Mary Ellen Mark at Manchester Art Gallery

Two eerie photographic exhibitions from Mary Ellen Mark running until 5 September.

Twins

I had a problem with Twins that stems from my inability to separate art from some kind of context. I need to know where it’s coming from, which is a fault of mine. So while there’s no doubting the impact of Mark’s photography or its ability to engage, I constantly felt there was some vital something missing. Husband Martin Bell’s film – an equally engaging extension of the portraiture – didn’t help either.

The photos were all taken in a studio in a tent at the annual Twinsday Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio and I felt a need to know more about this before I could make my mind up on the portraits. The thing is that, for me at least, the photos look like they’ve come from another era not 2001 or 2002, more 1901 or 1902. That’s obviously a product of the studio set-up. However, the other (main) factor is the nature of the festival itself. It’s not just a celebration of being a twin and opportunity to meet other twins. It’s competitive. Twins vie in most alike contests.

I don’t have a problem with that. But it does explain a kind of weirdness that pervades the exhibition. Mark says, ‘Great portrait photography captures the essence of the person.’ But for me it was a bit of freak show and that freakiness had been projected onto the subjects. You may view Twins online here.

American Odyssey

If Twins was freaky, American Odyssey was scary. We have the family who live in a car (photos taken over many years) and the patients at the hospital in which One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was set. And of course KKK at their Aryan Nation events.

This is photography at its most engaging. Again the subjects all have a degree of weirdness about them, that draws you in. Mark says, ‘Great documentary photography captures a precise moment in one frame’ and this time it felt like less of a freak show (even though some subjects were certainly freaky). These photos come closer to achieving what’s claimed for them and what they capture is well worth a look. You may view American Odyssey online here.

Incommunicado at Cornerhouse

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