Feeling like I am spinning many a plate at the moment (new house, wedding to plan, birthday, work, imminent arrival of dog from overseas etc etc) has meant I have somewhat been delayed in writing a blog post about my visit to Format Festival in Derby last month. This week however, I have been spurred on to put fingers to keys after visiting the Deutsche Borse Prize at the ‘mecca’ that is the Photographer’s Gallery and spotting a few things that has made my mind tick over.
Firstly, I absolutely loved Format Festival. I thought it contained some brilliantly printed, curated and displayed work and brought together some really unique pieces with people who showed a real interest and passion for what was going on around them there. Everyone I met had a positive comment to say; a smile on their face and in most cases a story to share. Beginning in the Quad, I was met with some big names- Cristina de Middel, Larry Sultan to name only two. The theme of ‘Evidence’ was subtle and obvious in equal amounts. Some work couldn’t have been shown under any other theme whereas some fitted it subtly enough for you to have to search a little deeper for the connections. Andrea Botto is a good example of the former, with his project KA-BOOM. Displayed in large frames and surrounded by documents and smaller photographs, the work is a snapshot of time, contemporary demolition of places around the world and in turn, evidence of these places ever existing and their exits from many a skyline. The work was beautifully printed, even when viewed up close- a rarity now as a lot of photography shows seem to be getting seemingly lazy or complacent with their print quality. The work was intriguing and I was in awe of the colours gained from using medium/large format equipment.
Miti Ruangkritya’s Thai Politics had an air of both humour and darkness surrounding it. The work that was displayed at Format was Where’s Wally-esque making use of the huge available image bank that is the Internet and social media before pulling the imagery together using Photoshop, addressing the Thai protests happening in Bangkok since 2006. My personal favourite work in this very first room belongs to Sara-Lena Maierhafer, contained in a pristine and precise book that I was hugely disappointed to find was only printed in an edition of 20 but understood why when I looked at the detail that went into each copy. Maierhafer addresses fact and fiction in photography which is not only an interest of mine, but it was thoughtfully displayed with collage, image and text making the work a multi dimensional piece. This isn’t unusual I know, but as the work was book first and exhibition after, I felt the multimedia aspect of the curating was essential to the experience of the viewer. Providing these different platforms ensured that I didn’t glance over the framed imagery and instantly forget, I was forced to consider what was in front of me, take in all aspects of the piece, just as you would open a front cover of a book and look inside. It was this particular pattern that I have spotted throughout these exhibitions and then at Deutsche Borse. Photographs are no longer alone in galleries. Yes, there are your simple framed print exhibitions (Nikolai Bakharev is a perfect example) and this will carry on for as long as the photograph lives, but as a regular visitor to many exhibitions I can’t help but notice this surge in trend.
Whether it be further images displayed at different heights with different hanging methods such as pins or shelves, or additions of handwritten notes and found imagery, it seems that the photograph’s (and photographer’s) intentions are now safer when accompanied. Without bringing up the aging discourse of ‘is photography art?’ (which I seemed to have just done regardless) it appears that now photography is well and truly embedded in artistic fields as well as its own, it is time to bend the rules a little. The British Journal of Photography dedicated a whole issue recently to photographers using the medium in a much freer, abstract way than say, the documentary heavy 1980s and 90s concentrating less on subject and more on process, output and materials. This, coupled with the growing love (one I share on a huge scale) for photo books as a vehicle of distribution and dissemination it seems the print alone is no longer a valid way of getting your point across. Photo books are beautiful crafted items that often warrant exhibition themselves. Recently whilst in New York I visited the Chinese Photobook exhibition and then again whilst in London. A whole exhibition (and by no means the first) dedicated to photo books of a nation. Some of which you couldn’t touch, and some you couldn’t even see in person. Videos of other people leafing through these books displayed as proudly as artworks themselves, small crowds gathering to catch a glimpse. Once upon a photography time, these images would be forced out of these books and hung blown-up on the walls, alone. Now more than ever it seems, it is important to cherish the way the photographs are displayed, the original curating within the book and keep this as intended to support the photograph’s journey as a process.
Many exhibitions I visit (including both the aforementioned) accompany their exhibits with plinths and a few copies of the supporting work in book form as well as carefully selected objects and documents. For me as both photographer and viewer, these additions come as a welcome element. I understand more about the photographer as a person but also more about the project. I admire the project in full, sometimes with the inspirations displayed right next to the ‘finished’ item itself just as I did with Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s Ponte City at The Photographer’s Gallery two weeks back. Their work was a visual delight in comparison to some of the sparse rooms (sorry Bakharev) contained in the prize. Not only were there huge light boxes displaying hundreds of images, but also around them were archival materials, maps, found imagery and architectural plans. The materials together told a story, placed more narrative on some already very powerful photographs. It may just be me as a collector that gets truly excited at these additions to exhibitions but I do not believe I am the only one who has walked away from some exhibits feeling underwhelmed at the lack of information that seeps from a collection of documents that are meant, at the simplest level, to be replicating reality.
The additional materials add to a particular photographer’s style and subject too. When viewing Sputnik’s work back at Format, their ‘adult’ images were contained behind velour curtains. A necessity perhaps with a young audience, but the sleazy choice of cheap materials gave a further nod to what was underneath the curtain, making the audience take a leap and look behind it rather than catching a sneaky glance. Photography is becoming a performance, rather than a 2D hobby. Photographers have never had more scope with a medium that has suffered its battles throughout history, a medium that has forced its users to break rules, follow rules, make rules, and then now it seems- to break them again. To me (again, probably biased as a photographer and photo book enthusiast) the growth of photography at the moment is defying prediction, with self-publishing and online distribution providing more amateurs than ever a platform and a voice to show off their work that deserves to be seen. Coupled with a new age of a mash up of art/photography mixed media/multi platform exhibitions it is hard to envisage what is next for the field, but I can’t help but be excited for what lies ahead. For me, as someone who has fallen in and out of love with photography at various points in its turbulent timeline (Fujifilm discontinuing Provia 400x was a particularly low point) noticing trends such as this one fills me with confidence about the medium’s future and its ability to constantly twist and astonish with new and exciting exhibitions, photo books and projects.