Lucy Soutter

Author of Why Art Photography? and Course Leader of MA Photography Arts

University of Westminster, London

As part of our ongoing Interviews series Lewis Bush meets Lucy Soutter, author of Why Art Photography? and Course Leader of the MA in Photography Arts at University of Westminster, London. Their conversation traverses topics including the need to update and expand Soutter’s book to capture the past five years’ worth of changes in art photography and its reception; photography’s expansion into three-dimensional and more process-based works as a reflection of the influence of market trends; expressive and conceptual poles within the field that sometimes do not even recognise each other’s validity; and, of course, the importance of emphasising to students the many different models of what a successful art/photography career might look like in forging their own version of ‘success’.

Lewis Bush: Lucy, first of all thank you for agreeing to take part in this conversation. It’s one I’ve wanted to have for a while because while in some respects we occupy quite different worlds in terms of the photography we focus on, there also seem to be many crossovers in our practices, not least in terms of our shared interests in education; the reading and interpretation of photography, as well as its markets and circulation. They are all topics I hope we will visit as we proceed with this discussion. However, the initial pretext for this conversation was that you are currently in the process of publishing a second edition of Why Art Photography?, your acclaimed primer on the landscape of contemporary art photography. To start with then, I’m interested to know what the initiator was for a second edition. Did you feel a renewed demand for this type of book? Was there a sense that the landscape of art photography had altered to the extent that it needed refreshing, or was it something else entirely?

Lucy Soutter: It’s my pleasure, Lewis. It is too rare that we get the opportunity for sustained dialogue with our peers in the field. I’ve followed your writing with interest and am glad to have this chance to converse with you.

My editor at Routledge, Natalie Foster, first proposed the idea of a revised edition. She was pleasantly surprised that that the first edition – the usual very small run for academic photography books – was selling out, and proposed an update. My mind reeled when I thought about how much has changed since 2013. It felt like I could write a new book entirely to capture the past five years’ worth of changes in art photography and its reception. Then I reread the book, and realised that I could still stand behind a good deal of it. In part responding to the reviews of educators who use the book for teaching, I am providing post-scripts for each of the chapters, adding new images – finally, a few in colour! – selected to bring the debates and references up to the present, and also to reflect the increased internationalisation of the field. In many cases, adding even one or two new images to a chapter allows me to reflect usefully on how a theme or issue has unfolded over the past few years in a more global context. I am pleased as it makes the book better rounded as well as giving it a few more years of shelf life before it ceases to read as a ‘contemporary’ account.

LB: I definitely sympathise with that sense of shelf life, I’m in the midsts of reviewing some of my writing over the past few years with a view to updating some of it and publishing in print and in some cases the dating is already painfully obvious! Although saying that even no longer contemporary ‘contemporary’ accounts can still be interesting reflections of attitudes and concerns about photography in a particular moment. I’ve just started reading Helmut and Alison Gernsheim’s History of Photography (1955). Many of the historical examples covered are familiar, but the way they discuss the material to speak to a very particular view of photography as well as the moment of its publication being a transitional point in terms of how the medium was regarded.

Turning to the way artists work with photography, have there been any detectable trends and tendencies that you have noticed emerge in the last few years since writing the book and which seem particularly important? For example, it struck me at the UNSEEN 2016 just how many artists were working sculpture, shape and texture into and out of their images.

LS: Yes, I have been particularly gratified to see the rise in three-dimensional and more process-based works, as I had identified it as a major trend in the final chapter of the first edition, Beyond Photography. I have been interested in the crossover between photography and other art forms since my student days in the 1980s, and have been glad to see artists exploring it more and more. This will be the topic of my next book, working title, Expanded Photography. Other recent developments in photography that have struck me include the influence of selfie culture and social media, the rise in projects utilising elements of CGI, and photographers’ increased awareness of environmental and political issues that we might thematise as relating to the Anthropocene. Globalisation has been a key theme in my own research over the past few years, but it is too all-encompassing to count as a trend. It is more a condition that permeates everything.

Catching the feeling of a moment in time is always an interesting challenge for a critic, and is one of the key differences between being a critic and historian (I have always attempted to bridge the two roles). While it has been a productive to update the book once, I think now I will let it lapse, and just hope that someday it may be considered a ‘classic’.

LB: This seems like a good moment to draw the photography market into this conversation. Francis Hodgson noticed a similar trend towards surface and process at the 2016 iteration of UNSEEN, suggesting in his write up of the festival that if an artist wants to be taken seriously they would now shun ‘flat’ photographs. I felt I saw something rather different, which was that whatever the merits of the individual artists and pieces, these works were rising to the top at a fair like UNSEEN because they somewhat overcome the central contradiction of the photography market. That is the trade in arbitrarily limited editions of a medium which is to all intents and purposes infinitely reproducible. Making something sculptural has the effect (intentional or not) of rarifying photography in a way which can be justifiably attributed to an artistic vision, rather than doing it merely for rather grubby commercial reasons. I wonder what your thoughts are on this?

LS: The market has to be one of the factors in the rise of more process-driven works that foreground their materiality. But that is not the whole story. There have always been pictorial works that related to the culture of art works on paper – drawing, printmaking and painting – and ‘straight’ works that use sharpness, detail, etc. to try to foreground photographic image over process. At different times these different strands have been more or less valued financially. The pictorialist movement of the 1890s was in part a desire to wrestle photography away from commercial studio photography. Through much of 20th century, resistance to the market was read as a sign of avant-garde integrity and merit, but this formula now feels exhausted. Some critics are disdainful of the kinds of works celebrated, for example, in Charlotte Cotton’s Photography Is Magic, assuming that their embrace of formal or material properties makes them market-driven. I don’t feel this is a very productive analysis. Artists make work because they are compelled to make work. If it were just about the money they would probably go about it some other way. I’d be very curious to see someone do a market analysis of straight vs process-driven photography to see who is actually making more money per object…

LB: Yes absolutely, I wasn’t intending to suggest it was as straightforward as artists making work purely with the expectations of the market in mind. Rather I was thinking in terms of the idea that you can see the workings of the photography market like any other, in that things which appeal to that market’s predilections have a tendency to rise to the top, while others don’t. So on the one hand of course a fair like UNSEEN is a reflection of a set of artistic interests at a particular time, but simultaneously it can also be read as a reflection of what people think will sell. I suppose what interests and sometimes concerns me about the interactions between an art market and artistic production is what works are sidelined or ignored as a result.

It is of course much more complex than any ‘invisible hand’ of the art market defining what rises and what doesn’t. In your book you reference Michael Baxendall, who rightly points out that art exchanges also incorporate complex issues of patronage, approval, so on and so forth. As one spends time in the photography world one learns to navigate these things rather intuitively, which is problematic because of the way they become normalised and unquestioned. It can be challenging enough to explain to say students how to navigate and negotiate the purely monetary sides of the photography market, particularly early on their careers, but these more nebulous forms of exchange are even harder to explore. Are these discussions you have with your students and if so how do you approach them?

LS: Yes, I do try to address different aspects of the art network alongside discussing particular projects. It sometimes involves letting go of academic gravitas and indulging in anecdotes to get the information across. But emerging artists need to be aware how these things work, and if the only way I can illuminate the apparatus is to say, “A gallery assistant at Photo London told me…” then I will go ahead and say it. There used to be a big resistance in an academic context to discussing the practical side of building an art career, but now there is more recognition that it is necessary. Another thing I am keen to emphasise to students is that there are many different models of what a successful art/photography career would look like, and that it is important to forge their own version of success that will be served by their individual strengths.

LB: I think that’s really important. It’s reassuring to see the practicalities of a creative career taking a larger place in many course syllabuses, but it’s also interesting to detect continuing biases in terms of careers are promoted as the ideal. The prototype of a successful photographer still seems to be measured largely in public profile or monetary terms, and the hideous phrase ‘fake it until you make it’ still resounds in the corridors of some institutions I’ve visited. In counterpoint to this I think it’s enormously important to have a discussion with students about alternatives to traditional photographic or artistic careers, and to highlight examples of photographers and artists who intentionally separated their artistic practices from their material needs, setting out in short to do art for art’s sake. Of course for many artists that’s an unwanted reality, but it can also become a conscious choice, the cornerstone even of some practices. What do you feel about this?

LS: I agree, absolutely. Our culture is still rife with the myth of the genius artist whose talent is acknowledged with popular acclaim and financial rewards. While some photographers have a frankly commercial vision and pursue it with great success, I consider photographers to be successful if they continue making their work despite financial and other pressures. It is a bonus if it gets noticed and contributes something to their income. I also have a particular respect for people who pursue their practice without recognition year after year. It takes a lot of determination. Happily, there are a number of different ways of making a living in the orbit of photography. One of the main reasons I aimed for a teaching career was so I could keep having darkroom access and identifying myself as an artist even if I spend most of my working hours as an academic.

LB: Likewise, unlimited darkroom access was definitely an attractive perk. A largely unexpected benefit I’ve found in teaching is the way my students cause me to constantly question my own work and ideas. Having spent so much of my time around people who are further along in their careers and therefore often professionally very invested in certain ways of thinking about photography it can be such a delight when a student who is relatively new to the field comes along with a completely different way of thinking about it. I think some of my strongest moments of revelation have started with a student simply asking ‘why are you doing it like that?’.

Jumping back slightly to my earlier question about reproductions and markets, in Why Art Photography? you discuss the suggestion put forward by some critics that photographers and artists should get away from the modernist tradition of seeing photography as a technically distinctive medium from say painting. But at the same time photography’s technical nature does make it highly distinct from what you might call the more ‘natural’ arts and these specificities are also what draw many people, including many of my students, to its study and practice. I wonder if you could elaborate on this more, and perhaps also mention whether there are particular characteristics of photography that first drew you towards the medium?

LS: As you have probably noticed, I am still very attached to the idea of photography as a distinctive practice and area of study, but this comes along with a conviction that the whole field has been cracked wide open. My own photographic education encompassed some real extremes which it might be productive to outline briefly. My undergraduate introduction to photography with alternative processes guru Christopher James at Harvard in the 1980s was pictorialist and expressive, involving plastic cameras, high-speed black and white 35mm film, and ultimately large-scale cyanotype self-portraits. My MFA at CalArts took me in another direction entirely: total immersion in early-1990s photo + text and identity politics under the mentorship of Allan Sekula. I emerged from that making very detached c-type still life images, including coolly erotic fragments of neoclassical sculpture. Then, with a view towards teaching, I did a PhD in the History of Art at Yale, looking at the uses of photography by 1960s conceptual artists. So I have always been interested in the possibilities for photography as art, but have ended up encompassing expressive and conceptual poles that sometimes do not even recognise each other’s validity.

LB: Those sound like remarkable perspectives to try and reconcile, did you feel conflicted as a student about where your precise loyalties lay, and if so was there a moment when the tensions between these different entry points into photography dissolved? Also, sometime before we struck on having this discussion we bonded briefly on Twitter over our shared connections to Sekula. While I regret I never had the opportunity to meet him, his works have often been the ones I’ve reached for when I’ve felt lost or frustrated in my own practice, to the extent that I consider him an unintended mentor or guide of sorts. I’m interested to know briefly what you regard as the most significant lessons from that relationship?

LS: It fascinates me that these conflicting perspectives endure in their own subcultures, and that so few people are able to talk about them both. It does a particular disservice to students who are pushed from expressive to conceptual camps without a clear explanation of why. I spent much of my time at CalArts feeling like I had been hit by a bus! The history of art has a bad reputation in this country since lots of photo people talk as if art historians are exclusively concerned with formal analysis and issues of connoisseurship. But training in the social history of art was key in shaping my big picture of the forces that combine to create the current situation.

Allan Sekula was one of the most inspiring intellectuals I ever met, but it bewildered me that he was so uncomfortable with visual pleasure. It was partly because I disagreed so strongly with Allan about aesthetics that I began to suspect that I might have something to contribute to the field, that there might be a position for me. He continues to be a role model of someone who combined teaching, writing and making work with great energy, commitment and generosity.

LB: A sort of consensual disagreement can be so fruitful, but that’s something many in photography seem to struggle with. I’ve often found that a review which reads a work differently, or even critically, often seems to be taken as a personal attack. Equally, as you say photography is still so very factional when it comes to some key points of interpretation. It reminds me rather of my undergraduate studies at at Warwick University, which had a rather left wing history department. I was taught by some older academics who appeared to me to basically be political allies, they shared the same fundamental beliefs, but who would pass each other in the corridor in stony silence apparently because they had had some minor disagreement over the interpretation of dialectical materialism at the CPGB summer picnic in 1983. Perhaps naively I thought photography would be different!

It is also interesting to me how academically and professionally divided along lines of class, gender, race, etc. photography’s different areas of study and practice still seem to be. Photojournalism, for example, continues to be seen as quite vocational, and that is often reflected in the relatively diverse backgrounds of our students, even if this there is still an enormous way to go before this subject comes close to reflecting the diversity of our society. The flip side of that is many of these same students feel excluded or unqualified to enter into discussions about the medium’s history and theory, even though the singular viewpoints they bring with them often lead to distinctive understandings of photography’s past, present and future. I hope this is slowly changing but I don’t feel I’ve been engaged with the medium for long enough to properly judge. I wonder if you see recognise issues and whether they seem to be in a state of movement or not?

LS: The leftist infighting can be vicious and completely represses what a luxury it is to be sitting around squabbling about pictures in the first place! The British education system makes it harder for students to access the broader sweep of arts and humanities ideas. In the States an undergrad photo major can, and often must, take electives in history, art history, philosophy, etc. as part of their programme of studies. In this country, secondary education is already so narrow, and photographic education can be a single-strand mono-culture. In a theory lecture I sometimes have to make a detour to sketch in some background information when I realise that some students (BA or MA) might not have any idea about, for example, Marx, Freud, or the broad outlines of 20th century world history. At its best, our field is a hybrid discipline that encompasses important strands of modern thought and debate, but it can be very daunting for students to find a way in if it is not broken down into smaller building blocks, and especially daunting for students coming from abroad. We all need to adapt the way we teach to make it more inclusive, to take less for granted without dumbing things down (a real challenge, but a productive one). International students bring fresh perspectives from their countries of origin. But we also need fresh perspectives from our local cultures! The repeated exponential raising of University fees over the last decade has been catastrophic for British education in a number of ways, not least for diversity.

LB: One final question, somewhat linked to the last. In Why Art Photography you note that the wider art world still sees the art photography world as somewhat parochial and insular, and that to an extent the really successful photographers are the ones who eventually ‘graduate’ from the photography market to the wider art market. I think you also predicted that the conversation around art photography would become wider and more international in the following decade. Notwithstanding the fact that it’s only been four years since you made these comments, I am curious to know if you see signs of photography being regarded any differently by the broader art world, and also whether the conversation has broadened as you hoped?

LS: We have seen a lot of changes in the past few years. Art photography is emerging as an activity and field of study in new locations, supported by the boom in international festivals, websites, etc. When I wrote Why Art Photography? it was still controversial to write a textbook that isolated art photography from the other non-art uses of the medium (a peer reviewer cited this as a major reservation about the original manuscript). Now, due to its omnipresence, there is a broader acknowledgement that photography is one of the key forms in contemporary art. The founding generation of conceptual artists to have used photographs in the 1960s have now mostly backed down from their rhetorical position of having no interest in photography as a medium in itself. This may seem like a small point, but it had been a big block to photography being taken seriously in the dialogue about post-1960s contemporary art.

Art has engaged so much more actively in politics in recent years, that perhaps it is also easier for art photography’s critics to concede that it might be able to do some productive ‘work’ in the culture beyond the traditional functions of documentary and photojournalism, which have, themselves, now taken up some of art’s strategies to communicate in different ways and reach new audiences.

And indeed, the future of art photography is global, and it is photographers who travel, especially international students, who will be key figures in the cultural translation of photography. They are the ones who will develop the dual fluencies to be able to communicate between cultures and to develop new hybrid models of practice and theory. It is a very exciting time to be teaching and writing about photography.♦

Image courtesy of Lucy Soutter. © Peter Ainsworth

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