Convergence can hold photography back: Belfast Photo Festival panel discussion

The theme of this year’s Belfast Photo Festival is convergence – the act of artists mixing other forms of art, such as performance and sculpture, with photographic image making. A panel discussion, hosted at Belfast Exposed, explored these boundaries and overlaps, and mooted the way forward.

Francis Hodgson, a photography critic for the Financial Times, consultant and professor, chaired the 90-minute session, “Boundaries of Contemporary Photography”. Other panellists were: Karen McQuaid (Curator, The Photographers’ Gallery), Jim Casper (LensCulture), and Greg Hobson (Curator of Photographs, National Media Museum).

Prof. Hodgson placed the discussion in the context that only a relatively small segment of those who take photographs might be interested in the present and future status of contemporary photography.

Ms McQuaid presented examples of convergence, demonstrations of practicing photographers, past and present – the return of the printed photo, the physical manipulation of the print, “photo drawings”, and the hybridisation of the 2-dimensional image with a corresponding 3-dimensional object.

20150606 Boundaries Contemporary Photography - Jason Evans - Monkey Face
Monkey Face by Jason Evans

Prof. Hodgson replied by saying that he has seen these styles before, and isn’t it interesting that photography has to resort to reapplications of what has been done already? That is to say, why is it so difficult to stop and absorb an individual image?

Part of the answer lies in the classic debate between the application of craftsmanship and self-conscious artistry.

For example, visitors to a gallery of fine art (non-photographic) may stand in awe in front of works of obvious great craftsmanship and artistry. But in a room next door full of contemporary photos, viewers may hone in on the familiar – the object or setting that reminds them of a familiar place or time. The craftsmanship and artistic intent is more easily lost.

So what is the better perspective of photography as a means of communication – is it to make the photographer feel better (“a form of therapy”), or to impart a sentiment to the audience?

Mr Hobson replied that in this regard, photography need not be any different than writing or music. Anyone can write words on a sheet of paper, or whistle a melody, but the art lies in the ideas behind all of them. Photography as an expression of ideas is substantively different than photography as image making. (Subsequently, he suggested Ciaran Og Arnold’s book, I went to the worst of bars hoping to get killed but all I could do was get drunk again, which won the First Book Award.)

Prof. Hodgson developed this line of thinking by asking about photos as “mattering”; what makes a photo matter? How do we decide, “That photo is not as good as this one.”?

And who sets the standards – technical achievement, editorial approval, audience distribution?

After all, we don’t feel the need to have PhDs to appreciate and respond to images.

Mr Hobson countered by defending the role of the curator: “We have a job to do, to have people respond to images in a particular way,” for viewers to reflect and not resort to nostalgic resonance.

And could this explain why convergence is en vogue – to ensure that the viewer must reflect?

The question and answer session provided a profound epilogue. When asked about the value of convergence as a useful artistic application, Mr Hobson replied to the contrary: “Convergence holds photography back. If a photograph is embedded with strong and good ideas, and originality, then it is interesting and deserves attention.” An image’s strength validates it.

Another way of “mattering” is to say appreciation. What is to be appreciated about a photograph? Its craftsmanship? The single image, or series, or movie? The narrative?

The craftsmanship of image making is being attacked from many angles. Beginners now need not learn print making processes; their smartphone or computer software will produce a technically sufficient image. Advanced photographers are not required for fashion shoots or stock photography; automated cameras and 3-D scanning will sort that out.

Quality single images still matter, but they have always been difficult to appreciate. At least before the advent of digital photography and easy uploading (now provided automatically through various phone apps), getting any image distributed involved some mediator (newspaper editor, gallery curator, commissioned work). Now the self-published photo book (and Instagram and Tumblr feeds) circumvents editorial gatekeeping.

This leaves the narrative as the unresolved battlefield. What makes a good narrative? How best to demonstrate it? Who decides?

Convergence may be a re-enactment of photographic history, and should not be dismissed as such.

But convergence is just one way of expressing a self-conscious idea.

Mr Casper asked the panellists if they could identify artists who are using photography as a starting point for a new art form: “Who’s going to create the hip-hop of photography?” Mr Hobson cited a Dutch photographer, Jan Hoek, who meets people on the street and invites them to his apartment to perform particular roles, which he uses to create a narrative.

Kim in my House by Jan Hoek
Kim in my House by Jan Hoek; see also Supermodel Kim

Perhaps the future for contemporary photography is for more exploration of telling the narrative.

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