Jill Todd died in 2010, aged 23, having graduated only the year before with a degree in Photography and Film from the Edinburgh Napier University. Her career as a photographer, already showing signs of enormous promise, was over before it had barely had a chance to begin.
In her memory, her family set up the Jill Todd Trust, which organises the Jill Todd Photographic Award, begun in 2012. The annual award is open to photographers who have graduated not more than three years previously, from schools and colleges in Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland. Entrants are invited to submit between five and 12 images on a theme or subject of their own choosing.
The 2016 award exhibition is running currently at the Nerve Visual Gallery, in Derry~Londonderry, the first time it has shown in Northern Ireland. The exhibition includes work from the prize winner and runners-up, as well as a selection of pieces from those who were highly commended.
Mads Holm, the 2016 winner for his project, About Common Ground, has six photographs on display here, the first of which is the most striking. 'Uniform' is a full-length image of a man in a purple and white fox costume, standing at the edge of a car park, framed against a clear sky. His fur is luxurious, and shown clear and sharp. This sets the tone and flavour of all Holm’s pictures, and maybe the entire show, too. There’s nothing comical or whimsical about this man in a costume. In fact, it looks chillingly like a six-foot purple and white fox. It’s not someone on his way to the start-line of a marathon, or part of a promotional event. It’s a nightmare Harvey, on the half-turn, staring full-face at the camera, assured, aggressive, challenging.
Uniform by Mads Holm
It’s a uniform without anything uniform about it – singular, out-of-place but in its own place, at odds with everything except itself, incongruous, uncaring. I find one of Holm’s pictures – a pile of abandoned sofas on a pavement – a little trite and commonplace, but there’s an insidious subtlety to the others. I particularly like 'Downtown' – a grand, grey stone multi-storey carpark, with arched entrances and dark recesses like safety deposit boxes, dwarfing a handful of passers-by. The building is massive, immaculate, exact, while the humans are tiny, patternless, and imposed-upon.
Downtown by Mads Holm
Holm’s work looks at the imposition of systems upon individuals, and the tensions that exist between the two. On the face of it, Linda Conroy’s work, my favourites here, is much lighter and more playful. This is A Balanced Homelife, a record of, in her own, arch words, her 'search for happiness' when she found herself unemployed after graduation.
Isolated, lethargic, watching the letters of rejection mount, Conroy follows the online advice to achieve a fulfilled, productive life. Her photographs mark the search. We see her floundering in the sea, bowled over by an exercise ball; we see her attempts at healthy eating in a pyramid of fruit held in place by stick skewers. She uses her rejection letters to create origami. She balances house plants on her knees. She leaves open her copy of Nietzsche at the section on Boredom and Play. Her work is full of beautiful colour, but there’s an emptiness and a desolation and a sense of waste beneath the thin veneer of joy.
Emma Levy’s work, which took third prize, is National Park. It is a series of images taken during her time spent in Serbia and Kosovo, and is a study of Sharr National Park, argued over by the Serbs and Albanians. Nature meets human discord; things are abandoned, lost.
The six photographers represented here all worked independently on themes of their own choosing, and yet the same effects and attitudes are present in them all, as if they’ve been touched by the presence of the same, dismal zeitgeist. All the photographers are looking at, but they’re also looking for, and not finding. They are in need, conscious of a dislocation, an insignificance, questioning, isolated, hoping to belong, individuals in search of a society. And the images all share a crispness, clarity, and texture which stand in cold contrast to the passionate yearning that’s apparent.
And there’s a feel for incongruity and uneasy juxtaposition that’s particularly evident in the work of the highly commended photographers. There are the alien buildings in Arthur Montgomery’s study, 'Aggregate', and the rough placement of western values on African soil in Sam Woods’ 'Okay Coca Cola', and the lonely, floating anchor monument to French sailors in Mat Hay’s 'The Orchard View'.
One study stands apart in a way, though, despite sharing much of the same ground as the others. This is 'In Silver', by Kotryna Ula Kiliulyte, which combines photographs taken in Lithuania in the 1980s by the artist’s father with photographs taken thirty years later by the artist herself. The images are presented in a kind of collage, so one single, but multi-faceted impression is given. The photographs from the 80s were newly discovered by Kiliulyte, and stir memories of a former time, and introduce her to images and emotions not experienced before, mixing the personal with the political, as they reference the dying of the Soviet Union as well as the youth of her parents. The main image is of an animal in a forest, the picture treated and distorted with shadow and colour, suggesting something magical and mysterious, but also lost.
In Silver by Kotryna Ula Kiliulyte
This is a fascinating exhibition, bold and provoking, featuring the work of some highly talented artists. It challenges, but, more than anything, I feel, there’s a sadness to it, a sense of absence and need.
The Jill Todd Photographic Award Exhibition runs at Nerve Visual Gallery in Derry~Londonderry until Sunday, May 14, open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am until 5pm. There is also an accompanying Events Programme, featuring free photography workshops for various age ranges. Registration for these is essential. For more details visit www.nervecentre.org. Catch up on other stories featured as part of Creativity Month 2017 here.