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!