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Review: Stephen Clarke’s Alien Resident: Under Investigation, at Ropes & Twines

When Ropes & Twines opened on Bold Street in 2018, they were clear about what they wanted to be. They were going to provide culture in all its forms, embracing the spread of the world that grew their coffee and produced their wines.

Since the wine bar’s launch, they have made sure that photographers in the North West had alternative venues to share their work. Through Lightbox, and now through 6×6 photography that drive to support local artists in ways that improves the venue is clear.

The latest exhibition is by Stephen Clarke. Alien Resident: Under Investigation is a continuation of a long-running series of work, inspired by a year-long residency in San Diego, where he was, formally, a resident alien.

The black and white photographs are nearly entirely devoid of human beings, but packed with records human design and intervention on their landscape. Not being familiar with his surroundings, while being tasked with documenting them had led to an eerily quiet collection of images where Clarke, the tourist, tries to document a space where he is neither familiar, nor feels particularly welcome.

Running on from an exhibition at Contemporary Art Space Chester, and publication in the long-running Café Royal Books, this series is an honest snapshot of where documentary photography sits today; not necessarily as comment, or as fine art, but somewhere in between.

When the need to present your skill as art is removed, and the skill is acknowledged as observation, the results are perhaps a little clearer and easier to grasp than other strands of contemporary photography, where artist photographers focussed more on documenting the lives of others in places they were unfamiliar with.

Instead, Stephen Clarke documents the space; the only thing he can truly get to know during his brief stay in San Diego. A vague familiarity for him, and equally for us viewing the work, comes from what we’ve seen of California on TV. It’s not a lived experience of that place, so its people are left out, perhaps for fear of misrepresenting a culture through the eyes of a visitor.

What makes this more fascinating now, is that these photographs are still those from his 1987 series. Their framing and the way we, or I at least, acknowledge familiarity is pretty much entirely down to how this part of the world is still shown on TV. It’s not a place that updates in our minds, so it does still take a minute to see that this is a step back in time.

Alien Resident: Under Investigation at Stephen Clarke is open at Ropes & Twines on Bold Street

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith