Photographers Gallery Talk

The Photographer Gallery talk ‘Encounters: Photography and Curation’ was co-hosted by Esther Teichmann and Christopher Stewart examined the gallery and art installation from a number of different perspectives. The timing of the talk was highly relevant given my decision to resolve my project an exhibition. The different speakers were experts in their respective field. This entry in my notes and reflection on the content presented by the different speakers.

Sara Knelman

Sara Knelman was the keynote speaker. She has previously worked at The Photographers Gallery and has curated exhibitions. Her talk provided perspectives on the gallery as a surface for the display of art and specifically photography. Sara’s PhD considered ‘Exhibiting the everyday – shaping and changing values’.

She is currently writing a book on the subject that looks at the politics of photography in the institutional exhibitions. The book looks at themes and the way work is displayed. It does not aim to be a definitive book on the canon of photographic exhibitions. It further considers the transition of photography from the magazine to gallery wall.

Sara suggests that photographic exhibitions generate multiple contradictions compared to other forms of art such as painting and sculpture. Photography in print form takes on a rarity at attempts to become a finite object vs our consumption of images via social media where use of reposts etc makes it dissemination potentially infinite.

The first exhibition Sara explored in this context was the Tate’s first major photo show ‘Cruel and Tender’ in 2003. Some installation scheme’s were reject because images were placed in the public spaces and it was felt that images were being given away for free (this was reflected in the fin al images used in the press release.) The installation shots for the exhibition were black and white only.

Photobooks were placed in the free zone but were placed under glass, therefore treating it differently by protecting it it is being considered as art however its placement in the gallery meant they were free for all to see.

Photographic images resolved form they can be enlarged as required to fill a space. Though whether the image is effective at different sizes is a matter of much debate. I would suggest for some other are forms such as sculptures can be scaled to fit the exhibition space which is increasingly true with new methods of fabrication that make it easier to scale work. Though traditional perceptions still persist in terms of ease of photographic reproduction compared to other art forms.

Though there are examples of exhibitions where photography transitions across different classifications of art. The work of Peter Bunnell is cited as an example of photography being incorporated into sculpture. Walker Evans collected signage. The images of these artefacts can be viewed as sculptural works are in fact an installation of an installation.

Recently there has been increased interest in study of the installation asa subject of research. Though given the transitory nature of the exhibition reliance has had to be replaced on installation shots as the enduring record of the installation.

It is interesting that many gallery have used black and white images to record the installation reducing the information available to the researcher who wishes to study the installation. Interestingly the Pompidou Centre is an exception in that their installation shots were both in colour as well as black and white. Stieglitz with Camera Works and Gallery 291 was one of early forces behind the photographic exhibition. Installation shots exist of the gallery pre and post the installation of exhibitions. Looking towards the present and the future the surface of the museum exhibition is evolving with the introduction of Augmented Reality. Matt Collishaw’s recent exhibition that recreated Fox Talbot’s exhibition from Birmingham 1839 is one such example where the spectator enters a white room with white vitrines and through the use of augmented reality we are transported to fox Talbots exhibition complete with burning fire and mice scurrying across the floor. Though no actual installation images exist from the original show.

Esther Teichmann

Next we have a video of a discussion between Esther Teichmann and David Campany. The video discusses the themes of exhibitions with identifying the exhibitions discussed as being important exhibitions in the canon of work exhibited.

Exhibitions can take many different paths sometimes the enter a cul-de-sac in terms of philosophy behind the work. Though the real dialogue takes place once the photograph is on the wall as at that point the photograph has been resolved into a physical presence. Books continue to exist they get reprinted whereas shows have a finite life.

David and Esther reflect that though a review can give an impression of the show it is only by observing people view the work in the space to truly understand the interaction of work and spectator.

David Campany’s exhibition ‘Handful of Dust’ was meant to push the boundaries of curation. His advice of curation is “Choose good work and don’t mess it up.”

They reflect that photography inhabits the space it is given. Surface and scale will impact how the photograph is read though at heart photograph is about image capture and output. The interesting thing with photography is after the capture stage you still have choices and presentation is an important part of the choices we make. In an installation images work with each other and the exhibition has become an additional medium. The photographer acts as curator determining the order and position of work within the space.

Shoair Mavlian

Shoiar a curator at Tate Modern and now Director of Photoworks talked a bout her role as curator specifically with the work of Usula Schulz-Dornburg. Early in her time at the Tate she went to visit Dornburg with the objective of securing a body of work for the Tate. Schulz-Dornburg had built up a large body of work from trips to different countries these included Bus stops from Armenia, Train Stations from the Hejaz Railway that stretched from Damascus to Medina opened in 1908.

Shoair gathered information about other related photographers such a Becher and Gursky from the Düsseldorf school of photography to provide context to the work of Schulz-Dornburg. Due to Tate’s at that time limited collection of photography the first exhibition of the work combined with painting and sculpture. Schulz-Dornburg I This case even provided the installation plan for her work as she had a very clear view on how it should be displayed.

The work has also been dis played as part of other exhibitions where the theme for the show has come from other subjects such as time & memory. While the ‘Land inbetween’ charts a journey.

Renee Mussai

Renee Mussai is curator at Autograph and has been involved in multiple shows (Note: Mussai  was one of the speaker at a PhotLondon Talk with Simon Fredericks.) Autograph has two spaces upstairs and downstairs sometimes showing different photographers that creates a dialogue between the show shows or using the space for a singular exhibition. Mussai as a curator feels she has a responsibility towards both the images and the show. Much of the work shown at Autograph deals with Black representation and how the has changed over time. She discusses working with the archive of James Barnor (a photographer that Fredricks’ referenced as an influence) Barnor had a huge archive of images spanning his photographic career that required review and consideration when exhibiting his work. In one exhibition Autograph exhibition they show two different sides to female black culture images from Beauty Pageants verses images of FGM. The exhibition Black Chronicles was show in a number of different contexts. Mussai felt it was less successful when it was shown at National Portrait Gallery alongside existing portraits in Mussai’s opinion. When it was show at Autograph across both floors they had queue’s around the building and it was one of there most popular shows. (Reflection: This is a good example of how perception of a body of work can be enhanced but the context of viewing. Placing it in a traditional museum potentially suffocated the work rather than allowing it to breath. Showing in a high profile space might not always do justice to the work.)

Karen McQuaid

Karen McQuaid, a Senior Curator at the Photographer’s Gallery talked about a number of the exhibitions he has curated. She talked about the how photographer’s might fill a gallery space to create an immersive experience (Horror Vacui). She talked about how some photographers have injected their art into unusual spaces such inserting images into library books.

Chen Wei – photographed Chinese Nightclubs and was given time to gather and collect images. This resulted in the creation of zines the mimic the subculture of clubs creating a false archive. The show used the concept of maximisation of the space rather than minimal use of space.

In McQuaid’s opinion curation is about restraint and stepping back. Images need to be allowed to rest in the space. Working with an archive can be challenging as you do not necessarily know the intent of the photographer and how they wanted the work displayed. This results in the creation of potential gaps in art history.

The same work can appear in multiple shows engaging with new audiences while surprising others with a second show that presents the work in a new light.

McQuaid procedures to talk about a number of exhibitions:

Tim Clark 2014 at Flowers Gallery. The work was inspired by John Berger and Jean Muir. It covers the migrations from Southern Europe to Central and Northern Europe.

Alec Soth has many of is projects exhibited ‘Gathered Leaves’, ‘Mississippi Nigeria’, ‘ Broken Manual’ and ‘SongBook’ they explore middle America in a number of different forms. It is like someone mining a rich seam of precious metal or rare gemstones.

McQuaid discussed mining archives for exhibitions where similar to Mussai she expressed concerns about the process. In this case in terms of the historical graphic and the provenance of the source image. Jobbing photographer might have rephotographed an image without approval from the owner. In other examples backgrounds or landscapes were removed from images in post production. In a form of image redaction in many cases in a brutalist manner. This creates the potential for a false narrative creating the potential to undermine the intent of the show.

Lars Willumeit

Lars discussed working with collectives as a to product photographic outcomes. He referenced his work at Unseen Amsterdam in 2017 working with the collectives presenting work at the show. He drew a comparison between the world of social imagery and the exhibition world. If you like something on social media you add to it pay liking or commenting on the image. Whereas in the physical world we express our liking of something by buying it therefore taking it away from the public domain. (Note: This is an interesting observation because if we all went to galleries and wrote under a painting to express our love for the work we would be seen as vandalising the space. Though if an image gets no likes as image makers we feel that in some way we have failed. This is not the complete truth as many times a guestbook is present though many people seem to be reluctant to leave their physical mark. Though we are happy to comment from behind a virtual persona. Maybe this is because virtual allows us to take distance from the physical.)

Lars suggested that in the world of images the curator has taken over from the author as being the preeminent gaze. Especially when you consider that the context of images can change the meaning or way we interpret an image.

In the opinion of Lars though many collectives might use images as source material many collective members do not view themselves as photographers. (Reflection: I have considered this question during the course of the MA especially when I am asked what type of photographer are you? At the current time I view myself as a visual storyteller as a I predominantly use a visual language to express thoughts, ideas and pose questions.

The final topic covered by Lars was the reasons for photographic projects failing. He did not provide empirical evidence for his conclusions instead put forward some general observations.

  • Difficulties in securing funding for a project
  • People involved in the project changing what they want to achieve or taking a different position during the development of the project.
  • Relationships between different people. Collectives are fluid in nature and overtime the relationship between different members of the collective can change.

Katrina Sluis

Katrina represent the synthesis of the digital realm into the physical world of exhibitions. She is responsible for the media wall at The Photographer’s Gallery. She feels the position of the digital curator is not clear in the gallery context. Which department should it sit in? Is it a Technology role or Marketing or another curator role. (Reflection: The advance of digital media is it creates the potential to cut across traditional boundaries that is not possible with the traditional curator role that has already become institutionalised through norms that have been reinforced overtime.)

Video walls appear on the side of buildings to support advertising and because of that context some might view the video wall as a less surface relegating it to background muzak that invades the aural space in retail outlets. This raises the question of does a video wall in a gallery context have different meaning and value compared to its presence in the street. As an artist we can place art into non traditional contexts such as on the side of buildings. This strategy will only be successful if the reader recognises it as art that is telling a story. It is possible it could be misinterpreted as advertising as companies such a Benetton have made use of style images in an advertising context.

A commonly held perception is that we are all photographers now or maybe we are in fact all curators now curating our own stories through social media. My conclusion is the boundaries are more blurred today than they have ever been and therefore photography is more democratic. While at the same time we still have a small cadre of photographers to command  

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