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.