FEATURE: Forever Amber | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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The Forever Amber exhibition, displayed at Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery until Saturday 19th September, aims to cement the work of the Amber Collective in the consciousness of the viewer as a vast resource for cultural and social documentary.

The Amber Collective, who have been based at Newcastle’s Side Cinema since 1977, have dedicated themselves to creating work through a unique engagement with working class and marginalized communities in the North East.

Current Amber Collective member Graeme Rigby refers to the over 150 artworks in the exhibition as favourites, with each piece having been carefully chosen from their extensive archive. As a retrospective, the exhibition represents the sheer scale of work done by Amber Collective through the collated efforts that go into creating such a vast collection documenting the region. “No other organisation has sustained a documentary project as coherent as this for so long.” He says proudly.

The current exhibition will take the viewer through a cleverly orchestrated body of work, with the framework allowing chronological insights and thematic assertions, moving from their work in the late 60s and 70s entitled Collecting Documents of Working Class Culture; to 1980-1991’s Landscapes, Lives And Struggles; the consequences of Thatcherite Britain comes into sharp focus in 1987-1997’s Bringing It All Back Home; plus there’s coverage of international creative projects in 1998-2010’s Elegies And Renewals and a focus on their own work in Amber And The History of Documentary.

“There is an enormous richness in the cultures that Amber has documented”

The exhibition layout also allows for a narrative of projects, such as Byker by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, evolving between 2004 and 2009 into the Byker Revisited photographs, demonstrating Amber Collective’s abilities to look back and review. There are to be works in the exhibition by artists including Graham Smith, John Davies, Bruce Rae, Russell Lee, August Sander and Robert Doisneau, plus many more. There is also to be a recognition of figures such as Henri-Cartier Bresson, to whom the exhibition title alludes and Amber founder Murray Martin, without whom the ideologies of the North East would certainly be less palpable and influential.

Whether Amber Collective’s role has developed into something different over the years since it began in 1969 is a poignant question that serves to bracket the past and present. “There is an enormous richness in the cultures that Amber has documented,” Rigby asserts. “It’s not about ‘Oh, we should go and represent these people whose voices have been marginalized’. Yes, that’s something you want to do, but it’s also that those voices are incredibly rich and our culture is the poorer for not having them represented.”

When asked about Amber Collective’s greatest achievement over the years, Rigby candidly replied “survival”, but it’s clear that this retrospective doesn’t just demonstrate a body of work already created, but also paves the way for the collective’s work in the future. “It is quite an exciting time for documentary. The technology we are using is so much more accessible to people. The quality level of film and professional photographic equipment is changing the way that documentary is seen, making it more important in everyday life, telling stories photographically. This is a retrospective, but a retrospective with a view to where we go now.”

Forever Amber is at Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle until Saturday 19th September.

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