Attesting to an intuitive understanding of the depth of field and his creative choice of subjects, Alvin Ukpe’s photographs, featured in his recent exhibition in Lagos, glow with promise, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
Solitude – Alvin Ukpe’s invitation to the local cognoscenti to explore the streams of consciousness seething beneath his still images – smacks of the most admirable kind of heroism. Somehow, this hitherto unknown photographer needed this grand entry into a vibrant exhibition circuit. Hence, the recently-held two-day solo outing at South Eatery and Social House along Younis Bashorun Street in Victoria Island, Lagos seemed designed to achieve his purpose: to stomp into the Lagos photography scene.
On the source of inspiration for the exhibition, which opened on Saturday, August 14 and ended on Sunday, August 15, the Nigerian-American photographer intimated that it came from the state of his subconscious mind at that period in his life. The pandemic-induced lockdowns had just been eased and he had taken off on what he called “a travel photography trip”. For him, the trip provided not just an opportunity to escape from the depressing ambience trailing the lockdowns, he also needed to be alone with his thoughts and find some time to explore. “I found out that I was subconsciously shooting the ‘Solitude’ theme when I got back home and looked at my recent shots,” he reminisces. “The images spoke to me and I decided to put a collection together and use this to inspire the world.”
Trust this alchemical thing about curating to split the exhibition into two main coherent segments. This could be why one of the segments, which seemed pivotal to the theme, featured only works produced in monochromes, while the other segment displayed a collection of coloured photographs.
Yet, there was something premeditated about the works – all produced in 2021 – that belies the photographer’s assertion that they are “an organic collection of serenity, sadness, tranquillity, loneliness, peace and pain; all emotions we tend to feel when we are alone, isolated, reclused or introverted, essentially when we are in a state of solitude.”
What indeed could have been lurking in the mind of the bushy-haired 26-year-old when he photographed a solitary woman relishing some fresh wintry morning air in the park? “She says coming out here so early gives her time to think and get her mind right for the day,” he writes in the explanatory note of the photograph, titled “Early Bird”, adding with all puns intended: “We are both early birds; in this case, I’m the bird and this picture is my worm.”
Perhaps, the sense of solitude is more evident in the photograph, titled “Me Day”, in which a man reclines on an easy chair in what appears to be a beach. It has to be a beach because a part of the photographer’s explanation corroborates: “He is at peace watching the sunset and listening to the waves of the ocean as they hit the shore.” If this photograph is not a product of Photoshop manipulation, the subject lends himself succinctly to the exhibition’s title.
Ukpe, who also goes by the professional moniker NYV (an anagrammatised tinkering of his first name Alvin), tells engaging stories through his lens. He affirms that his penchant for natural and minimalist expressions is intentional and is meant “to reveal originality and a connection between its audience and the subject of each picture.” And talking about this connection, he adds that it “evokes emotions that stir up a dialogue within oneself.”
But the odds that the uncluttered contents of his photographs might have offered more incentive for a desultory viewing cannot be discountenanced. And, indeed, there isn’t much about the monochrome photographs like “Forlorn”, “Self-Reflection”, “My Corner”, “Unaccompanied”, “Sick of All This Noise”, “Social Distancing” and “Fear of Falling”, to stick around them for. This is even when they can be acknowledged as quite engaging in their sublime simplicity.
Nonetheless, the West Virginia University, US graduate of agribusiness and rural development urges the audience to “gaze upon each picture with an open mind”, as this would allow their “consciousness float through the solitude of [his] expressions.”
As an essentially self-trained photographer, who only recently – as recent as in 2018 –sauntered into the Lagos photography scene, he ought to be more circumspect in passing judgements about a scene that has not only produced Bamako Photography Biennale regulars but also given the LagosPhoto Festival a reason to exist. He, for instance, premises his impressions of the Lagos photography scene on the wrong assumptions that his colleagues focused mainly on portrait shoots. “I have quickly expanded my content beyond portraits, to cover other salient areas, including landscape photography, conceptual photography, product shoots, photojournalism, street photography and much more.”
But none of the above gave his exhibition its must-see quality. Rather, the halo of promise glowing around his works can be attributed to his intuitive understanding of the depth of field and his creative choice of subjects. Clearly, he had moved on from those years when his father’s passion for photography stoked the glowing embers of his interest in photography.
His father, he recalls, used to buy the latest cameras and photographic accessories, which he ended up never using. “Out of curiosity, I started using them to take pictures of anything and found out I was good and had an eye for it. I decided to take it as a hobby until about two years ago when I got offered good money for my pictures and the rest is history.”
And talking about “history”, there has so far been nothing more historic in his career than his resignation, in June this year, from his job in the oil and gas industry to focus on his passion for full-time photography.