FORMAT23: A Perfect Sentence - Oliver Frank Chanarin

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Photographer Oliver Frank Chanarin premieres his first solo exhibition at the Museum of Making in Derby, on the occasion of FORMAT International Photography Festival.

A Perfect Sentence explores the shifting terrain of documentary photography: our drive for attention, the complexity of being seen and our anxiety of being overlooked. Commissioned and produced by contemporary arts organisation Forma, with eight partners, A Perfect Sentence is Oliver Frank Chanarin’s first UK solo exhibition and will see multiple presentations across the country, public acquisitions, a digital platform and a publication.

Throughout 2022, Chanarin undertook multiple journeys across the UK, often finding himself on the margins – from suburban fetish groups to carnival troupes in community halls, to gender activists protesting in the streets. His analogue camera became a tool for social exchange. Collaborative photoshoots gave way to chance encounters with strangers and friends, missteps and wilful attempts at getting lost in the world. The resulting photographs capture a subjective and intimate record of a nation in transition. In Derby, Chanarin and Forma collaborated with QUAD/FORMAT and Derby Museums to make portraits with people and communities in Derbyshire.

A Perfect Sentence evolved during a peculiar and unsettling time, when Brexit polarised the country, Covid-19 forced people into isolation and the public’s consciousness of identity politics heightened. This juncture coincided with the disbanding of Chanarin’s artistic partnership – the internationally acclaimed duo Broomberg & Chanarin – whose collaboration came to an end after working together for over twenty years. In response to these events, Chanarin took a cue from August Sander’s collective portrait of German society, People of the 20th Century (1927-64) and turned to the vernacular of documentary photography.

Chanarin recalls:

“I wasn’t sure how to be a photographer anymore; how to take pictures in this new paradigm; how to approach people in the street, in their homes, in their communities; and what is a reasonable expectation of privacy.  

I felt unmoored, like a planet that had lost its moon, and I knew the answer was to go back to the impulse that drew me to photography in the first place. Encounters with strangers; the beautiful accidental moments that come with getting lost in the world with a camera. 

A Perfect Sentence is shaped by many spoken and unspoken exchanges. I’ve tried to make these encounters healthy and inspiring but the ‘perfect’ here is aspirational because every human interaction is fraught, especially when a camera is involved.  

In the making I got to be fearless, to seek out one good image in a fog of ten bad ones. They unfold according to my own invisible and intuitive syntax. This is a document of the real, yet a shadow of disbelief binds everything.”

During the year-long production, Chanarin took over 2750 analogue colour negatives, which he hand-printed in the darkroom to produce hundreds of unique, c-type prints. The final artwork includes 300 images, many of which resemble photographs in development. Experiments with exposure, cropping and colour filtration are made visible through the artist’s cursive notations. The letters and numbers annotating the surfaces alert the viewer to the inherent subjectivity of image making.

About FORMAT23

FORMAT is the UK’s leading international contemporary festival of photography and related media. It organises a year round programme of international commissions, open calls, residencies, conferences and collaborations in the UK and internationally and welcomes over 100,000 visitors from all over the world to its biennale. FORMAT is organised in partnership between QUAD and the University of Derby and returns in March 2023, emerging from the days of global pandemic with renewed purpose – poised to transform the historic city of Derby into a vibrant showcase for the very best photography and lens-based media being produced today.

The days of lockdown were seen by many as a chance to reflect and recharge, upending perceived agendas and to think about the world anew. For FORMAT23 we invite our audiences and our colleagues to stop, take stock and consider ‘What Photography Can Be’.

FORMAT23 features exhibitions in key Derby cultural organisations such as QUAD, Déda, Artcore and the Museum of Making, alongside revitalising repurposed buildings and public places, celebrating work by a worldwide community of artists.


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Suitable for adults.

Image: Oliver Frank Chanarin, with Pam and Mike, 10 x 8 inches, c-type print, unique artist proof (#0182745383), 2023. Courtesy and commissioned and produced by Forma, in collaboration with eight UK organisations. Supported by Arts Council England National Project Grant and the Art Fund.

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