Victor Burgin

Author of The Camera: Essence and Apparatus

Published by MACK

Continuing our Interviews series, photographer, writer and Director of Art Foto Mode, Michael Grieve speaks with Victor Burgin, one of the most influential artists and writers working today, having first rose to prominence as a conceptual artist at the end of the 1960s. His theoretical essays on both the still and moving image encompass semiotics, psychoanalysis, and feminism and were recently brought together for the first time as a collection in The Camera: Essence and Apparatus, published by MACK in 2018.

Here Burgin discusses how over the past five decades his work has never stopped being political. What has changed, he says, is his understanding of the forms of politics specific to art. He also reflects on the way the conditions of spectatorship of moving image works made for the gallery are closer to those traditionally associated with painting than to those associated with cinema. And while he once argued that the specificity of photography lay not in its medium but in its apparatus – the still camera – and most especially in the speed of this apparatus in registering the fleeting appearances of the world, today the photographic apparatus is no longer specific to photography, the specificity of photography now is in its apparatus, whether that be discourses that take photography as their object – technical, historical, sociological, philosophical, curatorial, critical, journalistic and so on; institutions such as certain museums, societies, photography departments in universities, prizes and other instruments of legitimisation; or forms that include the various types of structures within which photographs are presented, such as billboards and plasma screens, art museums and galleries, magazines and newspapers, and the Internet.

Michael Grieve: Your interest in photography began in the late 1960s when you began to think critically about commonly held assumptions ingrained in the art world. Perhaps the seed of your thinking was sown as a student at the Royal College of Art, London. Thus you began to work conceptually fusing text, photography and film together. At this early point in your ‘artistic’ process how did you arrive at the conclusion to work in this way, and were you clear of your convictions as to the trajectory you wanted to move towards?

Victor Burgin: In the introduction to my essay collection The Camera:Essence and Apparatus (2018) I write: “I came to ‘photography’ from a background in ‘art’ at a time, the late 1960s, when the art world considered the expression ‘art photography’ to be an oxymoron. What interested me about photography was the place it occupied in everyday life. In newspapers, magazines, advertising, family photographs, and so on, it played – as it still plays – a fundamental role in the formation of the ideas, beliefs and values according to which people live. To use photography in my works for art galleries and museums therefore allowed me to bring my visual art practice into dialogue with a significant aspect of the sociopolitical process. It moreover required that my critical thinking about my practice take account of a world beyond the ‘art world’.” A detail to add to this was my growing disenchantment with the hermeticism of Conceptual Art. My decision to work with photography and text represented my turning away from concerns inherited from ‘art’ and towards everyday life and its languages, which are invariably composed of image/text relations. Of course such an orientation, unusual at the time, has since become unexceptional.

MG: The first work I encountered of yours was in my hometown of Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1976 you produced a singular work called Possession, appropriating the style of advertising, with the text reading,What does possession mean to you?” and, “7% of our population own 84% of our wealth”. Juxtaposed in between is a photograph of an attractive man and woman in an intimate embrace, the man’s face partially obscured by the woman’s profile as she kisses him on the cheek and holds the back of his head. 500 reproductions of this image were printed and specifically situated on the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne. This is a rhetorical work yet fused with multiple meanings oscillating between image and text. I want to use this particular work as a prime and early example of your conceptual approach. Can you explain your thinking at this time and how your practice today follows the red line of image/text relations?

VB: What comes to mind is a review of two shows of my work held simultaneously in New York in 2016. One show was of UK76, the other was of two recent digital projection works. The critic approves of the “agonistic relationship to the gallery” in my earlier work, and especially in works like What does possession mean to you? On the other hand he finds that my recent works, unlike my work of 40 years ago, “give off the strange air of an academic exercise”. He would more accurately have claimed the contrary. Works such as UK76 and What does possession mean to you? were the closest I have ever come to making art as an “academic exercise”, a putting into practice of theory. Both works are intimately related to my essay Photographic Practice and Art Theory which was published in 1975 at the time I was putting together those works. This essay, in turn, was derived from my lecture notes for the class I was teaching in the Film and Photography department of the Polytechnic of Central London. The class was devoted to the application of linguistic theory in the analysis of text-image relations in photography in general, and advertising and documentary in particular. The reviewer assumes it to be unquestionably self-evident that the “academic exercise” is a bad thing. To the contrary, it is often the only way to break the iron grip of established habits of thought, and to open the way to non-consensual forms of representation. I’ve become accustomed to being told that my work “used to be political”. To which I reply that my work has never stopped being political; what has changed is my understanding of the forms of politics specific to art, rather than, for example, to campaigning journalism or agit-prop. Moreover the political environment has greatly changed. My forays into the street in the 1970s made sense in the political context of the UK at that time – with a genuinely socialist Labour Party and significant party and extra-party pressure groups further to the left. To make work today as if I were still in that context would be ridiculous. I summed up the shift in my thinking in a chiasmus I coined back in the early 1980s, when I said that for me the issue was no longer one of the representation of politics but of the politics of representation.

MG: During the early 1990s I was a student at the Polytechnic of Central London [now the University of Westminster], where you were a lecturer between 1973-88. Even in absence, your educational legacy was very much present. Thinking Photography (1982), a book of seminal texts which you edited was at the top of the curricular reading list. I am curious to know how much input you had in changing the content and structure of the course towards a way of rethinking photography and its place in culture and society; utilising and integrating theories such as psychoanalysis, semiotics, post-structuralism and feminism, theories that had previously been regarded as mutually exclusive to critically understanding visual representation. And in which ways was your previous lecturing experience at Trent Polytechnic precursory to PCL?

VB: I was hired at what was then the Polytechnic of Central London in 1973 precisely because PCL was in the process of applying for BA (Hons) degree accreditation, which meant it had to provide academic content in what had previously been a vocational course. Such content at PCL up to 1973 had been confined to classes in optics and chemistry. I had begun rethinking my intellectual assumptions as a student in the 1950s, while doing summer work as a labourer in a Sheffield steelworks. One of the young men working alongside me was studying philosophy at Oxford. When he heard I was attending the local art school he told me about A. J. Ayer’s book Language, Truth, and Logic (1936). In this book Ayer argues that a sentence can be meaningful only if it is ‘analytic’ (tautological, like mathematics), or empirically verifiable. If a sentence is neither, it is literally nonsensical. Ayer applies this ‘verification principle’ to ethical, theological and aesthetic propositions. All fail the test and are condemned as meaningless. This chance introduction to Ayer’s book came at the right moment for me. I was having difficulty making much sense of what painting tutors and art critics were saying. It came as a relief to learn they were talking nonsense. This was the beginning of my search for an appropriate critical language for thinking through my art practice. When I subsequently went to the Royal College of Art painting school I was lucky enough to take classes with Iris Murdoch. She introduced me to British empiricism, Hume in particular. I had already read Sartre’s novels at art school in Sheffield, so I read her work on Sartre ‘on the side’ and became interested in phenomenology, an interest I subsequently pursued at Yale, where I read Husserl. The next major moment in my intellectual history came sometime after I returned to the UK. It would have been somewhere around 1971. I was in my first teaching job, at Nottingham School of Art, and had become friendly with a colleague with a background in anthropology. I believe we had bonded over Georges Charbonnier’s Conversations with Claude Levi-Strauss (1961), which I had read in English translation in this small Jonathan Cape edition. I would guess it was this that led my colleague to recommend that I read Elements of Semiology (1964), which had also been translated for Cape. It was a ‘Saul on the road to Damascus’ moment in my intellectual history. After that first reading – of course it’s a book I continued to re-read – I went looking for other books by Barthes and found only Writing Degree Zero (1953), in the same Cape series. There were no other English translations of Barthes available at that time. So I went to Paris and came back with a bag full of assorted texts, not only by Barthes but also by the writers he draws on in Elements. I bought myself a large French-English dictionary and sat down to work my way through them. An irony lost on me at the time was that S/Z had just appeared in France, signalling Barthes’ post-structuralist turn. Barthes later spoke of the way his investment in intellectual projects was a desiring one; they would endure for whatever periods of time they endured, like amorous investments, and then be overtaken by other passions. The affair with linguistic theory that gave birth to Elements, however, was arguably the longest and most intense. My encounter with Ayer, and with logical positivism in general, was almost as important to me as my encounter with Barthes some fifteen years later. One can hardly think of two more different thinkers, but they nevertheless performed complementary functions for me. Ayer allowed me to clear the ground of the kind of impressionistic and opinionated writing that was rife in so-called ‘art criticism’. Barthes allowed me to construct an alternative critical apparatus once that ground was cleared. At that time, in the 1970s, I didn’t know anyone else who was reading Barthes. The conceptualists I tended to be associated with then, mainly the Art Language group, trod the British ‘natural language’ philosophy line of hostility to what they called the ‘French disease’. The people who were reading Barthes were the film theorists around Screen magazine. I later became friendly with some of them, mainly with Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey, but in the early 1970s I was pretty much intellectually isolated.

MG: Moving forward in time to Paris Photo 2019, when you were in conversation with David Campany and presented the project A Place to Read/Bir okuma yeri, a work made in Istanbul as an artist in residence in 2010. You constructed a digital text-image projection that was looped every 10 minutes of the Taslik Kahve coffee house; a building that actually no longer exists, loss being a consistent theme in your oeuvre. I was immediately struck how the digital reconstruction of the coffee house is viewed and surveyed from an aerial, all seeing perspective, as if from a drone. Can you explain this work, particularly in terms of time and narrative, and also expand on the meaning behind this panoptical point of view?

VB: For many years prior to 2010 most of my work had originated in invitations to respond to a city, or a building. When I was invited to Istanbul, in the context of Istanbul 2010: Cultural Capital of Europe, I found that the building I had chosen to work with could no longer be photographed. The Taşlik coffee house and garden, constructed between 1947-48, had been dismantled in 1988 to make way for a large luxury hotel. The architect of the coffee house, Sedad Hakki Eldem, had designed a modestly elegant building, on a splendid site overlooking the Bosphorus, which synthesised a seventeenth century Ottoman architectural vocabulary with that of twentieth century modernism. I chose this building as a basis for my work for two reasons: first, it succinctly articulated the Atatürk Republican ideal of the modern and democratic expression of a historically rooted Turkish national identity; secondly, the destruction of Istanbul’s heritage of fine public architecture in the interests of private profit seemed to me to be an urgent political issue. (In May 2013 a no less brutal ‘development’ plan for Gezi Park, by Taksim Square, sparked massive anti-government protests.) When the Swissôtel was built in 1988 the Taşlik coffee house was dismantled and part of it re-erected in a different position to be used as an orientalist tourist restaurant. The former garden was turned into a car park and where there was once a view of the Bosphorus there is now the view of a rooftop tennis court, replete with advertisements for mobile phones. Rather than give up the idea of working with the building I decided to abandon the physical camera in favour of the virtual. My project became one of reconstructing the coffee house in the virtual space of a computer model to disinter the utopian imaginary of the Taşlik Khave as it was at the time it was built. As befits a project of excavation the completed work was shown in the Istanbul Archeological Museum. Strictly speaking, I had already used a virtual camera in some prior works, where I describe a space by means of a panoramic movement created by stitching together a number of still photographs and animating them in software. This resulted in an incorporeal vision, in at least two senses. A real person, operating an actual movie camera, can never make a perfectly regular panoramic movement, whereas the movement of the virtual camera can be perfectly constant. More fundamentally, the image produced by the real camera will contain parallax effects – for example, an object in the background may appear first to the left of a foreground object and then move to the right as the camera continues its movement – but this can’t be allowed to happen when stitching stills together; otherwise a seamless match of images will be impossible. The only way to avoid parallax is to have the ‘nodal point’ of the lens, the virtual point where the light rays intersect, exactly coincide with the point around which the camera rotates: a mathematical point of zero dimensions which cannot be an embodied human point-of-view. In works prior to A Place to Read I had made such panoramas in order to describe a space as simply as possible, making only the most minimal aesthetic decisions. For example, another technical requirement when stitching images into a panorama is that the camera should remain perfectly horizontal. My ‘artistic’ intervention in the shot was limited to choosing the position of the camera and its height from the ground. The three moving image sequences that are interspersed with the intertitles in A Place to Read are similarly intended to describe the situation as simply as possible – to answer the question, “What is the least I need to show the viewer in order for them to understand what this place is?” I think of the sequences as equivalent to the three familiar front/top/side orthographic views that accompany the perspectival view in architectural drawings and 3D modelling programmes. In A Place to Read you first circle the coffee house from a high viewpoint, so you understand the form of the building and its relation to the garden and the water; you next descend to ground level and advance towards the coffee house down the path through the garden; and in the final sequence you have entered the building and the camera gives a static shot of the light moving across the interior. Your ‘drone’ association, incidentally, would not have been made in 2010 as drones had not yet hit the consumer market. In fact one of the other artists invited to make work for Istanbul 2010 got the organisers to spend a fortune shooting helicopter video footage of the city of a kind that today is routinely knocked off cheaply with a camera-equipped drone.

MG: At the talk you mentioned how images can now be made from cameras projecting light, scanning the surface of objects, as with Google mapping of the city, in order to render a 3D photographic image. This is opposed to light entering the camera. In scanning the surface of things and producing an illusion of depth, the camera apparatus is no longer letting reflected light in. This technological shift has profound consequences to our phenomenological and psychological perception, between our interior and exterior registering of reality. In your opinion what is happening here, how are we to understand this?

VB: We should understand it as a radical mutation in the history of the camera that nevertheless remains firmly attached to this history – precisely as a mutation, not a break. In the nineteenth century, photography replaced perspective drawing as the principle mode of pictorial representation of reality. Photography was consistent with the fundamental impulse of the Industrial Revolution: the delegation of previously time-consuming and skilled manual tasks to the automatic operation of machines. Where photography represents a shift from manual to mechanical execution, computer imaging affects a shift from mechanical to electronic execution. Manual perspective drawing with optical aids gives way to the mechanical operation of a machine, which then cedes place to electronic computation. The computer modelling programmes I use today still render space in terms of a representational system that originated in Italy around 1420, when Filippo Brunelleschi applied principals of optics and geometry to painting. To consider the camera in terms of the history of perspective therefore suggests a periodisation in which we may speak of pre-modern, industrial and digital photography. The shift across this history is both quantitative and qualitative – an increased amount of information is deployed in the interests of a higher degree of mimetic realism. However, where photography represents an aspect of the object in front of the camera, the computer may simulate the object in its entirety. This adds a particularly significant dimension to my periodisation of photography in terms of the history of perspective – a subversion of the imperialism of the single point-of-view. When we pass from capturing an object in a 2D image to capturing it as a 3D model there is no longer a single privileged viewpoint on that object. The basis of the 3D scanning techniques you mention, ‘photogrammetry’, is a principle that for most of the twentieth century was considered only as a passing amusement in the prehistory of photography: the stereoscope. An extraordinarily prescient account of the potential of stereoscopic photography was published in the mid-nineteenth century by the American physician Oliver Wendell Holmes. In his 1859 essay The Stereoscope and the Stereograph Holmes writes:

Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it. … Men will [soon] hunt all … objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins, and leave the carcasses as of little worth.

MG: You also mentioned during the talk that in a gallery situation you produce the sequence of the work in a non-linear narrative form, such as with A Place to Read and Hôtel Berlin. Hence, at any point the viewer can enter into the work, and every framed image, every word can be the first. There is a certain democratic process to an autonomous experience of images; text and sound that are simultaneously significant at any given time. Consciously and unconsciously how do you think this experience is registered and absorbed by the audience?

VB: Although it is possible to enter a movie theatre after the film has begun, and leave before it ends, it is normally assumed that the duration of the film will coincide with the duration of the spectator’s viewing of it. In the gallery it is normally assumed that these two times will not coincide, as visitors to galleries usually enter and leave at unpredictable intervals. My moving image works are therefore designed to loop, with a seamless transition between first and last frames. As any element in the loop – image, text, sound – may be the ‘first’ to be experienced by the visitor then the elements that comprise the work should ideally be independently significant. In this, the experience of a moving image work designed specifically for a gallery setting is closer to that of a psychoanalytic session than to a narrative film: no detail of the material produced in an analysis is considered a priori more significant than any other, all elements equally are potential points of departure for chains of associations. The psychoanalysts Jean Laplanche and Serge Leclaire describe the reiterative fractional chains that form daydreams and unconscious fantasies as “short sequences, most often fragmentary, circular and repetitive”, and characterise the fantasy as a “scenario with multiple entry points”. This is exactly how I think of my works. In all, the conditions of spectatorship of moving image works made for the gallery are closer to those traditionally associated with painting than to those associated with cinema. The ideal viewer is one who accumulates her or his knowledge of the work, as it were, in ‘layers’ – much as a painting may be created. Barthes remarked that at the cinema “you are not allowed to close your eyes”. Gaps and silences are integral to my own works as spaces in which the associative processes of the viewer may be actively solicited, albeit I myself have no way of knowing what these may be. Duchamp said, “paintings are made by those who look at them”. In this sense there are as many paintings as there are viewers – as the meaning of an artwork, unlike that of a traffic sign, is necessarily incomplete. Its meaning is not specified in advance but depends on the active participation of the individual reader, who of course is free to withhold that participation.

MG: You produced a work in Berlin at Tempelhof Airport entitled Hôtel Berlin in 2009. The airport, developed by the Nazis, is a rhetorical, monumental construction and represents just one building in Hitler’s dream city of Germania. The airport is loaded with meaning and fascinating by virtue of our moral dilemma towards the question; can we take pleasure in looking at a building built by the Nazis? Hôtel Berlin brings together associations of history, memory and desire in an exhibition that interplays again with film, text and still images. Can you elaborate on this particular project and what you discovered during the process of bringing the work together?

VB: In most of my works the objective appearance and history of a place is refracted through a prism of subjective associations. Invited to make a work in Berlin I turned to the former Tempelhof Airport as an allegory of the condition of the city that contains it – on the cusp between a devastating past and an uncertain future. The architect of the Tempelhof building complex was Ernst Sagebiel, who joined the Nazi party in 1933 and received the Tempelhof commission from Albert Speer in 1934. From 1929-32 Sagebiel had been project leader in the Berlin office of Eric Mendelsohn, who in 1914 had sketched an ‘aerodrome’ – a huge building with a curving plan and a tall central hall for airships – and explicit echoes of Mendelsohn’s visual vocabulary may be found in Sagebiel’s design for Tempelhof. In the course of my research I came across this passage from one of Mendelsohn’s letters: “I am completely absorbed. I scarcely breathe, eat little, sleep among visions of towering buildings and am wholly preoccupied.” The passage led me to think of ‘Mister X’, the eponymous architect hero of a 1980s comic book who believes that the psychical ills of large cities are architectural in origin, and who devises a system of architectural geometry – ‘psychetecture’ – that will induce universal social harmony. Mister X embodies his psychetectural principles in the plans of a new city, ‘Radiant City’, but his profiteering partner hires cheap contractors to literally ‘cut corners’. With its geometry perverted Radiant City breeds psychosis in its inhabitants and violent chaos ensues. In his unceasing efforts to undo the damage Mister X invents a drug, ‘insomnalin’, that will allow him to go without sleep, and is found perpetually muttering: ‘So much to do, so little time to do it’. In my fantasy the violent chaos of Radiant City merges with the real history of Tempelhof. When Soviet troops arrived there, in April 1945, they used explosive charges to blast open heavy steel doors in the basement levels – unwittingly igniting the vast film archive that the Wehrmacht had stored there. As Spiegel Online reports: “The valuable celluloid burned for days, and the walls have remained blackened to this day.” Spiegel’s account of Tempelhof also tells of the comings and goings in the 1960s of such luminaries as Marlene Dietrich, Billy Wilder, Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe and Romy Schneider. The Tempelhof complex contains a hotel. In my associative fantasy the entirety of Tempelhof becomes a vast ‘airportel’ and an archive of memories of film scenes set in hotel rooms. As the obsessively driven figure of Mendelsohn/Mister X stalks the deserted corridors of ‘Hôtel Berlin’ I imagined such scenes repeating themselves endlessly behind its many doors: Last Year in Marienbad, Vertigo, The Passenger, Alphaville

MG: What are the conceptual factors involved when you make decisions about the use of colour or monochrome with your works?

VB: I could find intellectual reasons for such decisions, but in practice they’re largely intuitive. Having said this, I should add that – as I said in relation to the image sequences in A Place to Read – my aesthetic preferences are largely governed by criteria of economy. Does colour add more than purely anecdotal information? If not then I prefer to leave it out. To stay with the Istanbul example: what you characterised as the ‘drone’ shot circling the coffee house is there to show you the structure of the building – so I took the colour out of it as an irrelevant distraction from what I was trying to get the viewer to understand. On the other hand, the sequence of the movement down the path through the garden absolutely had to be in colour, to invoke a somewhat Disneyesque idealisation of the setting.

MG: There is an apparent yet interesting paradox in your thinking. You have written and talked about the importance of ‘considerations of specificity’ at a time since postmodernism appeared to erode and break down the relevance of specificity and instead replace and merge hybridity and pastiche in a melting pot of culture. Your own practice appears to embrace this disappearance of distinctions with your use of various media. And yet you argue that specificity is unavoidable in any art practice, and that you take this into account with your own work. What exactly do you mean by this?

VB: I’ve written at some length about considerations of specificity and it’s difficult to give a short answer as there are several different aspects to specificity. One of these emerges in 1746 when the expression ‘Fine Arts’ first enters language in the title of an aesthetic treatise by the French philosopher Charles Batteux. In Les beaux-arts réduits à un même principe (‘the fine arts reduced to a single principle’) Batteux argued that music, painting, poetry, sculpture and dance share a common aim – the imitation of what is beautiful in nature – which differentiates them from other arts. Two decades later, in his book of 1766 Laocoön the German philosopher and dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing traced a line of demarcation within these practices. Rejecting a literary approach to painting, inherited from classical antiquity and institutionalised in the art academies of his day, Lessing drew a fundamental distinction between poetry and painting: the former art is extended in time, while the latter is extended in space. The specificity of the practice of a ‘fine art’ was now to be defined not only in terms of its ‘external’ relations to the society that contained it but also in terms of its inherent formal conditions. In the twentieth-century the idea that an art practice is to be specified primarily by what formally differentiates it from the practices around it became paramount in Modernist aesthetics. For example, in his influential essay of 1961 Modernist Painting, the American art critic Clement Greenberg wrote: “Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art, Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else”; consequently, he concluded, “content is to be avoided like a plague”. By the end of the twentieth-century however, as you say, what might once have been considered defining differences between the various art forms, and between art practices and other practices, became routinely ignored in a ‘postmodern’ celebration of pastiche and hybridity. The arrival of digital technologies further eroded formerly categorical distinctions between art practices – most conspicuously photography, film and video – by placing their material means of production on the same technological basis. Today, questions of specificity, what it is that distinguishes art in general from other practices in society, and what it is that distinguishes one art practice from another – questions foundational to the Western concept of ‘fine arts’ – have become largely elided from consciousness.

To keep things in the context of our exchange let’s turn from the general field of art to the ‘specific’ case of photographic specificity. In the only article Greenberg wrote about photography he said that the specificity of photography resides in its ability to tell a story. As other arts also fulfill this function we may assume he was speaking of what differentiates a photographic image from the purportedly ‘content free’ Modernist painting he championed. The critical hegemony of Greenbergian Modernism was broken in the mid-1960s with the advent of Minimalism. The fiercest opponent of Minimalism was Clement Greenberg’s follower, the art critic and historian Michael Fried. Fried more recently revived the arguments he used to defend Modernism against Minimalism to champion contemporary forms of photographic Pictorialism. Not the least of the historical ironies here is that the acceptance of photography in the art world today is due almost entirely to the radical attention given to photography in the ‘Conceptual Art’ that evolved out of Minimalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In extensively borrowing from painting – from conventions of ‘genre’, through compositional schemas, to large physical size – neo-Pictorialist photography is by definition indifferent to considerations of specificity. Certainly the specificity of photography cannot be defined in the terms in which Greenberg first defined the specificity of painting – ‘medium-specificity’. If, according to Greenberg, the medium of painting is paint, applied to a flat support (canvas or board), then it might most strictly follow that the medium of photography is photosensitive emulsion, applied to a flat support (glass or acetate). But such a definition would evict the camera itself from the scene, reducing photography to, literally, photo-graphy: drawing with light (as in, for example, the ‘photogram’). As a consequence I once argued that the specificity of photography lay not in its medium but in its apparatus – the still camera – and most especially in the speed of this apparatus in registering the fleeting appearances of the world. It seemed to me at that time that the genre of ‘street photography’ best exploited the specificity of photography, in that it produced results that no other art form could replicate. Today, an air of anachronism and nostalgia hangs about the expression ‘still camera’. Because the distinction between still and moving images is no longer definitive, because cameras are nodes in the Internet, because the distinction between camera and projector is no longer definitive, because the camera has dematerialised, for these and no doubt other reasons we can no longer claim that the specificity of photography is in its apparatus. Today, the photographic apparatus is no longer specific to photography, the specificity of photography now is in its apparatus. If this sounds confused, blame the English language. French has different words – appareil and dispositif – for the two meanings of the English word ‘apparatus’ used here. In questions put to him in 1977, following the publication of the first volume of his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault was asked to explain what he meant by the word ‘apparatus’ (dispositif) when speaking of the ‘apparatus of sexuality’. He replies:

… firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions … the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.

Foucault goes on to say that the apparatus is articulated within systems of power and the ‘epistemic’ – the shifting grounds of what counts as legitimate knowledge in a particular society at a particular time. If we were to identify the components of the photographic ‘apparatus’ in Foucauldian terms we might begin by making lists under the headings that Foucault himself provides. For example, under ‘discourses’ we would enumerate the various bodies of speech and writing that take ‘photography’ as their object: technical, historical, sociological, philosophical, curatorial, critical, journalistic and so on. Under ‘institutions’ we would list not only such entities as The Royal Photographic Society, The Photographers’ Gallery, and Photography Departments in art schools and universities, but also such things as the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize and other instruments of legitimation. The category ‘architectural forms’ would include the various types of structures within which photographs are presented: such as billboards and plasma screens, art museums and galleries, magazines and newspapers, and the Internet. It is obvious to commonsense that photographic discourses, institutions, and so on, all converge upon a singular common object that has given rise to them all: ‘photography’. But this putative singularity is in fact a mutating techno-socio-phenomenological jigsaw incapable of forming coherent pictures without discursive framing. It is the apparatus alone that now produces ‘photography’ in its various specifications, including of course the category ‘art photography’. I have remarked that Foucault first used the term ‘apparatus’ in relation to his discussion of the production of the category ‘sexuality’ – that is to say, the production of ‘knowledge’ of sexuality. For Foucault, the production of knowledge is inseparable from the production of power – but a power that is always diffuse, a matter of what he calls ‘capilliary action’, rather than something held and exercised from a central position. Economic power is part of the apparatus he specifies but is not determinant. A more deterministic idea of the ‘apparatus’ in the production of culture was earlier provided by Bertold Brecht. By ‘apparatus’ Brecht means every aspect of the means of cultural production – from technologies, through publicity and promotion, to the financial and political elites that bankroll and control the various cultural institutions. Brecht speaks of what he characterises as the ‘muddled thinking’ of artists and critics alike in respect of the apparatus. I shall cite him at length; he writes:

… by imagining that they have got hold of an apparatus which in fact has got hold of them they are supporting an apparatus which is out of their control, which is no longer (as they believe) a means of furthering output but has become an obstacle to output, and specifically to their own output as soon as it follows a new and original course which the apparatus finds awkward or opposed to its own aims. Their output then becomes a matter of delivering the goods. Values evolve which are based on the fodder principle. And this leads to a general habit of judging works of art by their suitability for the apparatus without ever judging the apparatus by its suitability for the work. People say, this or that is a good work; and they mean (but do not say) good for the apparatus. Yet this apparatus is conditioned by the society of the day and only accepts what can keep it going in that society. … Society absorbs via the apparatus whatever it needs in order to reproduce itself. This means that an innovation will pass if it is calculated to rejuvenate existing society, but not if it is going to change it …

MG: What project are you working on now? What can we look forward to seeing and reading next?

VB: In 2016 I was invited by an Italian publisher to contribute to a series of artists’ books on the common theme of ‘the afterlife’. I accepted on condition that my book not be in a ‘limited edition’ but published and distributed conventionally. With the passage of time the outcome has now been a limited edition work – mandarin – for the Italian series, and a larger conventionally produced book – Afterlife – published by Thomas Zander / Walther König. Both books emerge from the same ‘conceit’ (as one might have said in the eighteenth century) of a parallel world much like our own but with the exception that technology allows a digital copy of the mind. Once the copy is made there are two individuals – one organic, the other numeric. Each will evolve separately, but only one will die. I hope that, as a science fiction scenario, the idea is sufficiently familiar to serve as ‘pre-text’ (as we liked to say in the ’70s) for its allegorical dimensions. For me, ‘Afterlife’ is simply our fractured everyday existence in algorithmic society, with its various digital doublings of ourselves and its recastings of the operations of memory. With this latest work I finally got around to dealing with a ‘contradiction’ that had been bothering me for some time. My texts and images are all produced in computer space, so in principle may be distributed in that same space, made freely available to anyone with Internet access. I worked with a web programmer (rather than a web designer) to clear a quiet space in the cacophony of the Internet where Afterlife may now be accessed in a web-based form. At the same time, I was working with the specificity of the book in mind. The book has heft when held in the hand and the work is experienced in the act of turning the pages. Having first decided on the physical dimensions, I considered the overall rhythm of the reading experience. Essential to this are the spaces between elements, which I think of in terms of the Japanese concept of ma. The ma is the interval, both spatial and temporal, between two successive events – an interval charged with the meaning produced in this succession. I work with the ma between two psychological events: the image formed while reading the text, and the image formed while looking at the picture. This is true of all my work. I’m now thinking about another ‘chapter’ of the project for an exhibition in New York next year – this time conceived for the specificity of the gallery. Concurrently with this ongoing project my most recent critical essay was commissioned for an Amsterdam University series on ‘Key Debates in Cinema Studies’. The editors have entitled the forthcoming volume Post-cinema. Cinema in the post-art era. I took the title at face value as a symptom of changes taking place under the impact of computerisation not only in the general environment of representations but in cultural institutions, which I see as fragmenting and coalescing into new formations. At the end of the essay I suggest that, faced with the diversity of image practices consequent upon digitalisation, we might perform a quasi-phenomenological epoché – a putting aside of what one ‘knows’ – in which such categories as ‘cinema’ and ‘art’ are ‘bracketed out’ in order to better understand what new cultural categories may be forming. I would recommend a similar ‘putting on the shelf’ of what we know of ‘photography’, of what we endlessly repeat as photography, to allow a clearer view of what camera practices may now be emerging – regardless of what we may think of them. In this I agree with Brecht’s observation that there are times when we must begin “not with the good old things, but with the bad new ones”.  

Image © Michael Grieve

Jack Latham

Sugar Paper Theories

The Royal Photographic Society, RPS House Bristol

On the occasion of his solo exhibition currently at RPS House Bristol, photographer Jack Latham sits down with 1000 Words Editor, Tim Clark to discuss his latest body of work Sugar Paper Theories. The project delves into Iceland’s unsolved, double-murder investigation from 1974 – known as the Gudmundur and Geirfinnur case – following the disappearance of two men in separate incidents in the country’s southwestern region. By deftly fusing photographs of key protagonists implicated in the historical event – suspects, whistleblowers, conspiracy theorists, expert witnesses and bystanders – with archival material from the original police files, Latham pieces together a narrative reconstruction of the case to explore the machinations of memory and the power of suggestibility, as well as photography’s truth claims.

Here Latham speaks about revisiting the work, changes that advance the monograph from its first to second iteration with Here Press, and the similarities he perceives between the eclectic nature of photographic narratives and conspiracies.

Tim Clark: Can you tell us about your background and how you came to be a photographer?

Jack Latham: I was born and raised in Cardiff. I didn’t particularly enjoy my time in high school due to being diagnosed dyslexic and as a result didn’t do well in my exams. One of the jobs I had when I was a teenager was photographing party-goers in nightclubs. It was very much just a method to get money instead of some sort of artistic endeavour but taught me how to approach people quite early. A few years later, while at a crossroads with what to do with my life, a friend suggested that perhaps I should attempt to make a career out of photography. I somehow managed to gather enough images to form the suggestion of a portfolio and submitted to Newport University just down the road. To my surprise, given the fact that I didn’t have nearly enough points to even warrant an interview, I managed to get a place on the course. It was photographer Clive Landen who interviewed me. I think he could see that the work I was showing wasn’t very developed but I showed enthusiasm, which I think ultimately helped and was offered a place.

TC: Studying for your degree in Documentary Photography in Newport, University of South Wales, you would have been supervised presumably by the likes of Ken Grant and others. What are your abiding memories from this time spent with the tutors and experience of the course?

JL: My time at Newport was really formative. I had zero understanding of photographic history when I joined. The first year mainly involved trying to keep up with the technical ability of my classmates, but I also spent an enormous amount of time in the library there. Between digesting every photography book I came into contact with and the guidance of Paul [Reas], Ken and Clive, I quickly developed an understanding of what was being made around me.

TC: What was the genesis for the Sugar Paper Theories project? Do you even consider Sugar Paper Theories in terms of a ‘project’? Or do you see it as more of an ongoing body of work, given the nature of the police investigation?

JL: I started making Sugar Paper Theories in late 2014, after finishing my first project, A Pink Flamingo. I had submitted a proposal for new work to the now-closed charity, IdeasTap, who in turn gave three photographers a small grant to make their ‘dream project’. The project I proposed was to reinvestigate the case that Sugar Paper Theories focuses on. After initially making a first draft of the project it still felt unresolved so I continued to research the case more over the following months and then in 2015, I was awarded The Photographers’ Gallery’s Bar Tur Photobook Award which enabled me to opportunity to turn the project into a book.

When I was making the work, the Gudmundur and Geirfinnur case was very much considered concluded by the Icelandic Government. After years of appealing to get the case re-investigated the six accused finally saw the courts launch a reopening committee and last year the five from the case who were charged with murder and manslaughter got their convictions overturned.

When The Royal Photographic Society agreed to show the work in late 2019 it felt right to revisit the book also. True crime as a genre is always seen as an episodic one therefore it seemed right to develop on the original text with updates to the case, but also, to highlight that there is still one person from the original six who still hasn’t received justice: Erla Bollardottir.

TC: Can you talk about the inspiration for the actual title: Sugar Paper Theories?

JL: The title comes from the image of the Conspiracy Theorist’s Desk. Sid, the owner of the desk, is a childhood friend of several of the accused and has spent years pouring over the court’s accounts of what had supposedly happened. As a result of all his research he would then try to simplify this complicated case by drawing out a timeline of events on sugar paper. In essence his sequence of events became his sugar paper theory, and this project became mine.

TC: The book was originally published by Here Press in September 2016 after winning The Bar-Tur Award, as you mentioned, and has now been released in a second edition. Can you share some insights into the conceptual logic for the book’s structure and form? Also, what are the most significant changes or developments – to the edit, sequencing or design – that may have advanced the monograph from its first to second iteration?

JL: The physicality of the book is modelled on the case files the courts used to convict the six, which felt appropriate considering the the basis for this was rumours and misinformation. The book contains several different types of sugar paper in addition to diary entries from one of the six. When designing the work we kept referring to the book as the conspiracy theorist’s manifesto as to what had happened; it’s the collection of information from several sources, not all of them reliable. This new edition is a faithful recreation of the 2016 version. Though now there are additional materials added, such as Erla Bolladottir’s foreword and an additional chapter written by Gisli Gudjonsson that explains what has happened since the first book was released. 

TC: Writing in the foreword to the new edition, Erla Bolladottir (who is still guilty of perjury in the eyes of the law despite the acquittal of five men) states: “It has been 44 years. I have survived the ghosts that thrive in the darkness cast by this case, ghosts that leap out at every turn. I am still here fighting, still holding out hope for justice.” Notably hers is the only voice from the individuals convicted in the case that is summoned in the book. Since you have elected not to focus on the victims but rather conspiracy theorists, journalists and prison guards, amongst other players, at what stage during the work’s evolution was this decision made and to what end?

JL: Early on when making this work Erla and I became very close. It became clear when trying to figure out how to visualise the case that photographing the remaining accused seemed a bit redundant. As a society we digest an unhealthy amount of crime documentaries and our curiosities into the quirky and bizarre can at times be hard to stomach. I also don’t think that by portraying the faces of the falsely accused you would necessarily learn anything more about them; it would simply further objectify the real victims of this case. Instead, I opted to photograph things like pet goldfish, diaries or churches; things that suggested far more than they could ever portray but also didn’t make a spectacle out of people who are central to it all. Now with the recent developments of the case it seemed like the right idea to provide a space where Erla can share, unedited, her experience first hand. 

TC: As you say the book features additional texts via articles from Gísli Guðjónsson, the Icelandic-British academic who is a renowned authority on suggestibility and false confessions. Can you speak about the importance of his involvement in relation to the role of collaboration within the work and how you wanted his texts functioning in tandem with the imagery?

JL: Gisli was the first to coin the term ‘Memory Distrust Syndrome’ in 1982. His research into false confession and coercion has been used all over the world to overturn injustices; most notably here in the UK the ‘Guildford Four’ and the ‘Birmingham Six’. As a result, he was asked to be an expert witness for this case, tasked with providing a psychological understanding as to how Memory Distrust Syndrome could have occurred during the initial investigation. Gisli, Svavar (my assistant at the time) and I would travel throughout Iceland together, revisiting key areas of the case, talking to people involved and making photographs. The dynamic was an interesting one. Gisli is a scientist and so instantly the relationship we both had with the case was very different; him working with absolutes and me responding to them. Once his text was paired with the images, it created a grey area where factual words are sequenced besides open, subjective photographs.

TC: In terms of presenting the work in exhibition format, Sugar Paper Theories was previously shown at the Reykjavik Museum of Photography and has now been restaged as an enlarged version at RPS House in Bristol. Firstly, out of curiosity, how was the project received by the Icelandic public? And what were the key decisions and modes of thinking behind ‘building it out’ for its current venue?

JL: When we showed the work in Reykjavik in 2017, the court had just launched a reopening committee in-regards to the case. The exhibition as a result coincided quite well. The show itself, which had original evidence, sculptures and police files on display, became a place where people could interact with this piece of Icelandic history in a new way. Erla, Gisli and I also held several events in which members of the public could engage with those central to the case to understand how and why such a large miscarriage of justice could have happened so close to home.

The exhibition at the RPS builds on that. The show includes new archive material as well as the court’s case files of which the book was designed around. The show also represents the first time that the work, in its entirety, has been shown outside of Iceland. In the past months the Icelandic government has once again dug in its heels about recompense and has completely neglected the injustice that Erla continues to face. In a strange way, the case has become contemporary news again so the exhibition has also turned out to be quite timely.

TC: Sugar Paper Theories pulls together various strands from your previous work, not least of which is the blend of fact and fiction as a means of harnessing and expanding the medium’s narrative potential. So many uses of photography, as it intersects with the mode of expanded documentary practice, also deploys different layers or ranges of visual imagery – from archival material and newspaper clippings or interviews and records of discarded objects – to offer more experimental strategies for storytelling in ways that disrupt viewers’ expectations. As such, practices that engage with history-telling and the “past” seem then to pivot around the memorable line from Siegfried Kracauer: “In order for history to present itself, the mere surface coherence offered by photography must be destroyed.” Where do you see your work residing amidst these challenges and opportunities, given it ultimately has a documentary attitude?

JL: There is no denying that there is a documentary approach to my work, something which I feel I inherited while at Newport. However, it would be disingenuous if I suggested that I had considered the greater practice of photography when initially making Sugar Paper Theories. The inclusion of additional materials within the work was a way of interacting with my research so that it wasn’t just invisible throughout the project. I will say that because I’ve been making work around conspiracy theories for a number of years now, I’ve grown to see a lot of similarities between the eclectic nature of photographic narratives and conspiracies. It’s been said before that conspiracy theories attempt to make sense of a senseless world and I’m very much of the belief that photography attempts to do the same.

Image courtesy Jack Latham. © Sian Davey

Mark Sealy

Author of Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time and Director at Autograph ABP


For the latest instalment in our Interview series, Caroline Molloy speaks with British curator and cultural historian Mark Sealy MBE on the occasion of his new book published by Lawrence & Wishart, Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time. Since 1991 Sealy has held the position of Director at Autograph ABP, the London-based organisation championing the work of artists who use photography and film to highlight issues of identity, representation, human rights and social justice. Here he discusses the importance of challenging the matrix of colonial epistemic power that surrounds the reading of photographic images; how the history of photography can only be completely encompassing if the ‘voice of the subaltern is made critically present within it’; and the need for artists to be brave and to work in the knowledge of what has gone before but to not allow oneself to be chained to the past.

Mark Sealy would like to dedicate the text to Peter Clack “a brilliant Project Manager”, a friend and friend of Autograph ABP. Also to Bisi Silva, Alanna Lockward and Okwui Enwezor, all great decolonial curators and activists who have passed away during 2019.

Caroline Molloy: Thank you for agreeing to add your voice to this publication. To open the conversation for our readers it would be good to introduce how you hope the book adds to, and moves forward existing post-colonial literature, following on from the likes of Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994) and Stuart Hall’s ‘New ethnicities’ essay in The Post-Studies Reader (2006), to name but a few.

Mark Sealy: I think it’s important for us to keep working through new and established ideas all the time. We must stay in dialogue with critical theory and make sure we work in multiple directions at once. These days I’m as much influenced by the music of John Coltrane because of the way he makes me feel and think along with work produced by some cultural theorist. The brilliance of scholars such as Professor Stuart Hall and Homi Bhabha is that they have gifted us some wonderful tools to work with. Hall’s text titled New Ethnicities, for example, is as critical now as it was when it was published 30 years ago. Part of the work I wanted Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time to do is to encourage the reader to challenge the matrix of colonial epistemic power that surrounds the reading of photographic images.

CM: A main argument in the book seems to highlight the need to understand and acknowledge that the history of photography can only be completely encompassing if the ‘voice of the subaltern is made critically present within it’, as you put it. Could you share your thoughts about how it redresses notions of cultural erasure?

MS: Within the book I suggest that decolonising the photographic image is an act of unburdening it from the assumed, normative, hegemonic, colonial conditions present, consciously or unconsciously, in the moment of its original making and in its readings and displays. This is therefore a process of locating the primary conditions of a racialised photograph’s coloniality and, as such, decolonising the camera works within a form of black cultural politics to destabilise the conditions, receptions and processes of Othering a subject within the history of photography. I guess in short what I am claiming is that there can not only be one cultural perspective on reading the work an image does in culture. I think a plurality of cultural voices amplified in the world helps us all work towards a greater understanding of the different ways of being and signs of recognition. Emancipation of the mind also means learning to unlearn and allow different knowledge systems into the realm on thinking. I like the idea of thinking with images rather than thinking for them.

CM: In your introduction you write: ‘A key function of decolonising the camera is to not allow photography’s colonial past and its cultural legacies in the present to lie unchallenged and un-agitated, or to be simply left as an unquestioned chapter within the history of the medium.’ In tandem with this, how would you describe the act and processing of decolonising the ‘image’?

MS: There is no one correct way of decolonising or reading an image. That notion, or prescription, works as being counter to what has been said over many years by scholars working against the grain of colonial aggression. I agree with Walter Mignolo and the late Alanna Lockward when they encouraged us to delink thought from the academy and to encourage new ways to re-exist and resist the aggression of colonialism in all its forms.

CM: I am intrigued to read the critical complexity with which Alice Seeley Harris’ photographs, documents of the violent atrocities inflicted on the Congolese people at the end of the 19th century, are unpacked within the book. Accepting the shift in the reading of these photographs, and what it illuminates within a contemporary socio-political context, do you think there is a need to re-read photographs from the past at different historical moments (those relating to race, rights and human justice, or otherwise)?

MS: I absolutely think we have to begin a re-reading of the past, especially concerning the work historical and contemporary images do on us in the present. There is so much for us to learn and unlearn, so many knowledges systems to engage with and new ways of seeing, being and listening that I think a reading of the past concerning photography is both essential and exciting.

CM: There is a politic to how all the photographs are discussed in this book. I am particularly interested in the analysis of Wayne Miller’s Chicago’s South Side 1946-48 that were eventually published in book form in 2000, within the context of (consciously or unconsciously) white privilege. Miller, an experienced war photographer, funded by the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1946 and 1948 spent prolonged periods photographing Chicago’s African American communities. Given the long overdue publication of this work, do Miller’s photographs still have value for the viewer?

MS: Miller’s photographs are really important documents. We have to recognise that Miller was working in one time and his subjects were caught within another. They meet only for a short period of time. This moment is key, it’s a sentence in a much wider visual chapter. I like to think about photography as being part of the journey, a story or a visual puzzle that has so many missing pieces. As human subjects I am convinced that we are not in the same space-time dynamic that’s why we have to read the work of Miller both within and outside of the frames he made. He has to be positioned within the privileges he had and we also have to look at what he photographed as an opportunity to discuss the place of race in the world immediately after WWII.

CM: This book offers an important contribution to the histories of photography and representation of the Other. Within this frame of reference, could you explain the milieu that locates the following sentence? ‘The black gaze is a radical oppositional act that has its location in many different origins associated with power.’

MS: The idea of a black oppositional gaze is located in the work of many important photographic histories from the work of James Van Der Zee to Carrie Mae Weems. From Vanley Burke to Joy Gregory. From Frederick Douglass to Kobena Mercer. From Rotimi Fani Kayode to Zanele Muholi and many others in different times and locations. It’s clear however that there is an on-going battle over the dignity of black lives and the fight over images of black people and the right to be seen with dignity is very real. This battle spans centuries and there are clear lines of affiliation that can be drawn into and across the history to these radical acts of decolonial photography dialogues.

CM: Having built an argument across the book for decolonising the camera, a linear connection can be made between the decisive turn in Stuart Hall’s Reconstruction Work: Images of post war black settlement (1984), and the concluding chapter Rights and Recognition in the Late Twentieth Century, both of which shape arguments concerning the construction of black subjectivities in the face of Western visual culture. You assert that the 1980s was a ‘critical decade’ for black British photography, while the 1990s should also be read as a ‘transformative period that heralded the arrival of the Other as photographer within mainstream Western cultural institutions’. Given these conditions, how does this discourse continue in the 21st century, in terms of the politics of representation and market for black subjects or identities?

MS: We have to now consider that we are in an image sphere. Images circulate around the globe faster than ever before. This image velocity is creating cultural heat and this heat is producing a new energy flow of images especially from those who are designated as being ‘new’ to the means of production. This image flow or production of meaning is being interrupted and that turbulence is what I believe we are now witnessing. Work from outside of Europe and North America or from designated marginalised communities is now part of an unstoppable flow of image meaning that is transforming the traditional way photography has been understood this is a massive challenge to the museum and gallery world.

CM: Finally, it is fascinating how the work of conceptual photographers, such as Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Joy Gregory are discussed within a decolonised framework. Having constructed this framework, what advice would you give emerging BAME artists when thinking through and developing their own practice?

MS: I invite all artists to be brave and to work in the knowledge of what has gone before but do not allow oneself to be chained to the past or simply replicate what has been done. I think we have to think about the Jazz of it all and make work that is multidirectional, pluriversal and hybrid in nature. Most importantly, I think we have to make work that has generosity at its heart that is open and inviting to make images that help us out of the matrix of colonial violence.

Image courtesy Mark Sealy. © Elina Kansikas

Ekow Eshun – Curator

Africa State of Mind

Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco

For the latest instalment in our Interviews series, we welcome London-based writer and curator Ekow Eshun. Eshun is Chairman of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, overseeing London’s most significant public art programme, and Creative Director of Calvert 22 Foundation, a leading arts space dedicated to the contemporary culture of Eastern Europe. He is also the former Director of the ICA, London, a position he held from 2005-2010. His writing has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Observer, Granta, Vogue, New Statesman and Wired. He is the author of Black Gold of the Sun: Searching for Home in England and Africa, nominated for the Orwell prize, and the editor of Africa Modern: Creating the Contemporary Art of a Continent.

Eshun has recently organised Africa State of Mind for New Art Exchange in Nottingham, an exhibition of 16 artists that subsequently toured to Impressions Gallery, Bradford and then the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, where it runs until November 15th. Here he speaks to photographer and writer Lewis Bush about interrogating ideas of ‘Africanness’ through highly-subjective renderings of life and identity on the continent and the need to reimagine Africa as psychological space as much as a physical territory.

Lewis Bush: Ekow thanks for agreeing to this discussion. I heard you speak at FORMAT Festival earlier in the year, and as always there is never enough time at these things to pick up on all the interesting strands that could be discussed further. Perhaps I could ask you to begin quite simply though, by talking us through Africa State of Mind, your exhibition of emerging African photographers, which opened at the New Art Exchange in Nottingham and is currently on display at Impressions Gallery, Bradford. What was the initial impetus that led you to begin curating it?

Ekow Eshun: There’s a lot of very striking, powerful, artistically ambitious work being created by African photographers at the moment. I wanted to find a way to present some of that work and also do some thinking about the ideas and themes those photographers were engaging with. So the show is both a summation of new photographic practice from Africa and an exploration of how contemporary photographers from the continent are exploring ideas of ‘Africanness’ along the way revealing Africa to be a psychological space as much as a physical territory; a state of mind as much as a place.

LB: When you delivered your paper during the conference at FORMAT you mentioned your own memories of growing up between Ghana and the United Kingdom. Were there experiences from this time that fed into how you approached this idea of Africa as something which can be as much internal and mutable as external and fixed?

EE: I lived in Ghana for a few years as a young child and what remains most telling from that time isn’t so much specific memories but sense impressions. Taste, smell – red earth, the abrupt vanishing of the equatorial sun at 6pm, the sight of the ocean for the first time, even the very intense odour of open sewers running alongside the pavement in my parents’ home town of Cape Coast. I’ve carried Ghana with me this way since childhood and I guess it’s left me with a continued sense of Africa as an almost hallucinatory condition rather than a place of fixed, ordered realities.

LB: Could you characterise the prevailing trends in contemporary African photography? What sort of themes and approaches are audiences likely to encounter in Africa State of Mind, and beyond it? And in viewing work for the exhibition do you get a sense of different photographic practices and concerns predominating in different parts of the continent?

EE: Yes, and to be clear the exhibition isn’t trying to be a wholesale survey of work from Africa I’m not sure that would be possible. It’s more an attempt to spy out some of the key thematic tendencies informing the practice of those photographers. The show is oriented around three main themes Inner Landscapes, Zones of Freedom and Hybrid Cities. Inner Landscapes focuses on photographers whose work offers a deeply personal interpretation of setting or sensibility, in contrast to say, the objective lens of reportage photography. Hybrid Cities documents the African metropolis as a site of rapid transformation. Zones of Freedom brings together photographers whose work explores questions of gender, sexuality and cultural identity.

LB: I’m interested to know why you focused on photography in particular as the main medium for this exhibition or to put it more broadly and beyond just the context of the exhibition what do you think is interesting about photography?

EE: Photography is a particularly significant medium in this context. It is the art form that, more than any other, has framed how Africa is represented in the modern era. Colonial period photographs depicted the continent as, in the words of Hegel, ‘enveloped in the dark mantel of Night’, its people only representative of ‘natural man in his completely wild and untamed state’. TV news reports have similarly reinforced an impression of the continent as defined by war and famine. But photography has also enabled the dissemination of contrasting, more affirmative views of Africa. Not least, for example, through the exuberant imagery of master portraitists such as Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita.

LB: That idea of reclaiming photography as a medium from colonialism is very powerful. Have you encountered any interesting examples of African photographers working even more directly with colonial era photographs in an attempt to reclaim or alter their meaning?

EE: Yes, there’s a considerable amount of work in this territory. An important point to consider is that African photographers are perfectly aware of how the continent and its people have been misrepresented in the West historically. So of necessity they’re grappling with that legacy as soon as they pick up a camera. You see less of a dealing with the specifics of an archive than interrogating the history of Western representation. I’ve included work in the exhibition by the very talented Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda which looks very sardonically at the role of the colonial explorer, among other issues. But there are many others exploring some of that territory either explicitly or obliquely, including Edson Chagas, Omar Victor Diop, Shiraz Bayjoo, Lalla Essaydi, Namsa Leuba, Lina Iris Viktor it’s really a long list.

LB: Returning to photography’s role in Africa briefly, I wonder if there is also a sense of modernism about photography that might be important to projecting a positive, dynamic view of the continent in contrast to those colonial tropes of timelessness and wildness? I remember hearing James Barnor speak about going to the United Kingdom to practice photography shortly after Ghana became independent, and in his words to learn and bring that up to date knowledge back to Ghana. There was something very exciting about the way he talked about photographic knowledge as something that could be as valuable to the forging of a new independent country as the expertise to build infrastructure or run a government. Do you have any thoughts on this?

EE: That’s certainly an approach you can see animating the work of the Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita their images speak of the exuberance of independence-era Africa. And that ideas of documenting a nation and its people also informed the practice of an earlier generation of studio photographers, people like SO Alonge who was taking photos of the middle classes in Benin City, Nigeria from the 1930s onwards.

Just as important to highlight though, is the work of photographers whose images create a kind of counter-narrative that runs contrary to what could be described as an officially-sanctioned narrative of nation building. I’m thinking here of someone like Samuel Fosso, whose self-portraits in the 1970s, experimenting with representations of masculinity and gender, marked an act of personal resistance against the authoritarian regime of Jean-Bédel Bokassa in the Central African Republic.

More recently, you can look at the very flamboyant imagery of someone like Athi-Patra Ruga in South Africa, and also see a critique of the failure of the post-apartheid state to live up to the dreams of liberation that inspired people during the decades of white minority rule.

LB: You are also creative director of Calvert 22 and founder of The Calvert Journal. This which interests me both because of the photographic emphasis of that organisation, but also because it seems that eastern Europe has also been subjected to a set of western European fantasies about it, particular in the post-Cold war era. I was wondering though if you see resonances across the two regions?

EE: Yes, to the extent that as you say, both territories continue to be caricatured in the Western imagination. With both The Calvert Journal, and the exhibitions programme at Calvert 22, I’ve concentrated on photography as a means to try to establish a different narrative about what contemporary Eastern Europe looks like and feels like. We’ve presented a number of exhibitions and projects on that subject, including Post-Soviet Visions: image and identity in the new Eastern Europe, which I curated in 2017. And the curator Mark Nash did a fantastic exhibition in 2016, Red Africa, that explored the legacy of the cultural relationships between Africa, the Soviet Union and related countries that flourished during the Cold War.

LB: That’s a really fascinating history, as is the US involvement in Africa and the extent to which parts of the continent became battle fronts between both powers in the Cold War. Lastly, I wonder if you could outline what’s next for you, what new projects are you currently working on?

EE: I’m finishing off the Africa State of Mind book, which will be published by Thames & Hudson next Spring, with contributions from over 50 African photographers. I’ve just recently curated a solo show by the wonderful Moroccan-British photography Hassan Hajjaj, at New Art Exchange, Nottingham. And I’m curating a new photography exhibition, Kaleidoscope: Immigration and Modern Britain, at Somerset House this June. The Africa State of Mind show is still touring and travelling to the US before returning to the UK in 2020. Then there are a couple of museum shows coming up on the horizon which are already demanding attention. It’s a bit of a busy time…

Image courtesy Ekow Eshun. © Simon Frederick

Iris Sikking

Guest Curator of Kraków Photomonth 2018


Guest Curator of Krakow Photomonth 2018, Iris Sikking, shares her experience of organising the main artistic programme at this year’s edition, and her thoughts on whether festivals should eagerly promote themselves as “a place to celebrate photography,” as told to writer Taco Hidde Bakker. Their discussion also includes reflections on Sikking’s broad practice in the overlapping fields of photography, film, installation art and new media; the defining project in her career, Poppy – Trails of Afghan Heroin by Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth; and the importance she places on seeking out new practices embracing experimentation, and artists who use a variety of visual and narrative strategies to engage in in-depth and original research.

Taco Hidde Bakker: Iris, within the past two decades you have developed a broad and varied practice in the overlapping fields of photography, film, installation art and new media – with a particular focus on documentary and innovative means of storytelling. Your activities include, or have included, film editing, project management, research, teaching, writing and curating. From 2007 until 2010 we were both involved in the production of the multi-platform project The Last Days of Shishmaref, including a feature-length documentary film by Jan Louter and a series of photographs by Dana Lixenberg, which resulted in a book, exhibition, website and web documentary. Whilst I focused mostly on (image) research and writing, you were responsible for the project management. You continued working on other projects for Paradox, the producer of documentary projects addressing social issues with innovative ways of research and exhibiting, up until five years ago at which point you decided to take the plunge and develop a freelance curatorial practice besides your teaching activities. After you guest-curated two exhibitions at FOMU, Antwerp (Jeffrey Silverthorne and Yann Mingard, both in 2015), you have reached a new high point in your career this year with the curatorial appointment for the 16th edition of the Kraków Photomonth, Poland. Could you first tell me a few things about your development as curator and your curatorial approach.

Iris Sikking: After I graduated from the Academy for Film and Television in Amsterdam in the early 1990s, I mainly worked as a film editor, but some years later I was fed up with the lack of visual power in the films I was editing. I knew that the imagery could tell more so I felt the urge to learn more about the language of images, and their ability to communicate a meaning more generally. So I decided to study at the then freshly-founded MA programme in Photographic Studies, Leiden University in 2003. I co-wrote my thesis with Hedy van Erp about the depiction of the baby in photographic history, from amateur to professional photographs, and from marketing to ultrasound images. We then developed our thesis into the exhibition BABY – Picturing the Ideal Human, which was shown at the Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam (2008) and the National Media Museum, Bradford (2009). Later, at Paradox I also worked as a curator on the sizeable projects, ANGRY – Young and Radical (2011), which offered a selection of thirty-five international artists, and quickly followed by what I call a defining project in my career, Poppy – Trails of Afghan Heroin by Antoinette de Jong & Robert Knoth, a book published in 2012, also materialising in an accompanying exhibition that has been travelling since. Poppy– Trails of Afghan Heroin was pivotal because it brought me back to film-making and reminded me of the power of editing, whilst serving as an introduction to the filmography of Adam Curtis and Johan Grimonprez. Narrative is an integral tool in their films, something I often miss in projects exclusively based on the still image.

My work at Paradox was an extraordinary learning experience from which I am still growing from a demanding but rewarding seven years. Due to the fact that I could work within a set context for such an extended period of time, I was able to learn about every nook and cranny of the curatorial process, from fundraising to the necessity of debate around a given topic and project with experts on the subject matter. Besides, I have always undertaken many side activities, such as portfolio reviewing and visiting exhibitions both nationally and internationally. My long-term investment in building an extensive network that started during my involvement with Paradox, laid solid foundations for my recent curatorial activities. And working with people and on projects which you fully believe in pays off in the long run.

Through my collaboration with Yann Mingard, that I mentioned earlier, I came to know Lars Willumeit, who had contributed an essay to Mingard’s book, and who was also the Guest Curator for Kraków Photomonth 2016. Inspired by a conference I had co-organised in Amsterdam exploring digital forms of storytelling, Willumeit asked me to participate in his 2016 edition, for which I organised the group show A New Display: Visual Storytelling at the Crossroads.

THB: How did you interpret the commission for the 2018 edition? Were you given free reign in how you would approach the curatorial task and how you would develop a theme?

IS: Yes, I was given the freedom to curate and exhibit what I found important a freedom, which, at the same time, I thought was slightly frightening considering the strong festival iterations of the preceding years. But having been given the freedom, and considering the impressive past editions, I felt at home with a festival whose organisers are not afraid of hosting topical exhibitions which engender debate. At several points during the development of my programme, the production team in Kraków suspected this edition might become the most political to date, which confirmed that I was on the right track. Especially the projects dealing with migration brought up issues that are highly controversial in Poland and not easily made discussable. Like many other European countries, Poland tries to keep its borders closed, while the value and contribution of immigrants is underestimated and seen as a threat, but like someone in Poland told me, their country is also made up of a cocktail of people of various roots and identities.

Environmental issues, and the difficulties of visualising them, formed another theme for this year’s edition. The city of Kraków, for example, suffers from intense air pollution between October and April. It made me sick and I couldn’t fathom what was going on with how I perceived Poland, which otherwise seems a prosperous country. People told me it wasn’t caused so much by the many coal-pits in the vicinity but by the extremely outworn fleet of cars and the traffic artery that is Kraków, an important city in Poland. Secondly, a key factor is the fact that many people still fire coal stoves and literally burn everything at hand, including plastics. Although this happens mostly in the surrounding villages, the smog blankets Kraków given that it is situated in a valley. The health consequences of pollution have only recently become public discussion points while there is scientific data available detailing which illnesses and deaths are correlated to these types of air pollution. The flow of data and its consequences, the third significant theme of the festival, was a hint to the financial crisis that began a decade ago. I chose this trio of themes because it touches on urgent matters: migration and politics, nature and care for the environment, data and its implications for privacy, as well as the financial crisis.

THB: Your theme for the festival’s main programme, titled Space of Flows: Framing an Unseen Reality, is ambitious and wide-ranging. You ask for the visitor’s patience and perseverance, as quite a few projects included extensive documentation and other contextual materials. I took one working day to visit the group and solo exhibitions comprising Space of Flows, spread across eleven museums and gallery spaces in the old town and neighbouring areas, including projects by no less than twenty-two artists and artist duos. Were I to study everything more closely, it would have taken at least two days. While I found the walks between the venues and the variety of mediums (film, photography, text, computers in either immersive settings or classical exhibition lay-out) to be highly-refreshing, I left with the aftertaste that the amount of information, storylines and variety of documentary approaches is impossible to fathom, perhaps even within the scope of a few days. What is this ‘space of flows’ and how did you use this idea to give shape to your set-up of the festival?

IS: I started from the concept of the ‘space of flows’, which I found fascinating during my reading, many years ago, of The Rise of the Network Society (1996) by Spanish sociologist Manual Castells. In a tempting way, he described the type of society that we were heading for in the 1990s. ‘The space of flows,’ he wrote, ‘is made up of movement that brings distant elements things and people into an interrelationship that is characterised today by being continuous and in real time.’ Virtuality has become visible in the networked society, so that we no longer live in a ‘space of places’ alone. This latter space, Castells explains, is the space where we know every corner, and in which we are acquainted with all our neighbours. The digital turn added a new layer, a ‘space of flows’ that catapults us into fluid ecosystems. As a consequence we are faced with changing experiences of time and speed, demanding substantial shifts in how we perceive humanity and the planet. 

So ‘Space of Flows’ functioned as a starting point, a proposition. The actual theme is the changing world under the influence of digitalisation and the resulting, cursory ways in which we relate to, or acquire knowledge about, our environment. Furthermore, this exhibition critiques the absence of a vision of those in power, who prefer to focus on short-term effects. My reply to this was to learn how to “better observe” certain aspects confronting us nowadays. I am interested in the long curves of the story, listening to the stories migrants themselves have to tell, rather than only focus on the hysterical actuality of the “crisis” of the moment. I wanted to invite photographers who employ digital technology to question the hypes around these issues, people like Rune Peitersen, Esther Hovers, Clément Lambelet and Susan Schuppli. These artists examine such realities, whilst at the same time, striving to make us aware of the underlying mechanisms of the media and the news.

With the exhibition’s subtitle, Framing an Unseen Reality, I wished to explain the position of lens-based artists. Aside from being a reference to photography and video, a frame refers to the statements artists make in and with their work. For example, for this edition of the Kraków Photomonth, I also sought out practices embracing experimentation, and artists who use a variety of visual and narrative strategies, who critically employ specific technologies, or engage in in-depth and original research. Thus, I selected many projects without photography at their core, yet nonetheless still projects in which we can learn about what photographic images are and how they function in our ‘spaces of flows’.

I consider photography as a medium in need of serious scrutiny, while on the other hand I see great potential for the use of the documentary image to shed light on important issues. In that regard, I wish to stay focussed on the documentary, but on those makers who allow artistic licence to fold their materials for the sake of expression, yet without violating the original meaning of their documents.

THB: How do you perceive the festival format? What is its relevance today and what do you foresee for the future? Is there any lesson you drew from curating the Photomonth?

IS: In my opinion there are too many photo festivals. Despite the fact that many of them are billed as having a theme, they often lack a solid curatorial approach. Such a clear focus is lacking perhaps because of the ambition to show too many works and to stage these works in a less challenging design. Besides, the participants are often selected by a group of international scouts. Some of the past exceptions of festivals I have visited include the Rotterdam Photo Biennale (2003), titled Experience and curated by Bas Vroege and Frits Gierstberg, and the Mannheim Biennale for Contemporary Photography (2017), curated by Florian Ebner and others.

I also wonder why so many photo festivals eagerly promote themselves as “a place to celebrate photography?” Although I strongly believe in the festival as a meeting place and as a space for public debate. In Kraków, for example, I organised a panel discussion as part of the well-visited opening weekend in May 2018. I chose to create a walk through the city along the exhibition openings, and arrange artists meetings as well as three panel discussions. A programme like this gives insight into the intentions of the visiting artists and the purpose of a curator’s intervention. It also encourages important and often surprising encounters with audience members. Not least, it projects the motivation for art pieces and their topics back into the real world, thus providing valuable points of entry to the exhibitions. The three panel discussions examined the overarching topics related to the festival’s theme: nature, data and migration. After a journalist had attended the panel Data & Power (in the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery for Contemporary Art), she told me about how impressed she was by the presence of practitioners from the fields of knowledge under discussion. She noticed that the seven artists in the panel felt more inclined to question their research-driven practices, rather than only providing outside information about their projects. This was the case, she said, because the perspectives were brought into the discussion by the experts. She was already imagining attending a follow-up panel, ten years from now, including the same artists and experts, as they all seemed to be in the midst of a thorough research trajectory. Rune Peitersen, one of the artists on the panel, said he found it tempting and rewarding to discuss his work while being able to bounce off the experts: ‘As an artist you use your research to place it in some sort of artistic mold, and finally translate this knowledge into a work of art. By so doing, you gain an artistic expertise which differs from that of the practitioners and theorists in a certain scientific domain.’ In short, I think this defines what I am doing.

I found certain works shown at the Documenta 14 in Kassel last year to be inspiring in the way they sought out connections to local issues, such as Eyal Weizman’s research project Forensic Architecture. Were I to curate another large festival, I would be most appreciative of being given the preparation time to focus more on the spirit of the location and what goes on locally. Although the themes I chose for Kraków have near-universal relevance, many of the topics on display weren’t necessarily rooted within the festival’s immediate sense of place. If I would have had more time I would have done more in Poland. On each journey there, I tried to see as much as I could and meet as many locals as possible, but in the end I was only able to spend ten days in Poland within the period of one year to prepare for the festival on-site.

Occasionally, the freelancing makes me long for a long-term commitment again with a single party, so that foundations can be laid upon where something substantial can be build. Let me work on a project for three years, in which I can sketch broad outlines and have due time for in-depth research. On the other hand, I appreciate the versatility and freedom that characterises freelance curatorship. I often ponder whether I should build on something that does not exist yet, or I better say exists no longer, such as the earlier mentioned excellent Photo Biennale in Rotterdam, that was on for five editions. To my taste it has never had a worthy successor in the Dutch cultural landscape. I see it as a positive development that my teaching and curatorial activities are overlapping more and more, dovetailing and cross-pollinating one another. Nevertheless, my heart is in exhibition-making. Within the context of the extensively-researched and considered exhibitions BABY, ANGRY, and this year the Kraków Photomonth, I ultimately sought to offer an alternative look on the world around us.

Image courtesy Iris Sikking.

Katrina Sluis

Digital Curator at The Photographers’ Gallery and Senior Lecturer

London South Bank University

The latest instalment in our Interviews series sees Lewis Bush speak with Digital Curator at The Photographers’ Gallery and Senior Lecturer in Photography at London South Bank University, Katrina Sluis. Sluis takes us into photography’s parallel – or not so parallel – world of networked culture, and discusses the challenges of exhibiting the vernacular digital-born image, how we might address questions of authorship, labour and cultural value in an age of photographic ubiquity, and how one might practically curate, disseminate and archive a photographic culture defined by viral reproduction and excess. Sluis also reflects on the manner in which the common binary between ‘immaterial’ and ‘physical’ mediums, which assumes the digital image has no materiality – is both problematic and political in her view, and the different set of tools or logic that are now required to consider the limits of semiotics or psychoanalysis in an age when machines (and not humans) are the dominant readers of images.

Lewis Bush: Hi Katrina, thanks for agreeing to this discussion. Having it at this moment seems fitting given what feels like a growing public awareness about the specifics of digital imaging and display, and also about the politics of data, networks, and technology more broadly, not least in the wake of events like the US election where these things have played important parts. To start off, perhaps you could you tell me a bit about how and why you first became interested in working specifically with digital images? I think I’m right in thinking your background as a photographer was originally working rather more traditionally with large format cameras and analogue film?

Katrina Sluis: That’s right – I originally trained as an artist in the 1990s in Sydney at the College of Fine Arts. I actually majored in painting, but defected to the Photomedia department in my final year, inspired by the amazing group of women teaching there – Debra Phillips, Rosemary Laing, Lynne Roberts-Goodwin, Maureen Burns, Paula Dawson and Simone Douglas. I was also drawn to photography for its richness as a conceptual tool – and the way Australian photographers were engaging with post-colonial, feminist and post-photographic discourses. There is also a strong history of experimental Media Art there, and staff in many departments – from painting to sculpture – were experimenting with new technologies. Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art even did a show of CD-ROM art in 1996! So I didn’t think anything of working with a large format camera in the morning, seeing a performance by Stelarc at lunch, then photoshopping in the computer labs in the evening.

On the weekends I would dial-up to my local BBS in order to play a MUD or teach myself HTML, and I later supported my practice working as tech support at CompuServe Pacific, an early internet service provider. However it actually took a long time for me to connect those specific spheres of my life – what I was doing in my art and what I was doing on the net – until the early 2000s.

LB: I am going to slightly show my age here by saying that for those of us who were growing up in the early stages of the internet, digital imaging and so on I think there is a tendency to retrospectively assume these things rather separated off from other areas of art practice so it’s fascinating to hear how fluidly you were moving between these things. Leaping forward to the present, amongst other roles you are now curator of the digital programme at The Photographers’ Gallery, a post which I believe was specifically created when the gallery reopened at its new location in 2012. Was its creation about audience engagement, or a response to a specific recognition at the gallery that digital photography was being somewhat neglected in favour of works which favoured more traditional modes of gallery display? Or was it perhaps something else entirely?

KS: I think there was an understanding at the gallery that photography’s collision with network culture created a number of technical and conceptual challenges they didn’t have the capacity to deal with. For example, how do you exhibit the vernacular digital-born image? How do you address questions of authorship, labour and cultural value in an age of photographic ubiquity? How do you practically curate, disseminate and archive a photographic culture defined by viral reproduction and excess? And what changes to institutional structures are required? As you indicate, the issue of audience(s) underpins many of these problems. If public cultural institutions have some claim to be ‘representational’ then there’s a need to engage with the photographic practices of our audiences which reflect in complex ways the changing meaning and agency of the medium.

LB: Yes, that makes absolute sense. Speaking as a teacher who often brings students to the gallery, I’ve found of these engagements with more vernacular digital imagery can sometimes act as a great gateway to complicated ideas and discussions. I also find it personally very refreshing because of the way an exhibition of say, ‘lolcats’, has something of a levelling effect when seen in conjunction with the often more conventional displays upstairs in the galleries. In a field where photographers are often keen to define themselves in opposition or difference to other photographers I find it a nice reminder that all photographic images have much more in common than in difference. Moving on from this thought though, do you find there are any particular challenges that come with working with an immaterial rather than physical medium, or for that matter particular opportunities that excite you about these types of media which you don’t find with physical photographs?

KS: First of all, I think this binary between ‘immaterial’ and ‘physical’ mediums, which assumes the digital image has no materiality – is both problematic and political. In this respect, the key challenge of working as a digital curator is finding ways to make visible and intelligible the various techno-social infrastructures which sustain the photographic image today. This requires a shift in thinking about not only what an image represents, but how it is operationalised by both human and non-human actors. This is very hard for photographic institutions who have championed photography as an art form, as they had to downplay its role as a reproductive technology in order to emphasise the creative legitimacy of the photographer who pressed the shutter.

On the other hand, one fantastic aspect of working in a photography institution is that the practice of the artist is not the sole privileged site through which culture might be understood. One can take seriously the knowledge of amateur photography communities, computer scientists or even venture capitalists who increasingly influence the direction and shape of photographic culture and its curation.

But to return to your original point, when I joined the gallery there was definitely a sense that digital programming is somehow less expensive, less labour intensive and easier because you sidestep a set of problems concerning the specificities of archival prints, insurance, transport and so on. To some extent, this is true. However, having seen the number of all-nighters I’ve pulled trying to troubleshoot problems with video codecs, network issues, and the cost and logistics of running hundreds of metres of CAT 6 cables through five floors of the building I’m sure my colleagues would now beg to differ.

LB: Picking up your point about the way institutions have championed photography as an art form, and the gradual acceptance of this idea, do you think there are any parallels with the way people treat artworks which are primarily digital in nature? I have seen quite a few exhibitions in recent years where it seemed the curators didn’t really ‘get’ digital art works and were trying very hard to force them into the shape of more traditional analogue works. An example being an interactive digital artwork being displayed as a screen captured video, or even worse as a screenshot or print. To put the same question in another way, are people still basically very hung up on the idea of photographs as objects?

KS: These curatorial practices you describe are, essentially, a result of seeing photography primarily as ‘visual content’, a process which renders the computer interface as transparent or invisible. Worryingly, I think there is also sometimes a mistrust of the audience and a perception that they need the work to be presented to them in a familiar format in order to engage with it. A related problem is that there’s also (unsurprisingly) very little technical expertise in cultural institutions, especially from a curatorial perspective – it’s hard to find hybrid people who understand photography as both a technical and cultural language.

To take up your point about the fetishisation of photographs as objects, the nostalgia for the analogue in digital culture is something we directly addressed when we devoted our recent Geekender to the “Hyperanalogue”. I think the persistence of the object is both a product of a crisis of authorship felt keenly by a sector of the community, but also part of a wider desire to seek out allegedly ‘authentic’ forms of expression in an increasingly accelerated consumer culture.

LB: Yes, quite true about the transparency of the technologies that render the digital image. Although, to play devil’s advocate, one could perhaps say that is a consistent tendency in all forms of photography. How often do you hear analogue photographers consider the environmental consequences of the silver mining required to make their prints, for example. Your point about the authenticity of analogue culture is also interesting in that at least amongst my generation there also seems to be an interest in early internet culture and technology for similar reasons. Animated GIFs are one obvious example, a largely obsolete format which has experienced a strange revival. I wonder if you have any thoughts on that?

KS: I agree that analogue photography doesn’t somehow sidestep the politics of production. However, when the photographic image becomes the output of software, it requires a different set of tools or logic to unpack – consider the limits of semiotics or psychoanalysis in an age when machines (and not humans) are the dominant readers of images. In this respect, the networked photograph resembles a “two faced Janus”, which on the one hand points to the world of representation, and on the other to algorithmic reproduction and the cybernetic dynamics of pattern and randomness. And yet the answer in parts of the visual literacy and photography community to this problem is to “slow down” the image, and embrace “slow looking” in order to get an even more detailed reading of the the singular, enframed, image. In the gallery we have been running workshops with our PhD researcher, Nicolas Malevé, who is re-staging a California Institute of Technology experiment where participants are asked to describe images which have been shown to them for a number of milliseconds. This experiment became the model of visual perception underpinning the development of ImageNet, a database used to train machine vision algorithms. Resituating this experiment in The Photographers’ Gallery has been immensely productive in unpacking the cultural value of spectatorship and visual pedagogies for both humans and machines.

With respect to the resurgence of the Animated GIF around 2010-2012, I’m not sure this is the result of a younger generation suddenly longing for a more authentic web, or wanting to engage with the politics and aesthetics of early net culture. There are indeed projects like Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenscheid’s One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age – which uses Tumblr to circulate homepages from the Geocities archive – that have engaged a new audiences unfamiliar with the early amateur web. We were fortunate to show 10,000 of these web pages at the gallery over 3 months in 2013. At that time Olia gave a talk at the gallery about the specificity of early GIF culture, and how it was the format’s ability to support transparency as opposed to looping, which was crucial. She noted that transparency gives the image the ability to exist anywhere on the web – on any page or any background. In modern GIF culture the use of transparency has all but disappeared, and the dominant form of GIF is televisual or cinematic – consider the endless “reaction” GIFs plucked from popular TV or the fetishisation of the ‘cinemagraph’ by the Tumblr community. Its resurgence is also related to the the increasing pressure for cultural expressions to survive in an economy of attention, and the death of plug-ins such as Flash in a mobile web age.

LB: A key part of the digital programme is the Media Wall, which is also one of the first things visitors see when they enter The Photographers’ Gallery. How do you approach commissioning works for such a prominent display? Does this process occur in close collaboration with other curators at the gallery or do you have high level of autonomy to decide what appears here?

KS: Whilst the Media Wall is very prominent, the digital programme actually has a lot of autonomy – it has less status in the institution, for the practical and historic reasons we have already touched upon, and different aims to the rest of the programme. Within the limits of our resource we have always tried to work in a very lightweight and opportunistic way, trying out different approaches and working with partners (such as Animate Projects or Brighton Photo Biennial) to co-commission work where possible or taking the lead from online communities.

LB: Are there any particular commissions for the Media Wall or artists you have worked with as part of the digital programme that stand out for you?

KS: When the gallery’s exhibition programme has had a very clear theme or concern in a single season, it’s been productive to reflect on the digital context for those ideas with an artist’s commission. For example, alongside Human Rights Human Wrongs, we were able to commission James Bridle to work with Picture Plane, a company which specialises in CG architectural visualisations, to produce a work which made visible a series of ‘unphotographable’ sites of UK immigration detention. But alongside these artists’ commissions it has also been crucial to develop a strand of Media Wall programming which specifically deals with the networked image culture. These projects are incredibly labour intensive and raise all sorts of tricky curatorial problems, but have offered us the opportunity to work with cat photographers, the visual culture of motherhood, food photography and (in our next season) computer games and screenshot culture.

LB: You have also overseen the launch of unthinking photography, a fascinating online resource on the intersections of photography and algorithmic automation, networks and more. This site seems to mesh with your work at the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image at London South Bank University, which you also co-founded and co-direct. These topics feel like something of a wild frontier, with much happening but with little regulation or public awareness of them. What is the aim for you of engaging with them in this way?

KS: Unthinking Photography was born out of a desire to start mapping a very different ‘image’ of digital photography, which doesn’t originate with the age old issue of image manipulation but what might be called photography’s ‘softwareisation’. I was also aware of the need to generate a resource on these issues, given the number of frustrated photography students I kept meeting! And in contrast to the scathing rejection of Internet culture in some parts of the photographic community, I was also keen to take seriously the world wide web as a site through which photographic knowledge is produced. For example, what we can might learn about photography from YouTube and its users? What can we learn about machine vision through a TED Talk? How do we understand photographic education through YouTube?

LB: Lastly, perhaps I could ask how you feel about the term ‘photography’ in terms of what you do at the gallery, and outside of it. Is it particularly useful, or resilient, when photography no longer seems quite the clear-cut medium it was? Now it blurs into a whole range of other practices from light detection and ranging, to three-dimensional computer renders, and generative algorithms capable of creating original images without ever coming into contact with a camera.

KS: Photography was never a clear-cut medium, and it is no surprise it continues to be perplexing! I actually find the framing of photography immensely productive, with all its limits, and gives an important historical grounding to the debates. I’ve already mentioned that the tendency in our community to treat the photograph as a sign or picture has a tendency to render the computer interface invisible. Conversely, the computer sciences treat the photographic image as an uncomplicated and transparent window on the world, ignoring the politics of representation which photography scholars have unpacked. There is therefore a real need to create opportunities to escape our institutional silos and find ways of bringing commercial technologists, photographers, artists, scholars and our audiences into a productive dialogue. The challenge for both culturalists and technologists is to treat ‘the digital’ not as simply a tool but as a culture.

Image courtesy Katrina Sluis. © Simon Terrill

Dayanita Singh

Artist and winner of The Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Photobook of the Year Award 2017

New Delhi

Our Interviews series continues with Duncan Wooldridge in conversation with Dayanita Singh, hot off the heels of winning Photobook of the Year with Museum Bhavan at Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards 2017. Published by Steidl, it was described by jury member Mitch Epstein as ‘a book of books, each one exploring an Indian motif, from printing presses to the administrative archive. Her work is a sophisticated merger of East and West sensibilities, and celebrates the democratic possibilities of the offset multiple’. Here, Wooldridge and Singh discuss exploring new forms and discourses around the space between publishing and the museum, photography as a way of cataloguing the world or even collecting experiences, the artist’s ongoing collaboration with the legendary Gerhard Steidl as well as their shared concerns of paper, correspondence and memory.

Duncan Wooldridge: In 2008 you made the book Sent A Letter, and in 2012 you exhibited your File Room. Around that time, your books became objects and your exhibition works became small museums. Both seem concerned with paper, correspondence and memory. Did something lead you towards making objects and collections?

Dayanita Singh: Well, photography is a way of cataloguing the world around us so making collections is what photographers do. I sometimes even call myself a collector. Having said that, I always knew the book was at the heart of my work. The book came first and then the exhibition – the exhibition was a catalogue of the images in the book. I used to wonder if there might be a form that allowed me to present the book as the exhibition and that started to happen with Sent A Letter. These miniature exhibitions were in fact letters I had made by cutting my medium format contact sheets, and pasting them in accordion fold books – like thank you letters after a journey with a friend.

In 2011 an old friend was visiting and asked to see my work. I wanted to show him something I had not shown to anyone else. I realised that paper was somehow a large part of my archive, libraries, archives, paper factories. He sifted through the 200 prints, put 24 aside and said File Room and right there the project was born, which will follow me till I die. But then I wanted the book to be an object as well. To find a form where it could be displayed on the wall along side photo prints and paintings. I made such a structure for File Room and then Museum of Chance had the same structure but I also found a way to make a book with 88 different covers! So now the book could be hung on the wall, and with 88 different covers, it also became an exhibition on the wall, breaking the very sequence of the book. With Museum Bhavan I found a way to make each box unique, so 3000 unique boxes were shipped from Delhi to Göttingen, Germany, and now you can choose which cover you acquire and in the box get 9 exhibitions of my Museums and a book of conversations. The cycle that started with Sent A Letter is now complete.

DW: Museum Bhavan collects multiple bodies of work into a kind of museum of museums, made of 9 book museums and conversation chamber, but it has a personal touch, in both the covers and the sense of scale and detail of each book. The idea that your books become like letters to a friend seems to capture something of the care and diligence that is often within your pictures. I’m especially interested in how this shows up in both File Room, and in parts of Museum Bhavan like Godrej Museum, where the first impression is one of awe at the amount of documentary material and the bureaucracy, but this gives way to a deep sense of appreciation of materiality, the sense of ‘matter’ in front of you, that can be touched, smelt, absorbed. Where did your interest in this come from?

DS: It’s difficult to say where ones interests come from, and I prefer not to probe too much (why question the muse?) but paper has always been a fascination. As a child I would gift wrap my mother’s shoe boxes because I loved the sound and feel of folding/creasing paper. I grew up with files, and once my father died we were inundated with litigation and even more files. I am very at home with files. It’s even my comfort zone you could say. That smell and sound of paper!

DW: Does this comfort zone extend to collecting, do you think? You’ve described your work as an act of collecting – each museum emerging from what you find recurring in your images. I wondered if your ideas of collecting were integral to your conception of photography as something that an artist uses? Your interest has moved beyond making singular pictures, even singular books.

DS: Gerhard (Steidl) was so happy when we made Sent A Letter, precisely because it could be acquired for the same amount of money as a book, but then it could transform into 7 exhibitions at the drop of a hat. And now with Museum Bhavan, you effectively are the curator of 16 exhibitions of mine (if you already have Sent A Letter). I sometime call myself an ‘offset’ artist, sometimes an ‘image collector’. Photography is a way of collecting experiences, no? Is that not the privilege of photography? Maybe we all are collectors of experiences. And then like a writer, one has to see what form one gives to those experiences. That part perhaps comes more easily when one is an artist. This idea of finding the right form for each work, like say Geoff Dyer does for each piece of his writing; as Calvino did too.

DW: In relation to collecting, but also the idea of finding the right forms, one of the most enigmatic, but also telling books of Museum Bhavan is the Ongoing Museum. Here it seems that you are playing with what it means to collect, assemble, remember and construct. Images of events, models, hands setting out displays, plaques, and movie scenes all seem to suggest that things both are, and are not what they seem. More importantly, it seems to suggest that they can be what you want them to be. Is your inclusion of the ‘ongoing’ a way of re-wiring those things which appear to be static, fixed down?

DS: Some of the books have two titles, to differentiate them from an earlier published version: eg File Room morphs into Godrej Museum and Museum of Chance into Ongoing Museum. But some like Little Ladies Museum and Museum of Photography have two titles anyway. It’s a little play on how one’s reading changes with the title.

DW: You’ve worked with Gerhard Steidl for a long time, rather than switching between different publishers. Can you describe your working relationship? It seems integral to the books now.

DS: None of this could have happened without the support of Gerhard Steidl, he is my co-conspirator. I think he enjoys the challenge each book brings. At first he says ‘no’, and then the next day he agrees to each crazy idea of mine. I doubt he makes any money with my books, but he likes how we push the envelope each time, though the 88 different covers did drive the bindery crazy. I then made a suitcase for the sets (of Museum Bhavan), and now have a suitcase museum since I was the only one who has the full sets. It was also a way to make people go to a bookshop or an event, to choose your own cover, because online you would not be able to choose.

DW: In your discussion with Steidl in the Conversation Chambers part of the Museum Bhavan (a small stapled book, with interviews between Dayanita Singh and Gerhard Steidl, and with Aveek Sen), it seems like you come together over an interest in paper? Is that a place where you share a passion?

DS: Yes Gerhard and I share a great love for paper. He even made a perfume called Paper Passion. The interview in the pocket museum was pre Museum Bhavan but ends with my asking him if he would consider such an object. He said ‘yes’.

DW: Behind your shared interests in the materials of bookmaking, your work also has a concern with the work going out into the world, it reaching different homes and being available over being exclusive. Is distributing a book an act that has particular social and political messages for you?

DS: The magic of photography is not just in the image but also in the dissemination it allows. After all, a photograph can exist in many different ways. The art world limits this scope of photography and the book is where photography is at its democratic best, and when one can make a book that is on par with one’s exhibition, or is indeed the exhibition, then could one say that it takes photography beyond even the art world. I always think that there needs to be a place between the publishing house and the gallery that has the dissemination of publishing and the ‘uniqueness’ of the art gallery. Can a book be both? Steidl and I both believe it can and I think we present this very contradiction with Museum Bhavan.

DW: As I understand it, your critique is of the exhibition, and the way that it perpetuates a standard or homogeneous audience. The opportunity of the book is the way it is open to the sites and layers of discovery – in the bookshop, on a friend’s bookshelves, in a library, or even at a flea market. It could be seen by almost anyone. It reinstates Malraux’s idea that art (art history) comes to you. You seem to be wanting to change what the museum is, and who it is for…

DS: Yes, it is a critique of how we exhibit photography, especially since photography has so many forms embedded in it – and its dissemination is part of the medium. Ongoing Museum is to suggest just that – a museum needs to be ongoing, ever changing, waxing and waning.

Image courtesy of Dayanita Singh. © Ulrike Sommer

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

Ben Burbridge

Senior Lecturer in Art History

University of Sussex, Brighton

For the latest instalment in our Interviews series Lewis Bush sits down with Senior Lecturer in Art History at University of Sussex, Ben Burbridge. Their conversation takes in aspects of the academic’s long-term collaborative project involving Ph: The Photography Research Network; a forthcoming book that deals with the ways in which photography is directly implicated in the political and economic machinations of neoliberalism, but with regards to the depiction of political and economic subjects within photographs, more in terms of the politics and economics of photography. They also share reflections on complex questions of ‘audience’ when writing; curatorial investigations into the parallels and mutual influences of scientific and artistic photography; and whether the fashionable term ‘conceptual documentary’ is actually at all useful.

Lewis Bush: When I was reviewing some of the previous interviews for 1000 Words I noticed that each one was subtitled with the interviewee’s usually rather precise area of work, for example ‘curator’, ‘artist’, or ‘publisher’. One of the reasons I was keen to have a dialogue with you is that I think neither of us seem particularly content to limit ourselves to one area of photographic practice or inquiry, instead spreading ourselves across several. You are an educator, a curator, a writer, a magazine editor at Photoworks, an academic, all activities I hope we can touch on individually as we talk. I thought it would be interesting to start though with the reasons for structuring your practice in that way and also on the practicalities of this quite distributed working. Is it sustainable? Or if you prefer to turn the question around, is this the only way to work in a field like photography where predictable work in any one of these areas seems to be increasingly rare?

Ben Burbridge: I’m lucky enough to have a permanent full-time academic post so some combination of most of those activities is fairly standard. But then I guess I was drawn to the job because I find that mix sustaining. Teaching, writing, editing, curating all hold different possibilities in terms of how ideas are generated and shared; they also offer different experiences – teaching is a more sociable activity than writing for instance. While the combination is not a matter of piecing together a living based on available freelance opportunities or temporary posts, that’s not to say economic imperatives don’t play a role in shaping the work I do – they’re just expressed in different ways. We know that universities today function as businesses in an increasingly free-market environment. The activities they support and the balance they strike between them reflect the likelihood of generating revenue, whether that’s through student fees, or research grants, or attracting private funding. Something similar is true of the research ‘outputs’ I’m meant to produce. As depressing as it may be, at some level, decisions to pursue an exhibition, or an article, or a book, or something else entirely are informed by the demands of future government audits. That relationship need not be straightforward however – the choice to pursue more contrarian pathways may provide one small way to assert a bit of agency in such a context. Aside from those institutional pressures, decisions to share ideas via one form or another are driven both by the opportunities available – sometimes chances find me – and by the particular demands of the questions I’m setting out to explore, above and beyond any need to move back and forth between different ways of working. I guess the ideas are paramount – some things are just better suited to one form than another, while others lend themselves to being explored across multiple fronts.

LB: I certainly get the sense of institutional pressure to perform in one way or another. What I’ve noticed is that some seem to rather succumb to these demands and go on to produce a succession of rather drab ‘outputs’ which meet the needs of the institution without seeming to fulfil much purpose beyond it. A smaller number of people find ways to keep the paymasters happy and produce something of wider interest. Perhaps with that in mind we could start by turning more directly to writing. I believe that you are currently finishing two books, could you briefly outline them?

BB: The first is a co-edited effort, which has grown out of a long-term collaborative project involving Ph: The Photography Research Network, a group of around thirty UK photography researchers who have been working together in various ways for close to ten years now. It started life in 2010 as, a National Media Museum project initiated by Charlotte Cotton when she was heading up Media Space. The original project consisted of a very substantial number of commissioned essays, conversations and slideshows produced by writers and practitioners from diverse disciplines, organised around a series of themes. Those themes marked an effort to identify what we saw to be some of the key discussions emerging around photographic culture at that time. I have been working with Annebella Pollen to go back over all of the material to make a necessarily smaller selection as the basis for a printed book that will be published by I B Tauris later this year. Rather than just produce a miniature version of the website, we saw this as a chance to try and plot new routes in, around and between the texts, and to identify some of the concerns that may not have been picked up as particularly important at the start of the project. The book is the product of a lot of people’s work, a lot of other people’s energy and commitment, and as a result it feels like something quite important now it’s reaching a conclusion of sorts. Collectively, I think we’ve made a good stab at identifying some important routes of travel for discussions around photography which, in my view at least, should always be anchored in something else, whether that’s the values we attach to the amateur or the mediation of political violence. That seems to be a very effective way to look beyond the sometimes-narrow concerns of the usual suspects, drawing new voices into the conversation.

LB: And how about the other book?

BB: The other book is an effort to draw together various things I’ve been thinking about during the past five years or so, in relation to the idea of photography and ‘communicative capitalism’, a concept I’ve borrowed from the political philosopher Jodi Dean. I didn’t set out to write a book initially – I just followed my interests as and when I got the chance to do some work and then, a year or so I go, I realised that maybe I was sitting on enough material to draw together as something like a book. It deals with the ways in which photography is directly implicated in the political and economic machinations of neoliberalism, not so much in terms of the depiction of political and economic subjects within photographs, more in terms of the politics and economics of photography. It’s an effort to critically address diverse corners of a recent photographic landscape in terms of labour, profit and power. I do this with reference to a wide range of contemporary art practices, which provide the lenses through which this landscape is brought into focus – both because photography’s political-economies seem to be an important emerging interest for some artists, but also because they prove a significant blind-spot for others when they look to photography’s uses in the larger culture. Fairly traditional approaches to appropriation, for instance, seem to be very poorly suited to addressing questions of how the photographic cultures they explore are monetised, or how those processes are implicated in the broader dynamics of free-market capitalism. The book also tries to position the field of contemporary art – and, indeed, my own work as an academic (which would include this interview, of course) – within, not outside the issues studied. In that sense, I’ve gained a lot from recent discussions of institutional critique, particularly from artist-writers like Hito Steyerl and Andrea Fraser. I think Fraser’s idea that economics should be central to what artworks mean not just socially but also artistically provides an interesting jumping-off point when it comes to writing about photography, art and politics today.

LB: I’d like to briefly pick up this idea of the way photography is implicated in neoliberalism, and capitalism more broadly. It’s a fascinating topic and one of significance for anyone who uses photography, almost regardless of how they position themselves, whether as artist, documentarian, professional or amateur. It seems to me that ‘serious’ photographers of most leanings have been aware for several decades at least of the extent to which the camera is inescapably meshed into a history and politics of seeing that complicates our use of it, in terms of the politics of representation for example. Relatively few seem to have applied the same thought to the way photography is part of a similarly problematic mesh of economics that one has to work within, whether one does so consciously or not. There seems to be an ever growing awareness in wider society about the way our lives exist within these diffuse meshes, most tangibly manifested perhaps in digital networks and the data we generate through their use, and an awareness also of how our lives are also shaped by these things. Do you think the moment is particularly ripe for photographers to engage more fully with these issues, as they have already engaged with issues around, say, representation?

BB: I’m not sure. Any growing awareness may be informed by a range of factors. The global economic meltdown must have played a role, although the effects were not necessarily felt immediately. In fact, a lot of the resistance that grew up in the wake of the financial crash, through things like Occupy, may have helped to fuel an earlier, optimistic discourse about Web 2.0 as a democratic arena in ways that actually obscured the question of how data is exploited. The Snowden revelations played an important role in creating a wider awareness of the tendencies you describe, which some academics and activists had been talking about for many years prior, of course. And, as you suggest, these insights have important implications for photography. This is where I’ve found Jodi Dean’s work to be very useful. She describes a society in which political participation has been reduced to a form of public communication that seeks recognition more than any sustained dialogue or institutional response. And, as you point out, that communication often takes place across platforms that allow data to be mined to service the interests of powerful elites. That was the starting point for me, really.

Across multiple fields, it seems that photography today is understood in terms of opportunities to communicate, but we don’t necessarily think about the larger interests that communication serves. An effort to do this would take us in any number of directions. We can think about our everyday photographic lives in relation to the consolidation of global corporate power, for instance, which would involve some reflection not only on things like internet surveillance, but also on the tax operations of the companies that most benefit from it and the ways that global structures allow traditional models of accountability to be evaded and confused. Or we can think about the situation historically – mass photographic practice was very much part of a Fordist economy, with cameras, film, developing services functioning as mass-produced commodities. Popular photography today, by contrast, is part of a post-Fordist world of targeted advertising fuelled by public self-fashioning. We can look at the hardware on which digital images are produced, shared and viewed, in ways that align our taking and sharing of photographs with the exploitation of slave labour in the Congo, suicidal factory workers in China, and the disposal of e-waste in Pakistan. Or we can think about scenarios that share structural characteristics with some of these tendencies, participatory photography projects used by NGOs, for example. These use unpaid volunteers from economically marginalised communities, particularly homeless people or impoverished villagers, to take photographs as part of projects ‘facilitated’ by middle-class westerners who do get paid, normally as freelancers. The organisations that provide those services talk about the realisation of a basic human right to be seen, while generally ignoring questions of institutional change or problematic links between their projects and the global development industry.

LB: So do you think awareness of these factors is growing?

BB: I suspect that, for the vast majority of people, the making, sharing, and consumption of photography are still experienced primarily – although perhaps not exclusively – in terms of communication, opportunity and abundance, even if that abundance is felt to be overwhelming at times. That’s as true for most artists, curators and writers as it is for anyone else. It’s certainly true for me. The imbalance in how we engage with photography is part of a wider tendency central to capitalist ideology in its current form, one that sees no limit to our personal freedoms or technological development, but that sees socio-economic relations as essentially unchangeable. So even if we were to believe that an awareness of these factors was growing, the really pressing question would be what do we do with that knowledge? How can we use it to change the current situation? Any answer would require us to look far beyond the field of photography – a realisation that I hope represents the optimistic flipside of an approach sensitive to the place of photographic culture within larger political and economic systems.

LB: Coming back around to writing, if we set aside institutional and perhaps also economic demands we mentioned before, a question which I often find I am asking myself is simply: why write about photography? It’s a huge amount of work and sometimes the tangible results are very far from what you might have hoped. When I was thinking of giving up blogging I stopped writing for three months to see if anyone noticed and no one did, which seemed to confirm my sense that it wasn’t worth the trouble. I felt that had I ended up falling into the same trap with writing that I often criticised photographers for making with photography, that is the expectation that it could in itself be a source of change. Anyway, despite this sense of the inability of writing in itself to lead to tangible effects, we persist with it. I have my own reasons but I am interested to hear yours. Why write? Who should we be speaking to? And to what end? What outlets for your writing do you see as useful and which are not?

BB: Why write? It’s one way to legitimate the very enjoyable – but in some ways, also very selfish – acts of reading, looking and thinking, both because it involves the production of something tangible and because it allows ideas to be more straightforwardly shared with others. Writing can help to focus those other activities in productive ways, and, for me at least, it’s an enjoyable craft.

LB: So, who do you write for?

BB: The question of audience is complex. I think about it in different ways at different times. Again, ideas are normally central. Most of the time, it seems that some people probably need to engage with certain ideas more than others do. The hope is normally to initiate or engage in a dialogue of some sort, although that’s not always easy to achieve when you write. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much – in fact, most of the things I end up writing about have been discussed with students for months, sometimes years, ahead of me putting pen to paper. At the moment I have a bit of an aversion to writing for academic journals. This is linked to what I was saying earlier about research audits, but also to the likely readership, which someone told me was something like ten people for the average article. And they are mainly other academics. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it does mean there are ways in which the world of academic publishing resembles the echo chambers of blogging and social media, insofar as ideas will not necessarily travel beyond fairly limited groups of the likeminded. Most of the offers to write that I’ve taken up lately have appealed, in part, because they promised fairly substantial readerships of people whom I felt compelled to write for. I’ve written a chapter about shifts in contemporary art photography for a Photography Studies Handbook being published by Bloomsbury next year. This is set to become a staple on a lot of undergraduate reading lists and is aimed at students from diverse disciplines. Both those things appealed. Or I wrote an online essay about photography and exhibitionism for ICP in the summer, which drew on some of the stuff that’s going in the communicative capitalism book. That got read by a lot of people who I sense were familiar with the material – I was talking about the work of Nan Goldin and Richard Prince and Ryan McGinley, among other things – but may not have thought about it in quite the way I was suggesting they should. Again, I was happy about that.

A large audience is not the be-all-and-all though. I am increasingly interested in the notion of writing as something performative. This can, perhaps even should, extend to the eventual location a text is published. Particular contexts help to produce particular meanings – there’s no such thing as a neutral container – and that seems to be something worth thinking about. I just finished a short piece for the Science Museum’s e-journal, for instance. The invitation came because of my previous work with the organisation when it was still supporting Media Space. But I agreed because there were some odd ways in which my work there, and the ideas explored in the book and exhibition I had produced, intersected with the agenda that seemed to be driving decisions being taken by the Science Museum Group about the photography collection in Bradford. I thought those ideas could gain an interesting dimension if they were explored in the context of the organisation’s own journal.

LB: Photographers seem ever more conscious of the idea that different mediums necessarily invite different audiences, I’m not sure the same can be said for so many photography writers. This is probably a good moment to bring up Revelations the exhibition you curated for the Science Museum’s Media Space and the National Media Museum in 2015, and which charted the parallels and mutual influences of scientific and artistic photography from the medium’s earliest moments to the present. I felt it was the only exhibition I saw at Media Space that seemed to realise what seemed to be its purpose, or at least its potential in the British photography scene – that was I think to offer a rather more nuanced view of photography than the thinking artistic craft/unthinking scientific tool binary view which seems so common. Could you talk a little bit about the origins of the idea and the process of developing Revelations?

BB: Revelations was fed by a number of sources. Charlotte Cotton had suggested a show called ‘Give it Form’ as part of the original Media Space programme, which was going to explore ‘photography and the intangible’ across multiple fields, particularly art and science. Greg Hobson, who ended up as the exhibition’s co-curator, also contributed ideas to that early discussion. I was invited to join the exhibition team and to edit the accompanying book, which was published by MACK, because my work at that time was looking at relationships between contemporary art and uses of photography in nineteenth-century science. The show existed in numerous iterations. It was meant to be the opening exhibition at Media Space but, like the venue itself, it was subject to multiple delays and postponements. In one sense this was immensely frustrating. But it also presented opportunities, both because it meant we had more time to work on the show (in the end it was the product of about four years’ effort) and because each time it was postponed we could take stock and think again. It was because of this stop-start process that I found the time and space to argue for a historical show, one that went beyond the contemporary art/early science links, which I felt was necessary if we really wanted to open up the complex meanings of those early science images today. You wrote a very insightful take on the show, which picked up on that narrative – one about the hopes we pin to technology, and the ways they are shaped by wider socio-political forces. In the end, it was an exhibition about expectations forged in the cultural context of industrial modernity, how they have faded, and what all of that could mean in relation to the current moment.

LB: Yes. I remember being very impressed by the way that even within a tight overall curatorial concept Revelations avoided being too didactic and left plenty of room for visitors to discover their own ideas linked to the exhibition’s themes. Particularly interesting to me was the ambiguous relationship between photography and violence, and by that I don’t mean the overt, direct representations of violence we are familiar with from debates about, say, photojournalism. Rather I am thinking of the way that scientific photography like Edgerton’s is often produced for, or later becomes useful in the course of extremely violent acts. I think for example his Rapatronic cameras developed to photograph atom bomb tests, information later used to optimise the detonations of future weapons, in effect making them more lethal. I think one of photography’s very specific qualities is this capacity for the accidental capture of information and as a result for unintended readings, leading to it’s constant reuse and reinvention, turning from science to art, peace to violence, and back again. This makes it a fascinating medium, but it’s also ethically very difficult terrain, particularly as a producer of photographs where one needs, perhaps now more than ever, to consider not only one’s own intentions for an image but also a galaxy of unintended uses it might be put to. Are these issues you intended to draw attention to with Revelations?

BB: I hope that happened through the dialogues we established across and between the different photographs in the show, and between the groupings in different rooms. Contemporary artist Sarah Pickering produced her series Celestial Objects, a meditation on the relationship between the depiction of beauty and violence, with Edgerton’s work in mind; the same is true of Ori Gersht’s series Blow Up. In fact, Sarah and I appeared on the Today programme to promote the exhibition and she spoke about how dark she found Edgerton’s high-speed photograph of a bullet entering a lemon, which we had positioned opposite her work. What had originally circulated as a kind of popular photographic marvel had very disturbing undertones, with the skin of the lemon providing a kind of playful surrogate for human flesh – a view informed I think by all we know about the applications of some of Edgerton’s other work. Someone like Trevor Paglen, too, very knowingly draws on some of the techniques and aesthetics associated with earlier photographic innovation to engage directly with the question of how science has been instrumentalised by the military. We positioned Edgerton’s work next to that of Berenice Abbott in the show, which I think made for an interesting comparison. Both were based at MIT around the same time and, while the photographs they produced share some formal and technical characteristics, they were motivated by very different concerns. Both their projects only make sense in the context of wider Cold War politics and their links to the US military-industrial complex, but in notably different ways.

LB: Some of the contemporary works in Revelations would slot comfortably into the ever more frequently used category of ‘conceptual documentary’ a term generally used to suggest a hybrid of documentary and artistic practices. I think of Trevor Paglen’s Limit Telephotography series, for example, where Paglen uses extremely long lenses to photography into classified sites in the US. Although I am very interested in the possibilities of this mixing of two traditionally quite distinct genres of photography and glad to see it increasingly recognised as a practice in it’s own right rather than an outpost of art or documentary practice, I have some misgivings about the term, not least in the ease with which it relates conceptual art and art photography. Perhaps it’s apt in terms of Paglen’s work, where the work becomes very much about the performance and arguably the end result tells us little or nothing about the thing described, but I find it odd to hear the term ‘conceptual’ applied to work which is still in the end about producing beautiful, exhibition prints. That aside, I wonder how you feel about the usefulness of the term, and more broadly how you feel about the usefulness of the field of photography it attempts to describe?

BB: How useful is ‘conceptual documentary’ as a term? Well, I can’t say I use it much myself. But I have a pretty clear idea about what it is usually being used to describe, which I suppose means the term is useful, at least as a way of guiding the attention of art world types towards a specific mode of practice. I suspect it means less to people outside that context though.

LB: And what about ‘conceptual documentary’ work?

BB: How useful is it? Well, I guess it depends on what we want it to do and whom we want it to do it for. It usually involves a combination of two things – an effort to engage with the types of subject matter that have long concerned documentary photography, be that war or economic inequality or whatever; and then a self-reflexive engagement with the politics of representation attached to the photographing of those subjects, usually achieved by adopting strategies with some relation to the traditions of conceptual art. Each of those things, it seems to me, has the capacity to appeal to some people and to really piss off others. For years, unreconstructed documentary work seemed to really annoy people in the art world because they thought it lacked any critical engagement with the politics of its own making; whereas those the art world might see as ‘traditionalists’, and probably wider audiences more interested in photography as a window onto some other place, often seemed to find the self-reflexive stuff pretentious and distracting. I have some sympathy with both views, but, in the end, they may say more about the cultural experiences of different audiences and the ways they inform their expectations of photography than they do about the intrinsic virtues of either position or the quality of any particular series. The more sociological project of trying to understand why different groups may hold those views often seems off-limits when we have these types of discussion though, which I think is a shame.

I am personally very interested in the ideas raised and explored by the more accomplished examples of this work, but I also have questions about the particular politics at play. Much of what gets described as ‘conceptual documentary’ seems to fall victim to what queer theorist Eve Sedgwick calls ‘paranoid thinking’. It involves a fetishisation of knowledge about specific examples of how awful the world is, and also about the particular capacities and limits of photography in such a context, in ways that risk closing down the space to conceive of alternatives or engage in a more affirmative kind of politics. The close ties to – in fact, the clear dependency on – the field of contemporary art, both in terms of the approaches used and the contexts in which the work circulates, also raise difficult questions that are rarely if ever explored within the projects. Self-reflexivity often starts and ends with a politics of representation. In that sense, the work seems symptomatic of the disavowals that writers like Steyerl and Fraser see as the staple of so much of today’s political art.

LB: Yes. As touched on earlier in this discussion, there does often seem to be rather a gaping disconnect between the politics which seems to be intended to be broadcast by much photographic work (whether documentary, conceptual documentary, or art) and the economic systems that work seems to have been designed to exist and circulate in. The criticism of non-reflexivity that might once have been levied at documentary photographers is one that in a rather different way many artists seem to stand just as guilty of. As an example I’m fascinated by photographic editioning, a practice which seems to reflect the fact that however much the art world might have embraced photography as a medium, they haven’t embraced it fully on it’s own terms, for how it functions what it is and isn’t able to do. Go to an art fair and you’ll see photographers contorting themselves in all sorts of ways to meet the demands of a market, which has little interest in one of photography’s innate qualities, sometimes at the same time as speaking of photography’s wonderful economic democracy.

I think corporate sponsorship is another interesting example of this disconnect between words (or images) and deeds. There have been some highly successful campaigns against these corporate entanglements in the fine arts (the Liberate Tate movement for example) but there seems to be little similar will in photography. With the Deutsche Börse, Syngenta and Prix Pictet photography prizes all in full swing at the moment, I wonder what is your take is on corporate sponsorship, a necessary evil or not worth the trouble?

BB: One of the issues may be the uneven way in which we experience and talk about the transactions that a lot of corporate sponsorship involves. Zizek describes the way that the so-called ‘liberal communist ethics’ expounded by figures like Bill Gates perceive ‘the ruthless pursuit of profit’ to be ‘counteracted by charity’. We generally focus only on the second part of that relationship when we engage with these prizes and exhibitions – discussing the relative merits of different artists’ projects, even the political issues they address, but not the aggressive pursuit of monopolies or the facilitation of tax evasion associated with their sponsors. We all actively contribute to the appearance of social responsibility while ignoring the anti-social behaviour that funds it. Something like Liberate Tate did a very good job of exposing that gap. But then I’m not sure how helpful it is to only set our sights on corporate sponsorship. In many ways, it seems an entirely rational relationship for both parties to try and broker in the current political-economic context. Museums and galleries, like all public services, are chronically underfunded by the state at present. And even if corporate sponsorship ended tomorrow, the system that produced it would continue to stretch deep into the art world, whether through the people appointed to boards of trustees or the business-orientated models of evaluation imposed on publicly funded organisations. But the galleries and artists that benefit from the sponsorship at present would be worse off, at least in financial terms. The problem – if there is one, and a lot of people would say there isn’t, of course – is the larger system; all these other things are symptoms.

LB: True. There is obviously an issue that the more the symptoms of a problem are suppressed, counteracted, or otherwise made bearable, the more people might be content to live with the disease that is the cause rather than finding a cure. To end then, something of a big question but I hope you’ll regard it as an opportunity to be taken in any direction you like, whether technically, philosophically, artistically or something else entirely. From your work across all these different fields what sort of directions do you feel photography is currently heading in?

BB: Setting aside truisms regarding the need to think about ‘photographies’, plural, I imagine photography is heading in the same direction that we are, whatever that proves to be. I’ve just finished reading Nick Srnicek’s book Platform Capitalism, which provides an important context for understanding some of the areas of photographic culture we were discussing earlier. While it’s mainly focused on the current state and future fate of digital platforms, it touches on the likely futures we face in a much larger sense, building on arguments introduced in Inventing the Future, a really incredible book that Srnicek wrote with Alex Williams a couple of years ago. They suggest that, at present, we are heading towards a world of increasing corporate monopolies and further privatisation. Machines will continue to replace humans in the workplace, at the same time that populations continue to expand. This will produce an employment crisis that most of us will experience in terms of extraordinary levels of precarity, making the current existence of the typical photo-world freelancer look like some kind of wild party! Or else, governments, under pressure from citizens, will take action to address that trend, working together to address tax evasion, for example. The introduction of an Unconditional Basic Income could provide a very effective means to redistribute some of the vast corporate wealth that currently sits in offshore accounts, relieving populations of some of the obligation to find paid work in ways that would liberate people to pursue alternative, less-alienating activities. Photography could play important roles in both scenarios but, at the moment, I’m more curious to see if it might help us usher in one and avert the other. 

Image courtesy of Ben Burbridge. © Jason Evans

David Campany

Writer and Curator of a Handful of Dust


1000 Words Editor in Chief, Tim Clark speaks with the writer and curator David Campany ahead of his forthcoming exhibition a Handful of Dust, which opens at the Whitechapel Gallery on June 7th. Having previously been presented at Le Bal, Paris and Pratt Institute, New York, this parallel exhibition and book project sets out to track the passage or ‘biography’ of a photograph made in 1920 by Man Ray (Or was it Duchamp? Or perhaps Man Ray and Duchamp?) as its meaning shifts in emphasis from context to context; and to look at how those meanings might suggest associations with other unlikely images from the last century.

Their conversation shares views on how the meaning of the photographic image lies in its destination; the idea that we are living in a visual culture that may have trained us not to look, or expect to look, at any one image for very long; as well as the argument that reading about politics, philosophy, anthropology, history and psychoanalysis is perhaps more important for students than reading about photography.

Tim Clark: I can only assume the Dust Breeding image must have been orbiting your imagination for some time before putting together the proposal for the Le Bal show. Where and when did you first encounter the work and to what extent has your relationship to it changed over time?

David Campany: It would have been 1989, when I was an undergrad student in London. It was the 150th anniversary of photography and the Royal Academy had its first ever show of photographs. So embarrassingly late! Anyway, in a section on modernism I saw this strange, almost abstract photograph from 1920. It was titled Dust Breeding and credited to Man Ray. A flat receding plane, without obvious scale, covered in a film of dust with clumps, and what looked like geometric lines. I remember feeling a little dismissive. It was ugly and it seemed pointless. But it stuck in my mind. A little later I came across it again, while reading about the artist Marcel Duchamp. Man Ray had photographed the dust gathering on a sheet of glass that would later become part of Duchamp’s great work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23). Duchamp wanted to keep parts of the dust by fixing it with varnish – a sort of visual way of trapping time. So it was an art photograph that took as its subject the dust of another artwork. That’s unusual. Sometimes this image is regarded as a work by Man Ray; sometimes it’s regarded as a document of an artwork by Marcel Duchamp.

Later I discovered that when it was first published it was titled A View from an Aeroplane, which really twists the possible meaning. This was shortly after the First World War, and aerial photography had become commonplace.

Much later still, I discovered the image had been important to many conceptual artists of the 1960s and 70s. Meanwhile the photo was cropping up in theoretical and philosophical texts about the nature of photography as trace or index. So my initial dislike turned to fascination.

TC: Thinking about how it’s been regarded and where the authorship might reside, how do you view Man Ray and Duchamp’s respective roles? Are we talking about a most unique form of collaboration?

DC: That photograph was in and out of various avant-garde journals and books for over four decades. Then in 1964 an edition of ten prints was made and both men signed them on the front. The respective roles of the image vary, depending on how the photo is used and where the emphasis falls. I guess in that sense it’s a photo that dramatises a tension that exists in all photographs, between art and document, intention and chance, fact and wish, between what’s in the photograph and what context the photograph is in. We’re interested in photography, and to that extent we’re somewhat invested in the idea of authorship. But maybe authorship isn’t the most significant thing about photography. It’s a medium haunted by the fact that only under very limited circumstances does the ‘author function’ (as Michel Foucault once called it) actually mean much. We see hundreds of photographs in our daily life and barely stop to think about the authorship of any of them. News photos, design photos, advertising imagery. I was looking at a book of teeth photos today, while waiting to see my dentist. No idea who took them, but no less fascinating for that.

TC: Indeed, the empirical mass of photography – that which doesn’t exist for the purposes of art – is a whole other universe, one that is endlessly fascinating but hardly explored, let alone collected by museums or galleries. Here, it is the language that speaks and not the author.

But it’s true that one of the many intriguing aspects of Dust Breeding is this manner in which it is symbolic of the promiscuous nature of photographs – the mobility of photography. Over its life, it has embarked on a journey through multiple contexts, as it appeared in many different ways and in numerous publications, shifting readings in the process as you say. The key then lies not the image’s origins but in its destination. Rightly or wrongly, Dust Breeding has also been co-opted by Surrealism, Abstraction, Conceptual Art and Land Art, to name but a few as well. As you obviously saw the possibility to acquire so much from one photograph, what other creative propositions does it speak to for you?

DC: The meaning of any image is in its destination. That itself is a rich creative proposition.

TC: Insofar as photographs are always somewhat tentative and destined to only give rise to further images?

DC: Images are essentially ambiguous. They can be made less so – by words and other images, for example – but the ambiguity remains. They may not give rise to further images, but they do give rise to further meanings. So my project was twofold: to track the career or ‘biography’ of Dust Breeding, as its meaning moves from context to context; and to look at how those meanings might suggest associations with other images.

TC: In terms of those other images that Dust Breeding gives rise to in your project, it’s telling that we encounter press and vernacular photography alongside the work of 20th century stalwarts including Brassaï and Walker Evans, as well as eminent contemporary artists such as Jeff Wall, Sophie Ristelhueber or Rut Blees Luxemburg, for example. How did you go about expanding the object list to include other conceptually-related material and give structure to the show?

DC: I don’t like the term ‘organic’ but it did just kind of grow. If you don’t follow the canon, and you don’t follow the official histories and you don’t follow the money… you naturally end up with a much more dispersed view of the medium. We all know that significant photography can be made pretty much anywhere in the culture, from postcards and magazines to fine art prints. Yes, I guess there’s always a little excitement if one sees an anonymous vernacular photo shown next to an Edward Weston, for example, but I suspect that even Weston knew that his own images were so often mannered versions of photographic types made by many kinds of photographer, most of them destined for obscurity. That’s a tremendous leveller. Indeed, this ‘dispersal’ was the ticket by which photography became a modern art proper, one that didn’t run away from the vernacular and the common document but came into a relation to them. Evans, Albin-Guillot, Krull, Brassaï, Man Ray and so many others faced this. Dust Breeding was made in 1920, at the onset of photography’s modern adventure and it heralds that sense of hybridity that won’t be contained by one discourse, let alone one conception of art.

Well, all that sounds very exciting but it can verge on the chaotic, as you might imagine. I wanted a put together a show, and a book, that explored the many implications of Dust Breeding, and did so on a tight-rope, so to speak. Walking a deliberately precarious line, where one doesn’t know exactly what is being suggested by placing one image in proximity to another. It’s the only project I’ve done where I genuinely didn’t know if the audience would think it profound or pointless. The French audience at Le Bal seemed to like it. And for a while a day didn’t go by without me getting an email from someone offering their interpretation of the show. That was very gratifying. I’m curious to see what London makes of it.

TC: Dust Breeding is such a wonderful title. What do you interpret to be its significance? Given the socio-historical context, is this an allusion to post World War 1 trauma and anxiety? Or are we dealing with religious connotations, namely in the Christian lexicon (eg. ashes to ashes, dust to dust)? Or perhaps we are witnessing a channelling of the complex sexuality of Duchamp’s art? After all, he said that everyone understands eroticism, but no one talks about it, and that through eroticism one can approach important issues that usually remain hidden.

DC: All of the above! The title is thought to come from a sign Duchamp hung in his studio: Do not touch: Dust Breeding. As if his studio was a farm, or a laboratory. Dust, that inevitable intrusion is being harnessed, willed into existence and form. Duchamp spoke of devising various procedures to ‘can chance’. To trap it, preserve it. Allowing dust to gather, as a trace of time is a sort of canning of chance. Photography too can be a way of canning chance. The dust photograph is thus a trace of a trace.

The subtitle of my book is From the Cosmic to the Domestic. Dust unites those realms.

TC: And what about the book/exhibition’s title, a Handful of Dust. It’s a line taken from T.S Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land published in The Criterion in 1922 – the same year the dust image first graced the pages of Littérature, is it not? Do you see one as an analogy for the other?

DC: Not just the same year, it was the very same month. October 1922. Eliot’s great poem is modern in the same way as the dust photograph – a hybrid work of allusion and association that pictures the world in fragments if not ruin, but sees the world’s possible redemption in those fragments too. It’s a coincidence I couldn’t ignore.

TC: Dust is obviously the enemy of photography yet as a subject of a photograph it also represents something entropic, an affirmation of the real in all its imperfections and dirt, which in a way is the opposite of modernity and progress. It represents everything ‘out there’ in the universe but also all that is below our feet.

Could you talk a bit about the process of editing the accompanying book that has been published by MACK. What was your idea to best express the images and their associations in this format and how did it differ from the exhibition experience?

DC: The format of the book is unusual. It’s a sequence of about 160 images, uncaptioned. It’s roughly chronological, with a few deliberate leaps across history. In the middle of the sequence sits a separately bound long essay. So you’re free to cast aside the writing and give yourself up to the task, or pleasure, or pleasurable task of navigating images that are tethered tentatively to each other. That’s as close as I’ve come in book form to the experience of the gallery setting, which of course isn’t very close at all, since books and shows are very different experiences (for all the obvious reasons). It’s true that some shows, notably thematic shows, can end up being “books transferred to the wall”. Naturally I was keen to avoid that. All I’d say is that the two photo-related activities that make me happiest are the working out of multivalent sequences on the page and the working out of relations between images in a physical space. A book needs to be a good book, and an exhibition needs to be a good exhibition. With this project the material works well in both settings. I worked on both simultaneously.

TC: The fact that the images are uncaptioned is interesting since earlier in our discussion we touched upon how text can either compliment or contradict an image’s meaning, albeit with ambiguity intact. Do you see the way you have sequenced and arranged the images for the book as a kind of writing in itself anyway? Is it a way not so much to write about photography but with it?

DC: Well, I was at pains earlier to say that images can be shaped by other images as well as text! Is a sequence of photographs a form of literature? Maybe, and I suspect that in the past I’ve talked about it in that way. But I think we use analogies with literature because we don’t have an adequate vocabulary for describing what happens when our response to one photograph is informed by another and another. We just don’t. I’m always surprised by that. Back in the 1920s, when editing was really coming into its own, both on the page and in the cinema, there were filmmakers and film theorists developing really complex ways of talking about cinematic montage. Kuleshov, Eisenstein, Vertov. Revolutionary figures. But beyond a few texts on photomontage and collage there was no equivalent body of knowledge being assembled for photographic editing. This doesn’t mean photo editing wasn’t as advanced. In many ways it was, but we’re left with quite an impoverished way of talking about it. That’s not necessarily a disadvantage. Part of me finds it very freeing.

TC: Freeing? In what sense?

DC: I think it was Koestler who said that true creativity begins where language ends. That can be a very regressive idea, and has been used to defend all manner of clichés about artistic life. Nevertheless there are times when it can be freeing to not be able to give a name to what you’re doing.

TC: I think photography is all editing. We can never emphasis enough the pervasive and persuasive role of editing in determining meaning, via interstices between images, via movement between one photograph and the next, via the itinerary of the eye.

Speaking of which… Slowness and sustained looking versus quick, casual consumption of images is also something that I’m curious to hear your thoughts about. I’m recalling a passage from Victor Burgin’s essay Photography, Phantasy, Function (1980) that of course you know very well:

‘To look at a photograph beyond a certain period of time is to be frustrated: the images, which on first looking gave pleasure by degrees becomes a veil which we now desire to see. To remain too long with a single photograph is to lose the imaginary command of the look, to relinquish it to the absent other to whom it belongs by right: the camera. The image now no longer receives our look, reassuring us of our founding centrality, it rather, as it were, avoids our gaze. In photography one image does not succeed another in the manner of cinema. As alienations intrudes into our captation by the still image, we can only regain the imaginary, and reinvest our looking with authority, by averting our gaze, redirecting it to another image elsewhere. It is therefore not an arbitrary fact that photographs are deployed so that, almost invariably, another photograph is already in position to receive the displaced look.’

If you indulge me and imagine we ignore the date for a moment, Burgin could almost be describing our contemporary condition of waning attention spans, of photography in the age of distraction – an age in which the sheer volume of images we digest on a daily basis not just on the Internet but in the world around us is staggering. An age in which anybody with a smart phone is now a photographer but few have a sophisticated understanding of the uses and abuses of photography. At the moment of his writing, though, what do you think was his most pressing concern, given that psychoanalytic theories of photography such as the gaze, the imaginary and captation were only recently introduced? What precise aspects of visual culture was he writing in response to?

DC: You’d have to ask him that. That passage is fascinating for different reasons. Burgin’s argument is ontological, in that he feels there’s something built into the medium that makes photographs compelling to look at but only for a short while (“therefore”, as he put it, there’s always another image in place to take the displaced look). Against that ontological view we might say that we live in a visual culture that has trained us not to look, or expect to look, at any one image for very long… but we could. I’ve never quite made my mind up about that, and I guess there’ll never be a ‘court of appeal’ in which we have to make up our minds. But it is a question I think about, and it was on my mind a lot in this project, spiralling back to that one very singular image. Maybe images are like relationships. Some warrant a one-night stand, others demand a long-term commitment. And some you don’t see very often but they’re important to you nonetheless.

I was just reading a very suggestive essay by Hito Steyerl, titled Cut!, in which she suggests that each epoch of modernity has its own ways of editing (she’s concerned with movies but it applies to still photography too). The rhythms, the interstices change over time under different pressures. I think the Internet is generating a whole new set of rhythms and interstices on many fronts: in the online orchestration of images, in the online consumption of images, in the possibilities of retrieval and reconfiguration. I think you can see this in the number of books by photographers that have associative, elliptical edits. Such books seem to be influenced by, yet resistant to, online experience.

TC: This idea that we live in a visual culture that has trained us not to look is very interesting if not a little disconcerting. I guess I was not only thinking about the surfeit of imagery (via the Internet, billboard advertising, television, news photography etc.) that might avert our gaze but also about certain, self-conscious strategies present in art photography – namely typology and, more specifically, seriality as a means of creating the ‘displaced look’.

Someone whose work, given its nature, actively resists the idea of expecting viewers not to look at any one image too long is Jeff Wall, to name but one example. He doesn’t present groups or series of images as way of imagining photography, a practice of photography, he has described, as ‘so established it is almost unnoticed’. He has said, and as you included in your article for Source magazine, Quotations for an Essay about Editing (2009): ‘I notice it because I really cannot do it that way. I want each picture to stand on its own, with no sequential or thematic relationship to any other. At least, not any specific or organised relationship.’

What made you write about Jeff Wall’s Picture For Women (1979), a book again centred on one singular image, for which you received the International Center of Photography Infinity Award for Writing in 2012? Was this image initially a one-night stand that surprisingly developed into a long-term relationship?

DC: Published books are strange things. They seem to say: “This was all very intentional. It was written by someone who knew what they wanted to do, and they did it.” But nearly all my books have come about by chance, and never turn out the way they start. The one on the Jeff Wall image had a strange genesis. When Wall had a big retrospective at Tate Modern, in 2005, there was a day-long symposium where a bunch of people were each invited to choose and talk about just one of his photographs. Steve Edwards, Briony Fer, Michael Fried, Michael Newman, and others. I chose Woman with a Covered Tray, a very understated image that I loved, and still do. Then the organisers called me to say that nobody had chosen a work from the 1970s or 80s, and could I reconsider? I’d recently published a survey book for Phaidon, Art and Photography, in which I included Wall’s Picture for Women. That photograph had already attracted a lot of discussion but I doubted one thing that almost every critic seemed to assume, that the photograph was shot facing a mirror. We’re always making presumptions when we look at photographs. That fascinates me. Anyway, I gave my talk at Tate, and a few years later the artist Mark Lewis, who instigated the One Work series of books for Afterall/MIT asked if I’d push my thinking and turn it into a whole book on Picture for Women. There was more than enough to discuss, not just about that image but why so few art photographers set out to make singular photographs, belonging to no set, suite, series, typology, archive or other ‘body of work’. Making just one, to stand alone, is still very rare.

Intellectually, I’m rather allergic to books about ‘photography in general’. There’s so little you can meaningfully say about it in general. When I was an undergraduate I spent an afternoon talking with Susan Sontag (a long story) and she and I ended up discussing this issue. I was a great admirer of her essays but never liked her book On Photography. When she asked if I’d read it I was brave enough to tell her this. I didn’t like the sweeping tone, and the absence of reproductions in the book gave her an unearned license to sail over an entire field making sweeping generalisations. She said that was certainly a weakness of the book, and that at the time she’d found it difficult to talk about specific images. Many writers on photography do find that difficult – they relate to photography as a technical/social phenomenon. I was struck by her honesty. Then she said, very genuinely, that maybe one day I might write a book titled On Photographs, or even On a Photograph. I never forgot that conversation.

TC: That’s a great story and On a Photograph would be a fabulous title. You’ve referred to Wall’s Picture for Women before as ‘perverse’. Could you elaborate on that?

DC: It doesn’t picture any thing perverse, but it does picture perversely.

TC: Perverse, in terms of confounding us as viewers through the deliberately disorientating sense that we are looking through the reflection of a mirror? Perverse in terms of presenting us with several spectacles going on at once – like in Édouard Manet’s painting Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère, on which Wall modelled Picture for Women? I imagine these are just some of the work’s many obstinacies in giving up its meaning readily that intrigued you?

DC: Yes. It took me a whole book to explore the obstinacies and I still came to few conclusions. In general I find photographs ‘modelled’ on paintings insufferable. We can all think of endless corny and over-lit photographic remakes of Vermeer, Hopper, Chardin and so on. But Wall’s Picture for Women does address itself to the specific differences between the mediums. Manet’s painting really cannot be recreated photographically. It’s a painting. And Wall’s photograph is a photograph. That’s not a call for purity – all the mediums are free to mix and explore each other – but there’s a kind of dialogue that also clarifies differences.

TC: Yes, endless. When confronted with examples of photographers pursuing this line or gallerists and publishers embracing such practice, I immediately think to myself, ‘What a shame! What a shame that they still consider photography’s status as an art form to be a bit suspect.’ I think, ‘Are we really going to have this conversation again about the relationship between photography and painting?’ The same points seem to be rehearsed over and over again and comparisons are often facile. Yet, in the case of Wall’s Picture for Women I think it is clear we are dealing with something much more complex and sophisticated. Wall’s motives seem far from faithfully mimicking its source in photographic form but rather he deploys a large-scale tableau in order to force a reflection on spectatorship, to thrust us into a kind of cinematic space, to play with perspective, to muse on the ‘male gaze’ etc. Ultimately, this is done without lapsing into corny imitation – far from it.

However, if the picture plane is invisible in a photograph, how has Wall managed to make it visible? How do we ‘know’ whether this is a camera photographing itself in a mirror or one camera photographing another? What do you think Wall is trying to do, trying to break away from?

DC: I never think about what an artist might be “trying to do”. I’m more interested in what I am doing when I’m looking and thinking. The image provides the occasion for interpretation. It’s what John Cage called ‘response-ability’. I’m post-structural enough to know that meaning lies in its destination, not its origin. Maybe this is why I’m just as attracted to images by unknown photographers, and to the fields of photography where the author function plays little part. Film stills, snapshots, instrumental photos like press or police pictures.

Every few years I reread several of Roland Barthes’ books – his ‘autobiography’… S/ZThe Pleasure of the TextCamera Lucida… and the anthologies of essays. His circling around the relation between authorship and his own response is constantly fascinating. It’s curious how Camera Lucida is so beloved by photographers, when that book is certainly not beloved of them. For Barthes, the photographer’s authorship and intention are the obstacles that come between the image and his response. Yesterday I was with William Klein, whose images Barthes discusses, but only to say they are rich in socio-historical detail. He has no time for Klein’s powers of observation or quick-witted timing, or compositional brilliance. All Barthes sees are clothes and faces. Taking my copy of the book from my bag I asked Klein what he thought of Barthes’ approach, all these years later. He grabbed the book in mock anger and wrote on the image, “That was me – William Klein”! I guess authorship is always going to be a complicated issue for photographers.

Jeff Wall is certainly a ‘name’ in contemporary art photography and his manner of image construction means that many audiences and commentators feel that when they’re looking at his work they’re somehow in his artistic head. I don’t feel that at all. I don’t feel he has a ‘point of view’, certainly not an emphatic one that crowds me out. He simply offers me very rich occasions for response.

TC: Are you at liberty to say what you are working on with William Klein?

DC: Klein is a giant of documentary photography, fashion photography, and filmmaking in the 20th century (he’s also a brilliant writer and designer, who took care of every aspect of his landmark photographic books). He’s American but moved to Paris in 1948 and went back only intermittently. As a result he’s not had a retrospective in the US, and there’s no single book with an overview of his whole career. We’re looking into the possibilities of both.

TC: Sounds fascinating and a long time coming. Which great British photographers do you feel have been drastically overlooked by our photographic institutions here in the UK? Who hasn’t received their dues?

DC: There are so many! Hannah Collins, Victor Burgin, Chris Killip and Nick Waplington are four very different practitioners, who exhibit and publish all across Europe and America but deserve attention from major British institutions. From a slightly younger generation – Hannah Starkey and Esther Teichmann spring to mind. From the past – I’d like to see a comprehensive show of the work of Edith Tudor Hart. Britain has a habit of not quite valuing its photographers, while the contemporary art scene in the UK still has a problem with the medium. It used to exasperate me. But now I just get on with doing what I can, prodding here and there, championing when the occasion arises.

TC: Indeed! And all those you listed certainly merit major shows here in the UK. Even though we are in the photographic backwaters, I find it hard to believe that they haven’t been approached at certain points in their respective careers.

Obviously you’ve curated and organised many exhibitions on an independent basis – from a Handful of Dust at Le Bal (2015), as we’ve discussed, to Mark Neville: Deeds Not Words at The Photographers’ Gallery (2013) or Walker Evans: The Magazine Work, which started at MOCAK in Krakow (2014). Would you ever consider taking a permanent post in a public gallery or museum?

DC: It would depend on the institution. I’ve seen really dynamic curators swallowed by the bureaucracy and hampered by the slow pace of museums. That’s cause for concern. I kind of fell into curating, having never set out to do it. And to be honest I fall into most things, usually by being invited. It’s all very haphazard. I have my interests and somehow they find outlets. I was listening to a wonderful radio interview with the actor Tilda Swinton. “So Tilda,” said the host, “you’re enjoying a remarkable career…” Tilda interjected: “I’m not having ‘a career’: I’m having a life.” A life photographic, that’ll do me.

TC: ‘A life photographic’ – that’s a very nice way to put it. However, I find the term ‘photographic’ a curious, slippery one when used to describe an individual work or form of art ‘practice’ (another odd word). In your mind, how is something ‘photographic’ as opposed to just plain photography?

DC: I agree. I wouldn’t use the term to describe an individual work or form of art practice. I’ve ended up with a working life that moves between writing, curating, making images, editing, teaching, broadcasting, public speaking, and so on, but nearly always to do with photography in one way or another. A life that could be reasonably described as photographic.

How is a specific work or practice photographic without being photography? Interesting question. Perhaps when it partakes of an element of what makes up photography. For example, we might say photograms are photographic without being photography. Suntans are photographic without being photography. Signalling a Morse code message with a flashlight is photographic without being photography. I think the term ‘photographic’ has come about to designate a whole range of important partial practices.

TC: Just going back to the various photographic elements that make up your working life… Do you consider writing to be at its core? And I’m curious: who do you write for? Do you ever have a specific reader in mind?

DC: The image is at the core. That’s what I orbit around, in different ways. I had no intention of writing, and didn’t take it seriously until I was around 30. When I started to write – which was by invitation, on the basis of a couple of public talks I’d given about my own photography – I thought I should impress my academic peers. But once I’d done that, it wasn’t very rewarding. It felt needy and paranoid.

As a kid, I think I was smart, but not academically smart. That meant I had a lot of intellectual and creative energy that was going to waste, which can be an awful feeling. For whatever reason, photography caught me just in time, in my latter teens. It gave me a doorway to so many things. So in the back of my mind when I’m writing, I see me at the age of 19. I’m trying to catch him, scoop him up, offer him something to reach for. I’m not trying to tell him it will all be fine, but I am trying to tell him that the struggle to look and think can be worth it, even when it leads to more struggle. I think this approach chimes with something that’s dying these days, especially in academia, and that’s the drive for clarity of expression. My first drafts of my writing are over-wordy and contorted. Most of my efforts go into the re-writing. I’m trying to say things as simply as I can. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to simplify, or ‘dumb down’. I’m looking for the clearest way of expressing even the most complex ideas. They’ll still be complex, but I want to give myself and my reader (who is really my younger self) the best chance of grasping them. This isn’t a programme for all writers, but it is the one that interests me.

TC: I’m now imagining your writing as a sort of indirect letter to a 19 year old you. Are there any rules for writing that you either follow in the present or which you would set your younger self in retrospect?

DC: The points made by George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language are valuable. Never use a phrase you’ve heard before. Think three times before you ever use an adjective (it always says more about you than about what you’re throwing it towards). Avoid euphemism and cliché (i.e., use language and try not to let it use you). Be suspicious of ‘popular wisdom’ and the consensual categories to which the mass media will default.

I recently listened to a lecture podcast by Susan Sontag, and before she got to her main subject she said this:

“My work is much more intelligent than I am, and for a very good reason. Everything I write goes through many, many drafts. I feel that I am my first draft but then I’m a very good rewriter. I’m extremely tenacious, extremely stubborn. And I know how to improve, radically improve, what I get first onto the page. But I’m actually not as smart as the end result.”

That’s valuable. Kurt Vonnegut also has some good things to say about writing. Adorno on the essay form is terrific. Lastly, I find it worth listening carefully to great public speakers (and I don’t read their speeches). Speakers who can present, discuss, expound and think on their feet without notes, without hesitation, deviation, repetition or ‘TED talk’ over-rehearsal are very, very rare. Writing is, for me, connected to speech. Again, that’s not for everyone but it’s how I go about things. It might be because I found myself with a lecturing job before I found myself writing.

TC: Yes. And, of course, it was Orwell who commented on turning to long words and exhausted idioms as ‘like a cuttlefish squirting out ink’. Martin Amis has written some good thoughts too about writing as a war against clichés, how overused or abused words can become ‘dead freight’. What cliché is, he has said, is ‘heard thinking and heard feeling’. Sontag’s admission is interesting too. I was recently listening to an interview with Zadie Smith in which she said writing offers you a person in their best form – that ‘a book is somebody’s best self’, which rings very true.

I would like to ask: who has been the most remarkable writer on photography for you, personally? Who has been fundamental to your thinking on the medium?

DC: That Zadie Smith remark is interesting. When my students ask me who they should be writing for, I say: “Your future self. Write the best gift you could give your future self.” There isn’t a particular writer for me, no single figure who has been fundamental. As a reader, my most pleasurable moments come when the ideas and phrases from one writer overlap with another, when I move from book to book, or essay to essay. Those transitions – when one feels the presence of two minds and one’s own in the middle – can be so delicate, so energising, so joyously destabilising (a feeling Barthes once called ‘jouissance’). Putting down Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature and picking up André Bazin’s essay on the photographic image. Reading Pierre Mac Orlan on Atget and then Molly Nesbitt on Atget. Reading Walter Benjamin and then Rosalind Krauss. Reading an interview with Roy deCarava, then reading Teju Cole on deCarava. Most recently it was putting down Siegfried Kracauer’s 1930s writings on the mass media and picking up Hito Steyerl’s The Wretched of the Screen. I guess that’s the editor in me, looking for the connections and the tensions.

TC: What makes a writer, David?

DC: I don’t know. The question feels too general. Perhaps a Writer (capital W) is a person whose words you want to reread. I read a lot of books and essays for information, and a lot for their intellectual ideas. But I tend to keep only the books I feel I shall want reread.

TC: Do you ever experience fear of writing? And are you a writer with any certain rituals?

DC: I’m one of those for whom writing is the way of testing not just what one thinks, but how one thinks, so there’s always a degree of fear involved. I have no rituals, although I do tend to follow Walter Benjamin’s advice, and try to write the end of a text in a location that’s different from where the rest was written. And wherever possible I’ll structure an essay or book visually, first sequencing the images that will become the spine of the writing.

TC: Are there any forms of writing on photography that you find unhelpful or repellent?

DC: I’m not fond of writing that presumes to speak for the reader or viewer; and there are many great thinkers that I find hard to appreciate as writers, but I wade through their texts anyway. I mention no names.

I do appreciate your reference to form. I feel good writing should be pursued in any mode, from the monographic essay and exhibition text, to the peer-reviewed academic essay, the interview, or the review. Academic writing is in a bad way at present, which is a shame. The whole peer-review process is limiting experimentation, and I see too many young academics feeling they need to conform to certain conventions for the sake of their career progression. It’s all become very risk-averse. I write for the academic journals only occasionally (who would want to live in a peer-reviewed culture? Sounds vaguely Stalinist to me).

In re-reading much of Roland Barthes’ work I’m struck by the radically experimental attitude he took to form: never presuming but always forging forms that were appropriate to his thought. Barthes could make even a list of his preferences zing with intellectual energy and startling honesty. It’s chilling to think he wouldn’t last a day in the present academic climate.

TC: It’s interesting that you mention Barthes’ list-making ability since I’m particularly fond of his J’aime, je n’aime pas (I like, I don’t like), amongst other works. I quote a few extracts from both directions:

‘I like: salad, cinnamon, cheese, pimento, marzipan, the smell of new-cut hay (why doesn’t someone with a “nose” make such a perfume), roses, peonies, lavender, champagne, loosely held political convictions, Glenn Gould, too-cold beer, flat pillows, toast, Havana cigars, Handel, slow walks…’

‘I don’t like: white Pomeranians, women in slacks, geraniums, strawberries, the harpsichord, Miró, tautologies, animated cartoons, Arthur Rubinstein, villas, the afternoon, Satie, Bartók, Vivaldi, telephoning, children’s choruses, Chopin’s concertos…’

What scope do you see for newer, more experimental forms of photography writing?

DC: Ha-ha, Barthes’ lists do look odd when out of context like that. (What was his problem with white Pomeranians and women in slacks??? Funny.) There’s always scope for new forms of writing, but a new form is only ever pursued when a desire and a necessity is felt, that for what ever reason it must exist.

But I’m not sure how much we need to read about photography at all. I’m always encouraging my students to read about other things. Politics, philosophy, anthropology, history, psychoanalysis, and about the subject matter of what it is they are photographing, be it trees, buildings, fashion or political protests. The American photographer Andreas Feininger published a book titled Photographic Seeing. This was in 1973, when the ‘serious’ study of photography was getting established in universities. He wrote:

‘There is no doubt that, as long as a student of photography is strongly motivated, i.e. seriously interested in a specific type of subject matter, he or she will eventually become a great photographer […] On the other hand, I have found again and again that people interested only in “photography” get nowhere. They go from photo school to photo school, take courses in photography, work as assistants to well-known photographers, read all the proper books, have an encyclopaedic knowledge of things photographic, own the latest and finest equipment – and never produce a worthwhile photograph.’

Of course it’s not a clear-cut either/or. The better writings on photography are also writings on other things.

TC: Yes, we see so many photographs of things rather than photography about something, anything. Is photography criticism not a great good then? Do you not consider it a noble pursuit?

DC: Put it this way…if photography isn’t photography when it’s only photography, the same goes for the writing about it.

TC: There we have it! In your introduction to Intimate Distance, Todd Hido’s recently-published monograph with Aperture, there’s a particular passage that really seems to encapsulate so much of what we’ve been discussing: ‘Living in the mind, pictures can never really belong to anyone. The unconscious does not recognise authors, origins, or destinations. What matters for imagery is resonance and restlessness.’

I was also intrigued by your idea of us all beginning in the ‘middle’. You write: ‘Making photographs is so often an act of recognition, conscious of otherwise, that what is before you resonates with things that came before. Those things might be direct experiences. They might be movies, picture books, music, or novels. We can never know for sure. And when we look at the photographs of others we are doing something similar: responding now through an elusive then. We all begin in the middle.’

DC: Well, we do all enter in the middle. Things were going on before we arrived, and they’ll continue after we’ve left the party. We pick things up where we find them and try to put them into some kind of narrative, be it history, or artistic biography, or autobiography. But it’s never clear-cut. For example, when we respond deeply to a work from the past – an image, a film, a novel – we are responding now. There is no time travel, and yet we know that the work could only have been made when it was made. So it’s not just that we enter in the middle… we are living in different time zones simultaneously.

TC: Could you tell me your favourite film, photo book, album and novel – those you would ‘choose as a pillow and plate, alone on a desert island’ (as Jeanette Winterson wrote of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities)?

DC: Cinema was the first art form that really mattered to me, and it’s still the backdrop to much of my engagement with images, so I couldn’t choose one film. I could give you four. Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Powel & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, and Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn. Tomorrow it might be another four. Photographic book? Walker Evans’s American Photographs. Album? Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Novel? Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.

Image courtesy of David Campany. © Drew Sawyer