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Posts tagged ‘Pieter Hugo’

Can Social Documentary Photography ever be considered Art?

I am going to start on and off series of blogs going forward talking about whether social documentary photography itself is art and can be seen as such.  I am sure my own perceptions will evolve as well and it will be interesting to see how and why they do so.

I think it is safe to say that whether photography can be considered an art form was resolved an age ago if the museum and gallery photog collections and thriving auction sales of this world are anything to go by.  As far back as the mid-70’s Susan Sontag – in her seminal work ‘On Photography’ was discussing the well-established merits of photography as an art form finding acceptance in museum collections (even back then the arguments had pretty much been settled).  But social documentary photography on the other hand has until only recently began to be seen as art and with limited (if not significantly growing) volumes of work being seen at exhibitions, galleries and museums.

The current deep recession might have something to do with renewed interest in social documentary photography – as it cyclically does – as people become more reflective on social ills and global problems that mirror their own economic distress – as it did in the early 80’s.  But there is also a growing long-term trend of seeing social documentary photography in galleries and being more readily accepted as art.  One has only to see the amazing success of photographers like Pieter Hugo whose 30×40 can go for US$ 30,000 and whose subject matter – while more conceptual certainly touches on social documentary themes, to understand that rather than a passing interest, social documentary photography has set down its stall in the art world and is here to stay.

But there is certainly a contradiction between the two worlds that will probably take time to adjust and settle.  The largely humanistic approach (notwithstanding photographers such as Martin Parr) of social documentary photography sits uncomfortably with the values that the art world holds dear, namely concept, the abstract and composition that together contribute to the essential timelessness of a piece.  There is the danger of trivialising the grave subject matter which many social documentary photographers tackle in its commodification by print sizes and limited edition offerings that borders on the exploitative.

I think approach and execution of subject is always key in understanding which social documentary photography is right for the walls and which is better off in editorial format in a magazine or on an NGO poster campaign.  As social documentary photographers fine tune their approaches (as many have done highly successfully) away from actual subject matter and towards the conceptual, using subtle color patterns and composition rather than subject to express their chosen themes, then social documentary photography will increasingly start finding a successful home in the art world now that the traditional line of income from media outlets is all but extinguished.

 

 

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Presenting an Art Portfolio, Conceptualising and Apartheid

A photograph changes according to the context in which it is seen… the meaning is the use.

Susan Sontag – On Photography

Spent the last few hectic weeks in the UK and a small trip to Europe preparing amongst other things a portfolio of my 2 long-term projects: ‘Of Religion and Gangsters’ & ‘A Changing Landscape’ – that is making large prints, presentational Blurb self-published books and new cards and websites (frustrating work in progress this last one!). At this early stage, the most important thing when showing the new work has been the feedback from peeps well-placed in the industry whose cumulative opinions ultimately help my own decision-making process in what way to take my own work.

The highlight of these meetings for me was definitely getting to hook up again with my old mentor from the Northern Lights Masterclass, Marc Prust in Amsterdam.

Marc is one of those rare successful guys who is also a genuinely friendly and open guy. Spent a pleasant afternoon chewing the fat and of course trying to put the world of photography to right over a couple of beers.  For me, getting feedback from Marc is a bit like being broken down in basic Marine training – all my ideas (read here delusions) about my own work quickly evaporate, but in the long-run from that come the crumbs that help build stronger more relevant ideas around my own work.

I have known for the longest time that presenting my own work has never been one of my strong points. I have always been one of those photogs more comfortable hiding behind agencies and not having to market myself directly. Assignments have always come relatively easy in that I have always been good at implementing someone’s photographic specs (however ludicrous and unrealistic the logistics and timelines etc may sometimes be – and always with a big fat smile on ma face!).  But to truly progress as a photog, unlike many other professions, this is simply not enough. Professional photography – in all fields, but especially in the world of book, gallery and art photography has this added dimension where you are and must be in a perpetual state of self-promotion. At the end of the day, if you don’t keep up with the newsletters, emails, blogs and portfolio reviews (but the relevance of portfolio reviews is questionable and will write about in a future blog), then with so much competition out there, you will simply be forgotten and quickly at that matter.

Given its importance, it has been essential that I bring these skills up to scratch. To say it has been a hard experience preparing is an understatement to say the least. But as Marc, who first sat me down on a couch like some Freudian interrogative session before even looking at my pics rightly pointed out: The problem and strength of my own presentation of the work, begins way before deciding how to show it. I have go way back to having an airtight idea of who I am professionally (esp now I have decided to leave the world of news photography behind) and essentially where I am going. I previously had some vague notion that I was doing these two projects to test the waters and either create a book (which I now think is def possible) or approach a gallery space or even to use as promotional tools to make contacts in this new field and from that build relationships that will eventually lead to the same goal with future projects. After our convo, I realised that this idea needs serious development. I have began formulating a much more solid idea and essentially a business plan – of where I want to be in 5 or 10 years. What now seems obvious, is that without this – it is hard to decide ultimately the best method to convey the work or even the best way to edit it: Understanding whether the work is strictly art portfolio, has a documentary-style narrative and therefore where it’s final destination will be will at the very start determine how best to present the work.

The other side of getting the basics right is having a solid conceptual basis for both projects to work around. It is interesting that even before I presented my work, the concepts for both have evolved and transitioned into something very different from where they started life and especially for my ‘Of Religion and Gangsters’ project.

I find it so interesting how the same set of images, edited and presented differently with a totally different conceptual idea can have such different meaning and be made more profound and relevant on the back of a great solid concept (and hence the Susan Sontag quote above). Of course, you can’t fake it at all. In all probability I will have to go back and shoot a lot more for both projects but at least once I have the concepts for them firmly nailed down I have a great set of images as a starting point and ultimately the rest will fall into place rapidly.

I knew conceptually both projects needed developing and being able to bounce ideas has been a god-send.

It is interesting that what came out though organically from the meetings was that I am moving towards tying them both to a narrative that is in both cases loosely based on a framework around the concept of apartheid and its continuing effects on South African society. I do hesitate in ever doing such things. I find it contrived and cliché to even mention it as many have done before and as many who live in SA know, the everyday narrative has transformed and moved forward a lot. But in many ways it also hasn’t – and more significantly – in the all-important international world of opinion, SA is still viewed through the eyes of apartheid and the positive redeeming journey towards the relatively peaceful transition to independence.   In photography (as in many art and media platforms) it is work and concepts based somehow on this idea that continue to have appeal in the West.

Of course, there are well-established photographers out there who have done an amazing job of moving and helping to transform this perception of SA and even Africa as a whole. Pieter Hugo immediately comes to mind and who is currently my stand out photographer (check out his new work ‘Kin’ based on his relationship to his surrounding environment i SA which has now become more releavnt to him after having a family) and of course there is the forefather of a new South African narrative Roger Ballen and his seminal book ‘Outland‘ (not a big fan I must say though).  Might or might not do a future blog on African narrative in photography which is something dear to my heart.

I must say though by attaching an interesting and innovative angle based loosely around the framework of apartheid to both my long-term projects, I see them in a new and exciting light and has given them a more profound visual purpose that genuinely excites me. Evolving both concepts and setting out to finish and shoot both projects is something that gives a new breath of life to the work and the feedback, especially from Marc (however punishing and ego-shattering!) brings with it much welcome new possibilities… and I can’t wait to see where that road might lead.

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