, and remains a good trans/non-binary ally.

Of course, I would love to see more trans/non-binary photographers helping to authentically represent us in the fashion world, and indeed in the world at large.

After the show, I headed back to St. Helens for the night, with another art exhibition to attend the next day – ‘Slap Dash’ organised by Claire Weetman, Artist-Led St. Helens and St. Helens Council.

As is usual for me, I didn’t get much shut-eye. Sleeping in a strange bed rarely works for me. Never mind, I was up before my hostesses and helped myself to breafast, while checking out Christine’s photography library – we have similiar tastes, so scanning her shelves always throws up some gems.

Christine had a number of photographs on display at the ‘Slap Dash’ exhibition so later that morning we took ourselves into St. Helens town centre and went straight to the event.

The ‘Artist-Led St. Helens’ organisation was setup as an initiative to utilise empty retail premises in St. Helens as cheap art studios and exhibition spaces for local artists. St. Helens town centre has many empty retail premises which the council can’t find new tenants for and artists struggle to pay commercial rates for studios, so here’s hoping the council and Artist-Led can work together for mutual benefit.

Slap Dash Exhibition, St. Helens – 6th March 2022

As well as artists exhibits the event provided art activities for vistors to take part in and experience. Around lunch time an excellent buffet was provided, which went down very well.

Art activities provided for visitors

I took a few photos, one with Christine’s dinky little Fujifilm XF10, which I’m now in love with – it looks like a point and shoot camera, which no one takes any notice of, but it has full manual control and a ‘snapshot’ facility allowing the photographer to take candid shots very quickly – I loved it! And the images it produces are awesome.

Documenting the documenter taken on Fujifilm XF10 – photo taken with permission of the parents

After the show I took a leisurely drive back home, put the washing on (as you do) and chilled out. One of the best weekends I’ve had for a while.

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