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.
Berger (1978) begins his essay Ways of Remembering by examining what was before photography. He concludes his examination with the answer of the faculty of memory. I struggle to remember a time where the world I live in wasn’t recorded through a camera. I expressed myself through the designated arts curriculum at school, but often made photographs at home without really thinking too much about it. This was growing up in the 1990’s where photography was most definitely the norm and very much embedded within the family home. He talks about a photograph as a trace of a memory, it only holding whatever the lens captures at that very second, a set of appearances. There is no background to the image, as with memory. Memory fails to examine the events around a particular event, just a set of appearances, just like the camera (you probably never imagine what is set up behind the photographer, or slightly left of the frame, do you?) Berger goes on by looking at the usability of photography and why it is so popular. He states:
The photograph offers a set of appearances prised away from their context and therefore their meaning, because meaning is always a question of process- meaning lies in narrative, meaning is born out of development and process.
This particular thought made me consider my collage works. I often find it difficult to express any type of meaning or reasoning to why they were made. Why did I choose that particular book, to cut out that image of that particular houseplant and pair it with a black and white image of a woman with a considerable amount of pubic hair? I have no hidden narrative in creating this collage, no moral to convey to an audience, so perhaps the lack of meaning is born out of the process itself. I am removing it by overworking it. Collage is prising photographs even further away from their original context. I am taking photographs of which I have no idea on their original existence, I know nothing about the woman with the pubic hair, and I know nothing about the house in which the houseplant is kept. These images are then cut, thus removing any remaining meaning and context they were holding onto, and pasted into a mixture of other appearances, finishing with a transparent image with no attached meaning. This transparency leads to a communication with my audience. I don’t need a meaning or a message to communicate with an audience, just the practice itself. The ‘violence’ of process as Berger puts it, destroys meaning. In relation to this point, I looked at the featured image of this post in more detail. A plant of some description, placed on a modern surface. To me, that plant holds resonance, a reminder of a trip somewhere, a fun day where that plant stopped me in my tracks in order to record its very being. An exact recording of an event, yet it holds no relevance to anyone except me, or perhaps anyone who shared my fondness it for it whilst visiting the National Media Museum. A viewer can then attach their own meaning to it, as mine is completely removed in the eyes of a new audience. The violence continues, in the public photograph severed from life when it was taken. By discovering this, I have relaxed the boundaries I had imposed on myself for making work in a particular way, and in turn been a lot happier and a lot more confident in the results.
Berger metaphorically compares the systematic use of photography with the all-seeing eye, which saw to judge. The recording of all events judges nothing, yet they still exist to do so. This thought made me question why I photograph the everyday in such a banal and unorganised fashion. Do I record unconscious thoughts around me in order to forget? To take in every event and discard the ones I don’t wish to store photographically and mentally? I link this idea back to the notion that we are no longer living in the now, but actually more obsessed with living in the past or future. Mass consumption of imagery has provided us with a basis where we shoot now, and look later. A time starved generation that are conditioned to believe they cannot live in the now.
Photographs can have context created for them, and in turn achieve their purpose. Berger states that the better than photograph, the fuller the context that can be created. The photographs I use were not taken by me; does this mean they are void of context? I believe it may be the case in the first instance, as the imagery is in fact not my own. In choosing that particular image however, brings it into a new context, a new meaning by curating this tiny little exhibition of existing visual culture every time the glue dries on a page.
Berger, J. (1978). as cited in Evans, J. (1997) The camerawork essays, context and meaning in photography. New York University Press: New York.
Today I went into Uni to try and launch this site using my Macbook. Whilst seated comfortably, I searched for the wi-fi connection that we have access to. Having accessed this before whilst seated comfortably, I was confident that there would be no issues. However, I couldn’t connect. A tragedy in this day and age. It’s 2013, what do you mean I can’t connect? What does this error message imply when it says the licenses are full? I punched in IT’s number on my iPhone (which, by the way, was completely and utterly connected to the internet) and waited patiently for a call back. Then it came…
“Hi, I’m ringing about your IT issue. Yeah, erm. I’m really sorry but we’ve ran out of room for people on our network. There are too many devices connected at once, we expected a lot but not THIS many. Erm, keep trying and we are disconnecting people who are idle or who haven’t been on in a while”
“I fall into that category. I’ve already registered, I have my place already”
“Erm yeah if you haven’t connected for a fortnight we will disconnect your place for somebody else. Our internet is pretty full at the moment, but if you keep trying then you will eventually get a place.”
He spoke about the internet as a physical place. A place that could get full, contain too many people. I imagine it to be a smoky bar, with a bouncer and his little clicky people counting device letting one in and one out. A virtual cloud being weighed down with human data. It’s a strange thought, our invisible internet being ‘too full’. I started to think about Justin’s lecture last week and our presence on the internet. If we don’t make our social media into conversational media, then no one has to listen. The internet is full of nothing, and it is also full of everything. Making that mark is vital, especially if our endless space is filling up fast.
These thoughts brought me onto the idea of memory. Being fascinated with found imagery, and forgotten photographs means I often spend my time wondering about the people in the photographs. What happens to a memory once the person is disconnected with the object, or further still- what if they die? The same memory will never be replicated, yet the physical soulless photographs live on, with people like me inventing stories or making presumptions about the characters they contain. A memory is also a place full of endless data, and if it isn’t transitioned into conversations, no one has to listen to them either. It is a strange thought, and one so weirdly connected to the idea of our invisible internet being full.
Your call is important to us, thank you for waiting. Your website can be viewed now… What does the future hold for memories destined to be forgotten?