Writing on photography

Curation as Creation

This is part two of a double post on copyright, curation and photography, part one here.

I recall a reading a short piece not long ago (which I frustratingly now can’t locate) which argued that to be a photographer increasingly means not in fact to photograph anything, but rather to just curate what others have created. This idea will I’m sure rile many photographers, who grip to the image of themselves as visionary artists or long sighted journalists, and who see their photographs as discrete products of a unique view of the world. To curate the photographs of others is often seen as entirely auxiliary to this, a secondary and inferior service to the primary profession of picture making.

However the idea of the photographer as a curator (in a very loose sense of the term) is clearly a relevant one when you look at contemporary practice (of course some might argue it is the problem with contemporary practice). For example three of the five artists shortlisted for the Deustche Boerse 2012 work with appropriated photographic material. We could even extend this to a fourth, Christina de Middel, who plays off the idea of appropriation, using material of uncertain genesis, which might be rescued originals or equally might well be entirely invented. This is not limited to the fine art world either, take those remarkable photographs of the trapped Chilean miners in their underground prison. They were photographed by one of the men, but then ‘curated’ (selected, ordered, presented) by Adam Patterson, the person we might normally think  of as the photographer.

As is often noted we live in a world which appears to haemorrhage photographs unstoppably. A world where there already exist an unquantifiable numbers of images, to which are daily added more photographs than we can perhaps count, let alone understand. Of course this superabundance of photographs is nothing new. It has been noted throughout the medium’s history, since at least the start of the last century when Siegfried Kracauer described the ‘blizzard of images’ which he believed confounded understanding of the world more often than it served it. Eighty six years later his blizzard looks more like a rather light dusting of snow by comparison to our own torrent of photographs, which will presumably look similarly weak to anyone still writing about this in 2099. This trend, if nothing else, should reassure us.

Still in this context it is always tempting to question the value of new photographs, particularly as one who produces them. I often feel uncomfortable with the thought of contributing to this visual maelstrom until I better understand it, and have a more concrete sense of exactly what I am contributing, what photographs are, how they behave, and how they shape understanding of the world. In this context the curation of existing images seems to offer an opportunity to explore some of these questions, without adding considerably to Kracauer’s blizzard. Appropriating and curating existing material is like seizing individual snow flakes from the storm, to study them and explore solutions to the questions of photography’s increasing abundance and apparently growing meaningless, without in the proccess contributing to the original problem.

There are also more tangible, practical benefits. Working with photographs that one has not created offers a liberating sense of distance that never exists when working with one’s own pictures. Like many photographers I often feel impossibly caught up in the memory of the circumstances of a picture’s making. We have all had someone show us a rather average photograph and get hopelessly sidetracked into recounting the enormous lengths they went to achieve it, as if the anecdotal means justifies the unremarkable end. When working with photographs taken by other people only the content of the image matters, the background and context is often something which has to be purposefully sought out, and which sometimes is indeed already irretrievably lost.

Non-ownership of the photographs one curates also helps somewhat to nullify old notions of artistry and individual vision which have always been of questionable importance in relationship to photography. Photographs which are ‘flawed’ (vernacular, naïve, etc) are of equal value to those which are technically or conceptually perfect (sometimes indeed they are of far greater value). Instead of the individual image, the narrative structure and the relationship between images becomes much more important. The photograph as a discrete rectangle is replaced by photographs as a series of relationships formed by the circumstances they find them selves in. Robert Heineken’s work is an excellent example of this, for example in his piece Child Guidance Toy #4, where the bringing together of an advert for a child’s shooting range alongside a figurine of JFK changes the meanings of both images radically.

Another interesting example of a photographer turning to curation is Susan Misealeas and her project Kurdistan: In The Shadow of History. What seems to have begun as quite a conventional reportage project increasingly evolved  into a work of history as Misealeas’s own photographs took on an diminishing role, replaced by the historical photographs and documents she began to unearth and reproduce. Contrary to the notion that working with the material of others is lazy or plagiaristic, I think Misealeas’s work demonstrates that it often takes courage to put your own photographs (and all their baggage) aside and start to work with material which is not your own.

Appropriation and curation of other people’s work, without their permission is as I noted in my previous piece, an inevitably controversial tactic because of copyright concerns and the continuing stigma attached to appropriation in certain sections of the photography world. None the less it’s a powerful and diverse way to approach visual material, which sidesteps many of the problems of constructing a body of work from one’s own photographs. Equally gripped as we are by a storm of photographs which seems, rather than illuminating the world, to grow more brilliantly blinding by the day, curation is a way to step back from production while continuing to grapple with fundamental questions about the purpose and functioning of photographs.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.


  • Isn’t the photographer a curator by definition in first place? A photographer discretize the continuum and therefore he is already “curating” the show of reality. If technology seems to be aiming to a perfect copy of reality, almost a memory which would be possible to live and experience again and again, wouldn’t be the curator of it exactly a photographer? Deciding what is worth and what is not? Compressing time in a meaningful series of moments?

    • You could look at it like that, but there is always space for the unexpected. You could also say that photographer or not we are all to some extent curators of our lives and experiences. Thanks for commenting Jacob, hope you’re well.

  • My first thought when I read the precis was of Mike Johnstone over at TOP, who does a lot of curating of others’ work, both old and new. I have to say I’m pretty uncomfortable curating (though I have re-scooped this!) and whilst the prize candidates you mention are interesting, I’m not sure that I consider some of that work ‘photography’ any more I’d consider watching athletics as running the hundred metres. It’s interesting though, btw link to part 1 at top is kaput!

    • Thanks for the comment Saul, link should be fixed now.

      What makes you uncomfortable about curating do you think?

  • I confess that I am randomly trolling the archives here and commenting whenever it strikes my fancy.

    I think a strong argument can be made that the work of Vivian Maier, for instance, might just as well be the work of her curators as the photographer. The curators have, I suspect, absolutely no interest in clearing this up, so it is essentially unknowable. The possibility is there.

    This does not lessen the work.

    The line between photography and curation has never been that district. Emerson was remarking on the 19th century that photography is fundamentally the act of selection, of curating the world, if you will. This line is getting more blurry in this digital world, in this remix culture, in this works of conceptual art. That’s a good thing.

    • Hah you’re hardly trolling, glad you’re finding plenty to comment on.

      Of course photography always involves curation at various different levels I think the counter-argument to that in the Maier case is that the curation of her work has taken place without any input from her. It’s difficult to speak of ‘Vivian Maier’s photography’ because really we have no way of knowing if the pictures Maloof has picked of hers are the ones she would have picked. Her vision might have been incredibly different. Of course all photographers involve other people in the editing of their work, but when the photographer’s voice is totally absent (and that isn’t discussed) that becomes a problem for me.

Writing on photography