London has a wealth of talented photographers, but for some strange reason the capital's never had an international photography festival. Until now. David Brittain previews the Shoreditch Biennale
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The Independent Culture
PHOTOGRAPHY HAS finally supplanted painting as the most fashionable art form. One of the most telling milestones was the critical acclaim which greeted Richard Billingham's unflinching family snapshots at "Sensation" last year at the Royal Academy. The word is that Charles Saatchi is quietly investing in even more photography.

As if on cue, London now has a classy international photography festival. The Shoreditch Biennale is about to put London on a par with other cities which host major photography festivals (including Montreal, Paris, Barcelona, Houston, Mexico City). The four-week programme, which includes two Turner Prize winners, showcases some of the most exciting and risk-taking photography being made in the capital and beyond. But compared with, say, Houston - whose Fotofest began a decade ago - London's photography scene has dragged behind.

This wasn't for lack of ideas. Several schemes for a London-based photography festival have been mooted, but all have somehow come to nothing. The fact that London has vast resources of galleries, artists, newspapers and magazines, creative flair and wealth seems to have made no difference. Some of this experience and talent was brought round a table in 1995 to help London bid to host the Year of Photography & the Electronic Image. But the event - with pounds 500m of Government and regional funding - went to Yorkshire and Humberside.

The Shoreditch Biennale has grown out of a frustration with this impasse and a determination to make something happen in London which would rival any international photography festival. A pilot version of the event was launched two years ago by the curator Val Williams and the photographer Anna Fox, together with Creative Camera magazine, on a shoestring budget of pounds 5,000. The idea was to recreate the intimate atmosphere of foreign festivals, where photophiles and professionals wander between closely situated shows and mingle over coffee and late-night drinks. So Williams and Fox decided to base all the events in the area they knew best - Shoreditch in east London. Bordered on the south by the redeveloping Spitalfields market and Brick Lane, and lying just west of an area bristling with photographers' studios and processing labs, Shoreditch has become London's hottest and most hyped cultural district. And, as part of Hackney, it is on the doorstep of the largest concentration of artists in western Europe. Most shows will be within walking distance of each other, housed in temporary exhibition spaces donated by sympathetic local organisations - including Circus Space and the former nursery in Hoxton Square.

With 10 times as much money as in 1996, this year's biennale comprises conventional wall-hung shows, projections, billboard art and installations. Most of the exhibitors are not well known. But don't be put off: Shoreditch wants to promote tomorrow's talents. The programme includes an exhibition of new photography by students at the Royal College of Art. Look out particularly for Bettina von Zwehl's compelling portraits of friends, captured as they teeter on the brink of consciousness.

A photography festival is a always an opportunity to encounter provocative and off-beat types of photography. Shoreditch includes Sputnik by the Spanish artist Joan Foncuberta who computer-montaged his features into pictures that illustrate the official history of the Soviet space project. Equally disconcerting is "Common Complaints", an exhibition of large colour details of minor ailments, such as dandruff, a cold sore, etc, coolly documented by the young British photographer, Gordon MacDonald.

Some of Britain's best-known photographers are in fashion, so it's only fitting that style will feature prominently, reflecting the vogue for fashion photographers having art shows (Saul Fletcher's recent show at Sadie Coles HQ was reportedly a sell-out). In the Sixties most exhibiting photographers (Bailey, Donovan, et al) worked in fashion, and the boundaries between media and art continue to blur today. The Biennale opens on Thursday evening with a spectacular two-hour, outdoor projection called "Plastic Metropolis". The theme is the city at night. By editing together pictures by Eighties style photographers such as Nick Knight, Derek Ridgers and Anita Corbin with work by the present-day fashion photographer, Elaine Constantine, and younger artists such as Rut Blees Luxembourg, the projection will defy you to spot the difference between "art" and "commerce" and "then" and "now".

One of the big themes of the Nineties is housing; and the Biennale is showing work initiated by the Holly Street Public Art Trust. The Trust was set up four years ago as part of the redevelopment of a housing estate north-east of Shoreditch. The Holly Street tower blocks are being demolished, but they will live on in photographs. The Trust commissioned Rachel Whiteread and Gillian Wearing to make art in, and about, a high-rise, and extended a similar invitation to 10 children. The kids, all residents of Holly Street, photographed life on the estate during the summer of 1994. Their pictures are now installed in Holly Street's last tower block.

What connects all these different shows and events is the idea of creating a photographic archive. "After the Holly Street tower blocks are demolished, all that will be left is an archive," says Val Williams. Artists have been reworking found photographs since the turn of the century, but Williams detects a new obsession with history among artists. "Maybe it's because we are approaching the end of the millennium, but it seems that artists are reflecting on what history means." Besides Foncuberta's faked space history, there is Stephen Bull's Meet Hazel Stokes. This is a series of snapshots from the album of a provincial-theatre usher who has herself photographed with visiting actors. In a wickedly inventive reversal of the usual relationship, the usher becomes star, the celebrity the fan. A fascination with the thin line between fame and obscurity led the photographer David Moore to the collection of portraits of Hackney's former mayors. These people were VIPs in their time, but these faces are nobodies now.

The Biennale will introduce Londoners to a form of festival-going in which the experience of criss-crossing the area, visiting unfamiliar spaces and sitting out in pubs and cafes is just as important as looking at pictures. OK, so Shoreditch hasn't quite got the aesthetic appeal of Las Ramblas, Montmartre or Arles - but don't underestimate the drawing power of a caffe latte at The Bean on Curtain Road.

! The Shoreditch Biennale: in and around Hoxton Sq, N1 (0171 739 4921), Thursday to 6 June. The winner of the Independent on Sunday/Shoreditch Biennale/Olympus competition will be announced shortly. David Brittain is Editor of 'Creative Camera'.


Elaine Constantine is one of the hottest young fashion photographers around. Since 1993 she has worked for the 'Face', 'i-D' and 'Arena Homme Plus' among others. Her style merges fashion with reportage. The Constantine images being shown in the Shoreditch Biennale's 'Plastic Metropolis' projection - of people in a 'mosh pit', the crush right in front of the stage at a gig - look like hastily grabbed shots, but were in fact carefully staged. The pictures on this page were taken in Brighton for a fashion spread, but have a convincing spontaneity. Constantine is currently making a film documentary about Northern Soul


Anna Fox is a photography tutor at the Royal College of Art and one of the organisers of the Shoreditch Biennale. Her documentary photographs have appeared in many exhibitions in Britain and abroad. The series' title, 'Afterwards', is as important to the meaning of Fox's pictures as their visual impact. Taken at private rave parties, in Hampshire, these photographs feature collapsed individuals and couples. They have the quality of pictures which have been covertly snatched. We are left guessing about what happened before the shutter tripped - if anything


German-born Bettina von Zwehl is presently half-way through her MA in photography at the Royal College of Art. She is exhibiting a series of pictures of her friends in the Shoreditch Biennale. 'Untitled' has a whiff of the KGB about it - sitters were forced to face the camera moments after they woke up - but the inspiration was actually the practice of psychoanalysis. 'When you awake you're closest to your dream world.' To get the right results, she got her sitters to sleep in her bed, so that she could have her camera in hand, ready to shoot, the moment they woke up


Rachel Whiteread is one of Britain's most respected sculptors. In 1993, she became a household name with 'House', a cast of the inside of a demolished Hackney house, and won the Turner Prize. Her contribution to the Biennale is 'Demolished, 1996', a series of 12 black-and-white photographs taken before and during the demolition of the Holly Street tower blocks. Like 'House', 'Demolished' is concerned with the question of what makes a house a home