The Water’s Edge

Michelle Sank
Open Eye Gallery, Wood Street (14th April – 2nd July 2007)

Reviewed by Alicia Rose

Controversy, it seems, is a familiar shadowy face of art and ‘The Water’s Edge’ reflects this realism vehemently.

For the 800th anniversary of the founding of Liverpool city, this presentation of images by Cape Town native Michelle Sank was commissioned and produced in dual time with ‘Working at the Edge of the World’, a unique archive of feminine stories of reminiscence. For the photographer’s part, this project had a brief to ‘represent women working on or around the Liverpool waterfront’ from as long ago as 1939 to the present day’.

Perhaps without sensitive foresight and in the fog of the port waterfront, the representation however has pulled political bells and created steam in its focus of past and present workers, sacked dockers and inevitably ‘supplanters’, who crossed the picket line and worked during the mid 1990s dockers’ strike.

Although contention casts umbrage over this collection of portraits, obligatory consideration must be given to the artist in her effort to accomplish what she was commissioned to do; that is, to produce a series of portraits of women who work (or worked) at the Liverpool waterfront. In fairness, this South African-born photographer could not have pre-empted the debate her subject matter would cause. Nevertheless, whilst Sank has obviously perfected the art of a perfectly focused, exposed and colour balanced print, in ‘real’ terms there resides a banality about her work.

What these portraits lack is connective background workplace imagery, which would have given further locative authenticity; glossed and ‘flash’ modernised subjects suspend in an unrelated timeline zone, making this repertoire rather mundane. However, there is one quirky print titled ‘Mary-Jane/Good-time girl’. The sitter, in wanting to remain visually anonymous, has turned to allow only her back to be photographed. Possibly indicative of how steadfast Liverpudlians may feel about this city collection?

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