3 March – 15 April 2017

The true content of a photograph is invisible, for it derives from a play, not with form, but with time. 

John Berger, ‘Understanding a Photograph’, 1974

Belfast Exposed is pleased to present BEFORE, an exhibition opening up the photographic archive of Victor Sloan, one of Northern Ireland’s most prominent contemporary artists.
Sloan is known internationally for his visceral art works of images relating to the Troubles. These works are made through a process of intervening directly onto photographic negatives through a series of physical gestures such as scoring, scratching and mark-making with materials including pen, paint and bleach.
This new exhibition at Belfast Exposed reveals an excerpt from the artist’s extensive but little seen body of archival photographs of Northern Ireland made in the 1970s and 80s. The exhibition represents a long-term photographic engagement with the places where the artist and his family lived and worked, mostly the Northern Irish towns of Dungannon, Lurgan and Portadown and the surrounding countryside. The photographs in the exhibition fall broadly into three main subject areas documenting the activities and characters that populated the artist’s domestic life; charting the urban development of Craigavon, the aspirational modernist planning project; and capturing the underlying and pervasive presence of the political conflict on day to day life during these years. Several of the images included in the exhibition were utilised by Sloan to make his later art works, typified by his violent mark making across their surface. However, the majority of the photographs have resided until now within Sloan’s personal archive, unintended for public view and considered by the artist as preliminary ‘sketchbooks’ or aids for creating his more recognised artworks. This exhibition offers a significant opportunity to review Sloan’s relationship with photography throughout his life and career and illuminate this collection of images as an important and distinct body of work.

For Sloan, photography has played a central role in his life. Receiving his first camera at the age of eleven, he built a primitive darkroom under the stairs of his family home and began to teach himself photography. From these early years, he has consistently made photographs, drawing subjects from his immediate environment, his family, friends and home town, and later his work place and students. From 1964-68 Sloan attended the Belfast School of Art where he chose to study painting. He cites the Surrealists and Dadaists specifically Rene Magritte, Man Ray, Andre Breton, Giorgio de Chirico as key early influences before becoming indebted to the conceptualism in the work of Bruce Nauman, Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Gunter Brus, Jannis Kounellis and Arnulf Rainer. In his time at the Belfast School of Art developing his painting practice there was little to no critical engagement or discourse on the burgeoning medium of photography. However, Sloan continued to use the college darkroom to develop film and experiment with photography.  Around the same time he became aware of the publications Creative Camera and British Journal of Photography which he would avidly read to keep abreast of the developing currents and dialogues around photography happening elsewhere.

The majority of the work included in this exhibition was made between the 1970s and 80s, a time when photography in the U.K was dominated by its function as a medium of social documentary and reportage. Indeed, much of the work in this exhibition draws an interesting historical parallel and counterpoint to the work made by the individuals who set up Belfast Exposed around the same time. This group of amateur photographers used the medium as an act of resistance, challenging the mainstream media representation of the city by encouraging people living in Belfast to document their own lives, taking ownership of the visual representation of their communities. For this group, as well as the similar photography collectives and organisations that emerged in the UK in the 1970s and 80s, photography was an important tool for social activism, exploiting the immediacy and narrative function of the medium to document and expose ‘real’ life. Sloan, too, at this time, acknowledged his dissatisfaction with how photography was used and manipulated by the media to play to particular agendas. However, instead of responding by utilising the medium for its narrative properties, Sloan began to conceptualise the photographic plane, developing a strategy where he could address and question the very mechanics of how one understands and reads a photograph. There is a pertinent resonance with John Berger’s quote from his 1974 essay ‘Understanding a Photograph’ as Sloan began to break away from the narrative and form of the photograph and began to look at its contents critically and as a field imbued with layers of meaning, time and context. 

The implicit intersecting temporalities at play in the act of looking at a photographic image that Berger refers to and Sloan began to address within his practice, provide a key framework to this exhibition. The very title of the exhibition, BEFORE, encourages a kind of temporal re-orientation for the audience. There is an acknowledgement of the experience of looking at the images from a distance of passing time, an assertion that the images we are encountering existed for the artist as a kind of ‘pre’ artwork state, as something not originally intended for public display. We are also made aware of our encounter with this older material as one heavily weighted by our present context; knowing Northern Ireland in its ‘post-conflict’ situation and having been witness and participant in the vast technological developments within photography in the intervening years.
There is a particular poignancy in exhibiting this older body of work now in 2017, in the ‘post-truth’ society that we now find ourselves navigating, where we by necessity have generally accepted the duplicitous surface of the photographic image. The nature of the work that confronts us in this exhibition, the artist’s restraint from depicting the obvious, and foregoing the creation of explicit narrative in favour of a more quotidian and durational approach are in opposition to a contemporary encounter with photography. The familiarity and casualness with which he portrays places and situations and his long-term, repetitive photographic engagement with his environment lends this body of work an authenticity and unique perspective, rendering a more subtle understanding of place. 

Throughout the work in the exhibition there is a constant play between the photographer observing his world and his subjects engrossed in the act of looking and observing something within their own sphere of interest. Most of the images focus on the pauses in between action.  His photographs of the Orange parades for example are marked not by their tribal aggression but instead depict mothers watching parades with their children, Orangemen arriving and departing from their meet ups and conversing at the sidelines. As a result of Sloan’s engagement with this community over an extensive period of time, the inevitable process of humanisation takes place and within the photographs and there is almost an affection that exudes for this community and its rituals. This is an affection that is wholly absent from his wider known artworks where his interventions across the surface of the photographs imbue the images with a sense of threat and violence. 

Sloan’s repetitive approach to photographing to his local environment has also provided an important account of the development of Craigavon, an aspirational Modernist planning project that aimed to create a new utopian model for living. Over the years Sloan documented its realisation, the modernist forms and structures being built, how the people in these areas viewed and interacted with the ambitious planning project and the eventual abandonment of many of the plans as logistical problems obstructed the project. Sloan talks of his preoccupation with Craigavon as a subject matter in terms of it offering a source of constant visual stimuli as he drove past on a regular basis.  

Another of the key subject areas highlighted within the exhibition is Sloan’s subtle depiction of the tension and spectre of the Troubles within his photographs. In much of his work there is a play between his familiar and comfortable relationship to a place and the persistent underlying threat that shadowed life during the Troubles. This tension is perhaps most clearly articulated in a series of photographs the artist made from his car window while routinely driving around his local neighbourhoods. The unexpected framing device of the car window presents an intriguing and unsettling composition censoring and highlighting action on the exterior of the vehicle. The view from the interior of the moving car to the street outside invites a series of propositions particular to the Northern Irish experience of the Troubles. At the time these photographs were taken there was a heightened awareness of commonplace surveillance, car bombs, and kidnappings. As such, there is an uneasiness about the status of the photographer protagonist and the power structure at play within these images.  Some of the images allude to a search for someone or something, we imagine the figure within the car is closing in on a victim or scoping out a situation. Other photographs from the series are marked more by a sense of internal paranoia, where the protagonist is being followed or hunted themselves. The views outside the car window range from gangs of young people gathered outside shops, an attentive police man on duty, and photographs of other vehicles on the road seen in the mirrors of the car. The power dynamic switches in each photograph creating a general feeling of confusion, anxiety and implicit threat. 

This exhibition represents Victor Sloan’s life-long connection to photography, and offers an opportunity to review his relationship to the medium by focusing on this extensive and important archive of images.  Sloan’s distinctive perspective and long-term approach to photographing Northern Ireland during the turbulent period of the 70s and 80s mark the artist’s significant contribution to the tradition of Northern Irish documentary photography practice. 

Ciara Hickey