This review was published in November 2016 in Cuckoo Review here.
The re-opening of Amber Collective’s Side Gallery was much anticipated, after the gallery – the only gallery in the UK dedicated to documentary photography – closed in 2015 for a major refurbishment. Childhoods, the opening exhibition, was not a disappointment. Covering both floors, the exhibition brings together collections and works previously exhibited at the gallery’s opening in 1977, as well as previously un-exhibited and new pieces. Spanning four continents, and combining images and film, they provide a view-finder into the meaning of ‘childhood’ and its dimensions for often ignored or misrepresented children.
Julian Germain’s Classroom Portraits (2004-2012) photographs classrooms in schools across the world. He uses a long exposure and precise positioning to ensure that each face is captured looking directly into the camera, creating an unsettling image with tens of pairs of eyes looking out. Often these are accompanied by relevant data – lines linking the children to future aspirations, time spent reading, or their favourite colour. I was most moved by the depressing statistics that accompanied a class of eleven year olds – over two thirds of them spent 3+ hours watching TV, and less than 30 minutes reading a book per day.
James Mollison’s Where Children Sleep (2008-2010) also struck home, with images of the ‘bedrooms’ of children across the world. Eerily, the children themselves are removed from the setting, and instead are captured in headshots next to the image. Mattresses in fields, rubber tyres in a tent, and toy-filled apartments on 5th Avenue expressed an extra dimension to the faces beside them.
The exhibition is also a celebration of childhood, its magical qualities, and the importance of certain steps of life. Girls escaping their real lives for the one-night-only-princess-prom, stand by those using music and instruments as an outlet.
Liz Hingley’s Home Made in Smethwick was a particularly touching nod to the importance of family, and family meal times. Intimate portraits of families at meal times are accompanied by a hand-written recipe of the food they’re captured eating. The collection is ongoing, and creates a treasured recipe-book into the lives of ethnically diverse Smethwick.
Childhoods is well curated, and toes the line perfectly between providing information on the images, and letting them speak for themselves. The collection is extensive, but never boring, and an hour or two can easily pass as you peer into these children’s lives.