No Longer Enough

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.Andrea Botto

Broomberg and Chanarin

Throughout my photographic practice, I am constantly looking for contextual inspiration and artists to inspire me. Broomberg and Chanarin are a collective that I often revisit as I find some similarities between them the way I work, as well as admiring their photography/art/collage crossover practice as a viewer. Broomberg and Chanarin have worked together since meeting as principal photographers for Colors magazine. Their practice is a distinct mixture of art, archival experiments and photojournalism, adopting traditional photographic methods, but bringing them right up to the contemporary by applying them in a different context. The way they work is not structured, and possesses a ‘free ranging thought process’ (Williams, 2008).  Their work sets out to end the idealistic view of society that documentary photography portrays. Each work addresses the world and confronts themes of histories, conflict and emotion in a very different way. Holy Bible (2013) is a violent conversation set among the pages of a Bible inspired by Brecht’s very own copy, whilst Scarti (2003) is an entirely melancholic journey into gated communities, with a sensitive approach to portrayal.  I link them directly to the photo book culture that I am currently embroiled in- I own their books, have seen their books and even when I visited the Deutsche Borse Prize exhibition last year (which they won) the work was indeed- a book. Set out in many glass cabinets of the books and some selected prints, the audience was invited to see a different type of photographic work in a gallery space. Whilst in conversation with Jeffrey Ladd, Chanarin and Broomberg spoke of the resurgence in the photo book:

 

As collaborators, you have worked both in books and exhibitions in a certain degree of success where many of your projects work well in both forms. You have also started your own small imprint Chopped Liver Press. I was wondering if you have a preference for the intimacy of books over the public exhibitions?

The definition of ‘book’ is undergoing a radical transformation. Far from becoming obsolete, the book — particularly the photo book — is experiencing a new lease of life. They speak to us. They turn their own pages. They update themselves. They have been de-materialized. Chopped Liver Press emerged as a response to this. We make handmade books in our studio. Very limited runs. When they are gone, that’s it. ForWar Primer 2, however, we produced two versions, a handmade edition of just 100 copies that was instantly sold out, and an e-book version that was freely available and continues to be downloaded. The code that powers these digital books is limited. But there’s great potential for intimacy.

The work they have produced contains a mixture of found imagery, online imagery and their own photographs. They collage and appropriate into different materials to achieve their desired outcome. Neither one of the pair has had formal photographic training and I think this is reflected in the free, unique style their work possesses. Having been ‘trained’ in formal photographic education, this particular point interested me quite a lot. Coming through an institution with a set of ideals to what photography should look like, my style has been influenced and shaped according to this. It is only until I felt confident enough with the skills and knowledge of photography that I felt it was ok to experiment with the style in which I presented photographic work. Presenting collage of existing imagery as a medium of practice as a photographer is a grey area and difficult to pin down both for myself as an artist, and the audience member. When selecting images to use within my work I make judgements solely based on aesthetic value, I can only see the 2D image, I have no facts to work with. Chanarin addressed this issue when discussing their work, Trust (2000).

 

Trust contains no narrative other than the one which we impose upon it

through looking. We can imagine what the subjects are seeing, making these conclusions through studies of the faces that we see. But we have no facts.

 

Reinterpreting work moves it through time, with each new encounter giving it more and more meaning for both artist and audience. These fragments are often marked randomly, offering up ‘a self contained universe all of their own’ telling stories of desire, frustration or ‘thwarted communication’. Broomberg and Chanarin comment on the ‘upsetting of the archive’ but insist it is resisting the traditional categorization and sequence to which it was destined. I see the work of this collective pair as a refreshing model for contemporary photography, and view it as a model of experimentation. Using these ideas and experiments myself has helped me realise ideas and produce strong work that I am confident in and proud of. Garden Book Club (2014) is an example of experimental practice I undertook with varying success- letting myself work freely with any material and medium I wished rather than within the constraints of photographic ideals, has meant I have enjoyed the process of making as well as being satisfied with the outcome.

 

Williams, V. (2008). No Statistics. Netherlands Photo Museum

 

Ladd, J. (2013) The Holy Bible, Appropriated: An illustrated scripture by Broomberg and Chanarin. TIME Lightbox

 

 

 

 

Hannah Hoch- Whitechapel Gallery, London

Hannah Hoch has always been a reoccurring and inspiring figure in my artistic research. First discovered aged 15, she has always been this shorthaired, eccentric Dadaist that no one seemed to know a whole lot about. Fast-forward 10 years, and the story is still the same. Here I was, holding my breath in excitement about being able to catch her first UK exhibition at the Whitechapel a day before it closed, and 40 years after her death. I had visions of what the work would look like in the huge space, the same huge space I had last seen engulfed in Sarah Lucas’ concrete phallic objects and ceiling height prints. How would they display? Actually, how big are they? The decade of unanswered questions were now playing round in my head. The Whitechapel Gallery visits I had made in the past had never involved a queue- or an admission fee for that matter. The idea of paying for the exhibition just excited me more, it must be really good. The curators must have searched high and wide for some rarities to display!

Post-queue, my excitement started to wane slightly. The amount of people in the gallery was bordering on making the work un-seeable. Telling myself not to lose faith, I began the ritual of moving around in the socially acceptable gallery snake that naturally forms, leaning forward respectfully and moving around at a snails pace. Unusually, I found myself skipping things. I loved the work I was seeing, but having it set out in this painful chronological order was doing it no justice. How else could they display it, I thought to myself, instead of concentrating on the work.

More interestingly, perhaps? But how?

The collages Hoch made were full of wonder and excitement, yet these huge spaces made me think of the ceramic section of a museum- the bit I avoid at all costs. The exhibition was advertised as showing ‘over 100 works’ which was by all means true, however the sheer amount of petite framed works amongst glass cabinets full of related material made it tedious rather than a rich collection. On the Nile ll (1940s) was the first piece to really make me stop. The edges of the assembled pieces were visible; a small fingerprint on a glossier style paper was easily identifiable. The colours were rich and vivid. All things a collage artist would get excited about. The early works displayed were varied, and many contained human features. A mixture of collage, watercolours and drawings demonstrated experimental techniques and a comfort to eventually be found with collage. The early work was busy, and the key relationships in Hoch’s life with Hausmann and Schwitters were an obvious influence. Each piece entirely different, but all with the same emerging energy of an artist who had found their place and was running with it. Moving around with the endless snake took me upstairs to join a queue for something I wasn’t sure of, as I couldn’t see past anyone. Time then told that there were a few copies of Album (1930s) laid out for visitors to browse through. Album is a collection of Hoch’s collage materials containing newspaper, advertising and magazine cuttings carefully inserted into a huge scrapbook. There seems to be a theme to each section, although some cuttings do find their way in randomly. Browsing through this was an insight into the time in which Hoch lived. A lot of cuttings outlining the war hovering over her native Germany reminded the viewer of Hoch’s solitary years living on the outskirts of Berlin with only chickens for company. Album is a book to leaf through leisurely at your own pace, not at a pace of the snake now tutting and reading over your shoulder. Reluctantly, I moved on. Moving through the war years was rather depressing. Hoch’s busy, exciting work all of a sudden became melancholy and void of people. The war is hugely apparent when viewing her work chronologically, with all aspects taking a definite turn. Juxtaposed landscapes filled with dark colours and densely populated areas, huge confusing works that had both text and images aligned seemingly randomly over her paper. They seemed angry and rushed almost, like the label of ‘degenerate artist’ from the Nazis had taken its toll on her artistic output.

The remaining third of the exhibition outlined her work after the war had ended. Here, pieces of Hoch’s collage puzzles were more and more abstract with elements such as body parts and colours not playing their usual role, being rotated and being merged into a wider display. No longer surrealist, Hoch had categorised the work as ‘fantastic art’ although they weaved more into a reexamination of the abstract. Barren landscapes with built up suns and fantasy worlds were in front of me. A part of Hoch’s work I was not familiar with one bit. It felt like the calm after the storm, the winding down. There were less people in this part of the Whitechapel, giving me access to zigzag across and really think about what I was seeing. The Everyday was more and more apparent in Hoch’s later work (1950s-1960s), with the material she was using coming from mainstream advertising for a mass audience.

I had turned my back slightly to the last piece in the show; the biggest piece yet, a self-portrait containing photographs and scraps from her entire existence. Stepping backwards, I realised I was now out of the exit doors and on my way down the stairs. Still, a few weeks on from visiting I cannot determine whether I enjoyed the exhibition or not. On one hand, it was hugely underwhelming, but I don’t feel that was due to the work itself, or the gallery. The idea that this was Hoch’s first UK exhibition ran around in my head. Maybe the work wasn’t meant to be viewed in this way. It comes from cut outs from books; people have forged their knowledge on her from books until now. People were queuing to read Album and the exhibition catalogue is now selling on Amazon for £250- the gallery space may just not be the vehicle needed to transport Hoch’s work. Building up a decade of fantasy and mystery around an artist in your mind is probably not the most open-minded way to approach such a rich and well positioned exhibition, still, I have gone away with this mystery in tact and I still don’t really know much about Hannah Hoch- the way I like to think she intended it to be.

Cyanotypes

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“What the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” Roland Barthes