2013 Symposium Report

Here’s a full report on the 2013 National Photography Symposium – NPS5 – by writer Vicky Anderson. A summary is followed by more detail on each individual contribution.

SUMMARY

A fascinating mix of speakers across the fields of academia, journalism, science and technology and the arts took to the Bluecoat to address the fifth National Photography Symposium.

Taking place on the same day as the launch of Look 13, the symposium was inspired by the festival theme ‘who do you think you are’, and examined a range of issues relevant to current theory and practice in photography, as well as considering the future of the profession.

With a format adapted from last year’s event, NPS5 had been programmed to take into account the broad interests and concerns of Redeye members of all backgrounds, including working professionals, keen amateurs, students and teachers.

As such, it incorporated everything from talks by veteran photographers to the awarding of the second Rob Sara Bursary, highlighting some exciting up-and-coming talent; and looked at techniques and approaches across the industry from to the impact of Instagram to the enduring appeal of black and white film.

The day began with a talk from Carol McKay, a lecturer from the Northern Centre of Photography at the University of Sunderland. Posing the question “are we all photographers now?”, she examined the rise of social media and photosharing websites such as Flickr and Instagram, and their impact on professional photographers.

Exploring how arts organisations and individual projects are increasingly seeing the value in crowdsourcing amateur photography through competitions and open calls, not only as a way to engage with audiences but also help as a marketing tool and with funding applications, McKay observed that professional photographers will need to respond to the change in perception of the practice that this democratisation has brought about.

The academic theory of performatism was introduced by second speaker Dr Raoul Eshelman, who discussed his ideas of the post postmodern movement in photography and the arts. Turning away from the hyper-artificial, faux-amateur style of postmodernism, performatism instead considers a higher sense of order and transcendence that reaches beyond the photograph.

The final speaker of the morning was Howard Hopwood, chairman of Harman Technology, the UK’s largest photographic manufacturer. Giving an insight into the history of the company, which incorporates the long-established Ilford Photo, he talked about the science behind some of its most popular products including multigrade paper and developer – and how you might even be wearing some of their technology in your socks. Hopwood revealed that to ensure the company’s future as “the best in black and white”, it has most recently diversified to employ the same silver halide compound used in its photography products as an active ingredient in odour control footwear.

After a question and answer session and lunch, the talks resumed with photojournalist David Hoffman, who has spent four decades taking pictures of protests, riots and demonstrations – with the scars, missing teeth and court cases behind him to prove it. Hoffman spoke of his mistreatment at the hands of the police over the years, and what he perceived to be the failure of the Met to view journalists at the scene of protests to be impartial observers, instead treating them as troublemakers and keeping files on their movements. From the Brixton riots in 1981 to the G20 demonstrations of recent years, he has seen it all – and told of his fear of the powers of police surveillance in the future.

This was followed by Susan Jones, the director of a-n, the Artists Information Company, who discussed problems in funding for artists. A recent survey by a-n highlighted the increasing trend of artists being expected to exhibit their work for nothing, even by flagship galleries. “Where has all the money gone?” she asked, suggesting that the artists’ lack of motivation for profit may see many taken advantage of, settling for much less than their time and creative efforts are worth, while others benefit.

Finally, some of the new legal issues facing professional photographers were addressed in a practical session by Gwen Thomas, the legal and business director of the Association of Photographers, and Nick Dunmur, a non-executive director of the AOP and chair of the British Photographic Council.

With changes to come in copyright and licencing legislation that will affect working photographers, they warned that although a great deal of speculation and scaremongering abounds, it still pays to protect your work for the future, and gave practical tips for copyrighting work and displaying online.

The day concluded with the awarding of the Redeye Printing Bursary with Rob Sara, now in its second year. After a showcase of work by the shortlisted photographers, the winner was named as Gillian Gilbert, a final year student at the University of Cumbria. Sara is one of the most respected printers in the UK, and offers two days of directed hand printing in his studio to produce a series of prints for the winner’s portfolio.

The theme of Look 13 – ‘who do you think you are’ – by accident or design may have inspired NPS5 to look inwardly at the practice of photography as well seeing the bigger picture. As the variety of speakers showed, the industry faces its own challenges in a rapidly changing climate, but as always there is common ground and support to be found in all sorts of different places; and its champions are as passionate as ever, whatever the future may bring.

 

CAROL McKAY

In the first talk of the day, Carol McKay posed the question ‘Are We All Photographers Now?’ and shared her thoughts on the pros and cons of sharing and exhibiting photography online.

Illustrating her talk with work by her colleague Arabella Plouviez, McKay, a photography lecturer at the University of Sunderland, discussed modern photosharing platforms including Flickr, their impact on professional photographers and the democratisation of the practice.

Crowdsourcing of images has become a source of fascination for professionals and amateurs alike in recent years, and social media has become a powerful tool. More than just sharing a quick snap on Pinterest or Instagram, these sites have become a key way for cultural organisations to engage with potential audiences, even spawning exhibitions in their own right.

Photography competitions open to all are a prime example, increasing in popularity and easier to participate in than ever in the age of digital photography and smartphones.

Such methods are as much a savvy marketing ploy as a commitment to art – and in some cases have become a useful device in supporting funding applications; one of the most successful examples being the Street Photography Now project, that saw 20,000 images uploaded to Flickr in a year.

McKay said photographers need to think how to respond to the changes social media has brought about.

“What has become clear is photographers’ interface with social media and online platforms is of great importance,” she said. “The changing expectations of photographic audiences is a challenge, as audiences are likely to engage in complex and varied practice of photography in a way that might be different to audiences of other practices.”

To highlight the impact of social media photography and how it has changed the landscape of the practice, McKay cited the work of two artists who have tried to contextualise this: Erik Kessell, in his 2011 installation Photography in Abundance, where he printed off all pictures uploaded to Flickr in a 24 hour period to fill a physical gallery space, and Ekke Vasli’s piece Watch Flickr Downloading Live, a fast-changing screen that can barely seem to keep up with the onslaught of new content.

 

RAOUL ESHELMAN

In his talk Performatism: Photography After Postmodernism, Dr Raoul Eshelman approached NPS5 as a cultural critic, to explain the concept of his term for post postmodernism. Performatism, he argued, is applicable to all strands of the arts and represents a new type of photography in itself, as opposed to a “warmed over modernism”.

To highlight his theory he used examples of work from photographers including Thomas Demand, Kurt Tong, Andreas Gursky and Mike Perry.

He explained that postmodernism in photography is recognised through its hyper-artificiality or amateurish, ironic style. This anti-aesthetic, superficial attitude can be seen in the type of photographs that are made to look random and taken off the cuff but belying great complexity and skill, such as Lee Friedlander’s Las Vegas (2002).

Alternatively, performatism uses space in an affirmative way to create a dynamic sense of order, and the viewer can assume an aesthetic attitude – suggesting a higher sense of order, a transcendence that reaches beyond the photograph.

Motifs include urban and industrial landscapes with a hint of spirituality, such as the ‘non-ironic Americana’ of the work of Mike Sinclair; nature and culture; people, placed in settings to suggest transcendence (for example, Nikita Pirogov’s The Other Shore series); interiors, opening out into other worlds (eg Kurt Tong’s People’s Park series); objects that have been made to transcend; and natural order overcoming chaos.

Dr Eshelman is a lecturer in Slavic literature at the Maximilian University, Munich.

 

HOWARD HOPWOOD 

Harman Technology is the UK’s largest photographic manufacturer, and its chairman and new business director Howard Hopwood gave an insight into the company in his talk Inspired by Imagination… Shaped by Science.

Mr Hopwood gave a short history of Harman Technology, as well as explaining what goes on behind the scenes in the firm’s plant and discussing the challenges faced by manufacturers in the photographic industry today.

Harman Technology, formerly ILFORD, is named after Alfred Harman who founded the company in 1879. It was put on the map in 1940 with the invention of multigrade paper, which revolutionised black and white photography. In the 1980s, the firm decided to specialise and concentrate solely on developing this product and becoming “the best in black and white”.

With the rise and rise of digital photography, Mr Hopwood maintains there will always be a market for film. “I try to maintain the view that film is the best way to capture an image”, he said. “I believe that not just because it is my livelihood but because you can have the confidence that if you capture something on film it is going to last.”

As well as longevity, another advantage to using silver gelatin prints is that it is valued by collectors as the format makes it difficult to replicate originals.

But as the market for physical photographs – and the support structure around it – gets smaller, Herman Technology faces problems including the volatile price of silver and raw materials becoming more difficult to source.

The firm continues to introduce new products, and one way of diversifying has been finding an alternative use for its silver halide compound – as the active ingredient in odour control socks.

Mr Hopwood says: “The Alfred Harman legacy is still alive. We are still there and still working on it. We will be the best in black and white and I think we are about there. We will be the last man standing in traditional photography – we have committed ourselves to that. It is a valuable business, and we are keeping it going. Through socks!”

 

DAVID HOFFMAN

David Hoffman was introduced to the symposium as “the second most arrested photographer in the UK”, and went on to give a short history of his 35 year career as a radical photographer, capturing images of civil unrest around the country.

His first-hand accounts of riots, demonstrations and protests – and the price he has paid to be at the scene over the years – gave a rare insight into the policing of these events and how it has changed, including an increasing wariness of on-the-spot photographers, who are now just as likely to be watched as any criminal.

From the 1981 Brixton Riots to the more recent G20 protests, Hoffman’s experiences of aggressive policing and what he claims to be tactics including the deliberate provocation of protesters and crowds by police – as well as the court cases he himself has won after being assaulted and arrested by officers under false pretences – not only told of threats to journalists but the danger of the UK “sleepwalking into a surveillance society”.

Hoffman’s photographs have on occasion captured images that illustrated aggressive police behaviour against photographers and civilians, from pictures of officers appearing to strangle a colleague in the 1980s (for which damages were awarded), to photographic evidence of his own bloodied and bandaged head after an assault.

“Attacks on working journalists are attacks on democracy,” says Mr Hoffman, who has won a number of court cases against the police thanks to the legal support of the National Union of Journalists.

Photographers working on these demonstrations have been followed, filmed and treated as protesters by police. Their details are on police databases part of a move, says Hoffman, to create “a perfect storm of surveillance” in order to deter people from involvement in protests.

“The police are determined to oppress dissent,” he says. “I’m not a protester or activist. I’ve never been a member of a political party. I’m a journalist, and have been for 37 years. Yet [the police] have filmed me dozens of times – there is even a file on me on the national register of violent extremists.”

 

SUSAN JONES

“The millennium was a golden age for the arts, which really flourished at that time. So where has all the money gone?” asked Susan Jones, director of a-n, the Artists Information Company.

In her talk, she revealed some of the more telling results of her organisation’s 2013 artists’ survey, in which half of those who responded said it had become too expensive to exhibit work – with less than a third saying they had not received any fee whatsoever to exhibit, and earning less than £200 was to be expected. In addition to this, increasingly artists are being expected to pay a fee to exhibit or enter into competition.

Jones argued that the altruistic nature of creatives –  those freelancers not motivated by profit, yet making the work on which the jobs those more securely employed in galleries depends – not only risks them being taken advantage of, but also devaluing their work and that of others as well.

“Artists increasingly hear ‘there’s no budget’. There is – but what that means is that the budget has gone somewhere else. That doesn’t stop there being good practice,” she said.

This was illustrated with a quote from fine art lecturer Pavel Büschler, who puts it thus: “The artist’s ‘old’ job is taken over by the intermediaries who ‘deliver’ the art to the public, who facilitate public access to art – curators, critics, arts administrators – and whose role it is to negotiate the practical and ideological terms and conditions of the ‘services’ provided by artists in society.”

As such, the artist remains in a precarious position, subject to market preferences and trends and vulnerable to all kinds of uncertainty when working on projects.

Ultimately, Jones asks, we have to ask: Art feeds the soul, but who feeds the artists?

 

GWEN THOMAS AND NICK DUNMUR 

In the final talk of the afternoon, Gwen Thomas and Nick Dunmur discussed new legislation for photographers to be aware of and ways for professionals to protect their livelihoods in The Photographer of the Future.

Ms Thomas, the legal and business director of the Association of Photographers, and Mr Dunmur, a non-executive director of the AOP and chair of the British Photography Council, began with an overview of new legislation to copyright reform soon coming into effect. Issues include the way orphan works – images that cannot be traced back to their owner – will be made available for anyone to use; and the introduction of extended collective licensing, that will allow organisations to collect money on behalf of non-members as well as members unless they take steps to opt out.

They offered the following advice for photographers in the face of new legislation:

● Keep yourself informed – scaremongery abounds.

● Join a trade association or union, to provide a balanced view

● If your work is in a library or you sell online, consider registering with a copyright office in the US

● Join a registry, eg PLUS.

● Metadata is strippable, despite this being a criminal offence – make incorporating it in all your images part of your workflow.

● Be clear about what your photographs can be used for. Build in licences as part of your paperwork trail – this can also be built into your metadata.

● Consider adding a watermark to all online photographs.

● You can also consider extending the canvas of your image and add information as part of the image itself.

● Make sure all paperwork is watertight – incorporate standard terms and conditions, and include these again in your invoices.

● Be careful using social media – some sites will strip metadata. Only post photographs of little or no value, and nothing with an exclusive licence.

● Get out and meet people. Networking face to face still the best way to find work.

Not all of these steps will be relevant to everybody but choose the steps that are most appropriate to your particular work.

If you need to provide information about licensing and copyright to your clients, look at the Copyright4Clients section of the AOP website.