pictures above by Paul Gaffney and Michal Iwanowski
A few weeks back, Paul Gaffney invited me to be in conversation with him for his exhibition at ffotogallery in Penarth. I thought, "well I've never done this sort of thing before but sure why not". I thought there would be one man and his dog and a couple of grizzled landscape photographers, maybe a stray unwashed, documentary photography student who had wandered over from Newport. I thought of this and looked forward to asking questions like "What snacks did you eat on your walk, Paul? What's your favourite biscuit? If you were a biscuit, what biscuit would you be?"
But then I remembered that it was the Paul Gaffney whose first book was the fantastic "We Make the Path by Walking" and I thought, ah no, I can't do that, it might be quite busy. And then Paul told me that it was a double show and that Michal Iwanowski would be there showing his Clear of People - his retreading of his grandfather's 2,200 kilometre journey from a Russian Gulag to Poland back in 1945.
So it wasn't a quiet night. Despite the pissing rain and godawful traffic, it was standing room only. They had to lock people out. There were students there from the Photography for Fashion and Advertising, Photo Art and MA courses at Newport, and instead of the random stray unwashed documentary photography student, it was slick glamour all the way with Newport documentary students from Finland, Germany, Estonia, Denmark, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Argentina, England, Ireland and Wales gracing the gallery with their elegant presence.
People had come specially to the show from Belgium (lovely to meet you Fabrice Wagner and more on that in a later post), Finland, Latvia and France and as well as the admirers of Paul Gaffney, the local love for Michal Iwanowski was oh so apparent. He had a veritable fan club.
It was hopping and for good reason. The work was great and as people to be in conversation with, Paul and Michal were a delight and eased my nerves and talked so eloquently and deeply about their work that I never got to ask what kind of of biscuit they would be. The only problem was it was so busy that some people at the back had difficulties hearing.
Instead they talked about their work; the exhibiton was two landscape shows but they were very different. Gaffney's was about forgetting and becoming one with the landscape and Iwanowski was about remembering (and becoming one with the landscape). Where Gaffney's work was light and populated by unseen spirits, Iwanowski's was dark and what life was there was to be avoided. It was a landscape history that was informed by the past and all the more evocative for that.
Iwanowski is looking for people to tell him the war stories they know and that is something that resonates, so much so that I found myself in conversation with 4 people whose second world war family histories almost summed up the entire Eastern Front; of the four, Iwanowski had his grandfather who had walked across the Soviet Union, one had a father who had escaped from Auschwitz, one had a father who had been in the SS and one had an uncle who had fought at Stalingrad. In Penarth! Unbelievable!
Both Gaffney and Iwanowski talked about their books. Iwanowski's is in the planning stage, but Gaffney's is the finished article and sold out. It was fascinating to hear about Gaffney made, promoted and sold the book, an object lesson in the hard work and lightness of touch that is required on top of the great work.
It was even more fascinating to see the love people have for his work. I'm not sure what it is that strikes such a chord with people. Partly it s the title, partly it is the fluency with which Gaffney talks about his work, but most of all it is the directness of the work with its crossroads, split paths, dead ends and resting places. People are sucked right into it. It's honest and recognisable and direct, but with a philosophical and spiritual edge.
Earlier in the week, I posted on Martin Parr and his view that photography has never been healthier. Last night was evidence of that. Feel Good Photography that has a specific approach and vision and depth! Long may it continue.
See the show here.