The 6th National Photography Symposium

IMG_0581The 6th National Photography Symposium was hosted by Birmingham Library from the 12th to the 14th June 2014, and organised by Redeye.

The days were themed, with the Thursday indexed to ‘Routes into Photography’ and a panel session looking at what is on offer to emerging artists to ‘help establish themselves in photography, and who benefits from these multiplying possibilities?’. The first session started off with Richard West, co-editor of the magazine Source, on the pros and cons of portfolio reviews, their cost and their supposed benefits – he gave an example of his undercover [or overt] detective work, on one London photography gallery who have recently started such a platform, with most reviewees happy to pay the £75 for the value of it in return, and not necessarily with any promises of exhibitions etc. He plugged Source magazine’s free portfolio reviews (from pre-selected entrants) as part of the process of discovering new image content for the magazine and sharing it with the sector (= the magazines market / audience / supporters / advertisiers). Even without a published page, or a space in a group show, there seemed to be a general consensus that this process benefits makers through encouragement, and likewise for gallerists or publishers, since it keeps them alert to new talent. Or at least, I think that was the consensus.

‘How the system operates’ underpinned this presentation, illustrated with a diagram constructed from a survey amongst photography galleries on how they select their exhibitions, using colour coding to demarcate exhibitions from open submissions, from those invited, and those undertaken with freelance curators and through collaborations. This is worth revisiting as this was undertaken two years ago, and if we are talking about openness and accountability, then the seemingly ‘closed shop’ approach of many may conflict with a public funding remit, though there has to be room for curatorial priorities, depending on the gallery. More information on exhibition protocol for makers, however, should be available on respective websites.

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Source, issue 71 Summer 2012.

There is a tension between supply and demand – the infrastructure can’t sustain or meet the demand from a greater number of photographers – and again I’d say this applies to magazines too as much as galleries, hence the growing number of self-publishing initiatives and collectives emerging to find a way of getting work out. It later came up that there are more photography graduates in the UK than there are jobs in the whole of Europe to accommodate them. A depressing reality, but the message here was about turning obstacles into opportunties.

David Drake mentioned his ambivalent relationship with portfolio reviews and the value versus cost question. How do photographers succeed was the subject of his talk around his work at Ffotogallery (and the festival Diffusion), and through their exhibition springboard for Wales based, early career artists, ‘Wish You Were Here’. His presentation used 3 real case studies to underline the fact that it is a long haul in finding a gallerist or publisher, and a hard slog in self-publishing through crowdfunding or whatever means – there is not one method or strategy – the point is to get your work talked about, and to plug into the right networks – if you can find them! There are no quick results, contact with a gallery or curator will not it translate into an exhibition right away. Jon Levy of Foto8 reinforced the importance of relationship building, finding partners, not remaining isolated, getting the work out there, giving your work a voice, having a coherent strategy and, significantly, being versatile. How do you get to an audience? You only get one bite at the cherry with crowdfunding also, so use it well.

Nathan Troman of Birmingham City University talked of the value of a photographic education though indicated that the worth of a degree is being devalued by increasing qualification requirements for most menial of undertakings. He reinforced some key messages for photographers in a later session also – reminding us that we are all students of photography as there are things to learn all the time. Some of the key competencies included: creativity; technical knowledge; planning and organizing; organisational understanding; teamwork; analysis; initiative; decisiveness; written communication; presentation skills; achievement orientation; interpersonal sensitivity. Connect these to facilities and equipment and a network of photographers who understand the mutual benefits of collaboration, then things will begin to take off.

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Val Williams

Keynote presentations were provided by Val Williams and Paul Hill. Val is a curator, writer and Director of the Photography and the Archive Research Centre (PARC) at LCC, who were a major catalyst in the show Street Level were involved in with Marjolaine Ryley in 2012, ‘Growing Up in the New Age’. She was first Director of Impressions, and is a major figure in the development and appreciation of post-war photography in Britain. She outlined more of her important work in uncovering the economic and cultural geographies of forgotten strands of British photography and revealed a keenness on how things sprout, bloom, wither, then bloom again, and spread their seeds in other places – an appropriate metaphor. For her and many others, it is a continually rewarding experience. In this case, it focussed on the Midland Group Gallery in the 70s, which helped create a space for the fragile medium of photography at that time, and its significance alongside other networks, such as Camerawork, and the Photographers Gallery.

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Paul Hill

Paul Hill waspart of that Midlands Group and has been a consistent presence and advocate of photography through his work, his influential teaching, and through his study centre The Photographers Place. Exhibitions at the Midlands Group Gallery helped to professionalise photography at a time when it was entirely novel to show photography in galleries – Thomas Joshua Cooper had his first British show there, for example. He referred to ‘thinking photographers’ as the term used at the time to distinguish them from hobbyists or those fixated solely on the craft of the medium.

Small incursions over time make big changes, and the importance played by teachers and students in photography departments in the region, such as that at Trent Polytechnic and others, were central to that. Paul also has a historical relationship to Street Level as the model of The Photographers Place was one of the influences on the early grouping of Glasgow Photography Group who set up Street Level in 1989 – in May of 1988 Paul gave a talk to GPG on ‘The Spirit of Independence in Photography’.

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Simon Roberts (left), and Paul Hermann of Redeye

Simon Roberts’ ‘work aims to deconstruct conventional interpretations of landscapes and people, whilst making meaningful commentaries on current social and cultural issues’ with much of it revolving around landscapes and people. In his rather kaleidoscopic presentation he shared with us insights into the making of substantial projects ‘We English’ (‘Roberts travelled around England in a motorhome to produce his large-scale photographs of the English at rest and play’ Sean O’Hagan),’ The Election Project’, ‘Peirdom’ (mapping the economic fortunes of the coastline of Britain, according to Roberts), as well as work commissioned by ‘The Social: Landscapes of Leisure’. He makes 60% to 70% of his income from selling his prints, mostly online? (also represented by The Photographers Gallery Print Department). His advice – be tenacious, have something to say, form relationships for good work.

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Edmund Clark

Another considered artist’s presentation (on the final day) was provided by Edmund Clark, whose work deals with politics and representation. Politics, not in a campaigning way, and this talk on ‘Ethics’ revealed a thoughtful, and strong-willed approach around his art and commissions he has undertaken. He covered his major publication/exhibition projects ‘Guantanamo’, ‘Control Orders’ and ‘Still Life, Killing Time’, as well as other projects where personal integrity and belief are put on the line. It was a very sincere presentation.

One day concentrated on ‘key issues of integrity for organisations and institutions. How can they preserve their public service or members’ remit whilst improving commercial income’. The audience was welcomed by Brian Gambles, Director of Library of Birmingham (who that day was awarded an OBE apparently) who applauded the achievement embodied in the development of the library, and more saliently, its combination of community dialogue and cultural capital. Frankie Mullen of Dovetail (‘The Change Making Agency’) talked of a forward looking approach, audiences and marketplaces, the need for connectivity. She threw up challenges for organisations and stated that progressive organisations will respond to these, but need to take advantage of partnerships in the process (the example of the decline of the high street was just one example). The emphasis was on a ‘holistic’ approach a word we hear a lot about in terms of arts management (so much so it can seem absolutely meaningless in the advance of tangible examples), but here she extends it in the need to see the connections between people and roles, recognise opportunities where others see barriers, all of which are features of good ‘leadership’. Diversity and generosity are also important in the exchange between participants and partners (and dare I say, which build a good market for your work)!

 

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A list of photography related organisations in the Midlands that Birmingham Open Media are aiming to work with.

Karen Newman is the Director of Birmingham Open Media, a new agency about to undertake the development of a run down abandoned space in the city centre into a social and production space for exhibitions, research, and education. Although concerned with new media and internet technologies, a photo studio will feature as part of the venture, through a partnership with another small business Fotofilia. In the 90s several photography organisations in Britain stripped away their production resources/darkrooms to focus mainly on exhibitions, leaving certain cities with no open access resources. Newman acknowledged this as a way for BOM proposing to address this gap in Birmingham (if indeed there are no others?). The embrace of the model of the mixed economy funding split is a good start up as new ventures can unlock initial investment but I’d caution against over excitement with the new, as building based projects are resource hungry – they need ongoing financial input to pay the overheads continually.

Emma Chetcuti is the Director of Multistory, a Sandwell based agency who devise projects and commissions for recognised photographers to make work about and to work with the people of Sandwell, such as Black Country Stories project which ‘reinvents the creative documentation of working class Britain by artists from Humphrey Jennings to Stanley Spencer, George Orwell to Bill Brandt’, and which includes photographers Martin Parr and Mark Power. The ambitious ‘Open for Business’ is a collaboration with Magnum and nine of its photographers and involves them documenting and recording the success stories of new manufacturing industries in eight British cities, and with one of the photographers, Stuart Franklin, focusing on renewable energies in Scotland*. Emma had a more humane spin on the notion of ‘resilience’ – a belief in oneself – yet also a belief in something larger than oneself. Multistory is one of many organisations that have had to reshape and reinvent themselves due to financial pressures, but with this example, it has been done to instil further hope and ambition, rather than failure.

* Open for Business is currently on at Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. It will be shown at Street Level in July of 2015. See here for more details: http://www.openforbusiness.uk.com/

The discussion on National Photography Collections took a broad sweep at ‘ways forward for managing the national collections of photography’. Francis Hodgson of the Financial Times bemoaned the statutory neglect of collections, mentioning that the UK has no dedicated photography conservators (by statute), a shocking inditement for a country that invented the medium, he stated – by which I can only assume he means the UK. Other speakers represented the formidable collecting institutions of Birmingham Library (Pete James) and National Media Museum (Michael Terwey). Questions proposed such as ‘how can the existing institutions communicate and co-ordinate better, and how can we bring smaller and private archives into the conversation?’ all seemed to be addressed to some degree. Collections enhance understanding and appreciation of photographic culture, but according to Pete, new institutional networks need to provide a model to go forward, networks consisting of reciprocal partnerships between major collections, research organisations, educational institutions, and presumably, the independent gallery sector too.

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Stephen Mayes, giving his talk from his kitchen

Stephen Mayes gave a presentation via online link up (quite seamless too) who proposed that the culture of units of intellectual property has been moving rapidly to one of a culture of streaming, seen in the consumption of cinema through netflix, books through kindle, etc.That there are markets outside of traditional media requires a rethinking by photographers of what their ‘value’ is, of moving that from the object of the photograph into the photographer – what they can do, what will people pay for, and this may mean seeing failure as part of the practice in order to succeed (if the failure is rapid that is). Fiona Rogers, of Magnum and Firecracker reiterated some of Mayes points of current systems ‘struggling to maintain an old model in a new system’, and illustrated this through new moves by Magnum to break out of their traditional arena and fixed brand, to make the project more audience centred through new internet platforms, and print sales online. This is the case with the Magnum Foundation which provides support for non-Magnum members and early career photographers. ‘Postcards from America’ was illustrated as an experimental collaboration which used a Tumblr platform to spread into other social media, which then resulted in the book that could be bought online, or the postcards, or the prints. Exhibition displays were also staged in parallel. Her own sideline project Firecracker is a more grassroots and therefore connected affair which started as a blog of one project per month and which has grown dramatically into the website, resource and support giving structure it is now for European Women Photographers.

New models – there are a multitude of ways of making work and new models of bypassing the traditional ‘gatekeepers’ – however, that term, according to Stephen, has historical roots, and is superceded by the new gatekeepers in the shape of Google, Amazon, Apple, etc who are far from democratic (though use the rhetoric of inclusion). Paul Hermann of Redeye, outlined several examples of artists whose ways of working might be said to offer examples of different ways of doing things and who get their work out their in different ways. That includes fundraising for a book, combining where possible making art and teaching, setting up new online connected platforms, etc.

 

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Duffin, left, and Ashton right, with their mobile Camera Obscura in the middle. Jenny Duffin is also the Director of Birmingham Loves Photography

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Some Cities exhibition

Some Cities exhibition

 

Local artists groups/organisations also gave presentations or parallel session, such as Birmingham Loves Photographers– local networking club which holds regular screening evenings, The Swarm, and Some Cities, an online inclusive project that allows anyone to upload their images to an ongoing and accumulating archive of images of Birmingham. This was augmented by an exhibition of their work on The Photographers Wall, and a mobile lo-tech yet highly effective Camera Obscura provided by local artists Duffin and Ashton.

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And if this weren’t enough, there were a number of exhibitions in and around the building too: a substantial show of work by Daniel Meadows: Early Photographic Works, curated by Val Williams, comprising of works recently discovered from his archive and from the collection of Library of Birmingham Photography Archives; a commission by Sophy Rickett and Bettina von Zwehl; and an exhibition ‘Aerofilms: Britain from Above’, which is presented in Centenary Square, using the Library’s special outdoor display system. It tells the story through images and text of Aerofilms Ltd, the world’s first firm of commercial aerial photographers – ‘A collection of adventurers, showmen and aviation enthusiasts, the firm married the fledgling technology of flight to the discipline of photography’.   (MD)

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