“Between Instagram and the Photobook: the democracy of photography” (Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield)

An ambitious title for an event that I attended last weekend. Two ‘names’ had attracted me to attend – writer/curator David Campany (who was billed to ‘chair’) & publisher/lecturer Bruno Ceschel. The former, we were informed as the event began, had had to pull out at the last minute, which was disappointing – not to take anything away from his ‘substitute’. Much respect for Open Eye Gallery curator, Tom Dukes, who had agreed to take over the chair (because he happened to be in the building doing something else, as far as I could tell).

First up was Bex Day, a young photographer who, as well as producing her own projects (http://www.bexday.com/about/), is photo-editor for a fashion/photography magazine called Pylot (http://www.pylotmagazine.com/the-magazine/), which is only produced in analogue/printed form and allows no digital retouching of photographs (and no iPhone photographs). She argued that digital technology may encourage laziness and that social media has caused anxiety and impacted on mental health (though to be absolutely fair, she also acknowledged that both she and the magazine use Instagram as an effective tool for publicising their wares https://www.instagram.com/bex_day/?hl=en). Later, in response to a question from the chair, she suggested that her magazine’s commitment to analogue provided an important sense of community for those keen to adhere to the traditional approach. Everyone, I would agree, is entitled to work with whatever principles and methods they choose; and good luck to them. But I was left with a slight sense that this was something akin to a trainspotting club! Just me, I guess.

Then Bruno Ceshcel, who is well-known as the Director/Founder of Self Publish Be Happy http://www.selfpublishbehappy.com/about/ (one of the artists from whom I got feedback on my work suggested that I should get my ‘Textbook’ book in front of him). His talk was mainly (no surprise) a run through the story of SPBH, with a theme that the organisation and its approach are both rooted in the ‘object’ & the community that ‘makes books’. Paradoxically, it all exists, mainly, online – the organisation’s website publicises books that are sent to it (70% of them, he said, surprisingly – not much editing/curating going on there!) & has recently begun to use Instagram, for publicity purposes, like Bex Day – https://www.instagram.com/selfpublishbehappy/.

Gideon Mendel, the third speaker, is a well-established documentary photographer http://gideonmendel.com/. He took us through some of his work, occasionally veering off to tell us that he prefers to work with film (though he was honest enough to say that the advantages that he identified were quite probably all in his own mind), despite the challenges of making his flood victim work that way. He also admitted to being very bad at books, having hardly produced any in his 33 year career. The problem for him, he said, is in deciding that a project is finished – which is perfectly understandable and made good sense. Gideon does use Instagram, but in a slightly different way; one that is more clearly rooted in the principles of the site, I would suggest – that of telling stories/representing life in picture narratives. He has set himself the goal of making/publishing at least one image a day on Instagram, with no fancy filters or borders – https://www.instagram.com/gideonmendel/?hl=en.

The discussion that followed was, for a time, mired in a digital/analogue pros/cons session, which added little of value and caused me to reflect that it often seems to be those who choose not to use digital methods who feel the need to explain. There was, too, often a discrepancy in individual interpretations of what exactly was being referred to as ‘photography’; the medium’s polysemy strikes again. There are huge differences between the art-based images that Bex Day publishes on Instagram as a way of sharing/publicising what she does; the casual but thoughtful daily observations that Gideon Mendel makes about his life and the world in general; and the instant, retro-filtered iPhone shot of someone’s pint of beer in front of them on a pub table, shared with friends online. When, as occasionally happened on Saturday, there is concern about the dilution of quality in photographic images as a result of social media, and when there are suggestions that good photographic work gets lost in the dross etc etc, it frequently seems to stem from a failure to appreciate the medium’s ever increasing diversity and from a kind of nostalgia for the old days when making a photographic image was so much more difficult and beyond the reach of the masses!

Someone (I think it was Bruno Ceschel) did say, in passing, that we must understand photography as a language – and that seems to be the key. Photographic images have become the democratic means of mass communication and most of what is shared online relates most closely to casual conversation around the dinner table or whilst watching TV in the living room – and it is intended to be about as ephemeral. No one waxes nostalgic about words just because a chat over a beer isn’t as lyrical as one of Shakespeare’s sonnets!

So – there is always much value in hearing professionals talk about the way they work and why; and my somewhat downbeat reflections on Saturday’s event should not seem to belittle those involved or the quality of the work they do – which on the evidence of what I’ve seen, is excellent. The very best of luck to them & much respect. Rather, I suspect, I’m reflecting again on an ongoing theme for me – that the entity that is ‘Photography’ still struggles to come to terms with just what it is in the post-postmodern world (not unlike so many other entities, by the way) and that the process of exploring its potential boundaries and possibilities is fascinatingly frustrating and frustratingly fascinating!

Progress on new work and a big ‘What if …?’

Two Grades of Bromide Paper

Two grades of bromide paper

Almost six weeks since I posted this about making more work – but it’s been a productive time with several new constructed images to extend the ‘Textbook’ series. The set of complex constructed images now comprises 13 (with more being worked on) and can be viewed here. The one at the top of this post is typical, a development from the pattern that appeared at the end of that earlier post. It combines folded paper prints of the pattern, a print onto fabric, two ‘physical’ 3-D conversions of the pattern into a cube and a tube, and a digitally-created sphere. It is, in essence, a photograph but with one digital enhancement – the sphere – and I have retained the title (a shortened version) from the original diagram in the textbook – see below.

Two Grades of Bromide Paper

I’ve blown hot and cold about titles since I first started this project in Body of Work but I’ve pretty much decided that, in the direction the work is currently going, retention of some reference to the original source of the image is the right approach to take. I’ve always maintained that the images I have produced are empty and meaningless, outside of their visual attractiveness and their ‘having been made’ (referencing Michael Fried on Thomas Demand there!!). The titles enable me to retain some trace of the original signifier/signified relationship but, in the new context, they too become detached and meaningless – with no link to their original meaning and no meaningful link to the new image (beyond that ‘having been made’ aspect). The outcome (hopefully!) is something that draws the viewer in, provides enough interest to provoke/evoke questions/ideas, yet supplies no answers, leaving only the uncertain slipperiness of the photographic image of which we make such extensive use in our 21st century lives.

I can see two potential issues with the use of these titles. One is, primarily, in my own head – I have a concern that it just looks as though I’m trying to be a ‘clever dick’ by inserting these catchy titles. But I think the reasoning in the previous paragraph has enabled me to get past that. The second emerged when I shared these images with some fellow students in a hangout. There are, of course, many photographers out there for whom those titles retain their original significance. They will, inevitably, read the relationship and the images differently from others for whom the titles are as much a mystery as the images. That isn’t a problem – the only significance of the images resides, and can only reside, in the mind of the viewer anyway – but it was something to which I hadn’t really given much thought before.

I continue to reflect on the ‘outcome’ of the project but will simply focus on the ‘making’ for a little longer. I will probably have an opportunity to exhibit some work at a ‘fringe’ location during the local ‘Art Week’ in July; but it’s unlikely to be the right place for this project and I still have an Autumn 2016 notion in my mind. I’ll return to it later (but not too late!). One piece of feedback from my networking was to consider a title for the project that also reflected its ‘chemistry’ origins (chemistry as a transformative science) and I’m tending towards something like ‘New Photographic Chemistry’, which, as well as being literally what the transformative project is, also has connotations to do with the transformation that results when we create and view a photographic image and the transformation the the medium itself has experienced in the last two decades – probably more on this later, too.

Then to something else that was mentioned in the feedback I received. ‘Submit to the best calls – but research carefully and be wary of some’ was (paraphrased) one piece of advice. It isn’t something I’ve been too keen on – the free entry competitions/open-entry exhibitions seem like too much of a ‘free-for-all’ and the ones with an entry fee could be nothing much more than money-making exercises. However, when fellow student, Stephanie (many thanks, Stephanie) pointed me in the direction of the Aperture Summer Open 2016, with the theme ‘Photography is Magic’ and curated by Charlotte Cotton, I was tempted. $50 to become an Aperture member, with associated discounts and benefits – but maybe, just maybe, if I got past the likely initial screening (the “big ‘What if …?”) process, Charlotte Cotton might actually look at my work!! That’s the way I’ve approached – as a very useful learning exercise. Imagine there is an opportunity for her to see the work – what do I submit and what do I say in supporting documentation (bit of a rush, too, because I’ve been away over the weekend and the closing date is today!). So, I’ve entered 12 of the 13 images from the set linked at the start of this post, supported with a Bio (actually, not a true biography in the traditional sense, but in my case, who wants to read about my earlier life, so I’ve played around with the concept – hope it works ok) and a Statement (using quite a lot of ‘words’ from previous versions plus some specially written aspects).

It has been a very useful learning exercise. I’ve had to make some quick decisions e.g. the submission process requires information about the size and form of the artwork, so I had to decide about the potential size/form of prints; the communication process – the bio and statement – has had to be rapidly put together; and, of course, so as not to make it a total waste of time and money, one has to think ‘What if …?’!! WHAT IF …..!!??!! Winking smile