A few months ago, the residents of Pontremoli, a small town in Liguria, were intrigued by an exhibition of large format photographs by Woodhall Spa resident Colin Reiners. This event was one of many spin-offs from a collection of observational photographs Colin has been working on for several years, portraying life in our village.
I first heard about Colin’s Italian adventure plans last summer when I bumped into him in the village. It turned out he was trying to work out how to make a box suitable for shipping large photographic prints to Italy.
I had seen some of Colin’s Woodhall Spa photographs when they were displayed at the University of Lincoln a few years ago, and I thought then that he had captured brilliantly the essence of the place, in all its quirkiness. Where else can you come across a jet fighter in a farmer’s field, afternoon tea on the Petwood Hotel terrace, a wooden cinema which has been projecting movies since the twenties and probably the smallest shoe shop in England – all within walking distance?
What I didn’t know about was the gnome thieves.
So why Italy, and why Pontremoli?
The back story is a long one. Having studied under the pioneering photojournalist Bill Brandt at the Royal College of Art, in the late seventies Colin worked in Florence as Professor of Photography at Fleming College. Inspired by Tony Ray Jones and Paul Hill, Colin became part of the documentary movement and continued to show work of a documentary nature, influenced by surrealism.
His recent return to Italy came about through a friend from the Florence days. The road back led to Liguria and the Appenine village of Pontremoli, where Guilia Arvonio has a small art gallery, Galleria d’Arte Ex Macelleria, housed in a former butcher’s shop.
One thing led to another, and last summer Guilia invited Colin to exhibit his Woodhall Spa collection in the Pontremoli’s municipal gallery, which has enough wall space to do it justice. And that’s how a little piece of Lincolnshire came to Italy, travelling in a box made in Woodhall Spa.
In fact the box arrived in Pontremoli before Colin, and remained unopened until he could get there. The opening of the box turned out to be quite a public affair, and once Colin had hung the prints in the municipal gallery, the doors were duly opened too.
According to Colin “The Pontremolesi appreciated the messages in the images, seeing them as distinctively English but offering parallels to issues very current in modern day Italy. The opening attracted people from as far away as Florence, and even a bemused visitor from Boston, Lincolnshire!”
For her part Guilia added “Colin’s photographs are a very handsome gift to the Pontremolesi, and offer them an exciting peek into the magic and unique world of Woodhall Spa. We have now decided to transfer this unique exhibition to Milan where the exhibition will meet an even larger audience.”
And so it came to be, as a few months ago the exhibition moved from the Ligurian hills to fashionable Milan, where Colin’s photographs went on show to thousands of passing Metro commuters. Colin’s portrayal of the gentle surrealism of life in the Lincolnshire village of Woodhall Spa bemused and intrigued passing Milanese (though sadly no light was shed on the whereabouts of those pesky gnome thieves…….)
Two video clips to help you get the flavour of the opening event:
Since 2010 Colin’s work has had other positive consequences, including a project in which university students supported a community group taking over the running of Jubilee Park by producing brochures and a website, as well as developing a communication strategy with the ‘Friends of Jubilee Park’, as part of a 3 month internship with the parish council. Other students have worked with the English Golf Union Marketing department to design brochures and presentations, and with the Cottage Museum, both in Woodhall Spa.
Meanwhile, back in Woodhall Spa, the riddle of the missing gnomes remains unsolved.