For its latest issue (#71), Source magazine is asking the question, “What is conceptual photography?” To go along with the mag they have produced three short talking-head videos exploring this question with a handful of artists and critics. The importance of the “concept” in contemporary photography has always interested me. In the photo-world, the question regularly pops up about why “straight” photography isn’t taken seriously by the art world. Those in the straight photography corner often appear to see conceptual photography as impure in some way, as if it were not what photography is really about. Without wanting to spark off another one of these debates, it seems to me that concept is indeed considered paramount in Western art photography today (in my experience, this is not at all the case in Japan, where “serious” photography can still very much be about wandering around with a camera and taking pictures). For example, I’m often struck by young photographers struggling to hang an ill-fitting artist statement with some big ideas in it over the shoulders of work that is clearly not conceptual in the slightest… presumably because they have been taught to do so in art school. Wherever you stand on this question (or however delightfully far away you stand from it) these videos provide an interesting look at how photography became so excited about concepts and what the hell “conceptual photography” is even supposed to mean in the first place.
Tokyo is not an easy place to get to grips with, especially for those of us who are used to the structure and scale of most European cities. Its multi-layered sprawl and labyrinthine underground transport network can make it feel like a never-ending maze. Like the city itself, Tokyo’s art scene can feel impenetrable to an outsider. The fluctuations of the art world make it difficult to keep up with the art landscape in any big city, but Tokyo more than most as the contemporary art market is not as developed and established as in the US or Europe. This doesn’t mean fewer galleries, but rather more of them and a constant ebb and flow of relocations, openings, and closures too. As a regular visitor to the city over the last decade, I still feel as if I have only seen the tip of the art scene iceberg. Galleries are often small, tiny even, and difficult to find, rarely at street level but tucked away in a basement or on the 4th floor of an anonymous building in a non-descript neighbourhood. Part of the charm if you’re gallery hopping, but if you actually have to get to a meeting, it can be a little more stressful. I often rely on Tokyo Art Beat, a kind of online art events guide (in both Japanese and English) including exhibition reviews that tells you what is on in Tokyo. A very useful tool, in its attempt to be comprehensive it also ends up being a little overwhelming and is probably more useful when you know what you are looking for.
Thankfully there is now another online English-language resource to turn to. Art Space Tokyo has existed as a physical book since 2008, but it has now been launched on digital platforms and as a website including three major sections: spaces, interviews and essays, as well as a timeline of some of the major art events in Tokyo over the last 60+ years. Rather than going for a comprehensive picture of the Tokyo art scene, Art Space Tokyo limits itself to a couple of handfuls of spaces and art world ‘players’, providing the essential info but also going into some depth and analysing current trends. The essays included also tackle interesting questions such as the nature of Japanese street art or the state of art journalism and criticism in Japan, making this much more than a guidebook to the Tokyo art world. The authors, Ashley Rawlings and Craig Mod, have also clearly given a lot of thought to translating all the content from a paper book to digital platforms (iPad, Kindle) and to a website. They have been generous too, putting up the entire contents of the book online for free, even holding on to Nobumasa Takahashi‘s great illustrations, rather than treating the site as a sneak preview promotional tool. This one is bound to come in handy on my next visit to Tokyo.
If I had to choose a single word to describe Nina Poppe’s book Ama it would be ‘modest.’ It is not a ‘clever’ book, nor a powerful one. It is quiet and does little to promote itself (the book’s open spine design which does not allow for text guarantees that it will be all but forgotten on a bookshelf). This modesty runs throughout every aspect of the book, from the subject matter to Poppe’s photographic approach to her subject, and even to the book’s size and design. In many ways it is a very ordinary photobook: a simple, straightforward documentation of the life of a small community. These unassuming, unfussy qualities could make it easy to overlook, and yet I think they are what make Ama one of the better recent photobooks of its kind.
Jon Rafman is a Canadian artist and filmmaker based in Montreal. He recently gave a talk about his work entitled “In Search of the Virtual Sublime” at the Gaité Lyrique, a new space devoted to digital culture in Paris. I met up with Jon in a café near the Jardin du Luxembourg to discuss Google Street View, street photography, the cyberflâneur and what the future looks like.
The road trip is one of the primal photographic gestures. It has given rise to some of the most celebrated series of photographs as well as to countless clichéd and forgettable pictures. Thanks to—or maybe even because of—Robert Frank’s ten thousand mile drive across America which led to The Americans, it also feels like a quintessentially American exercise. The term also has an epic quality: it conjures up the idea of a seemingly never-ending journey. With his book SP 67, the Italian photographer Roberto Schena has played with the mythology of the road trip to explore a short (13km) stretch of road running through the mountains in northern Italy.
We live in the age of photo proliferation. Digital technology in all its forms (cameras, phones, computers, the Internet) has made photography the most democratic of media, both in terms of making and disseminating images. And they are everywhere, all the time: on our TVs, our computer screens, our smartphones and in our streets. Of course, this state of affairs is not as new as we might think—it has been in place since Walter Benjamin and his age of mechanical reproduction—but digital technology has led this proliferation to take off exponentially.
The impact of this is clear, even in traditional, ‘purist’ photography circles. In 2007 the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne created a crowd-sourced exhibition entitled We Are All Photographers Now, allowing anyone to upload their photographs to be included in the show. More recently Europe’s biggest photo-festival, the Rencontres d’Arles, centred on an exhibition entitled From Here On, a kind of manifesto for the age of the online image (“Now we’re a species of editors. We all recycle, clip and cut, remix and upload. We can make images do anything.”) where much of the work was made by artists appropriating or collecting other people’s images. Even Elliot Erwitt has been saying that more pictures are better than one. So what a relief to open a photobook (am I allowed to call it that?) and discover that it does not contain a single picture: the cover’s ‘empty’ frame is the closest thing to an actual photograph.
The title of Donald Weber’s latest book, Interrogations, is very appropriate: both because they are the book’s subject, but also because this book raises a number of difficult questions which it deliberately refuses to answer. Set in Russia and the Ukraine, the book is made up of a series of portraits of people being questioned in different interrogation rooms, each as sparse as the next. By choosing not to include any captions and very little information about the context of these interrogations, Weber has put together a book which is an unflinching and discomfiting encounter with a particularly brutal and raw manifestation of power.
It will soon be the first anniversary of the huge earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s Tohoku region. Hundreds of thousands of images have been taken since the disaster and most of these naturally focus on documenting the scale of the devastation. In my view, little interesting work that goes beyond straightforward visual description has emerged as yet. One of the strongest projects started up immediately in the aftermath of the disaster when the photographer Aichi Hirano decided to distribute disposable cameras to the people in the shelters in the devastated region. He retrieved the cameras, developed the film and published the results at www.rolls7.com. I have written about the Rolls Tohoku project before on the blog and Hirano has continued to add new images to the Rolls website since then.
This week, I discovered another project which is a fascinating companion to Rolls Tohoku. The Memory Salvage Project was started two months after the earthquake by a team of young researchers from The Japan Society for Socio-Information Studies who felt the need to return the photographs which were swept by the tsunami to their owners. A group was set up to gather photographs that were retrieved after the tsunami, to clean them, digitize them, and to attempt to return them to their owners. This could seem like a herculean and perhaps misplaced undertaking given the scale of the problems that people face in the affected areas, but I think it is a wonderful reminder of what photographs can mean to people and how closely they are linked to our memories.
An exhibition of some of the retrieved images took place at Akaaka’s gallery in Tokyo earlier this year and, for any readers in Los Angeles, a second exhibition at Hiroshi Watanabe’s studio is taking place from 8-25 March. Details are on the Lost & Found website.
The Cruel and Unusual exhibition that opens at the Noorderlicht Gallery in Groningen tomorrow is a rare breed. This is a project that started out (and still lives) on the internet, became a road trip across America, and is now both a newspaper and an exhibition. With work by eleven different artists, Araminta de Clermont, Amy Elkins, Alyse Emdur, Christiane Feser, Jane Lindsay, Deborah Luster, Nathalie Mohadjer, Yana Payusova, Lizzie Sadin and Lori Waselchuk, the exhibition focuses on prison photography, a subject that receives very little exposure. The show is co-curated by fellow photo-bloggers Hester Keijser (Mrs Deane) and Pete Brook (Prison Photography) who write two of the most dynamic and esoteric blogs that you will find on the web (aside from the dozens of other writing, curating and photographic projects). To state the obvious, prisons are not exactly a sexy subject and the fact that they have managed to put this show together is very impressive. Instead of a ‘traditional’ exhibition catalogue, the curators have put together a newspaper (print run of 4,000 / 1.50 € per copy) in an attempt to reach more readers than an expensive photobook could (they lay out their reasons for this choice in detail here). The world of photography online can be an exasperating, sprawling mess, but the fact that it can lead to projects such as this one makes it genuinely worthwhile. I’m providing a few visuals of the work on show with this post, but if you can make it to Noorderlicht before the exhibition closes on 1 April, don’t miss this.
Le Bal’s latest exhibition, Foto/Gráfica: Une nouvelle histoire des livres de photographie latino-américains (A New History of Latin-American Photobooks) opened last week. The show is based on a selection of 40 books taken from Horacio Fernandez’s recently published book on books, The Latin-American Photobook (Aperture, 2011). This is not Le Bal’s first photobook exhibition—they presented Japanese Photobooks Now in the summer of 2011—but it is the first time that they have devoted their entire space to an exhibition of books. Following this show they will be hosting the 5th International Fotobook Festival, which is traditionally held in Kassel, so it seems that photobooks are becoming one of the major areas of focus of their programme.