Ekow Eshun – Curator

Africa State of Mind

Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy Ekow Eshun. © Simon Frederick

Katrina Sluis

Digital Curator at The Photographers’ Gallery and Senior Lecturer

London South Bank University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy Katrina Sluis. © Simon Terrill

Lucy Soutter

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

University of Westminster, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Lucy Soutter. © Peter Ainsworth

Ben Burbridge

Senior Lecturer in Art History

University of Sussex, Brighton

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

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

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

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

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

LB: And how about the other book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LB: So, who do you write for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LB: And what about ‘conceptual documentary’ work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Ben Burbridge. © Jason Evans

Allan Sekula

Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1973–1983


MACK has a warranted reputation for photobooks, but also well deserving of acknowledgment are their series of collected essays by prominent photographers. The latest of these comes in a thoroughly overdue republication of the early writings and photographs of Allan Sekula, arriving almost exactly three years after his death in 2013.

In the title’s echoes of Walter Benjamin’s plea to read against the embedded ideologies of narrative history, Photography Against the Grain immediately spreads Sekula’s critical and theoretical cards on the table. His Marxist influences might feel uncomfortable to readers who have only ever known the era since these ideas were supposedly confined to the dustbin of history, replaced by the revolving roster of neoliberal mutations, which are supposed to pass for alternatives to each other. However to dismiss Sekula’s ideas as outdated because they rest on unfashionable ideologies is to mistake his importance then, and now.

Sekula achieved that rare thing of oscillating theory and practice to the point where they became indistinct, the two instead blending together like an optical illusion to create the ghostly afterimage of the invariably invisible subjects he so urgently wanted to discuss. And what subjects they were, the grim pantheon of the late capitalist world which Benjamin and some of his Frankfurt school contemporaries had already sensed steamrollering towards the ruins of their own era. Sekula tackled these vast and vital issues with a critical mind and eye, which viewed three decades later, still seems breathtakingly ambitious, not least because so few artists today attempt the same today.

Sekula’s commitment to photography never descends into infatuation, instead stemming in large part I think from an acute awareness of the medium’s shortcomings, its slippery muteness, its status as a commodity circulating in the same currents as the products and people he often photographed, interviewed and wrote about. In a time when theory is often a sort of opaque artistic window dressing, and social or political critique is so frequently defanged for the purposes of commerce, Sekula’s work stands as an example of what truly critical art can be. A reminder that when we find ourselves confronted by an apparently smooth edifice we must run our fingers against the grain, search for the cracks, and on finding them, dig deeply in.

– Lewis Bush

All images courtesy of MACK. © Allan Sekula

Karen Knorr



Karen Knorr’s Gentlemen is a series of 26 photographs anchored by short texts, taken inside the exclusive private members clubs that dominate the area of London just north of St. James Park. Photographed between 1981 and 1983, the series is overshadowed by the Falklands War, the last death throes of an empire of which these clubs formed part of a privileged ruling nucleus.

These photographs, which Knorr describes as a ‘documentary fiction’, depict the club interiors, its members, and on several conspicuous occasions also the staff who serve within. The texts in turn are drawn from conversations, parliamentary records, and contemporary news reports, and paired with each image they serve to draw a viewer to particular visual details and juxtapositions to reflect on notions of patriarchy, gender and class.

It is an interesting thing when a series from an earlier era re-emerges again to consider what feels fresh and unchanged and what is less so. Despite a renewed interest in the possibilities of image-text pairings, it is still perhaps this very strategy that dates Gentlemen most immediately. It instantly calls to mind a particular moment of art production concerned with cultural theory, and recalls work by both Knorr’s contemporaries and predecessors; for example Victor Burgin’s photo-texts or, earlier still, the photo-epigrams of Bertolt Brecht.

More noteworthy is that which does not really age Gentlemen at all, that being what is shown in the photographs themselves. Despite the fact that they are photographed during the abyssal depths of the Thatcher era we now find ourselves three decades later in a situation that feels little different, in a society which remains hierarchical, and fixated on distinctions like class, gender, and increasingly, of course, also on foreignness.

If the recent European referendum can be read as the last gasp of sections of the United Kingdom desperately seeking a return to an impossibly lost past, the timing of Karen Knorr’s latest publication is apt to say the least. Apt, but it also begs a question; where are the photographers documenting the ‘gentlemen’ of today?

Lewis Bush

All images courtesy of STANLEY/BARKER. © Karen Knorr

Alejandro Cartagena

Santa Barbara return jobs back to Us


Encountering a book for the first time it is sometimes surprising what element of it lands the first blow. With Alejandro Cartagena’s Santa Barbara return jobs back to Us it was the smell, the sharp scent of ink mingling with something musty, like a long dry landscape after a much needed scattering of rain. This seems apt. Predominantly photographed in the titular city while Cartagena undertook a residency there, other images come from cities of the same name scattered across Latin America – in Mexico, Venezuela, and Chile.

Cartagena is a prolific photographer but for most he will be best known for his self-published book Carpoolers. This is a classic a typological study, photographs taken from on high of the open backs of speeding pickup trucks, wherein migrant workers huddle for warmth enroute to day jobs in the grey economy of the southern United States. Santa Barbara is very different, both in its physical form, narrative structure, and photography. It also, however, feels very much like a continuation of Cartagena’s interest in the United State’s fraught relationship with its southern neighbours, in particular his native Mexico.

In contrast to the strict typology of Carpoolers, the photographs in Santa Barbara are a series of vignettes and snapshots, where themes reoccur organically and unpredictably, making the narrative feel like a solitary walk through an unwelcoming suburban sprawl. These vignettes are typically American, perhaps to the extent of cliché. Gun violence, film noir, suburban houses, highways, mug shots, cheerleaders, late night stores, and a bumper sticker from which the book’s title is taken, albeit recast less as a request or demand than as a simple statement.

Through this narrative Cartagena conjures the sense of a place, which has the air of an ambiguous borderland, a porous place where culture and people flow. Whether it is between north or south, or past and present, is difficult to say. It is a place where the idea of concrete identities, nationalities and strictly delineated borders seem like a nostalgic dream or a relicfrom the past superseded by a new and very different reality – a place where the topography is treacherous, the present uncertain, and the future, even more so.

Lewis Bush

All images courtesy of Skinnerboox. © Alejandro Cartagena

Thomas Albdorf

I Know I Will See What I Have Seen Before

Lodret Vandret

The normal instinct of a photographer, particularly a fine art photographer, is to steer clear of any subject which has been photographed before, and all the more so when that subject is so well-worn as to have become cliché. Picturesque mountains might be high on the verboten list given that they have appeared in countless visual platitudes from romantic painting to contemporary tourist photos. However, as Thomas Albdorf demonstrates in his book I Know I Will See What I Have Seen Before, even the most egregious cliché can become interesting when viewed in the right way.

Albdorf probes the snowcapped mountains of his native Austria, visually exploring them much like the first climbers explored them spatially. He employs a battery of techniques including straight photography, appropriation as well as studio photographs of strange constructions, overlaid across photographic prints. Each approach brings with it its own language, and each of those languages carry different connotations of their use to reinterpret and reframe the meaning of the mountains, from picturesque art and photography, to Austrian and Hollywood cinema, and from tourist advertising to political propaganda. That idea of visual specifics is reflected even in the design of the book which is extremely simple: mostly white apart from the photographs of the script, the title of which is gothic, both quintessentially Germanic, like those mountains, but also a script with a history of very mixed meanings and use.

The same photographs reappear in different forms, sometimes abstracted, reshaped, pixelated, altered, and sometimes introducing new notions of what an image of such a familiar subject might actually mean. In the process, the work tests the expectations the viewer might have for a topic as hackneyed as mountains, and hints at the politics that underlie the framing of subjects and the aesthetic choices made in their representation, however banal both these things might at first seem.

—Lewis Bush

All images courtesy of Webber Represents. © Thomas Albdorf

Daniel Stier

Ways of Knowing

YES Editions

The language of science has frequently been appropriated to lend credibility and authority to questionable endeavours, not least in the history of photography. The serial repetitions and gridded backdrops of Eadweard Muybridge’s locomotion studies, for example, belie the fact that these images were often of dubious investigative value. In Ways of Knowing Daniel Stier plays on this tendency by blending images of genuine scientific experiments with photographs that appear to be elaborate hoaxes.

Opening the blue plastic dust jacket of Ways of Knowing, you are in fact confronted by two books facing each other across a false spine. The first consists of a series of seductive photographs of test subjects taking part in complex experiments at research institutions across Europe and America. These scenes are invariably bizarre, and some more readily suggest byzantine forms of torture rather than a genuine search for knowledge. There is little to give away the true purpose of each experiment but captions at the back of the book reveal investigations into fields like neurology, psychology, and physiology.

The second book consists of a series of still lives, which resemble details extracted from bigger experiments. These include an orange nestling in a curved grid of wire mesh, a man lifting a stool while pressing his head against a wall, and a wine bottle and umbrella balancing obstinately on a piece of string. Where the technical complexity of the contraptions in the first book seem to leave little doubt about their genuine scientific purpose, the modest strangeness of many of the arrangements in the second make these somehow seem less credible, and indeed many are constructions of Stier’s own making, albeit ones which are designed to illustrate genuine scientific phenomena.

In short, Ways of Knowing is a smart, engaging book, which neatly takes advantage of the way we have been culturally conditioned to accept the authority of certain types of inquiry, while doubting others.

— Lewis Bush

All images courtesy of the artist © Daniel Stier

Daniel Blaufuks

This Business of Living

Pierre von Kleist Editions

The only joy in the world is to begin,” wrote the Italian novelist Cesare Pavese in his diaries. “When this sensation is lacking – as when one is in prison, or ill, or stupid, or when living has become a habit – one might as well be dead.”

Anyone who is busy will attest that it is all too easy for life to become a habit, or a business. Daniel Blaufuks’ latest book This Business of Living, is inspired by and shares its title with Pavese’s diaries, and does what many of us fail to take time to do. It takes a look backwards, or perhaps sideways, at those days that have an alarming tendency to slide by so easily and unremarkably.

The imagery is suitably domestic and diary-like and, as in much of Blaufuks’ work, it is possible to trace loose connections and themes from one photograph to the next. Often this is indirect and akin to the functioning of a memory while at other times straightforward and even a little mechanical. One image shows a book open at a reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson, followed by a photograph of the photographer’s hand open on a table, as if awaiting the doctor’s blade. Another spread shows two facing photographs of the same clock, but fifteen minutes apart.

As much as anything, diaries are like an attempt to hold on to time just a little, to catch a feel of a day or a week or a month as it passes. They are also perhaps one of the great examples of epic, silent labour. Samuel Pepys’ diary, for example, spanned a tumultuous decade and was over a million words long. This book, however, felt a little short, as if the themes that Blaufuks is exploring still had some distance to go and ended, like so many days, before we are quite ready.

—Lewis Bush

All images courtesy of Pierre von Kleist Editions. © Daniel Blaufuks