Months have fallen off the calendar since LOOK/15 attacked our senses and consciousness with an array of local and international work. Now, having moved forward through the year with shifts in focus and energy, seems a good moment to reflect on the festival and explore a recurring point in my experiences of the two weeks.
We have all been referred to the quote “life is a journey, not a destination”. In photography terms I’ve always interpreted that as: “Process is for the photographer. The image is the result, which the photographer hands over to the viewer”. Curators and galleries ever more increasingly refer to an artist’s process and influences to round out the viewing experience, be it to validate the image maker, legitimise the work and in private sector terms, drive home a potential sale.
Process is being documented and quantified more and more. With greater accessibility to open platforms, the dependency on documentation is no longer being solely initiated by the professional; viewers are not only able to interact directly, but also to create a record of their experiences.
During the festival
Ahead of my first talk for the for the festival, Building the Perfect Photographic Project at Warp, I was able to become acquainted with several of the artists and LOOK folk behind the scenes. I was particularly happy to sit down over dinner with Liverpool based Emma Bassnett, whom I had met previously at other events. Emma helped to establish Eclipse Dark Rooms, Liverpool’s only active darkroom currently open to the public. We were both enthused by each others participation and stressed it was refreshing that a large festival being held in the city was so inclusive to local, up and coming artists.
To best facilitate my commitments to the festival I paired up with Louis Quail, whose series Desk Job was included in Open 1, at the Open Eye Gallery. Both of us were asked to speak at the events, Building the Perfect Photographic Project and The Ethics of Portrait Photography. Louis has a successful career in photojournalism. For me this was particularly interesting as I cite photojournalism specifically as a genre of influence. I have a great respect for those having to simultaneously respond to a dangerous and interchangeable world whilst maintaining visual sense. What separates recording data and powerful imagery is to recite a visual language naturally in often fleeting moments of history.
During our time together Louis was able to share some of his experiences. I found him to be the most honest and forthright in explaining the responsibilities and ethics in photographing people, specifically in vulnerable situations which he is more accustomed to than both myself and the other speakers at the specific event. For me the most powerful moment of his talk on ethics was the comparison of a haunting image of famine, juxtaposed with an image of a group of photographers being photographed capturing that moment. It drives home Louis’s assertion that what gets seen and what is out of public sight is equally accountable in all forms of journalism. The stories that are presented to us have a back story, and – like the artist’s process – ethical standards should be open to public scrutiny. It is true, in an age where moderators need to be moderated (an ongoing chain of escalation in itself) that we are still competing with trying to achieve a sense of pure objectivity, against the reality of human interaction and error.
A good point was raised on my own ethics in photographing portraits, by Eli Regan (in Eli’s blog post) who suggested that trying not to impose myself on a scene still creates a form of subjectivity. In principle I agree with Eli, but I do believe that rather than striving for emotional objectivity, it is more realistic to measure a photographers ethics or work against the brief that he/she set out to achieve. Ethics can be a relative term in reference to current standards of political correctness and legislation. Louis and I had discussed this in referencing the famous Steve McCurry image, Afghan girl which is regarded as one of the most iconic images of the 20th Century. If this opportunity were to arise today, perhaps a photographer would not take the image or make it available for publication. Due to changes in technology, moral standards, copyright the various releases needed to make full use of the image for professional conduct, public awareness or financial gain.
A particular highlight of LOOK/15 for me was the debate on Public Photography Commissions – Who Benefits? organised by Redeye and the Impressions Gallery. With a background in design, I constantly look at life cycles of projects and how they are managed. The discussion was hugely insightful to me as although I have been involved in public commissioning before I never fully considered all of the implications raised. I found myself sitting in the audience more with my “design thinking hat” on, considering the project cycles and processes rather than from the point of view as a photographer. This may have been a good thing as an observer to the debate. It is hard to step out of the ring when you are a stakeholder. Because no matter how impassioned the argument is, it will predominantly represent a singular point of view, even with good intentions. Louis’s image comparison on the photographer scrum to get the next iconic war photograph illustrates why impartial observers are invaluable in the need for change. At least until such impartial consulting itself needs moderating!
It is a topic which will never stand still and yet one that could be revisited in two years time concluding the same impasse. Either way it is a debate that will only thrive on contribution and follow up.
I greatly anticipated hearing my fellow speakers experiences in Building the Perfect Photographic Project ahead of my own talk in the afternoon. In particular, listening to Jona Frank’s talk and sharing her work The Modern Kids. I was struck by Jona’s conscious decisions in format and preparation. These have direct influence on the setup and interaction with her subjects. The time spent preparing her traditional 5×4 large format camera and her subject’s perception of being photographed is a unique process. Jona’s consistency of approach, across her body of work, contributes greatly to the familiar aesthetic of the images. When we reconvened after lunch I was able to explain some of the similarities design and photography share during my own talk, using one of my ongoing Asian landscape project as a specific case study for project as process.
With much of my involvement in the festival geared towards the opening days. Towards the end of the week I was able to separate myself and enjoy some of the shows as a viewer. A particular treat was György Kepes at Tate Liverpool. Anyone with links to Bauhaus will always peak my interest. Having interconnected disciplines operating under a common goal is something I strive for in my own profession and again shows the pull of Liverpool and its facilities for the Arts.
Following on quickly from LOOK/15, in June I was awarded a Licentiateship in Fine Art with the BIPP (British Institute of Professional Photography). Consequently I successfully applied for EP certification with the FEP (Federation of European Photographers).
Moving from LOOK to the BIPP also meant a shift in mindset. While LOOK has a focus on curatorial themes and artistic intent, the BIPP places higher regard in photographers knowing their craft. The technical proficiency and formalities are more in focus and ultimately are what you are judged upon. During my participation in LOOK, visitors would tend to ask “Is that photo natural or have you edited it?”. Authenticity in gesture and meaning was paramount in storytelling and trust, while my BIPP assessment discussion was aimed at getting the best out of an image and using the right tools at the right time.
When returning from the BIPP head office, in Aylesbury, I reflected on whether there is room for both codes of conduct to be valid in a photographers mission statement at the same time?
I do believe so, in that it would be un-craftsmanlike to be lazy in his/her work because it is less prominent in more artistic circles. Likewise over editing a hollow image just because of a few program features doesn’t validate a bad choice of subject and composition. One of the more humorous points I made during the festival was from making the quip “The world doesn’t need another half-arsed wedding photographer”. I stand by that comment because my network within the BIPP exposes me to many professionals who are genuinely talented and have a passion for different forms of commercial work. It is not necessarily art in the pursuit sense, but many are still pushing boundaries and challenging conventions of their genre that should be the benchmark for embarking on the profession. In return, I expect that Fine Art photography is respected as a profession in itself, with its own remit of conceiving ideas, researching it’s subjects and publishing work in well suited places.
The ongoing development of a photographer’s processes is to create and make choices. Parameters can fluctuate, like the graphic equaliser on an audio platform. You may find your preferred settings, keep them finely tuned and focus on the content; I feel this particularly comes across in Jona’s work.
The priorities of a photograph will automatically shift in terms of the intention and genre of work. And naturally everyone has their own preferences. Ultimately I believe a mutual respect between artistic intention and technical craft is what can drive the medium forward. Art without craft would be incomprehensible. Imagine reading a book without grammar, just an array of words without structure, timing and a story arc. I wholeheartedly disagree with the notion that digital has stripped photography of emotion. Long term film advocates such as Edward Burtynsky who previously exhibited at LOOK/11, continue to create interesting work, having moved into digital format. The ideas and subject matter he engages are both compelling and relate us on a physiological level. His intentions haven’t changed as a result of switching film rolls for memory cards. Edward himself has acknowledged that he is a late convert to digital, having maintained a preference for his traditional setup. Once the setup or technology began getting in the way of his intentions he made the switch, having become convinced he wasn’t conceding quality for convenience.
In my own practice I operate two different presets. One is the photo essay, as in Noryangjin, which was included in LOOK/15. For this type of work I have the interest in sharing cultural variations, in a natural observation format. The other is the fine art process of conceiving an idea and crafting an image in keeping with the artist statement such as my Asian landscape work. Having different settings and expectations allows me the opportunity to grow both artistically and technically at different times. I’m not looking at specific goals with each project or trying to quantify them, like the curator I am interested in the why as part of my own reflection. Just as I don’t believe there is the perfect project I’m not trying to achieve the perfect image.
Process as Project?
On a return trip to Korea in June I had the pleasure of meeting acclaimed ceramic artist Lee Kang-hyo. Mr Lee had invited me to visit his studio in Cheongju to meet him and his wife (who is also an artist) and his daughter (student artist). Mr Lee and I mused about the ongoing development of processes in our respective artistic mediums, over tea and local snacks.
Mr Lee is a master of the Onggi technique from the rich culture of traditional Korean potters. In Korea it is common to spend several years learning your craft under an established master, repeating the technique until reaching a level of proficiency comparable to your mentor. Only then is a student able to develop his/her own style in order to further the traditions and challenge conventions. The process can be compared to the Renaissance masters and their studios, or in musical terms to Classical and Jazz where instruments and technique are calibrated to within microscopic detail to achieve acclaim. Once achieved, the ability to express oneself is granted. Currently the Korean art world has a strong presence and is active in showcasing its skills and culture. Allowing Korean potters to thrive today amongst mass manufacturing methods and commercial entities.
How does this relate to photography? Processes are continually compared, dismissed, favoured and disregarded. Film is still preferred in some quarters as it is a more crafted medium, something physical to sculpt into a polished piece. While digital is often regarded as a mass production medium. Not all analogue photographs that have been processed into a “superior” silver gelatin print have been memorable works. Giclée printing has reached an archival standard with a set of attributes (such as paper choices) that prior to digital were never an option for a photographer to consider in the editing process. Silver gelatin printing like giclée is ultimately the quality of production for a purpose, not the validity of the image itself.
Mr Lee and his Onggi technique – much like silver gelatin printing – is a process; a living heritage of a medium we should protect, refer to and, when relevant, continue to use. Perhaps the legacy of these, like so many other processes, is that they are in themselves subjects of interest worthy of a project.
The interest for me and the question that remains is how?
Bryn Davies LBIPP EP
Bryn is an award winning fine art photographer and design consultant. Based in Liverpool he runs his own company called Indigenous, which works with international companies, start-ups and community groups on art projects and commercial design consultancy. Bryn’s time is split between home and abroad, which has an influence on his art works and subject matter. He recently completed a three year study into the Asian landscape culminating in a solo show at Trunk Gallery in Seoul, Korea. His photo essay Noryangjin, which was included in LOOK/15 builds on the experiences of culture and social interaction at the renowned Noryangjin Wholesales Fisheries Market in Seoul, drawing on the basic essentials of everyday life and wellbeing with food at its source.