Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, The Hoppings and Byker Revisited @L. Parker Stephenson

JTF (just the facts): A total of 17 black and white and color photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung in the single room gallery space and the smaller side office/viewing room. 12 of the images are from the series The Hoppings, and are modern gelatin silver prints made from negatives taken between 1971 and 1980. The other 5 images come from Byker Revisited, and are modern digital pigment prints on archival rag paper made from negatives taken between 2003 and 2008. Size and edition information for the prints from both series were not provided on the checklist. A monograph of Byker Revisited was published in 2009 by Northumbria Press. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s second show at L. Parker Stephenson Photographs digs a layer deeper into the lesser known British photographer’s long career. Following up on the 2013 exhibit featuring her 1970s work from Byker, this show combines solid work from two additional series: The Hoppings (1970s black and white images documenting a well known traveling fair) and Byker Revisited (recent color images reprising her work in the Newcastle upon Tyne community some 25 years later). As we get better educated here in America about Konttinen’s larger body of work, her rightful place in the history of British photography is becoming clearer.

Photographers have long been seduced by the colorful quirkiness of carnivals, circuses, and side shows, reveling in their seedy charms (Meiselas, Davidson, and Arbus certainly come to mind), and Konttinen’s images of The Hoppings are equally full of wry vernacular contrasts. Taken in a time before the flashing lights of carnival rides became dominant, they capture a hand crafted set of less-than-entirely-brilliant entertainments. Cheeky painted murals advertise the half woman (with roller skates on her hands to get around), the Strange Girls (with a tiny caption saying “if you’re old enough to know what it’s about, you’re old enough”), and the Golden Garter nude knife throwing act (decorated by a small sign looking for a “smart young lady to travel with this show”). Konttinen’s images often set up an unlikely pairing – the gruff kilt wearing barker and the muscled masked wrestler at the boxing show flanked by a bored pigtailed young girl or the mom minding both the Skeleton Express ticket booth and her young child. Once we get behind the curtain (and the disembodied hand about to pull back the velvet cloth is one of the show’s best pictures), we actually do see the seemingly dangerous nude knife throwing, the world’s smallest man, and the shapely bent over figure of the Fabulous Queen of Striptease, amid the jostling shadowy crowds and underneath the glow of single bare light bulbs. Back outside, Konttinen leaves us with the old woman manning the Lost Children trailer, the sign itself and her expression making for a memorable moment (not unlike Eliot Erwitt’s famous lost persons area shot). Seen together, the images are delightfully rough around the edges, capturing the mundane bawdiness of the entire spectacle with surprising wit.

Konttinen’s more recent photographs of Byker tell the story of a town being redeveloped, the old working class inhabitants now replaced by a more diverse set of immigrant families with different ethnic and religious backgrounds. While each in situ portrait captures family members in their own apartments and homes, these pictures are compositionally driven by color – a pink couch and a pregnant red dress, a light green wall and a red shirt, a yellow stripe and a red chair, a red wall and a black dog jumping for a bubble, and a green party dress and a red door. While the contrasts make the pictures pop, the scenes are full of familial tenderness and quiet humanity.

While both of these subjects might have offered an opportunity for exaggeration, Konttinen’s photographs are remarkably restrained, and it’s this subdued attentiveness that gives her work its authenticity. She’s been patient in her looking, and that drawn out sense of deliberate time has allowed the cacophony of the fair die down and the awkward reluctance of her sitters to slowly melt away. It’s in those lulls that she’s found her sly juxtapositions and quiet intimacy.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The black and white prints from The Hoppings are $3000 each, while the larger color prints from Byker Revisited are $2500 each. Konttinen’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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