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Jon Tonks – Empire exhibition

Last weekend I visited the Impressions Gallery in Bradford to see John Tonk’s exhibition, Empire.

The context for the work is described in the gallery’s blurb:

Empire takes a fascinating journey across the South Atlantic exploring life on four remote islands – the British Overseas Territories of Ascension Island, Tristan da Cunha, the Falkland Islands and St. Helena ­– relics of the once formidable British Empire, all intertwined through their shared history.

Jon Tonks spent up to a month at a time in each territory, travelling 60,000 miles around the Atlantic via military outposts, low-lit airstrips and a long voyage aboard the last working Royal Mail Ship. Some 400 rolls of film, 24 flights and 32 days at sea later, the resulting work creates an insight into these distant places that resonate with a sense of Britishness which is remarkably recognisable yet inescapably strange.

There was a video installation near the entrance to the gallery, showing Tonks talking about the work and his experiences while making the documentary. While I liked the idea of showing an interview with the artist, I felt it could have been better directed and perhaps would have benefitted from scripting – the repetition of description ‘it’s really interesting’ became irritating after a short time.

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 23.02.38
Source: johntonks.com, the last cow by Jon Tonks.

The gallery itself is a room situated above Bradford’s library and a ten minute walk from the National Media Museum. In the reception area is a small shop, with photo books and information on upcoming events. Despite its shared location, the closed space for the exhibition created a peaceful area for viewing and reflecting on the photos.

The work itself was printed in square format and framed in uniform dark wood recessed frames. It appeared to be mounted on white card within the frames. The clean lines of the framing meant there were no distractions from the enjoyment of the photos.

Tonk’s work was in the documentary style, shot in colour, and included places and people of the remote islands. I enjoyed the work for the story it told and some moments of humour in the narratives (for example the last cow). Many of the prints were large-scale and this created the sense of being present in the places photographed, and the feeling of emptiness and remoteness of the islands.

The work is available as a photo book – it was striking that it made a much stronger impression on me when viewed as large prints as compared with the photo book.

The work successfully conveyed the story of life on these isolated islands and some of the eccentricity that accompanies it.


Impressions Gallery [online]. Available from: http://www.impressions-gallery.com[accessed 7.10.15]

Tonks J (nd). Jon Tonks [website]. Available from: https://www.jontonks.com/work/ [accessed 7.10.15]


O’Hagan S. (2013). Empire by Jon Tonks – review. The Guardian [online]. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/29/empire-jon-tonks-photography-review [accessed 7.10.15]

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