THE PHOTOGRAPH (symposium at National Museum Cardiff in conjunction with the Diffusion Photography Festival) – Friday May 3’rd 2013
Can one see the photograph in terms of the present? Try to ascertain it’s qualities without recourse to the past!
On the train to Cardiff, I hear a man talking about photographs that are “crisp and sharp” which sounds a very obvious way to consider a photograph; what however are the factors that make a photograph “sharp”? This is not so obvious as it might appear since it involves more than moving a particular toggle or two! Any technical consideration though is unlikely to occupy the minds of this conference which is probably going to have loftier theoretical aims.
There has been a debate on the We Are OCA forum in which the photograph has been called a lie. It seems a danger to project too much onto the photograph since it does not purport to tell the truth rather we tend to assume it does. Perhaps one can describe the photograph as a conceit.
The symposium at Cardiff however does not concern itself much with the photograph as such; it is not academic in approach rather the title of the event is a rather loose term used to refer to a discussion that revolves around the interests of those asked to talk who for the most part are very accomplished people who work in photography. Some of their statements do refer to the subject of the photograph which they approach in a contemporary context.
On the way there, there is a blocked line and I have to change twice around Bristol but still arrive in time; I get a bus to the National Museum. Another passenger hearing where I am going strikes up a conversation and tells me his son studied photography at nearby Newport and that photography seems to be a lot more conceptual these days. He is interested to hear about me and what I do unlike the photographer I meet at the symposium who comes up and sits down beside me while we are having a welcome cup of tea before the event gets going. He is about my age and doing a degree at a university unlike myself who is doing it via distance learning which of course takes much longer; we both like the work of Martin Parr and find ourselves outnumbered in this respect by fellow students who don’t like his work. This fellow student is having an exhibition nearby but it is not part of the festival; he advises I see the Tramshad gallery where there are three exhibitions on but the only one I get to see today is some microphotography prints which show blow ups of insect heads and wood bark. Some of these are fantastically enlarged with 0.01mm being represented by a few inches. Apparently not part of the Cardiff photo festival but an interesting exhibition worth seeing.
The conference hall is a large auditorium with seats for a few hundred of which at least 100 seats are filled by delegates for the symposium. The theme is really “Where are we now?” or “What is the current state of photography?” and is about looking at the current status of the photograph in contemporary society.
The keynote, introductory speech is given by Richard Wentworth, a sculptor and internationally renowned artist, who also takes photographs of which he proceeds to show a selection. He talks about how he is going to project himself onto the audience and explains that this is what the other speakers present will do. He is interested in the fabric of life and above all power, what it is doing to us; we all have our own narratives, our reasons for being here. He talks about getting up early for our benefit and the morning walk he had before getting the train down to Cardiff, passing through King’s Cross where David Bailey, the photographer, lives with one of the furthest views in London, soon to be blocked by a new Google building. He continues to describe other places he passes by such as St.Pancras International while making various anecdotes about the places he sees. His first photo is of a baby as is the last and although he says he won’t be talking much about the images, he continues to chatter on. He takes a lot of photographs but is not that interested in photography; he knows a lot about it though and has some books on the subject. He claims never to have gone online and is afraid to in case he gets caught up in the pornography sites which he would find irresistible!! These days photographs do not take up much room (one of the few observations made during the day that relate to the symposium’s subject). He hates screens! He makes photographs and is aware of their multiple meanings. He regards photographs as a latter form of inscription, a form of marking. The camera is a tool. Taking a photograph is bit like scratching oneself. He is interested in the edge of things. Likes to photograph small sections of buildings against which is his main object of interest – the sky! He does not read fiction preferring his large collection of reference books. Everyone is an artist nowadays.
He mentions a few artists that inspire him … Carl Sandburg, Mondrian, Henry Moore, the art director Damien Hirst and Richard Hamilton, the photographer, who is mournful yet understood the pervasiveness of the photograph. Does not think of different schools of art rather the different way art is displayed. The camera has the capacity to capture the extraordinary in the everyday. Something sad about photography because it always relates to the past. Time runs out and yet Richard continues, saying he is coming to the end although he is in fact not nearly finished and so manages to over run by about 10 minutes, time that is never really recovered with the day running about 15 minutes late overall. Wentworth is not sure what his images are about, grumbles a bit (the F word is frequently heard), claims to suffer from Tourettes yet gives what is probably the most interesting and relevant talk of the day. A lot of his comments on photography are to the point.
He is followed by a session called “create” as three photographers (they are referred to as artists) talk about their work and consider “the conundrum of photography as contemporary art”. The photograph has been considered as art since around 1962 (to give it a date) owing to the work of John Swarowski at the MOMA in New York. The ambiguity of the photograph helps to make it art; it can be defined as art when it is not trying to communicate something in particular. I wonder again about the photographs I saw in the corridor coming to the auditorium – they convey precise information about insects, wood bark etc but also have artistic appeal since they do not show the original colours rather manipulated ones.
Daniel Blaufuks from Lisbon now working in the UK says he is exploring the link between photography and literature. He sees photography as a medium of memory and notes that photography is considering itself as it changes. Facebook and Instagram are fascinating yet the glut of images they produce are somewhat predictable. Ones perception of photography is more important than the way one uses it. Struck by a Bruce Chatwin novel that describes a collector. The photograph no longer has the same sense of dimension with images on phones, tablets, TVs etc His own work is varied ranging from a deserted factory, photos of a Jewish Refugee Camp, cyanotypes of the sun, a collection of Zepelin images and a collection of polaroids which are unique because they are one offs. He has also made a self portrait video based on an image by Man Ray. He says there is a need to relate to the history of photography as a medium to understand it fully. There is also a need to think about photographing rather than merely clicking yet to study photography and then start making photographs is a misunderstanding. One needs to consider what one is doing. There is a danger in thinking too much about the photographic process beforehand though – one needs to find the balance between thinking and clicking.
The next photographer to speak is a Danish woman, Trine Sondergaard who likewise shows images of her work. She lives in Copenhagen and studied art before she took up photography, finding th camera a welcome buffer between her and the objective world she wished to represent. Her work included a series of photographs made over several years about people relating to nature (there are some images of people hunting but these are not elaborated upon), a series of monochrome portraits (sitters get to choose the colour of their monochrome) made after she grew tired of formal portraiture and wanted to explore certain mental states which lead her to pose her subjects as well as a series of photographs showing bonnets (Guldnakhe) being worn, the bonnets themselves being from an island called Strude and part of an eighteenth century tradition about which people, even in Denmark, were unaware; some of these bonnets involved the sitters being masked and so there is a contemporary link with Muslim women whose preferred head gear in Europe has caused such controversy. Another series explores houses that are no longer lived in. One is struck by the beauty of the bonnets, their fine detail and interesting history – painterly images! Wentworth is struck and says Trine has a great feeling for life.
Last is Gideon Koppel who wears a little black cap; his parents were both exiled German Jews and artists who settled in the UK. He is an internationally recognised artist who teaches at Aberyswyth University as well as having connections with Oxford University. He loves the cinema, sitting in a dark space and watching images flash by on a screen. His presentation is unfortunately let down by technology with jittering images and lack of sound. His current work is about a small town 5 miles north of Aberyswith called Borth which is just a couple of rows of houses facing each other, rather than out to sea, alongside the road that runs through it. He is unclear as to the meaning of his work, what it is actually about. We see a film of a man walking along the edge of a hill with two dogs as well as lines of sheep crossing over a hill side. He uses the camera to construct a flame around the world he percieves; he enjoys it’s mystery and wishes to hang out with that so consequently does not like to analyse his work very much. Again Richard Wentworth chips in, saying that photography is about acquisition and that the British Empire means we are all a bunch of crooks (although Wentworth is quite happy to receive a CBE according to his Wikapedia entry). Photography is a means of communication available to us.
There is a break for lunch and I manage to find a good salad in the bar as well as a bowl of Leek and Potato soup! In the afternoon, my concentration is not good and I doze quite a bit.
The next discussion is called “Curate” and is about “new contexts for curating the contemporary photographic image” Diedre Mac Kenna has come down from Scotland to talk about “Stills” a gallery in the centre of Edinborough that works with the community by running courses and supporting artists; it is engaged in a variety of projects and receives funding from various sources. As had been said before, it is the ambiguity inherent in photography that makes it art – photography presently is in a process of transition.
Sue Steward writes about photography for The Evening Standard and has various other photographic interests including curating. Her talk is called The New Alchemists (contemporary photographers transcending the print) and discusses different ways photographs can be used – for instance, by embroidering or painting over them. She talks about Maurisio Ansri and shows a number of photographs.
There is talk about the peripherisation of photography by the digital world and dealing with things one can not touch. We are experiencing a decentralised moment in photography. There are an increasing number of photography festivals around the UK but a lot more in both France and the U.S.
After a tea break, the next topic is called “Collecting” which is of minimal interest to me although I do of course have my own collection. Michael Hoppen, a collector and gallery owner, says a collectable photograph is one that changes one’s perception of the world, one’s point of view. Photography is still new being only 174 years old. A lot of different elements to photography which need considering.
The value of photographs in the art market has increased considerably in recent times; between 1998 and 2008, the market value of collectable photographs is said to have risen by 83% according to Jeffrey Boloten. A vintage photograph is said to be made by a photographer who was born before 1900, a modern photograph made by a photographer who was born between 1900 and 1940 while a contemporary photograph is made by a photographer who was born after 1940.
An interesting question; how did an Andreas Gursky photograph, the rather bleak looking, Rhein 11 (1999) come to see for over 4 million dollars? There are only 6 in existence and 5 are the prized possessions of museums with only one available on the open market. Thanks to Sebastien Montobonel for the insight!
The last speaker is Louise Shannon from the Victoria and Albert Museum who curates the digital photo-library there. Digital photographs do deteriorate so there is a vast problem around preserving them.
Art itself is a movement just as fashion is – the two tend to lead separate lives. A lot of art can become irrelevant as time moves on and taste changes. The market is fickle, not a reliable indication of what will last. Artists are very particular about the way their art is to be shown.
It is all about making rather than merely taking photographs! A fairly obvious conclusion to the day perhaps; it is easy of course to think that but what matters, for the photographer, is the ability to put it into practice.