Writer Conversations #1

Tina M. Campt

Tina M. Campt is a black feminist theorist of visual culture and contemporary art. She is Owen F. Walker Professor of Humanities and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, US, where she leads the Black Visualities Initiative at the Cogut Institute for Humanities. Her early work theorised gender, racial and diasporic formation in black communities in Europe and southern Africa, and the role of vernacular photography in historical interpretation. Campt is the author of four books: Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender and Memory in the Third Reich (University Michigan Press, 2004); Image Matters: Archive, Photography and the African Diaspora in Europe (Duke University Press, 2012); Listening to Images (Duke University Press, 2017); and A Black Gaze (MIT Press, 2021). She is the founding convenor of the Practicing Refusal Collective and the Sojourner Project.

At what point did you start to write about photographs?

I started to write about photographs after writing my first book, which was an oral history of the Black community in Germany in the Nazi regime. I started writing about photographs of these individuals because I was asked to do a sound installation on their accounts of their life at that period of time. What forced me to actually start writing about images is that when we did the sound installation, when we were designing it and trying to think through it, what I realised is that there is no way to get people to listen to anything without giving them a focal point to look at. It was a real challenge because I had strenuously avoided including photographs of the individuals who I had spoken to, because I felt that anytime I presented my work, someone in the audience would ask: “Well, what did they look like?”. “What did they look like?” became this way of indexing whether or not their account would be true, or could be true, based on how they looked, so that their race had to register in their bodies and on their faces in order for their accounts of their experiences in the Third Reich to be considered true. I had always avoided using photographs because I didn’t want to put those individuals and their stories in that position. But when I faced the challenge of having people be in a sound installation and to stop to absorb it, I started looking for their photos, collecting their photos [to do that].

After that sound installation, I was just so incredibly impacted by their photographs because they resonated with me so much, even though they were of families that were very different than my own. And I started writing about the photographs in order to give voice to the responses that I was having that I couldn’t explain. And it really was just an experiment because I never studied photography, art, history, any kind of visual culture in college or in graduate school. I strenuously avoided that as well, and these photographs kind of lured or tantalised me. They provoked me to try and articulate what they solicited in me, and that became a practice that, ever since I started writing, has been both terrifying and truly exhilarating.

Would you say that your writing is about that, that encounter? Recording an encounter, but also facilitating an encounter, mobilising it?

Yes, it is. I was just reading this morning about Generation X and suddenly realised that I am Generation X! I always thought I was another generation! In this article I was reading, I recognised myself because Generation X was the generation of MTV. We were the generation where images inundated us in a way that was unfiltered. And previously there had been so many more filters on images and their circulation. So, as somebody who from childhood – I got my first television when I was six years old, a tiny, tiny Sony Trinitron that my grandmother gave me – I have been inundated with images all of my life. At the same time, that has made me someone who can easily gloss over images because I’m so used to them being such a strong part of my life. With photographs, I had the exact opposite experience, which was that I couldn’t gloss over them. They grabbed me and I would just get lost in them. And so the practice that you’re talking about is really about trying to linger in that experience of encounter and to share it in a way that makes others linger in the same process. So that’s always been the motivation. It’s always been a little bit like: “Does this image do the same thing to you as it does to me?” And I’ve never expected a “Yes”, but the nature of my writing is to ask that question and to get people to think about the answers.

What is your writing process?

I had one practice and it’s changed more recently in the last couple of years. The first writing practice was with photographs, and it was about spending some time looking at a photograph, and then putting it away and writing about what I thought I saw, or what I thought I was experiencing in relationship to it, and then bringing the photograph back and reading what I wrote while looking at the image and seeing what I got wrong or what the gaps were. My next step was not necessarily to correct the gaps, but to write about where they came from, if there was a disjuncture between what I thought I saw and what I saw. I tried to articulate why that was; so why, for example, did I think that I saw a kid that looked really happy when the kid looked really sullen? There was something about me bringing something to that image that led me down that path, and I think that’s important, to not just write about images to describe them exactly. What I try and do is to describe a relationship to them that develops both through seeing and feeling, and allowing yourself to feel and respond. And so that sort of ‘look, look away, look, look away’ was the way in which I wrote about vernacular photographs.

Since I’ve started writing about contemporary art and film, it’s kind of changed. It’s become much more physical because I rarely have the images. I’m rarely in possession of them, or I rarely have an extended period of time with them. With contemporary art, I usually sit on the floor. I sit on the floor of the museum and just literally look and write, look and write, for as long as I possibly can, before people start to make me feel uncomfortable. I then take that away and go home and continue writing. I set this intention or aspiration. The first part of that process is ethnographic: I’m sort of writing about myself encountering an image or a piece of art. And then it’s about unpacking the rest of what that relationship looks like, like what are the larger contextual things? And then, more recently, I’ve started writing about film and that has also become this extraordinarily spatial and haptic encounter, where I usually have to set up my computer with a sound system that will allow me to have contact with the audio, because the audio and the visual are so intertwined that I need to be able to feel the sound of a film. This is much harder for moving image; it’s harder to write in relationship to, and so I find it to be a really tedious process where usually I have my computer and I have an iPad and then I’m typing and I’ll pause and then I keep typing. It’s literally simultaneous to the moving of it, and once I get the whole thing down, I re-watch it, and then I’ve usually memorised the actual film by the time I’m done, and I can tell you what it is, frame by frame.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing?

That has also shifted over time. When I first started writing about the family photographs with Black German families, what motivated me to write about them was trying to account for visual intimacy at a moment or in a circumstance where that seemed impossible. Those photographs were able to capture care, intimacy and relation in ways that I had never seen written about before. I carried that forward into writing about the vernacular images of the Black British community (the Afro-Caribbean community in Birmingham), where, in their staged photographs, I found a level of identity that was expressed so profoundly, and so profoundly beyond words.

That was a moment in time when I was thinking about “what do photographs allow people to do, or to say?” That was really the question of Image Matters (2012): what do they help us to do, or to say when we don’t have the other resources to do or say that? When I was writing about compelled photographs, it was the same question: what do these images allow those individuals to do and to say beyond what the state is telling them to do and to say through their image making.

More recently, the question that that has motivated my writing is how does the work of contemporary artists challenge us to see our world differently and to see it by feeling our implication in some of the injustices of this current moment? Those artists’ lenses – and those lenses can be cameras, can be clay, can be a stage, can be can be all sorts – give us a frame that takes us outside of ourselves and puts us in proximity with things we don’t want to be in proximity with. And so the question I have had is: how do they do that? How are they able to put us in proximity to things that we don’t want to be proximate to, and how does that change us in the process?

What kind of reader are you?

I’m a bad reader! I am the reader I tell my students not to be, which is I skim. It’s a kind of excavation. I read really quickly and I’m searching for something, and when I find it, I read it over and over and over again. It becomes a wormhole. I got my PhD in History, and I was trained to be a reader of footnotes, and so I’m somebody who, once I get there, that sends me elsewhere to find all these other things. My synapses start going. And so I am both the reader that I tell my students not to be, which is to skim, and then I am who I tell them to be, which is to read openly and capaciously and connect the dots, and read people who are in conversation with each other. I tend to read in clusters.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent?

You know, the thing that is most noteworthy to me is that curation and theories and histories of photography are completely intertwined, because we are at a moment when the curators themselves are so deeply invested and so deeply conversant with those histories and theories. There’s a sort of changing of the guard. I don’t know if it’s the same over in the UK, but in the United States over the course of the pandemic, everybody seems to be moving: curators moving from here to there to there, and there’s been this reshuffle and it’s exciting because so many are new curators, young curators and curators of colour – they are people who didn’t come out of the art world; they come out of a world of critical theory around photography and the practice of art.

You see it in wall texts and in catalogues where the curators are referencing different theories and histories and are trying not only to put photography in conversation with genre, which used to be the way. Every curator was an Art Historian; that’s what it used to be. That isn’t the case anymore. It used to be that a catalogue would give you a kind of genealogy of the genre, of the form, of the content or context. And now I feel that curators are actually invoking the language of theory in order to talk about the impact of the work. They feed on one another.

The other thing is that photographers and artists are more steeped in theories of photography than they had been, and that’s another ongoing conversation. I’m finding right now that one of the delights of my work is that I am being asked more and more often to be in conversation with artists, who know my work, and I know their work, and those two things are no longer separate. It used to be that the history and theory of photography used to write about photography and photographers. Now we’re talking to them, and they’re talking to us, and it’s not an argument, it’s a conversation!

The leading art schools (in the US) like Yale, RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and Cal Arts (California Institute of the Arts) have theorists amongst them and that is recognised as valuable, and I have felt that. I do at least one art critique at the end of every semester, where somebody asks me to come to their studio class and participate in a nine-hour critique, which is exhausting but I also learn so much from that!

What qualities do you admire in in other writers?

I always admire clarity. I admire the writer that doesn’t only seek to draw you in to their writing, but also takes steps towards you in their writing. Some of the most inspirational writers to me are friends of mine, whose work has been a model and an inspiration. Christina Sharpe’s work, Hazel Carby’s most recent work, Imperial Intimacies (2019), my friend Saidiya Hartman. What they’re doing is they’re putting themselves in the mix, and, in doing that, they’re emphasising the stakes of both what they’re writing about, and how they’re writing about it. The “how” becomes an intentional intervention, of: “I am going to write this to you, in a way that addresses you, which doesn’t make it easier to read what I’m writing about, it raises the stakes of reading it.”

That’s what I really do admire, and that’s what I try to do in my own writing, is to let you understand what the stakes are of both what I’m writing about and how I’ve chosen to write it to you. Which I hope allows you to enter it, and take certain risks as well with your own engagement.

Which texts have influenced you the most?

Some of the writers I’ve just mentioned. I teach (Christina Sharpe’s) In the Wake (2016) over and over again. I teach (Saidiya Hartman’s) Wayward Lives (2019) over and over again. I also teach Laura Mulvey. Right now, I’m in a love affair with Laura Mulvey and Kaja Silverman: not because I absolutely agree with what they’re saying, but because they open my mind every time I read them. bell hooks I teach over and over again, and I read her over and over again. Fred Moten as well. And you know who else I can’t quit? Stuart Hall! Can’t quit him! Ever relevant. Every time you go back to him, you really you can’t believe he wrote it so long ago.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

I hate to answer a question with a question but it really does depend on where that photography writing is. One thing I’ve been noticing is that there’s a lot more general writing about photography, in newspapers and in reviews, in daily circulating publications, and I don’t find that critical very often. But again, I feel like criticality has taken a front seat in the art world, among curators, amongst this entire Third Estate that’s no longer journalism. So I guess it’s a Fourth Estate, which is the critical commentary that you get in blogs and in podcasts and on social media, because the general public is at a point right now where they feel empowered to critique and to critique photography in particular. I think that’s also because of the role of photography in documenting the horrible state that the world is in right now, be that on race relations and social justice, or the pandemic, or immigration, or housing. Those images are mobilising and, at the same time, they are documenting certain kinds of injustice. (They record) not only the acts of injustice, but the acts of injustice that the camera perpetrates as well. So it has become this invitation to a broader form of criticality than used to be prevalent.

I wondered whether you could talk a little about the importance of everyday experience in relation to your writing. Your writing reveals how a seemingly modest image contains so much possibility and all that it starts to bring into being. Your writing is drawn to the necessity of thinking through everyday experience, and its representation.

The importance of the everyday, for me, is that our most intense struggles occur in the everyday. There is a desire in me to be accountable not to the extraordinary, but to the ordinary. And when we’re accountable to the ordinary, then we are valuing the experiences of those who rarely get much attention. When you ask about its significance to me, I think that’s how we learn practices of survival. We don’t learn practices of survival in the extraordinary circumstances of a car crash or a plane crash, or being marooned on an island. We develop these strategies incrementally over time. That’s what I see in everyday photography and vernacular photography. When I come to those images, I’m always asking how did we get here, and what is it that connects us to mundane images: in their mundane-ness, you find these jewels, these jewels of love, of kindness, of generosity, of care. And you find the flip side too. You find the quotidian violences that are also brought to bear. There’s this image in Image Matters that I try to take apart, of a woman on a table in a corner. When you take it apart you realise that she’s in a gynaecologist office and there’s a procedure that happened or didn’t happen. Every woman has been in that situation, but to have an everyday photograph of it, an anonymous one… When I saw it at an exhibition, I just stopped in my tracks. It’s not because it was exceptional, it’s because it was so ordinary. We can illuminate so much about our lives by lingering in relationship to the ordinary and thinking about how we survive it and how countless other people survive it as well.

Listening to Images made me conscious of how the stakes are there in the image of the everyday. Perhaps this is what’s most resisted by positions of power? They are the most essential images in a sense, to just be seen, to be seen to be living, to be loving, to be sharing.

That is one of the tricks of ideology: to highlight the exceptional as that which you are supposed to be striving to be or become. That then becomes this impossible striving towards something you can never accomplish. And it keeps you in your place. But when you value who you are, it becomes a powerful source of identification and affirmation. And that’s my resistance to the exceptional: I don’t want to be exceptional. I want to share a world with others where we have some sense of equivalence. I think that’s a beautiful world, as opposed to the one where there are some who are exceptional and others who are not.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.

Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 


1-Tina M. Campt © Dorothy Hong

2-Book cover of Tina M. Campt, A Black Gaze (MIT Press, 2021)

3-Book cover of Tina M. Campt, Listening to Images (Duke University Press, 2017)

4-Book cover of Tina M. Campt, Image Matters: Archive, Photography and the African Diaspora in Europe (Duke University Press, 2012)

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

Dominic Hawgood

Under the Influence

Essay by Lucy Soutter

As I write this, a portion of Dominic Hawgood’s project Under the Influence is on display at TJ Boulting gallery in London’s West End. The gallery space has been re-floored and re-skinned as a spotless white set for a show that is as much a light installation as a photography exhibition. In this series the photographer uses the whole toolbox of advertising photography, including lighting, digital image manipulation and CGI. He tests the limits of image-making to depict the limits of human experience. These images are drawn from scenes the photographer witnessed in Pentecostal churches in London, as mediated through the ways exorcisms and healings are documented and disseminated by the churches themselves.

If you just walked in off the street, the experience would be intense but possibly bewildering. The images oscillate between the visual rhetoric of photographic realism and the contrived seduction of advertising photography. They depict a world of sensation in which frozen hands grip, reach and claw, a world of high detail in which chipped nail polish, the down on a girl’s cheek or the texture of institutional carpet provide forensic clues to a mystery that lies somewhere out of frame. With titles for individual images such as, I Command You Get Out, and Rise Up You Are Free, this is the vocabulary and material culture of deliverance: crutches thrown aside, microphones thrust forward, and redemption conferred by the squirt of a spray bottle.

The experience of the work extends beyond this content to the atmosphere produced in room. Lit from below by the slightly headachy blue glow of hidden LED lights, the five black and white vinyl images of figures appear both to recede into the wall and to float a few millimetres away from it. The matte vinyls are punctuated by two extraordinarily slick objects – sculptural light boxes propped on the floor like a pair of giant iPads. These cast coloured halos into the room and also glow eerily from behind. The overall effect is of slight disorientation. These photographs do not behave as they should. It is as if disembodied screen images have taken on unstable new forms to meet us in the space of the gallery.

Only parts of Under the Influence can be seen in this installation. As with many contemporary projects, the work exists across several platforms, which may be considered in relation to one another for a fuller picture without necessarily looking to the photographer for an explanation. On the artist’s website vivid text by writer Pascale Cumming-Benson describes what actually happens in the church services – extreme bodily experience is looped through microphones, screens and speakers. At one point, “A woman runs to the front and casts herself down on the floor. She vomits and spits into the tissues placed in front of her. Another runs forward. Stretched out on the floor, they are surrounded by the ministers and cameramen.” Interspersed with the website’s text and images are hypnotic black and white video clips, YouTube extracts posted by the churches reconfigured by the artist into elegant vertical rectangles, unfocused and slowed-down. Too vague to act as documentary evidence (it would not be possible to identify a particular person or activity), they offer a strangely distanced view of physical and spiritual fervour.

Under the Influence also exists as a high-resolution three-dimensional architectural render. In this format Hawgood develops an interactive walk-through of how the specially lit images and videos would be look in an impossibly ideal environment, without the constraints of money, labour or architecture. The current installation was developed to approximate this render as closely as possible. The artist’s own photographic documentation of the live exhibition provides another level of feedback on this loop of virtual and actual.

In Under the Influence, as in previous projects, Hawgood has photographed subjects with first-hand experience of the phenomena depicted, but he does not tell us how or why. Reconstructing events from the world, Hawgood might recall Jeff Wall or Philip-Lorca diCorcia, but I think more appropriate reference points would be Ed Atkins or James Bridle (the latter currently showing nearby at The Photographer’s Gallery). Like Atkins in works like Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths (2013), Hawgood plays on our visceral reaction to the intersection point of flesh and pixels. Both artists use digitally heightened, impossible images to explore what remains of our stone age physicality: the brute sensations and inchoate longings that make us feel real. Like Bridle, whose recent work Seamless Transitions provides a CGI fly-through of forbidden spaces of the UK immigration and asylum system, Hawgood’s work also considers the politics of imaging, how we participate in the surveillance of our own existence, and how that documentation helps to shape our reality. Hawgood also cites as influences Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, and Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 film The Act of Killing, both works that include painstaking recreations of traumatic events. In an era of simulacra a consciously fictive reenactment may get closer to the truth of an event than more traditional forms of documentation.

A decade ago, narrative photography was all about the tableau, the grand staged scenes that Julian Stallabrass dubbed ‘museum pictures’ for their grandiosity and historical aspiration. For writers like Jean-François Chevrier and Michael Fried, the tableau needs to be self-contained, a world unto itself, into which we can project our thoughts without being caught up in any external trappings of theatricality. Hawgood’s use of lighting and installation, external text, supplementary video and virtual documentation openly flaunts this model of picture-making. In his hands photography provides less a totalising vision than a contingent, complicit mode of exploration. This is less a ‘model of experience’ (Chevrier’s claim for pictorial photography) than a quest for experience, using various forms of unreliable imaging to re-activate the jaded viewer’s imagination.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Dominic Hawgood

Lucy Soutter is an artist, critic and art historian. She is senior tutor in the Department of Critical and Historical Studies at the Royal College of Art, London, and is the author of Why Art Photography? (London: Routledge Press, 2013).