Susan Bright

Curator and Author of Feast for the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography


For the latest instalment in our Interviews series Sabine Mirlesse catches up with curator Susan Bright in her adopted city of Paris to discusses various burning issues relating to photography and the culture that surrounds it. From the unfair dismissal of fashion photography to the trials and tribulations of a practice-based PhD in curating to reflections on the photobook craze and the under representation of women photography professionals on boards, panel discussions and juries, it’s all broached here. She also unveils her forthcoming curatorial and book projects, exclusive to 1000 Words.

Sabine Mirlesse: Let’s start at the beginning. Why did you choose photography?

Susan Bright: Initially, I didn’t choose photography, I chose art. I studied art history and then art theory and came to photography (as a career) somewhat circuitously. By the time I had finished my masters in art theory I knew I wanted to be a curator, but the fact that was going to be with photography had not settled. Through a series of encounters and some missteps I ended up volunteering at the V&A in the photographs collection. I applied as I had bought Mark Haworth Booth’s book An Independent Art and I was very taken with the way that he approached art through social history and a history of the museum. It was whilst I was interning that my commitment to photography was cemented. From that internship I got a job as Assistant Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in London. By then I never doubted my career would be in photography. I was very lucky to learn the basics at two of the very best institutions in the UK.

SM: I think I also have to ask you the obvious question; have you ever attempted being a photographer yourself? It’s something you always wonder about curators and writers on the subject, if they ever gave it a shot from the other side initially…

SB: People outside of photography ask me this question all the time, but this is the first time in an interview and it’s rather refreshing. People outside of photography are always so incredulous that I don’t take pictures and find it somehow ‘ironic’. I smile, and ask patiently if a sports manager is also a professional athlete, an editor also a novelist or if a DJ creates their own music. Then they kind of get it, but not really. Often people outside of art and photography really don’t know what I do, but let’s be honest, most don’t really care either. If I worked for an institution it would make it all much easier, and to an outsider big names are impressive and have clout. Working with museums rather than for them tends to cause confusion.

Curators within museums often come from a more traditional art history or history route and at smaller or commercial galleries the staff have often studied photography and then realised that they did not want to be photographers but wanted to work with it somehow. So no, I have never attempted to be a photographer. I did contemplate doing ceramics for an undergraduate degree, but panicked at the last minute and thought that I should get a ‘proper’ qualification. It’s not something I have ever regretted, or indeed even thought about until now.

SM: Why do you have an affinity for fashion photography?

SB: I have always been interested in fashion photography. If I think back to the first photography I really loved as a teenager it was fashion and music photography, which of course are often intertwined. I grew up in the 1980s – how could I not be interested in music and fashion? I had a lot of postcards, records, magazines and posters. It’s just always been there as an interest. It’s not like I follow every fashion photographer religiously but I do turn to it when I am bored of art photography and it feels so refreshing and vibrant. Looking at vintage fashion work tells you so much about the time, especially about attitudes to women. I think I read them a bit more like social history documents. And of course they look fantastic on the whole and are unfairly dismissed as being superficial, which I think is nonsense. Fashion is about identity and artistry and how can that be anything but fascinating. Of course the commercial forces often dictate more than they should in how the images are formed, but you can look beyond the mainstream for work that is utterly vital and vibrant.

SM: For example?

SB: An example of this a small publication of nudes instigated by Dan Thawley who is the Editor in Chief of A Magazine Curated by. It is a riposte to a monograph by photographer Jean Clemmer published in 1969 which was daring, provocative, sexy but needless to say sexist. The clothes were Paco Rabanne’s sculptural garments and are reminiscent of a kind of sexual liberation chain mail if you can imagine such a thing. Dan asked the French designer Julien Dossena, the now head of Paco Rabanne, to ‘curate’ a series of photographs – mostly nude, but also with some of the vintage sculptural pieces. The photographer is Coco Cápitan and she revisited the original publication and shot a portfolio in the grounds of Villa Noailles (a 1920s Modernist Villa in Hyères on the French Riviera). The resulting magazine is an edition of 1000 and starts with a incredibly smart interview between Dan and Jean Clemmer about femininity, the body, the gaze, complexity of design and the sexualisation of women today. The photographs are interspersed with short poems by Cápitan in her childlike handwriting. The photographs reference and update the original book and the heritage of the Paco Rabanne brand. They are gentle black and whites done with humour, gusto, sensitivity and sensuality. The models have agency and attitude and are not just passive male fantasies. Their sexuality is very much their own and there is a freedom in a way that the 1960s sexual revolution did not really offer women a freedom at all. In a way the photographs are devoid of voyeurism (as much as is possible when photographing nudes).

SM: What is our forthcoming food photography book with the Aperture Foundation about?

SB: If any photography has been unfairly dismissed in the canonical history of photography then it is definitely that of food. My interest was first sparked when I was working on the Tate show with Val Williams and through conversations with Simon Watney. We included some Good Housekeeping cookbooks in How We Are and they said so much about 1950s and 1960s Britain – the rise of package holidays through references to Scandinavian salads and other ‘exotic’ European dishes, the desire to keep women in home after the war (the introduction is so sexist it will make you gasp), the advent of colour photography in publishing as brought to the UK by émigrés from Germany, the aspirational nature of the British middle classes (as can be even more apparent through into the 1970s with plays such as Abigail’s Party and TV like The Good Life), immigration, trade and empire through the growing popularity of curry and availability of capsicum. The photographs look so kitsch and rather disgusting to contemporary eyes. So many years later I met my editor Denise Wolff at Aperture and we find out we share a common interest in how food is photographed. We knew we had to do this book. It coincides with a glut of food photographs appearing on social networking and photo sharing sites (which again are really never about the food, but aspiration mostly), and a very concentrated interest in food politics and health. The book runs chronologically and covers many aspects of how food is photographed – cookbooks, adverts, art, packaging, fashion etc. I address how food is imaged and the complex questions about consumption, desire, pleasure, class, mortality and domesticity that arise from the act of photographing it.

SM: Aspiration for what, the same as the 1970s British middle classes as you mentioned? What would you say they aspired to for example?

SB: No, the aspiration now is very different. An Instagramed $12 ice cream is showing you can afford that and have the life style to match – it’s more about public showing off. Aspiration in 1970s Britain was more complex in a way. Young adults would have remembered the war, the rationing and their ideas of luxury were very different from what we consider today. Steak, salmon, brie would all be seen as luxury items and the idea of wasting food was totally frowned upon. Dinner parties were seen as extravagant. There is so much of British identity that was sewn into escaping this. Jonathan Coe writes about this brilliantly in novels such as The Rotter’s Club.

SM: What made you want to do a PhD? Tell me about your thesis. Tell me what you hope this new title will bring you.

SB: I knew I wanted to do a curatorial project on motherhood with the birth of my daughter. I figured that if I was going to spend years researching it then it would be good to have some institutional support and a structure in which to frame the research as the subject is so vast. I also wanted to rethink my relationship to curating which had been on rather a frenetic path. I wanted to take a breath to think through the changes in photography and my relationship to it too. The PhD process certainly allowed me to do all of those things. By giving me the opportunity to read widely around new developments in photography and how that affects curating I have come back to curating so much more informed. To have the time to step out and reconsider was a luxury in many ways.

So my PhD is practice-based in curating, which means I write a thesis and present my practice, (which is the exhibition Home Truths). In the thesis I investigate contemporary ‘maternal ambivalence’, which I define as stemming from a reaction to social norms, expectations and the cultural conditions. I use the literary frame of ‘life narrative’ to examine maternal ambivalence in the artworks I curated, contextualising these within depictions of mothering in the larger photographic culture of motherhood.

SM: Could you elaborate on some of these depictions?

SB: These depictions were directly dealt with in a digital display I curated with Katrina Sluis titled Motherlode, which was shown at The Photographers’ Gallery at the same time as Home Truths. These include tropes that easily categorised into generic lists of activities including: the sexy nude pregnant portrait, the post-birth snap-back-into-shape transformation, cute outings with children, loving husbands (and a lack of nannies), and going back to work within weeks – the latter putting huge moral pressure on the idea that mothering itself is not a socially or economically significant activity.

At the heart of all my research lies an investigation into different maternal life narratives (in literature and social networking and art photography) and how exhibitions have to respond to autobiographical approaches in photography as we increasingly experience them on the web. As to what the new title will bring me I don’t know. Very little probably.

SM: Very little because a PhD in art is not appreciated or valued in some way?

SB: No, it is valued and appreciated but it will not change my job nor will it change my pay scale or make any other tangible difference. The title is just that and I do not really care for titles. The process of doing it has been vital to me and I believe it has made me a better writer and researcher and prepared me with tools to explore deeper into issues that I perhaps would not have done so before.

SM: What do you think about the photobook craze?

SB: I come to the photobook from the receiving end rather than the making end. So on one hand I can see it’s a great way for photographers and artists to see their work realised, allowing them to be able to do this easily and exactly how they like it though self-publishing. The flip side to that ease is there are an awful lot of not very good books out there. To make a book it has to make sense of the work… I don’t feel it always does. Also with self-publishing numbers are small, and the collectors smaller so I would question if artists are really ‘getting their work out there’. If they want their work to be seen, then obviously the web is the best place for that.

I attend events like Offprint and the New York Art Book Fair and I feel like I am in a totally alien environment. I tend to go with friends who collect and I realise I don’t share their passion. They are fascinating to me… their knowledge and hunger is obsessional. It’s like being with people who are obsessed with vinyl or even stamps, it just happens to be photobooks, but more than that it’s about collecting – having the latest, having them all. And when I am at events like Off Print and NYABF I ask myself where are the women? They are not starting up small publishing houses, they are not buying in the same way men do and they are not represented in the books in the same way. There is absolutely no reason for this, if ever there should be a field that is not gender biased then it’s the making of photobooks, but that just doesn’t seem to be the case. I only buy what I really love (and one artist for investment) and recently got rid of 7 huge boxes of books. It felt wonderful. Having so many photobooks got really oppressive – I am really selective now. It has to be pretty special to make the cut.

SM: What happened to the seven huge boxes of books? I often wonder about where all the mediocre limited edition self published books end up…

SB: Those seven boxes of books went to the Library at the Paris College of Art. I think students will benefit from them a great deal more than I will.

SM: You are also a teacher. Can you tell me what you think has changed in terms of how photography is being taught at higher education levels? What’s your take on the whole MFA trend – is it just a cool club that leaves you in loads of debt or something you’d recommend for a young artist wanting to move forward?

SB: I teach very little nowadays – just one class a semester that I team-teach at Paris College of Art. I started teaching about ten years ago and very little has changed. To be honest it often leaves me very disillusioned and I think the whole state/public tertiary education system is a mess and one that is under huge commercial pressures that do not always serve students well. Classes are getting bigger and the prices are getting higher. I have reached a point now where I think that alternative workshops and events and private colleges might give photographers a better education in some ways. I am a huge advocate for state education and it saddens me to say this. Having said that I do think MFAs can be incredible. For a photographer to do one it shows they are serious about what they are doing and can certainly give them access to not only equipment but also different voices that may challenge them to think about photography differently and their practice more specifically. It also introduces them to their peers – this is something that I don’t think students realise is incredibly valuable. The money situation is certainly an issue – a big one – but overall I would recommend a MFA for a young artist wanting to move forward. Where that is done, how it is done (part time, full time or intensive) should be meticulously researched so that it’s absolutely the right decision.

SM: What are your reflections on being an independent curator rather than being attached to one institution? What are some of the pros and cons of being free as a bird? I know you’ve been approached regularly for fancy positions, if I’m allowed to keep it vague but mention it just the same. You turn them down each time?

SB: I think the ‘proper job’ is something that plays on all independents’ minds. It goes with the territory. Being independent is not a secure position, you either rise to it or you don’t. You are either suited to it or not. What comes along with it are existential crashes of confidence, panic about what you ‘should’ be doing, comparisons with those in institutions, and other such human moments. These feelings are part and parcel of the lives of those who are not attached to a job (and perhaps also those who have a regular job too). But what I know is these feelings are same for writers, actors, and artists, everyone who has chosen a slightly different route. And to make matters worse they are all are exacerbated with age. The advantages of working independently are endless as I see them – these include flexibility, lack of boring meetings, more freedom to work on projects of your own doing, a faster turn around etc. Cons include: lack of support, nice colleagues, and of course the regular pay cheque. In some ways the grass is always greener though. As you mentioned I have been approached for some quite prestigious positions. My ego goes crazy until I read the job spec and I think ‘I don’t want to do that’. It’s always such a surprise as I guess I still think that is what I want to do, or what I should be doing, or what I have been working towards. The life I have been able to make for myself always seems more appealing when it comes down to it. So I will keep working independently until a job or my life situation needs or wants it. When I read a job that comes up favourably I will go for it. I honestly don’t know what that would be or where, but I always keep an open mind to it. I have just moved to France and have the language barrier to consider, so in a way I have perhaps unconsciously (or perhaps it was consciously) made a situation for myself where I have to carry on doing what I do. Life comes in phases – now I am closing my PhD I feel like my life is taking off a bit again after five years of knuckling down and researching and writing. I feel like I can take more on now, travel more and think more widely about where my career might lead, what is important to me, and also the possibilities of photography. It feels fantastic!

SM: Can you unleash your thoughts on the representation or lack thereof of women photography professionals on boards, panel discussions and juries? You boycotted Photo London 2016 for this reason I remember so I believe you have some strong opinions about it (rightly so!)

SB: I think with these things you always have to look at numbers. It’s a simple matter of counting and then you can see the disparity easily. With Photo London I counted up the female/male ratio and it did not look good. I have just looked at the archive. It proudly says there are over 50 events – on the archive there are seven women. This does not include panels. There is a panel on journalism in a Digital Age (five on the panel – one woman). And there is a panel on women photographers (titled Loose Women!) If there was a better spread of women on the overall programming there would be no need for a separate panel. You don’t want to get me started on the representation of anyone of colour! There may have been more women in the full programme – but I am sure it was not one that showed an even spread. It’s SO EASY to prevent this. I makes me tired that I still have to say this. We all have a responsibility regardless of our gender to make sure there is an even and fair spread of all people, all types of photography and all ages, race, sexuality etc represented in a big event like this.

But you see it over and over. I have lost count of the amount of panels I have been on where I am the token woman. People wonder why women drop out of photography – but if you can’t see it you can’t be it. How are young female students supposed to feel inspired by female mentors, photographers, etc when they are simply not visible? Also look at agencies like Magnum – how many women are there in their 40s and 50s in comparison with the men? Again, I am just looking at numbers. Go back twenty years of the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize and count. The thing is when I teach there are predominantly young women in the class, so what happens between then and being awarded or nominated for prestigious prizes such as the Deutsche Börse? That prize is nominated by shows and books – for me the simple answer is to be sure that women are given shows and publishing opportunities so that they can then be more likely to be nominated. It’s a constant effort all of the time for everyone. I think as we are entering a period of revised misogyny, homophobia and racism in the culture at large it’s especially important to stress this. With juries I have to say it’s a different story, I have found them always to have a better spread.

SM: I recently was discussing with someone how often the role of the gallerist or the photo editor is a woman and the photographer/artist is a man. Do you agree? Why do you think that is?

SB: I read an interesting interview with Max Houghton recently who said, “We have a set up a wonderful service industry around male artists; there are lots of models that show this: the gallery, the magazine, the museum.” I have been mulling this over ever since I read it. It also goes back to teaching and all those young women who by the end of their degree have no desire to be a photographer but want to work within photography. I am not sure I would go so far as to say we have a service industry but there are certainly a lot of women working within museums, magazines and galleries, but there are also men. Looking at some of the new high-profile appointments in museums they all went to men. I would certainly say in the UK and US the majority of assistant curators and curatorial assistants are women in the major institutions. It then begs the question why all these women are not more invited onto panels. But honestly, I don’t know why there are not more female photographers and artists in the mix. Again it goes back to making sure they are not working in vain and are getting the exposure and fair representation through publishing and exhibitions and in the market (by which I mean the auction houses– rather than commercial galleries. The former is still very much pushing and promoting the dead white American male, which are the big sellers).

SM: Let’s talk about being sick of photography and what you turn to for inspiration when that happens?

SB: I don’t really get sick of photography – but I do get sick of the culture around it. The same names writing in the magazines, the same artists getting shows and being represented by commercial galleries. It makes me feel claustrophobic and the whole thing can feel village-like. When this reaches fever pitch I tune out and turn to literature – always. Fiction mostly, but also social histories and memoir feature heavily on my reading lists. I also read a huge amount of children’s stories. But then something shifts and I am into it again. I have to say this usually comes from something fictional I have read that leads me back to thinking about the medium in a different way. Or I just go to a wonderful show and get excited by the possibility of an exhibition – the curated space is totally inspiring to me. I have taken to going to shows at night so they feel more like theatre, this simple shift in time and atmosphere really makes a difference and adds a drama that is missing in daylight.

SM: How about this exhibition on death you are preparing? Can you tell me about it?

SB: I am co-curating this with the artist and scholar Ruth Rosengarten. We joined forces as the topic represents the area where our research interests intersect and overlap: mine in the autobiographic turn in photography, Ruth’s in family archives and the blogs and photobooks that track the trajectory of an illness. We have noticed how over the past few decades, photographic images have proliferated (whether in exhibitions, photobooks or online on blogs, image-sharing sites or social media) focusing on the aged and the terminally ill. This coincides with two interrelated factors: on the one hand, a cultural turn towards the autobiographic, finding expression in texts, films and the expanded field of self-portrait photography; on the other hand, the spread of what has come to be termed the “grief memoir” and of the idea of working through feelings of loss.

Despite the creative freedom granted by digital imaging many artists continue to use photography as a means of holding onto evanescent time and encapsulating moments as they evaporate. This, of course, is key to much theoretical thinking around photography and death where death is ensnared in the history of photography itself, in particular in the wake of Camera Lucida.

SM: One of my favourite passages on the notion was part of an essay written by Eduardo Cadava in the collected writings on Camera Lucida edited by Geoffrey Batchen, Photography Degree Zero. I like it so much I have it tacked to my website. It’s about photography condensing the relation between the dead and the living. I think one of the reasons it appeals to me as well is because it explains in a nutshell the spiritual aspect of photography. Yes I said spiritual. Yes you just cringed I think.

SB: Well I think that idea works up to a point and certainly with photographs that document an event, but the counter-idea of the photographic image as a construct or invention has also had a place in the ever-growing genre of photographs of the aged and dying. When a photograph is made or staged I am not sure that idea translates to the more expanded ideas around photography.

The constructed image, since the very inception of photography in the 19th century, and shadowing empirical, documentary image-capture like an uncanny doppelganger, has existed photography that avows its own inherent artifice, its status as fabricated object. This can be seen in the one of the first photographs ever made (Hippolyte Bayard, Portrait as a Drowned Man, 1847) and the composite Fading Away (1858) by Henry Peach Robinson.

SM: That is to say, people who photograph a fictional death?

SB: Those two examples do but that is not what we are interested in. We have decided to make our starting point for this investigation into a counter history to the subject in the late 1960s and 70s and deal with both ageing and dying. This period saw an increase in documentary styles of photographing the dying, but we wish to step away from the indexical and consider the more metaphorical role of photography – one that relies on fabrication, invention and construct. Artists that fit into this idea include: Helen Chadwick, Jo Spence, Duane Michals, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Stéphanie Beaudoin and Tatsumi Orimoto, for example.

SM: What are some of the first elements you consider when you began the making of an exhibition in general? Can you walk us through your thought process a little?

SB: Every exhibition is different. It can start with an idea or a feeling, which I then drill down to something tighter or it can start with an artwork that I think resonates with another and a theme emerges. I must say I work pretty intuitively and often what I am trying to say comes clearer to me as the project evolves – I guess that is a pretty common creative process. I tend to work very closely with artists – this process reflects the idea of ‘conversation as creative practice’, whereby many private thoughts become public through the act of curation. It’s very much a joint effort. But a lot of curating is hard admin and this needs to be made clear as I think many people are not fully aware of this and think its rather glamorous. There are endless checks on prints, sizes, transport, plans, etc. It’s the beginning and end of the process that feel more fluid and creative. I learn something about the work from every installation. It’s always a wonderful surprise to see something I so clearly have in my head manifest into physical space. It’s like magic.

More recently I am thinking more about what the exhibition space offers and how to make the most of this space – not just in terms of installation but what a physical space can offer an audience that is different from experiencing work on a screen. This can be seen in the long-term discussions I have been having with an artist who is due for a mid-career. But I am not sure what audiences really gain from mid-career retrospectives apart from drawing the threads together. I don’t think that is enough. So we are working on something much more expansive, looking at her influences, obsessions and daily life and how to add those into the mix to give the audience a much clearer idea of what is in the work but not necessarily obvious from looking just at the photographs. It can go any way and can bring in all her artwork that is across other mediums. I want it to feel like a real experience to visit: confronting, surprising and honest in that influences and inspirations can be out in the open. I foresee there may be events and performances too. It’s challenging for both of us, and we are not quite sure how it will pan out, or what kind of venue will be right, but we hope to create something that will hopefully make an audience look at her work anew and open up the possibilities of how we can bring in autobiography into an exhibition in a physical space.

SM: You left New York City for Paris a year ago, a big change! Can you tell me a little about the trajectory of your geography over the years – why you left the UK and then why the move to Paris? Any plans to move back to England? Can you tell me about what the differences between the photo scenes in New York versus Paris versus London are in your experience?

SB: Paris doesn’t really feel like a change in many ways as I am European and am very comfortable with many of the sensibilities – much more so than I ever was in the US. In other ways it’s a huge change, but I think these changes are more personal. As mentioned I am coming to a certain phase of my life with my PhD finishing so that is a big change and my family situation is different. In a good way – Paris marks a change for how we operate as a team and it’s so much more satisfactory for everyone.

I left the UK in 2007, I had had a big year curating Face of Fashion at the National Portrait Gallery and co-curating How We Are at Tate with Val Williams alongside a smaller exhibition about sculpture, abstraction and photography in Oslo. There was a bit of a feeling of what now? I was also pregnant. So what happened was my husband got a job in New York so we decided to go for it. I had always wanted to live there so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to go. We ended up living there for nearly eight years. I never imagined it would be that long. We moved to Paris for many reasons – most of them personal. I really missed Europe and wanted to be ‘home’. Home is Europe, not the UK.

SM: I think you have a better quality of life in Paris than in New York. A number of friends in New York have since left for other cities as well. New York isn’t the affordable place our Baby Boomer parents got to enjoy and make art in anymore. As for photography – I think the US feels a bit more commercial if I’m allowed to sweep it all into one which is pretty unreasonable. There is more community feeling in photography in Paris as well – you see the same people at the same fairs and festivals, it becomes your network and to some degree social circle. In France they are much more romantic about photography, to a fault.

My own observations living in Paris the last five years have led me to become aware of a heightened sense of nostalgia that the French hold for traditional photography – everything from Capa to Cartier Bresson to William Klein. Have you observed that as well? If so what do you think of it? Do you see it as an obstacle or a form of enrichment?

SB: Yes, I think that is a fair observation. Living in different countries you see patterns of how photographic history is played out publicly. These points are generalisations, but in the US I feel there is a hero worship of certain photographers – Walker Evans, Robert Frank, William Eggleston, for example – and this is similar to the way the French revere their heroes. And I think it’s fair to say that Europeans know a lot more about American photography than Americans know about European photography (let alone photography from other parts of the world). I have also found the French still have a great deal of respect for photojournalism even in the gallery world – this is not a sentiment that is generally shared in Britain at all. I think Britain could benefit from promoting and respecting their own – they are still somewhat in thrall of American photography to a degree. But the French sense of nostalgia is an interesting and complex one, which is tied very closely to issues of national identity. I know this sounds woolly, but I think its both an obstacle and a form of enrichment – it all hinges on how it’s curated, what contemporary work its working with (or against). I don’t think it’s enough just to show this kind of work without some kind of curatorial framing or investigation into why its being shown now and what it means to represent the work now. It’s this reframing that I find is sometimes lacking in France.

SM: Do you think there are just too many photographers these days?

SB: No, I think the history of photography is littered with disaster metaphors of abundance, although usually directed at photographs rather than photographers. Think of narratives such as bombardment, floods, feeling overwhelmed etc. Just because anyone with a smart phone takes photographs (and often calls themselves a photographer) it doesn’t mean they are one. If that were the case we would all be writers too – we all write (shopping lists, emails, texts etc) but nobody would say there are too many writers.

SM: If you couldn’t be involved in photography, what other profession would you attempt?

SB: I really, really wanted to be a Blue Peter presenter. But having done a little bit of television I know this would have been a disaster as I am not good on TV. So hopefully I would have discovered this early on and worked in radio which I absolutely love. I think it’s very important medium. The rise of podcasts gives me such pleasure. I have been chatting with a friend about us doing a series about photography – when things settle a bit we will put our minds to it properly.

SM: I had to just quickly google what Blue Peter is, not being British, and it says it oldest television programme for children. I’m sensing a theme here. Am I allowed to mention that one of the first times we hung out you went home and wrote a children’s story about a fictional me? Is it just the endless fantasy of children’s narratives that appeals to you, for almost the same reason that fashion photography does?

SB: I did indeed write a children’s story inspired by you. It has become the first in a trilogy. They are all about two characters who have rich friendships. I think I am immensely interested in the concept of fantasy – exacerbated by living in Paris which I do believe has a collective one. The tourists that come here are also living a fantasy out. One based on art and literature and architecture which has very little to do with the realities of the city. I’ve been working on a commission with Alessandra Sanguinetti for the Aperture Foundation and The Fondation d’entreprise Hermès. She has managed to see this and capture it perfectly of course. This collective fantasy is also something I see in your work.

SM: I think I’m supposed to comment yes or no, enthusiastically. I have to ask you what you mean more precisely by collective fantasy though. Do you mean magical realism?

SB: No, I mean more along the lines of ‘invented tradition’, which was coined by Erik Hobsbawm in 1983. The authors in the edited book of the same name argue that traditions, which seem to be essential to a nation or attitudes of nationhood are often relatively new and invented. These seem to legitimise cultural practices and are often based in fantasy. I think your personal work in Iceland and Armenia does this – and also considers the role of myth in national identities. I think Alessandra’s work has elements of magic realism and she has wonderfully managed to capture that spirit in her work in France too.

SM: In that case I will nod enthusiastically and add that I look forward to seeing Alessandra’s new work and that I feel flattered to be mentioned in the same breath. She was my very first interview while I was still in graduate school. You are my twenty-fourth, which I can hardly believe. Speaking of school, that leads me to another question. What is a common mistake you see emerging photographers making as they start to make their way?

SB: I think its often a case of wanting too much too soon when the work is not strong enough or fully developed. Getting work out there before it’s ready does young artists no favours. And more generally there are other ways to conduct yourself that are important. Firstly, I would say when you have a meeting with somebody make sure you are prepared and have good work to show. You can easily meet somebody once, twice is harder, so don’t blow it. Don’t be drunk, stoned and have a bath. I have encountered all these scenarios and it’s not very impressive (although quite memorable!)

Also when you email people you don’t know don’t ask for feedback just send an email highlighting the new work. Curators, editors and other people who work in photography receive a lot of emails from people they have never met asking for feedback. On the whole everyone I know looks at work if they are sent an email, but they do not have time to respond and feedback to everyone, so do not get defensive and angry when you do not get feedback – that is really unimpressive. I am finding I am getting more and more newsletters now and I am unsubscribing. This used to be a good way to communicate, but I am not so sure now. The overload can be too much. But really it’s often-basic common sense – be nice, have good work, listen and keep in touch but not oppressively so.

Image courtesy of Susan Bright. © Sabine Mirlesse

Lesley A. Martin

Publisher at Aperture Foundation

New York

In the latest instalment of our Interviews series, Jeffrey Ladd speaks with the publisher of Aperture Foundation’s book programme, Lesley A. Martin. Their conversation reflects on the current state of photobook publishing, the idea of misperceiving books as the most viable vehicles to launch careers, as well as her thoughts on the seldom-discussed phenomenon of publishers taking on projects by photographers who pay a premium of the entire book production.

Jeffrey Ladd: How long have you personally been interested in photography and photobooks?

Lesley A. Martin: My interest in photography is probably fairly typical – an early introduction to the magic of the darkroom by a family member, hanging out with photo geeks in high school. I knew I was interested in it enough to pick it up as a minor in college. But the realisation that photographs had power and could become vital to a public conversation comes from having lived an hour away from Cincinnati, Ohio at the time of the Robert Mapplethorpe Perfect Moment exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center, and realizing that the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s were perfectly and terribly crystallised in this battle over which images would be considered true, beautiful, and permissible.

I don’t have a story about a particular book that changed my life as my interest in photobooks came somewhat obliquely – yes, I was always the kid with glasses that “loved books”. Yes, I worked my way through college at the Art and Architecture library and decorated my dorm walls with jackets of books that had been discarded before they were allowed to be shelved. And yes, I lived in Japan and spent a lot of time looking – sadly, not buying – books by and about Japanese photographers, but it wasn’t until I did an internship at Aperture that it dawned on me that there were people behind the making of those books… and that this was something that I could do, too.

JL: How long have you been at Aperture?

LAM: The best way to put it is that I’ve been at Aperture for roughly sixteen of the last twenty-one years, but not continuously. It’s a little scary to think about.

JL: How have your thoughts on photobooks changed over the course of your involvement with Aperture?

LAM: The ecosystem as a whole has changed pretty radically over the last twenty years. There were a particular set of formulas that Michael Hoffman, longtime publisher and director of Aperture, believed in. I’m really not sure what he would have made of the photobook world now. I left Aperture for a few years in 2000 when we began to disagree over the type of books that could – and should – be published. I sometimes use Eikoh Hosoe’s Kamaitachi as an example of just how much things have changed. Michael loved the 1971 edition of the book with its baroque use of gatefolds and wanted very much to find a means of reissuing it as a facsimile. The costs were daunting, and in 1997, when we first started discussing it, the idea of printing the book in a very small number and charging a higher price was not part of the Aperture model – he felt there wasn’t enough of a collector’s market to make that work. Now, of course, that’s a model most publishers incorporate into their arsenal of publishing strategies. When I returned to work at Aperture in late 2003, one of the first things I did was to put in motion a facsimile of the book. We commissioned a new slipcase by Tadanori Yokoo, and released it in an edition of 500 English-language copies and, working together with a Japanese publisher, 500 Japanese-language copies. The book sold out almost immediately. It had become evident by then that not only was there an audience but that this audience of collectors and dealers were building a new body of scholarship and connoisseurship of the photobook. This knowledge base, coupled with the shift in how accessible printing technologies have become and how much creativity is coming out of the self-published and independently published worlds, have increased the interest and appreciation of the book form. The idea of strict, old school publishing formulas of any kind, has been turned on its head, which is good for everyone.

JL: How do you think your direction as editor has been different from others? (past Aperture editors? Or other publishers?)

LAM: As a not-for-profit organisation, Aperture needs to be willing and able to explore a fairly broad interpretation of photography – but of course, it’s also an amalgam of individual tastes and interests. Over the course of almost sixty-five years, there have been so many book editors, each of whom left one imprint or another – from Nancy Newhall, one of the founders, onward. (Keeping in mind, too, that the book editors and the magazine editors used to be one and the same – now the book and magazine programs operate synergistically but autonomously). There are lots of odd little pockets in the Aperture backlist –Newhall worked closely with Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. She was focused on the interchange of text and images and on the struggle for the recognition of photography as a ‘fine art’. Mark Holborn introduced Japanese photographers like Eikoh Hosoe and Shomei Tomatsu to Aperture, alongside British photographers like Bill Brandt. Carole Kismaric made a critical contribution, bringing in Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, John Gossage, and moved Aperture’s book program away from a certain beaten path – more ‘windows’ than ‘mirrors’. Michael Hoffman’s obsession with India can be read in vein of books by Raghu Rai, Raghubir Singh, Mitch Epstein’s first book: In Pursuit of India, while also championing the publication of the Arbus monograph.

Current senior editor, Denise Wolf, has introduced a line of books about photography for children. Aside from my interest in Japanese and Dutch photography, which happen to be great photobook making cultures, I feel that my task over the past decade has been to ensure that the book programme felt relevant overall. I didn’t want Aperture to just do one kind of book, but to be able to publish across a range of types of book – to be more varied, flexible, and contemporary in our book making. I also made it a goal to engage with and help support the growing conversation about the photobook.

JL: Can you point out four or five books that have become your favourites of the last year?

LAM: I’m still looking back on the prior year’s books and won’t get to properly digest this year’s harvest fully until the end of the summer and The Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Prize. Every Autumn I’m inundated by the 1,000+ titles that get submitted. I see A LOT. But there are inevitably, a few that stand out, or that I return to repeatedly over time.

In the past year, those include Taking Off. Henry My Neighbor by Mariken Wessels, which is a very strange set of images collected by Wessels of one man’s obsessive photographing of his wife. Dana Lixenberg’s Imperial Courts, a document of one Los Angeles-neighbourhood over the course of twenty years also just gets better with repeat viewing. Both of these books – each very different in subject and approach but similarly predicated on a photographer’s long-term engagement with their subject – take pains to also be really remarkable physical objects, with particular care to with the printing, design, and structure of the material. Out of Order: Bad Display by Penelope Umbrico, is one of the artist’s iterative projects that returns to a prior book she created with RVB Books in 2014. Umbrico has become a really thoughtful about her books, folding the process of making them into her larger practice of making work, the unusual forms they take and the methods of their making are always directly tied-into the concepts within.

I also can’t help but be stupefied by the gorgeously printed re-issue and expansion (or, explosion) of William Eggleston’s Democratic Forest. As with the rest of Steidl’s insatiable drive to gobble up and put forth the archives of photographers living and dead, I’m a little ambivalent about whether or not to best categorise these as books or as furniture – it certainly is an excellent example of the collector-supported publication model. It’s quite an investment, at $600 per set. So while this skews the concept of a democratic anything, in terms of a flattening out the hierarchy of image-making, this material, of any, is best suited to the multi-volume, anti-edit approach. (I have to also confess that I may, in part, be conflating my appreciation for this book with my appreciation and enjoyment Prudence Ffeifer’s excellent review of the book in the May issue of Bookforum – the power of a great book review!)

JL: How much of the current state of photobook publishing do you perceive as artists believing books are the most viable vehicles to launch careers?

LAM: I often I see books made by artists that feel way too transparent in this regard – it’s as if every decision made in constructing the book was weighed against some external checklist of what’s worked for other people, rather than what’s right for the material itself. The use of different types of paper: check. Tipped-in facsimiles of vernacular material: check. Centred, sans-serif type that is underscored instead of italicised: check. There are certain design and format tics that seem to be contagious from year to year. Increasingly, people get hung up on creating over-the-top, bleeding edge design packages when something simple or pared down would be equally if not more suitable and successful. That said, there is so much room now for different ways of putting a body of work onto the printed page, it has led to some really stand-out books – both wildly innovative and more traditional books that have been able to launch careers or solidify reputations.

We’re seeing a dramatic shift in the gallery world, in which the smaller galleries are having a hard time of it – there is less space for showing and selling work, certainly less space for really being able to present an entire body of work, properly contextualised, which is what a book can do so well, and of course, a book can end up in anyone’s hands. A book of interesting work that has been done thoughtfully can certainly bring an artist to another level of attention. There are also a lot more books that I have a hard time wrapping my head around in terms of WHY. Why does this body of work exist in this form and what was the photographer or publishing thinking when they made those decisions? I’m all for borrowing, and great ideas often beget other good ideas, but not if they’re simply adapted without cause and clear intention. Really – more people asking WHY – why am I making this book? Does it need to be a book? And then figuring out the best way to take that forward would be really helpful. If you just want to make a book because it’s expected of you and you think it will help your career, you haven’t thought about it hard enough.

JL: Do you believe that even though there are more books published each year, the amount that are really noteworthy has remained perhaps the same as twenty to thirty years ago?

LAM: It’s tempting to think along these lines, and I’ve heard that line before. But when you think about it, the categories and types of books have opened up and changed so dramatically that surely that’s not the case. I mean, how do you evaluate a really great self-published item printed on newsprint against something like the aforementioned Democratic Forest. There are so many more points across a much wider map, there has to be both more and better, don’t you think? They won’t all operate the same way in terms of pushing an artist or a set of ideas forward, and lots will get missed. But I’d like to think optimistically and to believe that there are more, better publications being made across a wider range of possibilities. Of course, there are going to be equivalent larger numbers of worse books getting made as well – and that can be depressing and a little brain-numbing. This is why I’m all for a network of signposts that can help navigate the overload of books – blog posts on sites like,, the fantastic vimeo feed from, Instagram feeds like @10 x10; and tags like #photobookjousting – that’s just a few.

JL: What appeals to you as an editor, when an artist approaches with a ‘finished’ dummy or would you prefer to see the raw material? I am assuming you are open to both ways. Can you estimate a percentage of each?

LAM: It’s so case-by-case and changes season by season. In an upcoming season of six monographs for Spring 2017, none of them came as already formulated dummies. The Autumn 2016 season, three of five books came as dummies. I think it’s helpful for an artist to wrestle with the problem of how to make something into a book, but not helpful for them to get hung up on wanting to control every detail, but to allow room for collaboration and input.

JL: Do you have opinions about publishers who are essentially shifting their role to becoming mainly distributors – taking on projects by photographers who pay a premium of the entire book production and beyond to publish their book.

LAM: There are several sides to this – first, I have to state Aperture’s position on the matter. We do not ask artists to write cheques to fund their books. However, we do have to raise the money for each and every title that we don’t see succeeding exclusively on sales in the mainstream book trade. That usually means a there is a collaborative effort that goes into figuring this out – whether it’s jointly mounting a Kickstarter campaign, to applying for grants, appealing to collectors and our patrons, or selling prints. And it is often a combination of the above.

But I also want to point out that this trend has to be seen, in part, in relation to how the roles have been redistributed across the board. Photographers are increasingly casting themselves as designers and editors so books are coming to a publisher already digested and the decisions that a publisher would usually help guide – what the book looks like and how it needs to be printed and bound, and thereby, what the budget and corresponding price point can or should be, are increasingly claimed by photographers. Along with those decisions come risks and repercussions. Essentially, photographers are becoming co-publishers as much as the simply authors. I’m not saying this makes it all come out fine in the wash, but I don’t think you can ignore that all of these roles function in relation to one another. You push one piece of the puzzle and something else gives way. It’s a reminder that very few of the traditional roles or rules about how publishing worked remain hard and fast anymore and we have to keep moving and evolving.

JL: Have you felt any photobook oversaturation or ‘burn-out’ in these last years either with publishing or photobook festivals?

LAM: I am very aware that the photobook community can easily find itself in conversations that are too much of a closed system, that are less about the work and the world and more about the book (and often arcane details of a particular book) as one tool for exploring and experiencing photography. It can be a little limiting and insular, absolutely. But I also love the obsessiveness and attention to detail and craft that the book community currently hosts, and I believe that a language and body of knowledge around the photobook is in the process of being built – one that has become an important, accepted part of the larger dialogue of photography. The idea that the circulation of an image or a body of work – and in particular it’s circulation on the printed page – is an important part of its history and our understanding of it. And this seems solidly established for the time being. But we have to keep looking forward and as photography continues to change, we know that forms of storytelling and experiencing images – habits of literacy of all kinds – are in the process of changing as well. So, I don’t feel that the level of activity we’re currently at will be sustainable if photobook making and photobook festivals do not continue to evolve. For now, though, this network of fairs is an important means of exchange and commerce – how long it can last is certainly a question I ask myself all the time.

And as for me, I personally reach a certain point of hyper saturation in late November, once the New York Art Book Fair is over, once The Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Prize has been awarded, Paris Photo and Offprint are over and all the “Best of” blogs have been read – when I don’t think that I could possibly look at one more book. But somehow, by January, I find myself picking books up again, drawn by a particular cover or wanting to see what a certain binding material feels like, wondering what’s inside, and what else is out there. Hopefully those impulses – in myself and in others – will continue to be refreshed and rewarded by new, exciting creations and developments in this still-evolving field.

Image courtesy of Lesley A. Martin © Carlo Van de Roer

Erik Kessels

Artist and DBPP nominee 2016


Continuing our Interviews series, Diane Smyth speaks to the trailblazing Dutchman Erik Kessels – art director, collector, curator, editor and, of course, head of unorthodox advertising agency, KesselsKramer – whose project, Unfinished Father has been shortlisted for The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2016. Here they mull over the genesis of his curatorial ideas, the importance of failure and why he believes the art of photography is no longer the preserve of specialists.

Diane Smyth: How did you get the idea for Unfinished Father?

Erik Kessels: Last summer I was invited to do an exhibition for Fotografia Europea, which happens in Reggio Emilia, Italy every year. They asked me if I was interested in working with the city archive or something from the city, but I didn’t have much time to go to visit because of the situation with my father who had had a stroke. I looked through images of the city from the 1930s, 40s and 50s and saw a lot of Fiat Topolinos, which reminded me of him. He was working for 15 years restoring these cars, and was working on the fifth one when he fell ill. It was not an option to finish.

The idea was to take the car from the workshop and show it together with the photographs he took as he was doing the restoration. In the back of the synagogue where the exhibition was originally staged I also exhibited more pictures from locals. I often research images by other people and this was just the same, though of course you have more of a connection if it is your own family. I had never thought about doing anything with my father’s archive of Topolino restoration shots, but when you get a request it all comes together. I just continued step by step until it was complete.

DS: Do you consider yourself the creator of this work, or the curator of your father’s photography?

EK: I’m the artist. If you are curator you take parts of other artists and put them together; my father is an amateur – in a good way – and the images have no interest if they are not presented with the story. When I tell the story, people say they’re beautiful. One image shows a car’s rusty underside. At first I thought it had been shot on a white background but then I realised my father had just put it down on the snow. He just put it there because it was easy to photograph, with no other intention, but because of how the show is put together, it becomes very metaphorical. That’s what I’m interested in – how I can take the emotion from within me and make something.

In general I’m not interested in a single photograph. I’m more interested in a story, or the story behind it, or how a series of photographs can tell a certain story. I have done an exhibition using single images – Album Beauty, which is a lot of single images from family albums, through which I try to show how people behave in albums, first shown at FOAM, Amsterdam in 2012. In art and photography, I think the idea is becoming more important, not the craft needed to make it. Everything is made as so much has already been shot, and anyone can make anything since cameras are so easy to use now. It’s totally different to the period in the 1980s and 90s when photography was still entirely analogue, and photographers were masters of their trade. Everything then was a big mystery. Now it’s much more democratic and anyone can do it – so what you do is the question. Once the technique is there, once you can do everything, what do you photograph?

DS: Were you surprised to be nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize?

EK: I’ve been on the long list a few times so no, but I was very emotional because it is such a personal work. I was surprised maybe two years ago when Mishka Henner was nominated for No Man’s Land, a series of images taken from Google Street view. I thought that that was not typical, not the usual finalist, and marked an interesting shift.

DS: How do you choose the images you work with? And how do you choose how the format in which you end up presenting them?

EK: There’s always a certain starting point, whether it’s an image, a series of images, a personal matter and so on. The preferred outlet for the idea will only come at the end of this. Some ideas work better in an exhibition, others as a book. Luckily there are no rules for that. Books and exhibitions should express themselves totally differently and I see a lot of exhibitions, which makes me feel it’s nice to try to do something differently in the installation, because a lot of stuff is like museums with walls with stuff hanging on them. I find that completely stupid.

For example in Unfinished Father I had pictures on the floor, because my father photographed the objects top-down from above. The installation of Album Beauty had different proportions than normal, i.e the prints were much bigger, as the idea was that people visiting the exhibition would have the feeling of walking through a physical photo album. In 24 Hrs In Photos we started a collection of images found online and took them out of their original context by printing them out and putting them in a huge pile to make people look at them differently. It’s a question of how you can point to things and make people look at them another way.

DS: What did you hope to point to with 24 Hrs In Photos?

EK: We’re exposed to an overload of images, a glut that is in large part the result of image-sharing sites such as Flickr, Pinterest, and Imgur, networking sites such as Facebook, and picture-based search engines. Their content mingles public and private, with the very personal being openly and unselfconsciously displayed, and of course they are facilitated by incredibly accessible technology such as digital cameras, which appear on even the cheapest smartphone. The art of photography, once the preserve of specialists, is now open to everyone. For 24 Hrs In Photos I wanted to explore this overwhelming flood of pictures, and give the gallery visitor a physical means of grasping its vastness.

By printing all the images uploaded in a twenty-four hour period, I visualised the feeling of drowning in representations of other peoples’ experience. This is a sensation you can’t have by flicking through online galleries – though spend a few hours doing it and you’ll get pretty close. But by allowing the public to stroll around the mountains of photographs, walk over them, pick them up and inspect them, the experience can also become more intimate. The installation is at first sight impressively monumental, but when people start looking at the images, they are hopefully moved by the individuality of so many image-makers, each with their own unique take on the world.

DS: Album Beauty seems to have come from almost the opposite impulse, is that right?

EK: It was made as an ode the vanishing era of the family album. Once commonplace in every home, the photo album has been replaced by the digital age where images now live online and in hard drives. These visual narratives in the traditional album are testament to the once universal appeal of documenting and displaying the mundane. Often a repository for family history, they usually represent a manufactured family as edited for display. The albums speak of birth, death, beauty, sexuality, pride, happiness, youth, competition, exploration, complicity and friendship.

DS: You’re an unusual figure in the art world because your day job is as a creative director in an ad agency. Would you like to give the agency work up?

EK: Never, I enjoy it. I have learnt a lot in advertising. Also the combination of advertising and art is interesting. Each one is different, but they both influence each other. If I work on a commission for a client, I can think about something because it has some parameters, also I can do things on a big scale because it is well-financed. On the other hand, I very much enjoy getting commissions from festivals because I can come up with ideas completely freely and with no parameters. I think my role is to communicate, whether that’s how to communicate something with my own work or how to convey something on behalf of someone else.

Having said that, I started my agency, KesselsKramer, 20 years ago and I can’t imagine working at another one. They are too narrow-minded – it sounds bad to say it – whereas I always had different interests. We work for a lot of cultural organisations and museums, often with people who aren’t advertising photographers. I’ve done jobs with Hans Eijkelboom, Mitch Epstein, Bertien van Manen and Carl de Keyzer, for example, which can be a strange combination but exciting. We did a campaign for a mobile phone company using migrants and other non-stereotypical people compared to the typical mobile phone ad. I hate advertising to be honest, but I really like to try to find things in a different way. It’s advertising for people who don’t like advertising. KesselsKramer released a book on this back in 2012.

I do remember when I started to work in advertising, if I went to a party and someone asked me what I did, they would change the subject when I told them. It’s changed now but for years it was very uncool to work for an agency. In 2007, the first time I exhibited a big scale show in a museum, I was surprised there were no critics saying, “who is this commercial guy?!”. But by that time KesselsKramer had already won a reputation for doing sophisticated ads, so maybe that helped.

DS: I’ve heard you say that art galleries are often just as commercial as an ad agency anyway.

EK: Of course, some galleries turn into a BMW showroom, metaphorically-speaking. It’s such a facade – I love sneaking in at the back of these art fairs and seeing the other side, the galleries’ tape and bubblewrap and empty bottles. But maybe I’m naïve. Maybe it has to happen.

DS: You have a book coming out soon encouraging people to make mistakes, Failed it! which will be published by Phaidon in April. Given that your piece is called Unfinished Father, do you think both are interested in showing process, rather than the perfect final product?

EK: Of course it can be nice to have that quality, to feel a bit of process, but it’s not necessary to always have that. Failed it! is more about the idea of how you can be creative, what the creative process is. In photography or design or art I think it’s important to deliberately go in a wrong direction or go towards a mistake, because by expanding the field you may come up with a new idea. Often people only create in their back garden – the front garden is where you show things, but the back garden is the place where you can mess around because no body sees the rubbish. The back garden is the place where work is done and you come up with ideas, and maybe eventually a good idea. Then you take it through the house and show the finished work at the front. But some people have never even been in their back garden! This is what I mean by failure.

DS: One final personal question: Your sister died after being hit by a car when she was 9 years old and you were 11, something which you also produced a tremendous short film on. Do you think your own trajectory has been influenced by this tragedy?

EK: I think it has a lot to do with my work. My parents obviously experienced a lot of grief after the accident and began looking frantically for her last image, for something to hold onto. Eventually they found one just taken at an amusement park, the kind where a photographer takes your picture. It’s printed there and then, and put on the gate for you to buy. My parents took that photograph, cropped the rest of us out of it, and took it to the printers, who made a negative in black-and-white and printed in black-and-white. That is the image they keep in their living room. It’s very mundane, but, quite randomly, suddenly it is very iconic. For me, that image is burned into my brain. I know every detail of it.

Images courtesy of Erik Kessels. © Alek Photography

Charlotte Cotton

Curator in Residence at International Center of Photography (ICP)

New York

For the latest addition to our Interview series, Diane Smyth catches up with the newly-appointed Curator in Residence at the International Center of Photography (ICP), Charlotte Cotton, on the occasion of releasing her new publication with Aperture, Photography is Magic. They discuss what makes a great photobook, process-led aspects of photography curating, the role of institutions such as galleries and museums now, and how digital imaging and distribution has shifted photography.

Diane Smyth: In your article Nine Years, A Million Conceptual Miles, you reference the challenges that digital imaging and online distribution pose for traditional museums and institutions. Hasn’t photography always had a complex relationship with institutions though? How has digital changed that?

Charlotte Cotton: For most traditional institutions (and also the development of photo-centric non-profit spaces), the framing of photography as a cultural subject began in earnest in the 1970s. I agree that the edges of that frame – how to include the stories of non-art photographic practices as well as reflect the movements of contemporary art photography – have been present throughout. In the main, the traditional institutional approach has been to single out a handful of photographers and their oeuvres to epitomise their respective genres and represent an era. The biennial and triennial formats have become an established way to look at the most contemporary aspects of photography in a more en masse way, often without much of a proposal beyond the practitioners’ newness and collective energy. I think that one of the reasons I have enjoyed curating and writing about fashion photography is finding ways to give cultural meaning that genuinely seeks to represent its character, one that exists outside of the curatorial conventions used by traditional institutions.

The first part of your question about whether ‘digital’ has changed the dynamics of institutional appraisal of photography is answerable in a number of ways. I do think it’s possible for photography departments in museums to continue along the route of collecting photographic prints and folding the twenty-first century climate into an established history. There are, as you know, many photographers who are creating bodies of work with museums and collections as their end goal, with some choosing online culture as their subject, not unlike landscape and portraiture in the late twentieth century.

But, for me, the bigger questions are about the relationships museums and galleries have with the image environment at large, and on terms not set by institutions themselves. In an age where the defining of photographic practice is happening much more broadly than in the late twentieth century, I think it deserves something of a rethink of what photography departments and organisations can meaningfully provide, given that they are neither the final home nor taste makers of the bulk of current ideas about photography. In practical terms, that’s about putting more curatorial thinking into cultural forms beyond exhibitions and catalogues.

DS: How can photographers fund their work in this shifting landscape? Is the art market still an alluring prospect because of the possibility of selling self-generated projects?

CC: I think this is such a personal dilemma – about how you fund the work you want to do. For each of us, it’s a constant dynamic of checking in with our own reality. I have become very conscious of how I differentiate between my work and my labour of late, no doubt influenced by the undeniable collective feeling that working life is inherently precarious and redrafts our learnt behaviours about how to have a sustainable creative life. I tend to think of my labour as the work I can do because I have a proven track record of expertise and it is to be undertaken only when there are acceptable terms and conditions that make it transparently worth my while. I actually like to labour and have projects where I am playing just a part in something much larger than my own endeavours. I also like to be useful. My work is something that I ‘own’ and I’m unlikely to be directly paid for it because it needs to be on my own terms, often as a kind of counterargument to prevailing models and, hence, not easily packaged. The labour/work distinction is helpful for me at the moment, and maybe for others working in creative industries, especially for when I get the nagging feeling that we are ultimately subsidising an industry’s mechanics on a somewhat false premise that we have a career in the twentieth century sense.

DS: How do you think the current focus on photobook publishing fits into this new landscape? Is it a bubble?

CC: Photobook publishing is a really creative and energised area of photographic practice and I don’t think that energy is a bubble, exactly. It’s not a market bubble in the sense that the business plan for making and disseminating a book doesn’t tend to have a profit line! But I actually think that’s why photobook publishing is so alive and well – because, like visually-led social media, there is not a business model, it’s pretty much driven by ambitions and creative competition between makers. I think the conversation that is happening between makers who are self-publishing and small presses is an absolute joy because it has spectacularly failed to be co-opted into conventional publishing business models. Long may it continue!

DS: What makes a great photobook? Have you seen any recently that particularly impressed you?

CC: The photobooks that resonate with me the most are ones where I can see and sense that an idea is truly manifest in the form. I don’t think that there are many really solid ‘shoulds’ in independent publishing so my attention is especially drawn to photobooks where I feel every element is an active choice by its makers and is deployed in aide of the idea. I sometimes feel a bit sad when I see a great idea muted by the conventions (in design and production values) that permeate the landscape of contemporary photobooks. I’m someone who appreciates not being given too much of a helping hand by a book’s design and prefer ones that provide its own encounter, not one spelled out by half title pages and forewords, et al. Making a great photobook that defines its own terms is really hard! My viewing preferences mean that I am impressed in lots of different directions – from trade books that make a departure from the expected format right through to a zine I may have stumbled upon or some oblique curation within small presses.

DS: Your exhibition Photography is Magic at Daegu Photo Biennale in 2012 and your edit of CPhoto 7, Photographicness, published in 2014 centred on a new, Post-internet generation of photographers. How has digital imaging and distribution shifted photography? And what would you say to those who say this work focuses on form at the expense of, say, emotional connection or documentary campaigning?

CC: I’m responding to your questions just as my book with Aperture – Photography is Magic – has been launched. It has been my attempt to think deeply about how Post-internet practices are meaningfully recalibrating the idea of the ‘photographic’. I use the analogy of close-up magic (conducted in small venues, with a close circle of viewers) to talk about what I see as an artist-led (another small circle of viewers) set of prospects for photography. The fundamental connection is, perhaps surprisingly, about empathy and the aim to trigger ‘magic’ in the imagination of the viewer. Magic is not held in the mechanics or craft of sleight of hand, but in the responses it provokes imaginatively, in real time. A magician practices close-up magic flourishes using a three-faceted mirror, developing their routines from the perspective of the viewer – using the viewer’s pre-existing knowledge of how the visual world works – and this is what I see happening in the working practices of the artists included in my book. All of these artists seem to me to be creatively grappling with where their authored practices move and can be situated in the increasingly large and shared terrain of image-making.

What Photography is Magic is not is a survey of photography’s twenty-first century materiality – from revivalist analogue techniques to 3-D rendering. I do think materials are demonstrations of active choices but I’m not satisfied with the conclusion that a shifting set of values for photographic materials is the full explanation for the revisions that are currently taking place within cultural ideas about photography. I don’t share the view that making an analysis of Post-internet practices is about privileging form over subject, nor that there is some sort of photographic weighing scales that puts contemporary art photography and documentary photography (seen as genres, which I also don’t hold to) that have to be balanced or can cancel each other out. I’ve written about this before, that I see this as an ‘either/and’ rather than an ‘either/or’ epoch of practice.

DS: In your work on P2P at PhotoEspaña 2014, for which you curated a show called Contemporary Practices in Spanish Photography with 30y3 team, Iñaki Domingo and Luis Díaz and also for the show Photography in Everyday Life with Karol Hordziej as part of the Experimental Section of Krakow Photomonth 2012, you created installations in which photographers and visitors could make work, rather than just showing finished artworks. Is process something you’re keen to reveal?

CC: I’m a big fan of iterative and time-sensitive processes! It is ultimately about the types of relationships I want to create with viewers. This is, of course, absolutely nothing new within the story of conceptual and contemporary art but perhaps an aspect that photography curating didn’t fully take on until Web 2.0 and the added context of much more process-led and active frames for cultural viewership. Both P2P and Krakow Photomonth projects were collaborations with younger curators and this inevitably led to more conversational curatorial forms. In both instances, the exhibitions were visual manifestations of not only creative processes that got us to that point but also the beginnings of new ideas that would ripple out afterwards, so the exhibition form needed to be a mapping of an iterative process but also a prompt for something in the future. Both projects were developed at a time when I was on quite an intense learning curve and I didn’t feel that I wanted to curate as if I had a fully definitive and complete point of view on any aspect of photography. It’s not that I can’t imagine curating in a classical way ever again but I have been much more interested in being a participant in thinking and modestly acting out what feels most pertinent to the working groups that I’ve been lucky enough to be part of.

DS: At LACMA where you led the photographic department from 2007-09 you also worked on projects, which focused on live performance and discussion rather than displaying artworks. How do you see the role of institutions such as galleries and museums now?

CC: Working at LACMA gave me immense creative freedom, thanks to the support of the museum’s über-director, Michael Govan. His vision for LACMA has been to create a ‘town square’ for Los Angeles and my forays into envisioning that (with the Machine Project Field Guide to LACMA and the Fallen Fruits’ EATLacma) were some the most incredible experiences of my life. So much of this non-object-based emphasis in my curatorial work was about Los Angeles and its critical mass that is centred in the amazing art schools and artist-to-artist dialogues, and spawned Southern California’s rich history of conceptual art practices. I also greatly enjoy working in institutions at points of change – where creative risks and new paradigms can be developed because the institution actively wants to rethink its role and modalities.

Words Without Pictures was a website (designed by David Reinfurt and edited by Alex Klein) and series of live events. I liked the way we made a connection between what was locally important – and the emergent issues being explored by one community – with the online and global (although mainly within the US) discussion that ensued. I conceived of the project as a year-long discussion that would be summarised in a book that would be useful for more discussions in classrooms, published by Aperture in 2010. I felt like a year was the maximum amount of time before the project would institutionalise itself and become too knowing about its own behaviours. If I had stayed at LACMA, I’m sure we would have taken what we had learnt from the process and thought about the next version, one that might well have blurred the lines between traditional ideas of museum and university with another ‘journey’ that everyone was welcome to join us on.

DS: You started off working within the institutional framework as a curator at the V&A but, it seems, have increasingly moved away from this kind of role. I was interested to see that you’ve recently joined the photography agency, M.A.P, traditionally a way for freelancers to find projects…

CC: One very wise ex-colleague at the V&A made the observation that my career has been in reverse. I worked at the V&A for twelve years until 2004 and since then I have worked mainly in the US in different roles including at a commercial image-making agency, as a visiting scholar at a number of universities, at museums in quite heightened moments of change, and as a freelance consultant, curator and writer. I actively enjoy deciding where the best vantage point and place of new discoveries is going to be. It might be misguided but it gives me a greater sense of a self-determined journey in life than one that is pinned to the health and generosity of one institution full-time. I actually think that my critical faculties are made sharper and more pluralistic by the range of experiences I’ve sought out and I do genuinely believe that the absolute best that a creative life can be is constantly generative.

Leaving the V&A was very much bound up with my desire to know what would happen to me once I stopped being, ‘Charlotte Cotton at the V&A’, and to lose the weight of a lofty title, seemingly from the outside something that I could have held on to in perpetuity, as-well-as the projections and expectations that come with that responsibility. I sometimes berate myself for having a life that’s not overburdened with the trappings of middle age and I do occasionally get worked up about where I will be in a year’s time. But then I remember that to not think about these issues is not only a fool’s paradise but to run the risk of missing out on the real journey into one’s future.

DS: What do you think about the growth in MA courses focusing on curating as a career choice or profession? Has the term ‘curating’ become diluted?

CC: Curating has become an overstretched term for sure. But I can still remember a time when I would say that I’m a curator and people would ask me what that was! So I am all for curating becoming an active verb to reflect the way that this is now a recognised dynamic and modality in lots of creative careers. I think the graduate qualifications in curating suffer from the same issues as MFA programmes right now. Once a specific aspect of a creative practice becomes an established ‘career’ qualification, one with professional standards but without the back up of there being a buoyant ‘profession’ to match it directly, I think it becomes complex. I know that if I was 22 right now, I’d be experimenting, interning and collaborating in the real world to refine my skills as a curator rather than investing in a graduate qualification.

DS: What advice would you give a fledging curator?

CC: I think anyone who has already made a commitment to learning the craft of curating knows this but for what it’s worth, I’d suggest the following: Curate the things that you actively want to explore and express – whether that is overarching themes and behaviours that you want to dig deeper into or creating a vantage point onto your generation of practitioners.

Curating is so much about who you want to communicate with and creating a thoughtful invitation to whoever they are. I’ve enjoyed curating projects that are for very specific audiences and they tend to be much younger than me – I think I will always be grateful to the curators (who I didn’t know existed at the time) whose exhibitions I saw when I was just entering adulthood and they validated me and my passion for culture. I also really appreciate the training that the V&A gave me to think about your audience as everyone who was passing through the museum on a given day.

When I was an intern at the V&A, I earned money working in a hotel restaurant and planning out the minor details of wedding receptions. I think I learnt as much about how to make an environment inviting and how to observe people from the hotel as I did from the V&A! Be confident that any fear you might have of losing sight of your own authorship in collaborative curatorial situations is unfounded. Whether you are the curator within a project relying on a range of skills or working with other curators, if you share an aim, something amazing and substantial will happen.

Image courtesy of Charlotte Cotton. © Christian MacDonald

Francis Hodgson

Professor in the Culture of Photography

University of Brighton

In the next instalment of our Interview series, Gemma Padley speaks to Francis Hodgsoncritic, professor, photography consultant, co-founder of the Prix Pictet, former head of the photographs department at Sotheby’s, and an advisor specialising in fine photographs for private and public collections – about his thoughts on the contemporary photographic landscape, taking in topics such as whether or not there is such a criteria for ‘good’ photographs, the current boom in photobook self-publishing, and how photography has touched every aspect of our lives.

Gemma Padley: You’ve spoken before about applying a ‘criteria’ for quality when talking about photography. Could you expand upon some of these ideas; how do we decide what is ‘good’ in photography?

Francis Hodgson: I’ve talked about this a lot in the past, both in writing and elsewhere, and I’ve found myself talking about this very strange verb – ‘to matter’. Matter is a very odd word with regard to photography. Because of photography’s fantastic vernacular strength, there’s a tendency to say, “everybody’s equal, everybody’s as good as everybody else”. And then to counteract this by saying, “that person is with such and such gallery”, or, “that person has published a book with so and so”, so that the standards of quality move away from the standards of communication.

I’m certainly a million miles away from saying that the standards of quality are basic technological things about f-stops and accuracy of reproduction; lots of out of focus pictures are completely fantastic, I have no hesitation there. But I do think there has been a tendency over a number of years to confuse the ‘subject’ that’s under consideration with the ‘quality’ of the photographs that consider the subject. There are lots of very bad photographs of serious subjects, and there are lots of very wonderful photographs of complete trivial nonsense.

I’ve been anxiously trying to see whether one can set standards by which one can say, “look, that actually is a bad photograph.” And my gradual tendency is to find myself looking at the notion of communication. Photographs that do not say what the photographer purports they say are not really doing the job that he or she thought they were doing, whereas photographs that say something, that is not much wanted at the time, or is digested 100 years later, really do have that content, [and] seem to me to be closer to what you might call ‘good’ photographs. I realise these are very difficult things to talk about and I’m often accused of being deeply conventional when I look for some kind of standard. Part of it, I have to say, is to do with the intentions of the photographer. A photographer who is trying to say something of course can be understood differently when one uncovers those works fifty or so years later in an archive. Nevertheless, those pictures have a built-in content heaviness if they were successful at getting across what they wanted.

GP: What, to your mind, has been impact of digital technologies on photography, in terms of the creation and dissemination of the medium?

FH: One of the things I see in the great overdosing of photography that goes on in the digital era, where, if you like, pictures are no longer single events or single cultural moments (lots of people talk about a flow of images where you don’t really print, you just get struck by them; for example, you very rarely look at things on Facebook again), is the role of turning oneself into a voluntary archivist if you like – editing pictures and finding some importance in them that was not there when they were first made. I see a lot of people trying to slow down that flow, even at quite modest amateur levels. I see a lot of people curating collections of pictures on their blogs from the vast flow of imagery and they are making those images matter – there’s that word – in ways that the originators of those pictures probably never expected. And that’s absolutely fine by me. It is a way of applying critical standards to something that is otherwise completely neutral.

I’ve been writing a lot about the notion of a new vocabulary [for photography]; I want to talk about people who are ‘photo operators’ to whom the culture of photography is not of any concern. The example I often give is of a traffic warden whose job it is to make ‘x’ amount of photographs per day which quite literally have to be good enough to stand up in court. That person does not describe him or herself as a photographer and yet he or she is using photography to a professionally high standard every time. Another example would be of estate agents who again do not think of themselves as making any allusion to photography and yet everyday they go to visit people’s apartments and make photographs according to a set of standards, and these pictures have to be good by some kind of odd estate agent standard if they’re going to work. But that business of not being involved in the ‘culture’ of photography has spread.

GP: But what has photography’s impact been more widely on other areas of culture?

FH: I refer you to a book, which I regard to be of great importance – Photography Changes Everything by Marvin Heiferman, a project initiated by the Smithsonian Museum. It is really one of the only museums that is, ‘a museum of everything’. It goes, as Marvin says, from A to Z. This meant that in every department of the Smithsonian Museum, not only did they use photography but photography profoundly changed the disciplines in each place. Now that is not a digital phenomenon. If you like I’ll give you a very simple example, which comes from Marvin but which I’ve also written about in the past before I’d read Marvin’s book. If you think about the way that photography bursts into particular fields, in medicine, for example, in the field of ophthalmology; what happened was, photography started as a tool of description and very quickly became the central tool of diagnostics. So now it’s impossible to be an ophthalmologist without using photographs. That’s to say that photographs have actually changed the practice, as they have in anthropology, and so on. Now that has nothing whatsoever to do with digital.

The example that I suppose comes very early on is the business of colonisation. You start in Victorian photographs to look at the notion of other people; people from other countries. Colonisation doesn’t make any sense if a few hardy explorers come back and tell everyone about these things, but the minute photography becomes a standard tool, then colonisation has elements of ethnography built into it. The minute you have those images, colonisation becomes the business of seeking to understand people as well as categorise them. And I’d say this was around 1860, so it’s very early in photography’s history.

The way I describe it – and I always describe it like this – photography is like the Big Bang. It boomed enormously quickly. Photography’s birth date is always given as 1839, but by the mid-1850s there had been an incredibly rapid boom, an explosion. And photography continues to explode into every field that it touches, so that when it touches medicine, it revolutionises that field; when it touches politics, pop music, and so on.

The reason I use the metaphor of the Big Bang is that no one is quite sure what’s left in the middle. The core of the photographic explosion is now in doubt. We’re not sure what photography is. And lots of clever people including philosophers, photographers and lawmakers, when you get to copyright, are asking, ‘what’s left in the middle?’ It’s either an interesting post-modern phenomenon where photography isn’t what we thought it was, or it’s something very different to that – something where we might gradually see that photography isn’t actually a thing in its own right; its done its work, its taught us how to think.

On the most obvious, basic level, at the beginning of the twentieth century, people suddenly realised that photography had profoundly changed the notion of aesthetics. Where we’d previously looked for grace, harmony, balance and some kind of cultural virtue, clearly, once photography does its thing – with things being very interesting when they’re not properly framed, or when perspective is squished – ugliness, squalor, and pain slide onto light sensitive surfaces just as easily as grace and harmony. So photography blew away 500 years of aesthetics. Everybody knows that, that’s not [coming from] me – you can find all sorts of quotes for that. But I think photography did the same thing to lots of very other important fields. And I think that’s the place where we are now.

GP: If this middle no longer exists, then what replaces it? Do we have to create that middle, or try to find something that could take its place? What should the next step be? Do you think we’re scared to face these changes? Perhaps there is a sense that it’s safer to cling on to what’s gone before and what we believe we think photography is? Are we thinking outside of traditional realms of photography or do we need to force the issue?

FH: There are people thinking about these things in very interesting and successful ways, but there is also what you describe – fear. But I find the parallel is exactly like the early days of photography where people were absolutely convinced that photography was going to change industry. There was a huge debate at the Great Exhibition of 1850 as to whether photography should be a product or a process. There’s lots of good writing about this. And I find this exactly parallel to what’s going on now. Take the carte de visite. The idea was hugely popular and not at all dissimilar to how people are working with Instagram now. The carte de visite was considered vulgar and popular and allowed a new kind of social class to play with these things. And it was cheap; it completely altered the mechanics of social interaction among the people who had access to it. So I don’t see how there is any great newness in the philosophical positions, I just think the phenomena at stake need to be thought of afresh.

People are rushing headlong to use the new possibilities of photography, and doing very interesting things with them – that’s great. There’s no problem there. And if you can hang onto some of the cultural wealth that the analysis of photography has produced already, then you can make better sense of these other ways of doing things. I’m excited by the astonishing things one can do with post-photographic tools. The Prix Pictet, in which I’ve been involved since the beginning, remains an astonishing way of getting powerful ideas out to vast numbers of people, which actually change lives. It’s not an art project; it’s a political discourse about globalisation. And that’s done through photographs – like great documentary filmmakers who affect political change even though their stuff is distributed through Hollywood. That’s great – there is nothing wrong with that at all. I’ve no doubt that the root efficiency of photography is not under threat, it is just there are lots of new players and new ways of playing coming in and jostling for attention. I suppose my job is to try and make sense of some of those as they come.

GP: What is your take on photobooks and their function as you see it within contemporary photography?

FH: I’m relatively sceptical about the present explosion of the photobook. The reasons for that are multiple. One of them is the rise of self-publishing; it’s been done under an illusion. When a customer buys a photobook that has come out of this self-publishing or nearly self-publishing market, they still think they’re buying something that has been validated and paid for by a person or a cooperation that has committed to those pictures and that way of telling a story. And that is no longer true. Even utterly respectable publishers are now asking the photographers to pay for the print run or the galleries are paying for it. There’s an illusion of independence, which I think hasn’t been advertised enough. Which is not at all to say that I find all photobooks bad – far from it. But the photobook boom flies under an illusion of neutrality or objectivity when a lot of it is marketing.

The circulation figures of photobooks are simply not in tune with what photography is. It’s very rare to have a photobook that sells a thousand copies. It is closer to the vanity publishing of a few bad sonnets by Victorian poets. I’ve got nothing at all against photobooks. Like everyone else I get a huge hit from the good ones; but, this is not the mass communication medium that we knew all those years ago. This is a medium which is addressing itself to a small and self-selecting group of photobook collectors, many of whom buy two copies of books – they keep one in cellophane, just in case it will be worth more money later on.

So out of your thousand copies of a book, perhaps only 300 are sold to be viewed. This is actually a tiny, self-sustaining sector of a market. As long as one doesn’t have any illusions about that, it’s a jolly interesting phenomenon with lots being produced that’s very exciting. But my view is that people aren’t very clear about that. So you have lots of new interest in the photobook – at fairs and auctions – and lots of photobook activity left, right and centre… but actually, that does not equate to a great boom in the influencing of people through images, which is what photography at its root, was.

For example, if you go to see a show like Donovan Wylie’s great exhibition Vision as Power at the Imperial War Museum, which explore modern-day surveillance, what you see is a really fantastic set of objects that are three or four feet across. And when you buy the book of those things you get an index of what you saw, a kind of sequence. But there is no great mass communication hit from that book. The photobook is the catalogue of a really powerful and publically effective exhibition. Huge numbers of people thought about the way modern colonialism works in different ways to the ways they’d thought about it before, but not through the book. The exhibition and the magazine publications that come out around the time of the exhibition are doing a really powerful communication job. But the book is not, even though it is a jolly good book. And that to me seems likes a really frequent phenomenon. The project comes out, it’s done in a show, the show is publicised in magazines, and the magazines get 20 to 40,000 people seeing the thing, not for very long. Those [articles] are reproduced online, that gets 100,000 people seeing the thing – online – if it’s exciting, and at the end, there is a high value, small, circulation object – the book, which is collectable but no longer has very much heft in the communication moment that’s at stake. And that seems to me to not yet have been articulately shared with people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that photobooks are crap, I’m saying that the job they do is not the job that they purport to do.

GP: You’ve worked and continue to work in many different areas within photography – from education, as professor of the culture of photography at the University of Brighton, to the art world, through the consultancy work that you do and your time at Sotheby’s as head of the photography department, commercially, and of course in your writing for the Financial Times and other publications and institutions. How, for you, do these different disciplines relate to each other, and how do you manage to keep all the plates in the air, so to speak?

FH: I think of them all as being parts of the same thing. To be personal about it, I am surprised to find I am still completely taken by photography. It was possible, when I started to write about photography all those years ago, that I thought this was just a field I was in, and I would move to another field, and then another one. And I’m surprised to find that in dodging and weaving in the way that I have, I have kept my own interest absolutely on the boil the whole time. I’m not in the slightest bit bored by photography or by the functions I take within photography. But I’ve taken a lot of different functions. I’ve never been a picture editor on a magazine for 30 years; I’ve done a bit of this and a bit of that. The CV is very slalom shaped. But I do think that they’re all part of the same thing.

I still believe that photography is by far the most important medium of the latter part of the twentieth century – more important than prose and more important than cinema. No exaggeration. Photography is transnational, it’s transcultural. It is available to five-year-olds, it is available to professors of photography. It’s amazing how it is not a limited medium. No other medium equals it in its efficient transmission of powerful messages – certainly not prose. People are less literate than they were but they are more literate in photographs than they used to be, and that is pretty powerful. One could argue that photography is dropping off a bit from those great heights, and its other cousins are jostling up against it, but they’ve all developed from photography. Video games are derived from photography, as is cinema, and actually quite a lot of journalism too. These huge industries which people don’t think of as being post-photographic, I most certainly do. The fashion business doesn’t make any sense without photography. Photography is absolutely at the core of fashion, which is a billion-dollar industry and has been for years. I see photography as being close to either a key or the key to everything else.

Image courtesy of Francis Hodgson. © Anton Corbijn.

Sean O’Hagan

Photography Critic at The Guardian


Continuing our series of interviews with members of the international photography community – writers, curators, collectors, gallerists, picture editors and so on – Federica Chiocchetti of the Photocaptionist speaks to The Guardian’s photography critic of 10 years Sean O’Hagan. They discuss conceptions of ‘good’ writing on photography, how he discovers new talent, and which British photographers he feels have been underemphasised by UK photographic institutions.

Federica Chiocchetti: Could you tell us a little bit about your background prior to your post as photography critic at The Guardian?

Sean O’Hagan: I studied English at university and worked as a music writer for several years. Then, I worked for The Guardian as a freelance writer and as a features writer for The Observer on art and culture. I still really love doing interviews. For me, it’s the best way to shed light on someone’s way of thinking creatively.

Photography was always there in the background as a fascination of mine and several interviews I did for The Observer Review section with the likes of Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and Anders Petersen prompted me to start writing about it more. That was about 10 years ago, when there seemed to be an absence of writing on photography in the ‘serious’ papers. It was usually left to the art critic or whoever else was available to review a big exhibition or book. It was not taken seriously as an art form – still isn’t, but to a lesser degree – compared to, say, theatre or film or dance. So, I was very much on a mission to help put that right. It just grew from there and I was offered a regular online forum by The Guardian a few years ago, which became On Photography.

FC: What is your conception of ‘good’ writing on photography? Is there anyone in particular that has inspired you? And what advice would you give to an emerging writer on photography?

SH: Writing that is clear and clear-headed even if it is tackling difficult or elusive or obtuse subject matter. I have a certain responsibility because I work for a newspaper with a huge readership. Many of my readers are regulars but many more may come to a column or a feature out of curiosity and with only a passing interest in the subject. I’d like them to come back. I’m not writing for an art magazine where one can assume that the reader has a certain familiarity with the subject or with the history of conceptualism or whatever. I can’t use dense, theoretical language to deconstruct works by Jeff Wall or Gursky, nor would I want to.

My formative inspirations were non-fiction writers like Joan Didion, in particular her first two collections of essays, The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I like Truman Capote’s essays as well, much more than his fiction. And Gay Talese’s classic collection, Frank Sinatra Has A Cold, which has just been published as a Penguin Classics. On the more contemporary front, I’d recommend John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection, Pulphead: Notes from the Other Side of America, which is a very personal take on music, politics and culture. As far as photography writing goes, it always amazes me how many great photographers are also great writers – Diane Arbus, Robert Adams, Danny Lyon. And Eggleston’s short illuminating afterword from The Democratic Forest still resounds. We ALL need to be more at war with the obvious right now!

FC: How do you discover new talent?

SH: Increasingly, it discovers me. Strange, but true. It’s the power of the internet again. People know where to find you!

I try to stay alert to what people I trust are enthusing about. I read photography mags, blogs, websites – at least the more interesting ones. There is an awful lot of new work out there and I have to be ultra-selective just because of space and the requirements of the job so I see all these other outlets as a kind of filter. And, of course, people send me stuff – books, PDFs, ongoing projects. It’s kind of relentless and so is the demand for an instant response. I worry about that a bit as I tend towards the reflective. I think we should all slow down… and breath. Let things settle. The quick response is journalistic, of course, but it is not necessarily critical. And opinions are not enough. That’s where we live right now, though. I wish there was a slow journalism movement. I really do.

FC: Do you read/appreciate photography theory?

SH: It depends. Good writing is good writing, whatever. But, when I read bad theoretical writing – dense theoretical jargonese – the old punk in me agrees with Nan Goldin, who said recently: “Fucking postmodern and gender theory. I mean, who gives a shit? People made all that crap up to get jobs in universities.” I think it kills the work for people who are not from that academic background. That kind of writing is exclusive by its nature. It often makes things less clear.

That said, I am familiar with theoretical writing. I did an English degree at a time when post-structuralism and semiotics were like time bombs exploding in the academy. I still return to Barthes and Foucault from time to time. I love Barthes when he is at his most personal and Camera Lucida is a very personal meditation on photography and memory and mourning.

I worry about the teaching of photography in colleges and the emphasis on theory. You see degree shows and MA shows where students present half-digested theory and really dull photographs. I think the ascendency of the curator is a cause for concern as well. They sometimes seem more important than the artists, which is something Brian Eno predicted when I saw him gave a lecture at the beginning of the nineties. I like this essay by Paul Graham, which touches on some concerns of mine. I don’t think it helps to exclude people – or images – from the ongoing debate about the meaning of photography. Theory can be a way of entering and decoding a work but, too often, it seems to me like an end in itself. It’s still valid to walk out into the world with a camera and simply take photographs, though there is, of course, nothing simple about doing that well. I often detect a kind of implicit disdain for that approach from curators and academics.

FC: What is the harshest criticism that you received in your career as a photography critic for The Guardian?

SH: Where to begin? You have to become thick-skinned pretty quickly if you venture online. There was a post recently suggesting that a ‘proper’ art critic should have reviewed Lorna Simpson’s show at BALTIC – “she deserves to be reviewed in a context and by a reviewer commensurate with her status!” – which I took personally for about five minutes until I realised the next post had demolished the inherent snobbery of that remark pretty succinctly. I received a fair amount of flak as well as support for my views on The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize a few years ago, when I suggested it was biased towards art photography at the expense of other genres, but that comes with the turf. I guess if you don’t annoy some of the people some of the time, you’re not doing your job properly.

FC: Which British photographers do you feel have been underemphasised by UK photographic institutions?

SH: Oh dear, where to begin? Chris Killip had a major retrospective in Essen, not that long ago, but has not had one here. That is mystifying to me. In fact that whole generation of great British documentarists get short shrift from British institutions. I can only put that down to curatorial bias. If not, what else explains it? I think people in the photography community were relieved when Tony Ray-Jones was finally given a show last year (at Media Space.) Likewise Tom Wood at The Photographers’ Gallery. I know Paul Graham had a big show at The Whitechapel a few years back, but why not at the Tate or the Hayward? It just seems odd at this stage of the game.

FC: What trends do you find interesting at present?

SH: Found photography continues to fascinate people in and out of the photography community – Thomas Sauvin’s Beijing Silvermine project looks like the last word but probably isn’t. I get sent a lot of diaristic work, which is probably the biggest trend. Says a lot about where we live. A lot of it seems solipsistic and has none of the heft of, say, Nan Goldin’s work.

I’ll be glad to see the back of (too) big prints, which everyone seemed to be doing for a moment there, whether the work required it or not. And, please, no more Google Street View projects! I think photographers do tend to get apocalyptic about the post-digital deluge – Instagram etc. – and the sheer numbers can be scary, but most people don’t even see that stuff. For me it’s just another moment in the continuum. I read somewhere that, in the sixties, over half of all households in America had a Polaroid or Instamatic camera, but I don’t think Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand were running around in a panic thinking, “It’s all over for us – everyone’s taking photographs!”

What it does to looking or processing images is another thing, though. We’re all living though a huge social experiment that it is hard to gauge the real meaning of. I’m a bit more concerned with what texting, tweeting and the rest is doing to literacy. Kids’  brains are definitely being rewired. Where will it lead? Who knows?

FC: Do you think that prizes and awards are a good thing?

SH: Yes and no. It’s good to be acknowledged, but there are too many prizes now. And they can tend to be a lottery of sorts. I looked at this year’s Deutsche Börse shortlist and thought, What?! Where’s Viviane Sassen, for example? But, that’s the nature of prizes: it’s four people’s opinions usually – and two of them are curators. I tend to take them with a pinch of salt – unless I’m up for one!

FC: Could you tell us a photobook and an exhibition from the past that blew your mind?

SH: The past is a big country. How about the very recent past? The Robert Adams retrospective at Jeu de Paume in Paris recently was just so impressive – a life in a body of work. I spent ages in there. He’s a living master. At the other extreme, someone who is relatively new. I walked into Tereza Zelenkova’s small show, The Absence of Myth, at Legion TV, a small gallery in Hackney last year and was blown away by the work and the way it was laid out – texts and multiple black and white prints in large frames. She’s a young photographer, but there is something very thoughtful as well as day dreamily melancholic about her approach to the gothic and uncanny. She’s fascinated by Georges Bataille and manages to get something of his aura into the words and pictures. She has her own way of seeing things. That’s what I’ m looking out for.

In terms of historical shows, Eggleston’s Ancient and Modern at The Barbican in 1992 was a game-changer for me. It presented a new way of seeing: the ordinary made luminous, the world as we know it, but slightly skewed.

And photo books…Off the top of my head: Love on the Left Bank by Ed van der Elsken was perhaps the first photobook that made me see the potential of photography to create a staged, semi-fictional, but somehow utterly real, visual narrative. It still amazes me that it was first published in 1957. So far ahead of the game. I also remember coming across Ray’s A Laugh by Richard Billingham in a bookshop in the mid-nineties and being really confused and excited by it. It had a similar impact on me as a great punk or hip-hop record would once have had – that feeling that you were encountering something new and so viscerally powerful that you were not quite sure what to do with it.

I had a similar reaction to Lieko Shiga’s Rasen Kaigan. What’s going on in these pages!? Still not sure, but it’s pretty powerful. And, recently, this photobook arrived though my letterbox and it’s pretty damn exciting, too: Shanxi by Zhang Xaio, published by Little Big Man.