Interrogating Location in Today’s Photography
Curator, David Campany, has brought together an international range of artists who are making work in a variety of forms, in the latest show to open at Jerwood Space.
David Campany rejects photography’s emphasis on the temporal in favour of the spatial in the Jerwood Space’s latest exhibition, This Must Be the Place. As Reader in Photography at University of Westminster, a practicing artist and author of numerous books on the subject, Campany is well-versed in the challenges and intricacies of photography today, and This Must Be the Place assesses the medium’s new role in the international artistic forum.
With works originating from around the globe including Dakar, Barcelona, Shanghai, Dresden, California and London, and photographers ranging from the hugely experienced Mimi Mollica, to the newly graduated Lillian Wilkie, This Must Be the Place is ambitious in aiming to interrogate new approaches without any one single point of departure. Furthermore, the works incorporate street photography, pornography, moving pictures, documentary, and black and white versus colour studies, in a vast array of approaches represented by a small number of photographers. With technology becoming increasingly more efficient and acceptable, photographers face unprecedented obstacles to maintain the medium’s hard-fought status as an art rather than a science, and with a preceding generation of photography greats such as Nan Goldin, Joel Meyerowitz and Martin Parr, it is imperative that photographers continue to find their own direction, and innovate at the same rate as their technology.
This Must be the Place is the latest in a long line of one-off exhibitions in Jerwood Encounters – is there a sense of narrative between the Encounters or is each one an isolated example of artists practising today?
I think the thread is “working processes.” The Jerwood Space is very interested in shows that somehow manage to make evident, if not through the works then through the curatorial selection, something of the way in which artworks come into being. Catherine Yass curated a photographic show, which was very much about the ways the medium can be used as a form of “working through”, perhaps towards something else – a sculpture or film, or a more resolved photograph. I’ve gone in a related direction to look at the different ways images are edited and brought together into single bodies of work.
The exhibition focuses on a range of localities across the globe – was it a conscious decision to get a fair representation of international work?
I’m not in a position to make a “fair representation of international work” and I don’t know who is. Around the time I was asked to put together a show, I had just finished a number of projects in which the emphasis was on the temporality of photography and film. Meanwhile several artists and photographers I found really interesting were making responses to particular places; for example, a road in Dakar, a disused piece of real estate in Barcelona, forgotten parts of Dresden, or the Californian desert. Straight away that conjures up something a little more “documentary.” I’m pleased to see that documentary has become an expanded and experimental form once again, which is as it should be. It had crystallized into something very unproductive for a while.
We are inherently linked to the places of our past and present, and in many ways they shape our character – can you see a differentiation in the works of artists photographing their home area and photographing “new” places?
A doxa has grown up around the idea that creative work should begin with the familiar. There’s a huge presumption there that you are going to be able to make something interesting out of that. Some can but clearly it’s not going to work for everyone. And of course it may well be that you really don’t know what’s familiar until its confronted, contradicted or otherwise made unfamiliar. Those who are able to start with what they know are able to see it as unfamiliar, which is to say unknown. As for the past, I agree with whoever it was who said it is a foreign country. Metaphorically for most; actually for some. This Must Be the Place includes a sample of London Photographs, Camille Fallet’s hugely ambitious photographic survey of vernacular London. He made it soon after arriving in England from France and it’s a project that could only have been done by someone fresh to the city. I don’t think a “Londoner” would notice and photograph that way.
The two are inextricably linked, but how has the relationship between art and photography evolved over the past five years?
It’s going through a transition. After the inexorable rise of the large-scale tableau photograph, I think there is a realisation that the medium has more possibilities. There has been a quite extraordinary renaissance of the photographic book, for example. In the last few years books have been published to rival the great heights reached in the past, often by people who don’t give a fig about exhibiting. The book is enough for them. Then there are photographic projects that are conceived to work in different formats – in exhibition, in publication and online. There is also a realisation that much of the great photographic work of the past emerged from a hybrid working condition, between art and “applied” photography. A number of the contemporary photographers, I find most interesting are reinventing such spaces for themselves.
The exhibition also displays ephemera from those who have inspired the photographers – what contribution do you see new photographers giving to this narrative?
That’s a really key question for me. I’m interested in curating shows that bring together contemporary and historical work. I notice a split – more visible in photography curating, but still pretty widespread – between “contemporary shows” and “historical shows.” Photography has an extraordinarily rich and varied past, perhaps so rich that it is frequently boiled down to a small handful of touchstones for today’s audiences. That’s a real shame because there are precursors for much of what is being done today. And we needn’t be scared of that. It’s a matter of finding what might be useful connections between the present and the past.
Tereza Zelenkova’s work contrasts black and white with colour photography – something that has occurred since the 1960s. Why do you think this contrast holds a continued fascination for photographers?
Tereza works in black and white quite a lot, colour occasionally. Often it’s a way of making a photograph less historically specific, more “removed” from reality. Up until the 1970s black and white had connotations of seriousness and on the whole artistically minded photographers avoided colour because of its associations with commerce. Of course that’s all changed now. Moreover I think a fluid relationship has been created by the new shooting and printing technologies. Colour and black/white used to have very distinct technical processes for shooting and printing, now they needn’t. My own work in the show slips in and out of colour too. There is also a much more profound point here. To shoot a colour photograph is to also shoot a black and white one. Every colour photograph contains its black and white equivalent. But you cannot derive a colour photograph from a black and white one. It’s not a symmetrical relationship. I suspect most of us sense this without knowing it.
The work of Xavier Ribas is ambiguous in its message – how much does the viewer have to contribute to have a better understanding of the work?
Photography is pretty good at showing and pretty lousy at explaining. Xavier works in a long tradition of topographic photography that makes a virtue of that tension. It goes right back via Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz, through Walker Evans to Eugene Atget and into the 19th century. Because photography evolved as a medium of documentation we often expect photographers to have, and to make, very clear statements. They need not. And many cannot.
Lillian Wilkie’s books show the accessibility of the medium, in delving deep into detailed examination of a place – was it difficult however to display these works in an exhibition format and still provide a complete view?
Lillian’s suite of books is the result of walks made across Dresden, noticing details and weaving them together with fragmented accounts of the past. Her work alludes to the casual tourist snapshot, but she’s a careful photographer. Precise and understated. It’s true that books are essentially unexhibitable. They need to be picked up, held, looked at and read. Lillian’s happy to let visitors do this, but that’s unusual. How often do we see books sealed off in exhibition vitrines? It’s a real problem for exhibitions, particularly of photography. Not only is so much great work being made in book form, but nearly all the great landmarks of photography’s past were publications, not exhibitions of prints. I’m not sure the museum or gallery can ever accommodate that but the effort must be made if photography is to be taken seriously.
Eva Stenram’s Pornography / Forest injects humour and kitsch into the exhibition – is it important to laugh at ourselves and the deified position awarded to contemporary art?
It’s important to laugh at ourselves, but it’s not important to laugh at art. One can take it seriously without deifying it. There’s more than enough deification in the world right now. It’s interesting; one of the UK art magazines has just done a special issue on religion and spirituality. I was amazed to see usually pretty clear-headed thinkers repeating journalistic banalities such as “art museums are cathedrals for the secular.” Perhaps we need to be a bit more precise and vigilant about this deification business. Eva’s nature pictures are derived from internet porn sites. She downloads them and digitally removes the “action.” I wanted something in This Must Be the Place that didn’t quite fit, something that called the whole idea of “place” into question. These are photographs of very particular places, but the internet itself is a non-place.
Mimi Mollica’s work references the growth of street photography – how do you see this work as developing from the works of the street photography greats such as Walker Evans and Robert Frank?
Where you find streets you will find street photography. One of the things unique to photography is that it can be a form of hunting and invariably the pickings are richest in the street. I am ambivalent about the rampant return of the genre, not least because so much of it is so generic: an empty sport in which too many are happy to make poor imitations of the unbelievably high standards of the past, while others settle for too little: “comic” juxtapositions between people and the billboards behind them, grotesque gestures produced entirely by the shutter, third generation pastiches of “urban alienation” (you know who you are). There are a handful of people looking way beyond that, and I would include Mimi among them. His square format work from a new highway out of Dakar, shown here as a digital slide show, is the work of a photographer not trying to imitate anything, but really struggling to find a form to articulate something significant about his subject matter.
Although all of the works in the show, including your own piece One Way Street in China, have an emphasis on place, in being made at specific historical moments they also have a relation to time. You mentioned at the beginning you were trying to get away from time.
Not “get away from it” exactly, just shift the emphasis. You’re right, all photography is temporal. But as you hinted earlier when photography addresses itself to particular places what results is a meeting between photography’s temporality and the temporality of those places. I think this is why so-called “landscape photography” has also experienced something of a revival in recent years. For many contemporary photographers landscapes have the potential to combine a partially obscured past, a contested present and an unknown future. I have always had a secret suspicion that although photographers seek out subjects to photograph they are choosing ones that express something of their feelings for their own medium. It strikes me that photography itself seems rather beautifully suspended between its partially obscured past, its contested present and its unknown future.
This Must Be The Place continued until 12 December 2010.