Photography is sewn firmly into the fabric of power. For proof of this, you need only consider three recent images: Nilüfer Demir’s photograph of Alan Kurdi; Jonathan Bachman’s photograph of Baton Rouge protester Ieshia Evans; and Jeff Mitchell’s shot of refugees queueing at the Slovenia-Croatia border (the logic of which was notoriously inverted by UKIP). These photographs are not just intrinsically powerful. In each instance, their existence has directly conditioned the ever-shifting dynamics of real-world power.
As I write this, I’m flicking through Pam Roberts’ compendium of the Royal Photographic Society Collection from 2000. Page 69 features Don McCullin’s portrait of a mother and child fleeing civil war in East Pakistan (1971). On page 107, a four year old Prince Arthur (third son of Victoria and Albert) is dressed in full military attire, in an Albumen print made by Roger Fenton (1854). And on page 229, there’s an early example of pornography: an anonymous, hand coloured stereo daguerreotype (c.1855).
Taken together, these photos have a combined age of 371 years. But they remain eerily germane to power dynamics that still shape the present moment: war, displacement, celebrity, sexual objectification. And you might even say that at certain points in history, each of these photos played their own particular roles in conditioning or perpetuating such dynamics.
In the compendium, Roberts writes that the invention of photography:
‘…redefined previous perceptions of space and time and created a new vision with which to see the world, a third eye.’
I would go one further and say that this ‘third eye’ opened up to the human experience an entirely new power-play. And I would argue that the RPS Collection – a vast, 200-year inventory of several hundred corresponding photo archives – is as much a record of power as it is of anything else.
This is why I was initially drawn to the story of the Collection’s centralising transfer from Bradford to South Kensington. I was interested in the administrative history of the Collection itself because it’s such a strange and almost paradoxical history. The archives emerged out of late-19th century, high society London; then, at the start of the 21st century, they were brought under public ownership and democratised by a fledgeling regional museum. And this year they were transferred back into a high-culture setting befitting of their roots – the hallowed backrooms of the V&A.
The key justification for this move is that the V&A will enhance ease of access to the Collection for academics and the general public. Only about two percent of the Collection was digitised before the move, and physical access in Bradford was by limited appointment only. To its credit, the V&A has already opened up access to the archives at the point of physical use (even walk-in requests can be accommodated) and it is steadily digitising the entire catalogue in real time (a huge and invaluable undertaking). But this only tells half the story.
In Drawn by Light (my documentary on the transfer), I explore the access justification in detail, and show how it actually masks wider issues at play. For one thing, the justification is perversely underpinned by a stark disparity of curatorial resources between the V&A and the museum in Bradford (recently rebranded the National Science and Media Museum). For another, the justification ignores quite how centralised access to cultural assets has become in the UK.
And this all reflects a big problem with cultural funding across the country: namely, that the bulk of both public and private sponsorship is narrowly trained on distinct pockets of inner London. Access in the arts has never been a straightforward thing, and improved access at the point of use is no guarantor of more democratic access nationally.
Beyond tackling some of the institutional rhetoric that accompanied the transfer, the documentary also sheds light on the underlying forces that shaped events. The quirks of centralised trustee governance are laid bare when the documentary asks why there was no consultation on the transfer in the first place. And I also explore how institutional decision-making was coloured by the centralising pull of austerity.
But in a sense, the documentary should ultimately stand as an appraisal of how we lost a national museum for photography. The southbound transfer of the RPS collection marks the spiritual endpoint of such an institution. Only last month, Martin Parr publicly bemoaned the under appreciation of photography by the British art world, and indeed by the British state. Established institutions like the V&A are only belatedly getting wise to the power and worth of photography. I suppose it should come as no surprise that the archives of the RPS Collection have now been ushered back into the traditional annals of cultural power.
Fotografiska in Stockholm, Sweden, is one of Europe’s great photographic successes, and a new kind of museum, opened in 2010. Pauline Benthede, Fotografiska’s Exhibitions Manager, tells Redeye’s Paul Herrmann the story behind the organisation.
Paul Herrmann (PH): What do you think are the key ideas about Fotografiska that encouraged people to support it – Fotografiska’s best or most inventive qualities? Pauline Benthede (PB): Our best quality is that we aim to be a venue for all people – photography enthusiasts, amateurs, art lovers, and everyone in between. ”Photography is the technology to capture life. We provide and support life worth capturing.” Fotografiska is a meeting place for all kind of photography and visual culture – fashion, documentary photography, video art, examples of how photography can raise awareness on different social and political issues, and much more. This approach has been with us from the very beginning and is part of our DNA. We work as much on making our guests feel welcome no matter who they are, as we do on our exhibitions. And I believe our guests and supporters can feel this from the moment they step inside our venue. We also have many different kinds of exhibitions running simultaneously, with different genres. So if you arrive at Fotografiska to see, for example, a big exhibition on fashion photography, you might also experience an exhibition on a young, emerging video artist. That’s a balance we always aim for, so our guests can experience something unexpected that might deepen their interest even more and open up for new thoughts.
PH: What were the tipping points along the development process when you really felt there had been some progress?
PB: We have been completely independent from the very beginning, and up to the grand opening in 2010, we were also a very small team. Therefore I would say there was no real tipping point, but rather a steady process from the very idea of a meeting place for photography, to where Fotografiska is today. Through this process, we have been honoured to have many supporters who have believed in Fotografiska from the beginning. With this said, we are in a constant development, always aiming towards getting better on all areas, so the progress is never ending.
PH: Can you explain how the museum was, and is now, financed? PB: We are completely private, which means we have no tax money income or other governmental funding to rely on. Our main revenue is the entrance fee.
PH: What do you think the photography centre or museum of the future will look like? PB: I believe Fotografiska is in the frontline of a new kind of art experience, where it is not only about the exhibitions, but also about the atmosphere, the food, and being a meeting place. The exhibitions are our core activity, but many of the comments we receive from our guests also include the restaurant, the museum shop, and even how great our bathrooms are. An exhibition on a great photographer can certainly be fantastic, but if the access was bad, the information you received wasn’t great, or the meal you had afterwards left you disappointed, that will certainly lower your overall experience.
PH: Have you got any thoughts on how the growing number of archives and collections in photography might best be managed? Do you have your own collections? PB: We have our own collection. It is partly based on donations from artists we have worked with, but also art works that Fotografiska has bought for the collection. Having been open for nearly six years only, the collection is of course still smaller than others, but increasingly growing.
PH: How are state photographic collections managed in Sweden?
PB: There are huge collections at the government organisations with national responsibility for collecting and preserving photography, however it is not too often that these collections are made available to the public.
PH: How can we balance decreasing funding with growing collections and archives? How can we increase the public interest in collections? PB: Being completely independent, our collection is not depending on external funding.
We believe that the interest in photography in general, not only collections but also in exhibitions, is to speak to a larger audience. Photography is a worldwide used medium, an everyday tool for people to interact, share, and save moments. It’s closer than any other art form, and part of our daily lives. Therefore, in order to bring awareness on what photography is and can be, the history of the medium and its future, we need to speak to everyone. Not only to the academic or the professional, but to everyone who is part of our society and visual culture.
Here are some videos of interviews at the last National Photography Symposium in 2014 at the Library of Birmingham. They give a snapshot of the kinds of topics discussed. They were filmed and edited by Katrina Houghton.
Francis Hodgson discusses the purpose of the Symposium:
Denise Swanson reflects on the Symposium, and the value of standards in photography:
Photographer Simon Roberts talks about building a career in photography:
Writer Richard West reflects on portfolio reviews in photography – are they useful and do they give value for money?
Jason DaPonte explains his innovative archive linking project, Mining The Archive:
Christian Payne discussed old and new business models:
A guest post by Camilla Brown, a speakers at this year’s Symposium.
This image is taken from a series titled Careful by a recent MA Photography graduate from Middlesex University, where I work. I first came across C Y Frankel’s work at BA level when he was working on his series My Brent Cross made around the 1970s shopping centre in North West London. When he was studying, the university photography department had recently relocated to the Grove Building in Hendon. Frankel was living at home locally whilst studying. This more recent work, Careful, broadens out from earlier themes but still has its roots both metaphorically and geographically in the same area of London.
As it happened I started working at Middlesex University at about the point they relocated to Hendon in part as the photography department moved quite literally to the end of my street. Working freelance as a mother of young children my work was becoming increasingly local in nature. Frankel’s work therefore had a very particular resonance for me as he captured and played back to me the area I knew so well. It is an odd area and an odd image, a suburban area not deprived yet equally not regenerating at the pace of so many other parts of London. There is the continual ebb and flow of new communities to the place and yet it is also home to a distinct and entrenched demographic who have for generations called it their own. This image is a particularly quiet work and captures a typical home. It has been caught at a moment where a mist hangs eerily around the house. It is a place that is at once ubiquitous and yet also unique and for residents it is instantly recognisable in Frankel’s work.
It is so local that I was keen in conversations with Frankel to see how he could widen out its appeal. How could something so specific become more universal? Of course countless personal photography projects make this leap: Larry Sultan’s Pictures from home; Richard Billingham’s Rays a laugh to name but two. But at a nascent stage it can be hard to work out which students can do it. In part my role at Middlesex is to help with the students’ professional development, which leads me to often repeat that making the work is only the tip of the iceberg. Often the real graft is getting the work out there and showing it to people. There are many ways to try to do this which require a big expense, or one could suggest investment, of time and money. But of course that is where living in the Web 2.0 age offers us all new horizons and possibilities – the virtual network.
Frankel submitted this series to a Lensculture Emerging Talent 2015, at which point I was not involved in any way with their work. Through his work’s merit he was one of the award winners for that category which gave the work some online exposure and meant it was also exhibited. For him the best outcome was the online portfolio feedback session with an internationally connected photography specialist. Dialogue and feedback on projects and work is often the thing most photographers want. Submitting work to a black void with no response leaves them with so many unanswered questions. Virtual platforms seem a new way to offer that global perspective, and Lensculture is a website keen to nurture and develop an online community for photographers.
The Lensculture platform has not transformed life for Frankel still working to find his way as a photographer but it has answered one specific question – could the local work he made have a global reach and appeal? could he embrace the glocal? Resoundingly so, and for me that is the curatorial question that can only be answered by having your work seen in amongst your international peers’. As a curator it is partly by looking at a lot of work that you can assess where someone’s practice sits. Some fly others flounder. Frankel flew on this platform with a sincere, questioning and quiet documentary series. As is often the case – it is not the work that shouts the loudest that has the greatest impact but the understated and the considered, perhaps the work that is ultimately more Careful.
Camilla Brown trained as an art historian completing her BA at Leeds University she then studied for her MA at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is a curator, writer and lecturer on contemporary art, specialising in photography. For ten years she was Senior curator at The Photographers’ Gallery, London previous to which she was Exhibitions Curator at Tate Liverpool. She is on the Board of Directors at Quad.
Since 2012 she has held an academic post as Senior Lecturer in Creative Industries at Middlesex University, and in 2015 was appointed Visiting Fellow in Photography at the University of Derby. She regularly gives talks at universities, museums and galleries. She writes for artists’ monographs and history of photography books, and is also writes submission reviews for Lensculture. In 2016 she will publish a chapter titled ‘A curators perspective’ for a forthcoming book Photography and research: the idea, the process and the project, a Practical Guide for Photographers to be published by Focal Press.
Camilla will be speaking at this year’s symposium about her own work over the past 8 months with Lensculture. She will explore what such online platforms offer photographers and curators and what the challenges are of presenting work in this context.
Now in its seventh edition, NPS 2016 is organised this year in partnership with FORMAT International Photography Festival off year and QUAD. It explores three main themes: new online photographic communities that are revolutionising learning and showing of work; the challenges of making – and forgetting – visual history in an age when everything is recorded. And it also explores the recently announced transfer of the National Photography Collection from the National Media Museum in Bradford to London’s V&A Museum.
To book your ticket for the National Photography Symposium (20th – 22nd April) please click HERE.
WEDNESDAY 20th APRIL
18:00 Doors and registration open
18:30 to 19:30: Opening Keynote Address by Hester Keijser: On clouds, islands and diversity in the digital biosphere – a call for climate change in online photographic communities.
The two main themes of the symposium explore issues raised by the networked technologies that many photographers find themselves using on a daily basis. The talks and panel discussions will elaborate how we take part in and shape the digital culture that has evolved. The keynote by Hester Keijser will address risks and challenges facing us as we inhabit this digital biosphere. To what extent are we in control of our online presence and participation? What qualities need to be negotiated for peer to peer communities to thrive? How is the perceived need for narrative photography related to the rise of social media?
Hester is an independent curator and author specialising in contemporary photography. Currently she is advisor for the Mondriaan Foundation and is engaged as associate curator of the Noorderlicht Foundation in the Netherlands. Based in The Hague, she blogs as Mrs Deane, a name borrowed from a spiritualist medium.
THURSDAY 21st APRIL
9:30 Doors and registration open
Morning session – New Communities
Exploring the intersection between photography and digital culture, the photographic communities that are springing up, and the tools for learning and developing as a photographer that are emerging in consequence. How flexible and dynamic are online communities; does this also mean they are less permanent and does that matter? How effective are the new learning and development approaches that they foster? What is the role of traditional institutions and associations – how are they responding to changes and developments?
10:00 to 11:00: Presentations Camilla Brown – LensCulture
Camilla will consider her work over the past 8 months with LensCulture (www.lensculture.com). She will explore and discuss what such online platforms offer photographers and curators and what the challenges are of presenting work in this context. What are the pros and cons of this new virtual frontier and how might we creatively respond in our glocal age? Jonathan Shaw – Disruputive Media Learning Lab
Jonathan will introduce the pioneering work of his Disruptive Media Learning Lab which acts as an agent of change for new models for education, teaching and research, and other innovations in pedagogy, in the fields of photography and culture.
Followed by Brief Q&A
11:00 to 11:20 Break
11:20 to 12:05: Presentations Karen Harvey, Creative Development Director of Shutter Hub:
In her work Karen explores new ways to reach out, to share, and to show talent to a hugely diverse and varied audience, without being confined by timescales, costs, or situation/location. Scarlett Crawford – independent practitioner and educator. Scarlett will give an introduction to herself and her practice as an independent practitioner and educator. She will discuss whether the priorities for learning and development in photography have changed in the context of social and technological change in the last decade. She will discuss what she thinks we need to do to ensure that the widest range of people can access and benefit from learning opportunities including increasing representation, integration and cross cultural exchange, and an overall change of the industrial education system. Tim Gander, commercial photographer and a moderator for the EPUK (Editorial Photographers UK) email forum, will outline EPUK’s origins and purpose, highlighting its campaigning efforts and its evolution in a changing media world. He will also describe the benefits and challenges of running an email discussion group from the perspective of the moderator team, as well as the pros and cons of this model from its users’ point of view.
12:05 to 12:45: PANEL DISCUSSION Chaired by Paul Herrmann
Including the morning participants and Hester Keijser
12:45 to 14:00: Lunch
Afternoon session – Making Visual History
Many photographers set out to record or document for posterity and history. In the past this has involved multiple selection and editing processes, with ultimately relatively few images stored long term. But now that no image need be deleted and almost everything is stored, how will our era be remembered visually – will it have a “defining” narrative, and if so what part do individuals have in shaping that narrative? There is an ethical dimension to this; does the perceived need for narrative affect the truth or fact of what is being remembered? Has “forgetting” become a conscious act of deletion, disposal or even hiding? We invite you to explore with a range of photographers and historians what it now means to photograph for history.
14:00 to 15:10: Presentations
Joy Gregory – artist working with photography and related media Here today… Over the last 10 years Joy’s interest has been captured by disappearances of intangible histories. She has used a range of photographic materialities to be record their existence. This seems ironic when one considers the fragility of the digital image, which is constantly threatened by the instability of our many storage devices (including the Internet) and the continuing advance of technology. Joy will be taking the issues at the centre of her more recent projects as a prism through which to reflect on the future of the photographic image in the 21st-century.
Alan Ward – artist and designer The Gearing Archive Re-imagined. In 2013, while an artist in residence, Alan Ward bought some glass negatives on a whim from eBay. They had no provenance or documentation, though seemed to show a single extended family and its travels and activities. Over a three-year period of what he calls “forensic research and voyeuristic obsession” Alan worked out the locations shown, pieced together the story told by the images, and in doing so uncovered – re-imagined – the history of the Gearing family and the society in which they moved.
15:10 to 15:40 break
15:40 to 17:15: Panel session with the above speakers and: Sarah Fisher, Director of Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool Graham Harrison, Editor of Photo Histories, The Photographers’ History of Photography
Introduced and chaired by Kelley Wilder – Director, Photographic History Research Centre, De Montfort University.
FRIDAY 22nd APRIL
The National Collections Debate
Friday is given over to discussing future possibilities for the UK’s national photographic collections, and the role of institutions in supporting photography into the future. We are delighted to welcome speakers from key institutions, as well as photographers and researchers, with a view to generating new ideas and potential outcomes for the photographic community.
Confirmed speakers for the day:
Michael Terwey, Head of Collections & Exhibitions at the National Media Museum Martin Barnes, Senior Curator, Photographs, Victoria and Albert Museum Michael Pritchard, Director-General of The Royal Photographic Society Colin Ford, first director of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television Anne McNeill, Director of Impressions Gallery, Bradford Francis Hodgson, Professor in the Culture of Photography, University of Brighton Jo Booth, artist and researcher
In addition Graham Harrison, Sarah Fisher and Paul Herrmann will take part.
10:00 to 11:30: The background to recent proposals and changes including: the history of the UK’s national photography museum; the decline in cultural sector funding; the location of cultural assets, and the dominance of London.
AUDIO RECORDINGS FROM THIS SESSION
Colin Ford (with intro from Paul Herrmann):
Q & A with Michael Terwey, Michael Pritchard, Martin Barnes and Paul Herrmann:
We are anticipating a lot of questions and comments at Friday’s debate and suggest that you send questions in advance. Please email any questions/comments to email@example.com. Please include your full name; questions may be published. Please get your email questions/comments to us no later than 18:00 on Thursday 21st April. We will also be handing out slips should you wish to write your question during the symposium. These can be handed in to Redeye staff or volunteers up until 9:45 on Friday morning.
11:50 to 13:00: How might we move forward from this to create a stronger photography sector? Exploring both centralized and distributed case studies internationally and from different disciplines; the future for collections; mapping resources and joined-up thinking.
AUDIO RECORDINGS FROM THIS SESSION
Sarah Fisher and Francis Hodgson:
Panel session Friday – the above and Jo Booth, Graham Harrison with Paul Herrmann:
13:00 to 14:00 Lunch break
14:00 to 15:30: Break outs, idea generation and discussion sessions.
16:00 to 16:30
Conclusions and next steps.
AUDIO RECORDING FROM THIS SESSION
Friday reports back and conclusion:
Alongside Friday’s Symposium sessions are the FORMAT International Portfolio Review all day at QUAD. FORMAT has carefully selected 25+ international experts in the field of photography, from around the world to be available for meetings. For the reviewer list and to book, visit the link here.
More speakers being confirmed weekly. Speakers may change.
Who should come?
This event is strongly recommended for anyone interested in photography and the future of the medium, whether photographers, curators, academics, students, writers, collectors or organisation staff.
Weds 20 April 2016: 18:00 to 19:30
Thurs 21 April 2016: 10:00 to 17:30
Friday 22 April 2016: 10:00 to 16:30
Prices are as follows:
Standard three day ticket: £45
Concession, low waged or student: £35 for three days
Redeye member or portfolio reviewee £25 for three days
To book your ticket for the National Photography Symposium (20th – 22nd April) please click HERE.
Photo credit: from the Gearing Archive: Girl c. 1936; from Alan Ward’s presentation on the discovery and re-imagining of a family history
The National Photography Symposium 2014 organised by Redeye, in collaboration with Grain, consisted of three days of interesting panel discussions and talks. While the first day was dedicated to discussing the different routes into photography, and the second day to organisations and institutions, the third was solely dedicated to photographers and revolved around the topics of integrity, business models, pricing and licensing. As an MA Photography student at London College of Communication graduating this year, I was particularly interested in the last day’s talks, as a way to equip myself for life after art school and in planning for my own photography business.
Having that in mind, I was keen on hearing Stephen Mayes discuss new business models for photographers. He noted that in recent years there has been a shift in values from the photograph to the photographer, and stated that people nowadays are paying for integrity, values and credibility rather than just the person’s ability to take photographs. He urged the audience to create value for themselves, adding that failure is an essential part of a photographer’s practice and growth and should not be feared.
He also highlighted the practicality of the internet and online social media channels in measuring effectiveness of a photographer’s work and reach. His reasoning was that quantity (number of views and social media interactions) is a good metric system to see what quality to work on.
Fiona Rogers of Magnum Photos also stated the importance of the internet and social media in generating work and funding projects. She gave the project Postcards from America as an example of building a large online audience and subsequently turning that audience into paying customers.
After also hearing from Jonathan Shaw and Nathan Tromans on the same topic, Adrian West and Sophie Brown of Company of Mind took the stage and lead a thrilling active session on business model generation. They started by stating the importance of getting and keeping the right customers, providing them with what they need and building an advantage that would later convert the value being provided into income. To get the idea across they divided us, the audience, into small groups of 5 to 6 people and asked us to come up with interesting business ideas. Each group then filled out a business model canvas thinking of all the different components that went into having a solid and functional business plan. It really hit home for me the importance of knowing who my customers are and to develop a relationship with them to have a successful business.
On top of all the fascinating talks, Michal Dybowski a Manchester based wedding photographer gave a pop-up session on pricing in photography, explaining his pricing model and stressing on the importance of holding monthly, quarterly and annual price and product evaluations to gauge the growth of his company and the changes that should be made to it.
All in all, the day was a complete success and I left the Symposium feeling content in my gained knowledge, and confident that I’d gained the right tools to start my own business.
Betty Kajajian is a photographer and MA student at London College of Communication
In his seminal artwork ‘Trouser – Word Piece’ (1972), the artist Keith Arnatt wore a placard that announced ‘I’m a real artist’. This declaration was modified to ‘I’m a real photographer’ for the retrospective of Arnatt’s photographic works in 2007 at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. This change of designation reflected the apparent defection of Arnatt from art to photography in the mid 1970s. His friend David Hurn, one of the curators of this exhibition, had effectively repositioned Arnatt by the re-wording of the earlier artwork. In Britain the struggle between art and photography has a history that begins in the nineteenth century, but reached a climax during the 1970s and 1980s. Arnatt and Hurn had their parts to play, as did Paul Hill and Val Williams, two of the speakers at Redeye’s 6th National Photography Symposium. Hill and Williams spoke about one skirmish in this battle for the recognition of photography as an artform, the work of a group of photographers who exhibited at The Midland Group Gallery. Hill spoke from the position of a participant in this group, while Williams shared her findings as an historian. To some extent the opposing faction in the struggle for recognition was the art establishment and, perhaps, artists protecting their turf. Consequently, it is as an artist rather than a photographer proper that I sometimes feel like a trespasser when attending photography events.
Photography has now established its presence in the art gallery and this was underlined by the opening panel discussion at this year’s NPS which addressed the pathways that photographers could take to becoming successful artists. Richard West, co-editor of Source: The Photographic Review, considered the importance of portfolio reviews. He referred to a recent article in the magazine that investigated the value of paying to have your work reviewed (see Source, Issue 77, Winter 2014 ‘Portfolio Reviews, Who Benefits?’ p.5). David Drake, the director of Ffotogallery in Cardiff, expanded upon this relationship between curators, artists, and galleries as he took the audience through a number of scenarios for a photographer to gain exposure as an exhibiting artist. His discussion was illustrated by the work of several photographers who had exhibited at Ffotogallery. Preparation for this process starts in colleges and universities. The input from a degree course was mapped out by panel member Nathan Tromans of Birmingham Institute of Art and Design. Jon Levy advocated a more independent stance, putting forward the alternatives to both the art gallery and academia. The main issue for the panel was how could different organisations, magazines, galleries, and colleges, support students and emerging artists. David Drake made an important observation that students studying at institutions within close proximity to Ffotogallery might hardly ever visit the gallery during their course of study. The point is that the relationship between curators, artists, and organisations is interdependent. Maybe it is then pertinent to reverse the question and ask what can students and emerging artists do to support these organisations?
The future of organisations was the theme for the second day of the NPS. The new Library of Birmingham was a well-chosen venue to address this issue as it houses significant photography collections including the archives of Paul Hill and Val Williams. The speakers discussed how their own individual organisations operate. At the core of this discussion was the relationship between the organisation and its audience. BOM (Birmingham Open Media) is an interesting example of the interactive relationship between the different groups that use a space and the fluidity of media boundaries. Karen Newman, formerly the curator at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery, introduced her initiative, which will provide a new space for art and technology in the centre of Birmingham. The complex infrastructure of science, heritage and cultural institutions was further elaborated in a lively discussion between the critic Frances Hodgson, Peter James (Library of Birmingham), and Michael Terwey (National Media Museum). Hodgson is a passionate advocate for the appointment of a champion for photography who would lead a national strategic policy for the medium. While agreeing on many of the key issues, Peter James argues for a less singular approach that would involve a collaborative network (this discussion was reported in the current Issue 78 of Source magazine ‘How to Manage the National Photographic Collections?’ p. 7). One of the problems facing either the individual or the group is that photography is to be found in many different kinds of institutions. It is clear that photography is not a hermetic practice belonging to a defined group.
The problems of containing a diverse community became apparent with the presentations concerned with standards in photography. Roger Reynolds (Royal Photographic Society) and Denise Swanson (British Institute of Professional Photography) introduced their guidelines for professional standards and conduct within the photography industry, a theme that would be expanded upon in the third day of the symposium as delegates considered business and ethics. The attempt to define good practice is designed to differentiate the photographer from the man with a camera, but could mean the difference between the photographer and the artist. The distinction between technique and aesthetic was highlighted by Reynolds, and to this was added critical or historical awareness (something provided by academia); while one seems measurable the other is, perhaps, determined by preference. A conflict of interests lie with the desire to delineate borders but at the same time recognise the diversity of practice. These stresses between definition and expansion are not specific to photography, in fact, they became a driving force in Fine Art practice during the late twentieth century.
Image: Fountains Fell, Yorkshire Dales, 3rd August 2008 (Simon Roberts: We English, 2009)
A speaker whose practice balances this schism between definition and expansion is Simon Roberts. Roberts’ talk demonstrated the links that his work has with geography, social history, and politics, as well as engaging with both the history of photography and the history of landscape painting. Roberts works with the tradition of large format plate cameras to make his landscape photographs but he also makes full use of social media to develop his projects. An intelligent practitioner, Roberts’ generosity and layered work touched on most of the issues raised at this NPS.
The strength of Redeye is as an organisation that offers a breadth of viewpoints. The mixture of photojournalism, professional issues for working photographers, independent art photography, and photographic history gives a place to everyone. Redeye, like any good organisation, survives through the input of its members and volunteers – it is not a one-way transaction where a customer is given good service, but a community that shares its resources. Photographic practice is diverse, largely unrestrained by internal regulation. As a medium that suffered prejudice by an art establishment, photography in turn should be wary of the urge to police expression and defend its own borders. In this more inclusive photography community I can, as a student of Keith Arnatt, also openly assert that ‘I’m a real artist’ … who works with photographs.
Stephen Clarke is an artist, writer and lecturer based in the North West.
At the Symposium Val Williams and Paul Hill spoke about photography networking though the Midland Group Gallery in Nottingham in the 1970s and 80s. Here, Paul Hill outlines his personal experience and involvement with the movement.
My own involvement with the Midland Group Photography came about because in 1973 I was teaching photography part-time at Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham. I had been a photo-journalist since 1965, but was always interested in doing my own personal work. Through my teaching, and particularly through my friendship with Bill Jay – editor of Creative Camera and later Album – I was aware of how powerful the medium could be for expressing rather than describing.
But where could you show such ‘personal’ work in the late 60s – early 70s? Personal work for ‘thinking photographers’ was something you did ‘on the side’, whilst working in journalism, advertising, industry, fashion, or teaching.
Val mentioned in her presentation The Photographers’ Gallery in London. I had an exhibition there in 1971 of mostly personal documentary work, which was great as the gallery was ‘the only show in town’ then.
My teaching at the poly and Derby College of Art meant that I was working with lecturers and students who wanted their creative, non-applied work to get to a wider audience. So a grass roots group called Exposure, made up mostly of these lecturers approached the Midland Group, and the result was Midlands Seen. John Blakemore and Richard Sadler were members of Exposure and may have shown work at the Midland Group before, I think, but probably in a group show.
As Val mentioned the head of photography at the poly, Bill Gaskins, was most influential and, as well as participating in this first show, he asked some London-based high profile photographers, like David Hurn, David Montgomery, and John Benton Harris to exhibit with us. This showed we were serious and could vie with even The Photographers’ Gallery!
There was quite a lot of media attention as it was novel to see photographs in art galleries in those days. Even the Guardian reviewed. The formalistic approach taken by some of the participants, including me, was innovative in the reviewer’s eyes:
… to examine a portion of something in detail … is how the majority of people are teaching themselves to see now. If any popular art form or style is going to develop from this popular method of looking, Nottingham may inadvertently be the place to start it.
The first issue of the East Midlands Arts Association tabloid Artefact wanted to feature Midland Seen and they asked me to write a piece, which they entitled Photography – A Non-Art? It was also commissioned in response to a recently published interview with Lord Snowdon, who was then the public face of photography after his marriage to Princess Margaret in the 60s.
His view was that luck plays too great a part in photography for it to be considered an art. It was a craft, and he loathed the idea of signing a photographic print. An accountant doesn’t sign your accounts, he said, so why should a photographer sign his photographs?
I trenchantly argued in the piece that photography was a stand-alone art form, and concluded a pretty long piece thus:
In this country it is not very surprising therefore that even people who are deeply appreciative of the conventionally accepted creative arts – people, one supposes, like Lord Snowdon – do not put photography alongside painting, sculpture, music etc..
It is because they do not understand it; and like most things people do not understand, they are frightened of it.
Among those frightened of photography at that time were most fine artists. Vic Burgin was a lecturer in the Fine Art Department at Trent Poly then, and wrote in Camerawork that those photographers who sought to establish photography’s credibility as an art were like rats swimming towards a sinking ship.
It was a philosophical and ideological battleground then, but I think we know now who won!
Anyway, back to the Midland Group…
Some members of Exposure were asked to become Midland Group Photography charged with creating a programme of photographic exhibitions. These included Thomas Joshua Cooper’s first British show, and John Davies (a Trent Poly student) showed with 2 other Trent students later. But our ‘big idea’ was the annual Midland Group Open. We decided that if we wanted good work we needed the magnet of well-known selectors. Val has mentioned Jean Claud Lemagny and Aaron Scharf. They were followed by John Szarkowski, R.J.Kitaj, and many more over the ensuing years. Robert Mapplethorpe – wanting to impress selector John Szarkowski, no doubt – sent in 2 pictures, which guaranteed media interest and persuaded many more photographers to submit work in future years.
For a period the Midlands, and particularly the East Midlands, became – I do not think it is an exaggeration to say – the epicentre of British photography. It was because a group of photographers wanted to change things and the Midland Group offered them that opportunity which they eagerly grasped. I do not think it is too fanciful to say that if the photography networks and initiatives of the early 1970s, Val has alluded to – and is researching into – hadn’t succeeded, we probably wouldn’t be in this room today….
The National Photography Symposium 2014 began with a collection of talks from a variety of speakers. The panel included Richard West (co-editor of Source magazine), David Drake (director of Ffoto Gallery), John Levy (curator of Foto8) and Nathan Tromans (Birmingham City University). These were of particular interest to me due to the subject that the speakers focused on; routes into photography. As an MFA student currently studying photography at Falmouth University, I was keen to hear what the speakers suggested in terms of possibilities for new artists.
Richard West began by suggesting a variety of galleries that exhibit photography and demonstrated which galleries were most likely to consider emerging artists’ works. Portfolio review opportunities were mentioned in conjunction with cost and possible rewards, which raised the question of finance and ethics. Photographers creating art face a continual challenge of financing their creative practice; working part-time jobs, applying for funding, taking out a loan; the list goes on. This is not a new situation for artist photographers, however the changes in the medium are new. The rise of digital photography and technical advances that have allowed mobile phones to become cameras has allowed everyone to be a photographer. This has changed the photography industry in part by transforming photography in to an accessible medium for all. Therefore the number of photographers now grappling for the same number of exhibited and published positions has grown exponentially.
David Drake raised the notion of self-publishing and suggested that although this can be a successful route in to the business of photography it can be a very expensive unsuccessful route as well.
John Levy questioned the motivations and aspirations of the emerging photographers and suggested that questioning and reflecting was a massively import aspect of success in the business. Believe in the work and be persistent were key terms. What all the speakers agreed upon was that there is no substitute for quality. Quality work is an elastic term which could be defined in several ways; technique, subject matter, artistic style, etc. The debate raised the notion of who is deciding what is quality work and what is not.
The men on the panel (the entire panel) were referred to as ‘gate keepers’. This term got discussed at some length suggesting that the photography industry was in fact a business and that the people in power (curators and directors alike), much like politics, decide who and what will be held up as quality photography. Crowd funding, self-funding, internships, self-publishing and even working for free were suggested as possible ways to broach the world of art for photographers, all of which work for some.
Confidence was a key idea that was mentioned; having confidence in your work, and yourself. Without belief in the work, the work will remain hidden. Without people seeing your portfolio, it won’t be exhibited or published. I found the discussion beneficial as it pertains to my current situation; my work has not been given much exposure in terms of my pushing it to be seen and if I take anything away from the debate it will be that in order for my work to have a chance of being discovered; it needs to be visible.
Natalie Myra is a photographer and MFA student at Falmouth University. She attended NPS6 on one of the bursary places offered to photography students.
David Drake, Director of Ffotogallery, Cardiff, spoke at the Symposium in 2014 and here outlines his concerns for the starting photographer.
I set out three different routes to establishing yourself in the art/documentary photography world, which are somewhat stereotypical but based on real experience:
1) the exceptional graduate who comes to the attention of the local gallery/arts centre, receives a small grant from the Arts Council and develops a strong portfolio, pays to attend a number of UK and European portfolio reviews, leading to an offer from a European photography publisher to make and distribute a book of the work for a fee of £15-20K. The photographer raises the money and the book gets good reviews and an editorial feature, leading to exhibition opportunities.
2) the Internet-savvy graduate who crowd-funds a self-published book, and with the enthusiastic community of interest around the book, it receives positive feedback on various influential blogs and comes to the attention of an influential ‘taste-maker’ like Martin Parr, who buys 25 copies of the book and declares it the most exciting self-published photo book of the year, leading to several European photo book awards and the entire first edition selling out. Second hand copies of the book change hands for silly prices, and subsequently there is an offer from a leading German publisher to produce a second edition.
3) the graduate who has produced a strong and coherent body of work, and responding to an open call from a European photography festival gets her work selected for a thematic group show. The photographer is required to supply digital files and inkjet prints are made by the festival for exhibition purposes. Exposure at the festival leads to interest from a UK gallery and that organisation offers a first solo exhibition. However, Arts Council cuts have left the gallery with no money for artist fees, and they can only meet half of the production and presentation costs so the onus is on the photographer to find significant funds to produce the work for the exhibition, which appears to be an important opportunity for increased exposure.
Whereas it is positive that there are many different routes to success in the photography world, it does concern me that the above three examples place almost all the responsibility for financing their early career development on the emergent photographer, who has already borne the financial cost of getting through higher education. I would like to see more equity between the individual photographer/artist and the commissioning gallery/publisher, with a fairer sharing of the financial cost and risk, and a commitment to work together over a period of time to achieve the best possible outcome, artistically and professionally, for both parties. Galleries and publishers should not act as privileged ‘gate-keepers’ who hold the keys to success; they should utilise their professional judgement and influence to help the most talented individual photographers to maximise their creative potential, and build sustainable careers.
I believe that good work will generally find its audience, one way or another. However, I feel the photography world is currently structured in a way that inhibits opportunities for the many thousand emergent photographers and protects the interests of the already established ‘names’ – a somewhat exclusive group of mostly male photographers and photo book publishers operating on a New York-London-Paris-Berlin axis of power. There are signs of change in the way that social media and artist-led initiatives have opened new routes for producing, publishing, exhibiting and distributing work, and through increased artist mobility in the form of residencies, commissions, international networks and collaborative working.
Finally, it pays to remember that immediate success is very rare, and photographers who want exposure and recognition need to strategically plan their career progression route, alongside building networks and supporters, producing excellent work and seizing good opportunities as they arise.