Conceptual photography

For its latest issue (#71), Source magazine is asking the question, "What is conceptual photography?" To go along with the mag they have produced three short talking-head videos exploring this question with a handful of artists and critics. The importance of the "concept" in contemporary photography has always interested me. In the photo-world, the question regularly pops up about why "straight" photography isn't taken seriously by the art world. Those in the straight photography corner often appear to see conceptual photography as impure in some way, as if it were not what photography is really about. Without wanting to spark off another one of these debates, it seems to me that concept is indeed considered paramount in Western art photography today (in my experience, this is not at all the case in Japan, where "serious" photography can still very much be about wandering around with a camera and taking pictures). For example, I'm often struck by young photographers struggling to hang an ill-fitting artist statement with some big ideas in it over the shoulders of work that is clearly not conceptual in the slightest... presumably because they have been taught to do so in art school. Wherever you stand on this question (or however delightfully far away you stand from it) these videos provide an interesting look at how photography became so excited about concepts and what the hell "conceptual photography" is even supposed to mean in the first place.

On introspection, navel-gazing and nitpicking

A picture that I stole from the internet. Apologies to the owner.

Colin Pantall has written an interesting post on his blog regarding the many year-end 'best photobooks of 2011' lists that have been published of late. In the post he raises questions about this process, the role of "tastemakers" in today's photobook market and discusses the need for the expansion of the photobook market. I started to respond to his post initially as a comment on his blog, but it got so out of hand that I decided to turn my response into a post of its own.

After having compiled a non-exhaustive meta-list of 52 of the Best Photobooks of 2011 lists, I am interested by the reactions that these lists have generated. It seems to me that many of us have a love/hate relationship with them. We hate the idea that everything seems to get boiled down to a top 10, or even a top 50. But we can't help but read them, particularly when they are written by people whose opinions we respect or have been on the telly, or just because everyone else is reading them and liking them on Facebook. As I recently posted in a Facebook group, there are myriad and sometimes very good reasons why we make and read lists. Umberto Eco has said it a little better than I can here (and Ken Schles has written a marvellous response to Umberto Eco's ideas on lists which you can read here).

In his post Colin focused on Christian Patterson's Redheaded Peckerwood, the "winner" of my meta-list, as an example of a book that is getting all the plaudits. Colin bought it after it received so many recommendations but it left him cold. I got the feeling from his post that it was a book that he admired but did not enjoy. What I found amazing in the mind-bendingly tedious exercise of compiling all these lists is that Redheaded Peckerwood only got 14 mentions in the 52 lists that I compiled. In total 313 books got mentions. Colin mentioned Martin Parr, Alec Soth and Markus Schaden as three of the 'tastemakers' on photobooks, but Redheaded Peckerwood is not actually on Parr or Soth's lists on Photo-eye (Soth did an expanded Top 20 list on which it does appear) and as far as I know Markus Schaden hasn't done a 2011 list. What I found particularly interesting about the 2011 lists is that the tastemakers seldom agreed. To use Colin's example Soth and Parr only agreed on 3 books of the 10 that they each selected. Expand the list of 'tastemakers' to 5 (I took Gerry Badger, Martin Parr, John Gossage, Alec Soth and Todd Hido) and there isn't a single 'best' book that they all agreed on. John Gossage, who makes photographs and photobooks, designs and publishes them, and looks at more photobooks than most, said it best in his comment in response to Soth's Top 20 Photobooks list, "None of us see more than a small part of what is being done in photobooks these days. So many things that touch people. A good time to be alive"... at least, if you like photobooks... it's probably less good if you invested in sub-prime mortgages. That is the positive side of today's photobook market. I think the tastemakers are generally a positive force: the more there are of them and the more that their opinions differ, the better. You can take or leave their recommendations, but they are often helpful in drawing your attention to new work.

That is the good side of the current photo-market. But as Colin points out, there are many bad sides too: books that are being bought and kept in shrinkwrap so that they are worth more on some "mythical future date of sale", books that are bought and never looked at, photographers being stalked at their hotel by overzealous book dealers to sign hundreds of books so that they can be sold at an inflated price (true story)... I was amazed to see this article on the Guardian Money website a little while ago, which seemed to suggest that photobooks have become a good investment vehicle and a reliable way of doubling your investment within a couple of years. That might be true for a handful of books, but what percentage of the books being made are sold for less than their retail price 6 months after they have been published? Go and spend $100,000 on photobooks today and then try to sell them in 2 or 3 years time. Let me know how that goes for you.

I think that the most important and difficult question that Colin raises is the need for the expansion of the photobook market. As an artist it must be incredibly frustrating to spend years making a book only for it to be bought by a maximum of 1,000 people and seen only by a few hundred. The issues with the fragmentation of the photobooks market, the problematic distribution model, the proliferation of tiny independent publishers and self-published books, all made me think of some of the issues that there are with the music industry (although the almost-total digitisation of music has yet to happen to photobooks and is unlikely to). Big record labels are struggling, and people are distributing their music themselves or via small labels through the internet. Like with the photobook, I think this is a time where there is a huge amount of musical experimentation, of trying everything and anything. As a consumer of music, I see this as a golden age: I have never been able to access so much music so easily. Name an obscure musical genre (e.g. post-gangsta neofolkcore) and I will be able to listen to it within minutes and own (or steal) several albums of it within hours. But for those people making the music (let's not worry about the ones selling the stuff) it is more complicated. I am no expert on the music industry but my understanding is that musicians now have to rely on concerts to make their money since virtually no-one makes anything from selling albums any more. What is the photographer's equivalent of the tour? Exhibitions? Surely there is even less money in that than in books. Workshops maybe?

While I would love to see the photobook market expand, I can't help but wonder exactly how big its potential is? The "population at large" never really bought photobooks before all these pictures were available online for free, so I'm just not sure why and how that would happen now. But then stranger things have happened. Allow me to leave you with this beautiful chart of vinyl sales over the last two decades which, if my tenuous musical analogy holds water, suggests there may be hope for photobooks yet.

The Wonder of it All

As a blogger I get sent several press releases a day for upcoming exhibitions, from the weird to the wonderful and everything in between. Although 95% of it doesn't hold my interest, once in a while something stands out. The press release for the upcoming exhibition at Gallery 138 in New York of photographs and videos by Clark Winter entitled The Wonder of it All stopped me dead in my tracks.

I knew nothing about Clark Winter, but discovered that he is a global investment advisor, a TV pundit, an art world mover and shaker (he serves on the Committee on Photography at the Museum of Modern Art), as well as a photographer and an "artist". The release tells us that "in his photographs and videos (...) patterns appear, information is collected, everything is experienced; nothing is explained (...) Something's coming, and you don't know what it is." It would seem that Winter leaves the explaining to his day job and let's the invisible hand of chance govern his artistic endeavours. From the visuals I got my hands on, his photographs seem to be as random as the above press statement: snapshots taken in hotel lobbies, airports and assorted 'exotic' locations. Winter travels a lot and rubs shoulders with the powerful and famous, but is also capable of photographing the totally banal... a toaster, some flowers, a field. All of this is then thrown together in 3x3 grids where the mundane rubs shoulders with the "extraordinary things he has seen while travelling as a global financial advisor" and where the former comes out comfortably on top. In one self-portrait, Winter appears with electrodes attached to his head, suggesting his deep connection to these many complex layers of our planet, or perhaps simply to suggest the powerful brain that lies within it.

Of course I haven't seen and won't be able to see The Wonder of it All and this may simply be a case of overblown PR, but to me this feels incredibly misguided. Could there be a worse time to put together an exhibition that reveals "the private world of high finance" by giving us "access to things that are unavailable to ordinary travlers (sic)"? The idea that a man who certainly has a deeper understanding than most of global economics, finance and the powers that be and is clearly very successful in his field, could somehow translate this into a visual form with a series of off-the-cuff photographs, strikes me as a little overambitious, if not downright pretentious.

Clinton and Ali at Davos

The exhibition is part of a series exploring the relationship between art and finance, something that is extremely pertinent at this moment in time. There is a lot that is wrong with both worlds and an exploration of how they influence and affect each other could make an interesting exhibition. But surely this is something that requires more than the contents of a powerful man's iPhone camera roll. I don't write blogposts that frequently and writing a critique of this exhibition may have been unnecessary, a waste of your and my time. However, I can't help feeling that in a way this exhibition is insulting to people who are actually devoting themselves to making art. The idea that it is this easy suggests that the relationship between art and finance is a lot more twisted than I thought.

If anyone does actually manage to see The Wonder of it All I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts. However, I am concerned that for someone who cites Picasso and Piero della Francesca as influences, it may be difficult to live up to such lofty expectations.

You like this

Just as Google launches, Google+, it's latest attempt at a social network and an attempt to lure people away from Facebook, I thought I would share a piece that I have written for the latest issue of European Photography (which comes out today) that deals with the impact of blogs and social networks on the way we consume and understand photography. If you are interested in looking further into the online photography world I also recommend checking out the previous issue of European Photography (no. 88) on 'Net Photography' which investigates some of the trends in photography that is being produced specifically for and distributed through the web. Blogs have always been fragile creatures: statistics show that around 70% of them die within their first month. And now, only a decade after they first appeared, some are concerned that they are becoming an endangered species. While I am relatively new to blogging (I started eyecurious in April 2009), even in my short virtual lifetime a lot has changed. Particularly in the last year, a significant part of the online activity relating to photography has moved to online social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. So are we witnessing the demise of the blog? As with most of these dichotomous debates linked to technology (printed versus digital books, analog versus digital photography, etc.) I think the question is not so much whether (or when) the new will kill off the old, but rather how they are influencing each other. More specifically, what impact is the rise of social networks having on the online conversation on photography?

In a recent piece Andy Adams summarised the impact of blogs and social networks as follows, “web 2.0 is influencing contemporary photo culture around the world by connecting international audiences to art experiences, enabling the discovery of new work and presenting never-before-seen channels of expression and communication.” Blogs, webzines and now social networks have made photography far more accessible than before. We are no longer dependent on museums, galleries and books for photographic content. This not only makes it cheaper and easier to get our hands on photographs, but we can now see far more images than are available through these ‘traditional’ forms. The web makes it just as easy to access photographs being made outside our front door as on the other side of the globe, as well as work that has yet to be exhibited or published and often never will.

What truly characterises web 2.0 however is participation: the opportunity for everyone to share information and to get involved in a conversation. Although I think the internet is at its best when it creates discussion and debate, the vast majority of online activity still centres around the dissemination of information. Even within a tiny universe such as the ‘fine art photography’ (for want of a better term) community, the accessibility of the web quickly leads to an overwhelming amount of photographic content. Blogs, online magazines and increasingly social networks act as filters, allowing people to more easily find the content that most interests them. Social networks have further refined this process, not only making it easier to find the kind of photography we want, but also providing a platform on which to have a conversation around photographs. These networks create spaces for discussion around specific topics or fields of interest that just aren’t possible on the infinite plain of the broader world wide web.

So what is the downside? Most of us would agree that better access and more conversation sounds like a pretty good thing. However, while these online developments have been leading to more conversation, I would argue that they have also been making it more shallow. Take the example of Facebook. While the platform does allow for discussion, the structure of the Facebook platform is such that we are constantly being asked to like things, whether it be through ‘Fan Pages’ or simply by choosing to ‘Like’ something that someone else has posted. While I don’t think a ‘Dislike’ button would add anything to the quality of the online conversation, it would at least remind us that our reactions to photography don’t all have to be situated on scale running from good to awesome.

Twitter is a slightly different beast. With its 140-character limit, the network is intrinsically suited to point towards existing information rather than to create new content. Even in the case where a conversation develops between several users (‘tweet chats’ in the local jargon), the medium is entirely focused on immediacy and not on considered opinion. By the time you have finished reading a tweet there are already several others that have appeared in your Twitter feed demanding your attention.

The reason this matters to photography is that it can lead to a situation where we are constantly consuming and never digesting. The danger with the infinite accessibility of the web is that we can find ourselves only looking at photographs that are immediately seductive or simply popular in the networks around us. Work that might be deemed quiet, challenging or even just off-putting can get totally bypassed. Moreover, if our interaction with photography is limited to a ‘Like’ button or the 140-character equivalent, we run the risk of never getting beyond the surface of images and of not developing an understanding of why we like or dislike something. Given the demise of arts criticism in traditional media, this kind of critical thought is arguably more important than ever.

Fortunately there are many online examples that buck the trend. Blogs like Pete Brook’s Prison Photography and Beierle + Keijser’s Mrs Deane are endless sources of hidden gems and considered discussion of current photographic trends. Perhaps the two most encouraging examples are Charlotte Cotton’s 2008 Words Without Pictures and more recently, Foam’s What’s Next?, both vital spaces which use the participatory nature of the net for considered thought and conversation on what is happening in photography today and where this might be leading.

Some might argue that an overly analytical discussion of photographs can get in the way of images. But without a critical discussion, what is going to lead photography to evolve and move forward?

A Hipstamatic plea

Although it appears that not a week goes by without a story of another film stock or photo paper being discontinued, analog photography is undergoing something of a revival at the moment... online... and more specifically on screen, courtesy of the Hipstamatic application. As far as I understand it the point of Hipstamatic is to try and emulate—or at least suggest—the elusive qualities of a print on the backlit screens that we are now all glued to 24/7. I have already had a rant about the lack of clothes on the Emperor that is iPhoneography, so I won't do the same here. This isn't a rant about Hipstamatic actually, I think it makes crappy camera phone images taken on the fly look a little better. Also it is giving thousands of users the joy of discovering the beauty of square format and reminds them that once upon a time there was this thing called film. Some photographers even seem to be able to make good pictures with it (as anyone who is friends with Aya Takada on Facebook will know). With the exception of photojournalists using it to casually photograph US soldiers in Afghanistan, I see it as a bit of harmless fun.

No, this rant is about the increasingly popular idea of making actual real-life prints from Hipstamatic images. The Guardian ran a piece this week on a London gallery which is holding an exhibition of Hipstamatic prints. My first thought on reading this was whether prints of Hipstamatic images could be anything but terrible. And a Sunday-afternoon walk through the Marais gave me an answer as I happened upon a gallery with a Hipstamatic print in the window. I may have been influenced by the exquisite Bruce Wrighton prints that I saw just a day earlier at Les Douches gallery, but this print was bad enough to feel like an insult, particularly as they had gone to the trouble of making a pigment print on some fancy paper in a limited edition of 3 priced at over $200 in all its grossly-pixelized glory. This image would never look any good at anything larger than the palm of your hand on the low resolution of a screen. And here it was, a sad piece of hyper-colour mutton (totally over-)dressed as lamb. Can't we please just let these Hipstamatic images go about their business of passing the time for us on the internet, or on our smart phones where they belong?