Elisabeth Biondi moderates a panel of experts at Fridman Gallery in discussion about the challenges recent graduates face. With: Vince Aletti, Chris Boot, Brian Clamp, Allen Frame, Andrea Meislin and Charles Traub. (Abridged Transcript)
Elisabeth Biondi: I come from a very traditional editorial background, and things have changed tremendously in the past three years since I left The New Yorker. In the show “Lift Off”, we have six extremely talented artists who have just recently graduated with an MFA degree and they are now facing the world without the help of their schools and programs. And so, I want to place that in the context of, “what is the world of photography now and how has it changed?”
Charles Traub: I think the shortsighted view is, “This is all new” and the truth is the content isn’t very new. Moholy-Nagy predicted everything that we’re talking about: the integration of the ideas of photography being a matrix for all kinds of creative activity – whether commercial, personal, film, video – he wasn’t thinking of the video they didn’t have, but he was seeing the idea.
Chris Boot: Absolutely nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed about the environment of dissemination, production and communication – and obviously that is all driven by the Internet. It profoundly challenges the publisher’s role. Publishers used to be these capricious characters … on whose opinion and wishes an artists’ career might depend. Books were the most influential bearer of photographic knowledge; it is how ideas traveled across borders. Now you can argue a lot of that happens through the Internet, but the book, there’s nothing quite like the book for being the final articulation of a given body of work. What people are doing in terms of the materiality, in terms of production techniques, in terms of ideas, and concepts expressed and communicated through the form of a book. It is the most thrilling area at the moment; there is so much innovation.
Allen Frame: Not much has changed in terms of content, which is the essential thing. It all has to do with point of view and as humans our perceptions are our way of perceiving. It has not changed so much that we’ve created a new art form, we’ve just created different ways to distribute the ideas.
Chris Boot: It’s an incredibly difficult business to publish photo books. If there’s an audience of a thousand people for it, we’re probably not the right people to talk to. Books become viable at the seven thousand and above number. Those are books by photographers with highly established reputations, big audiences or are addressing topics that everybody wants to talk about. The individual artist book – it’s a really tough business. I personally get four proposals a day and I do find myself saying all the time: you should do it yourself.
Charles Traub: The thing that’s new is that you can do it yourself for very little money relative to what it once cost and you can also make a book called an e-book on the screen. I like to use the term lens and screen arts. The screen is a pretty damn viable place and it’s not so far removed from those beautiful Kodachromes we once projected as well. So you can do it yourself, whereas you never could do it yourself in the past.
Brian Clamp: Probably fifty percent of the exhibitions at the gallery coincide with the release of some sort of publication, so someone with a book contract in their back pocket certainly becomes much more attractive to the gallery simply because it’s a great formula for promoting work. The publicity from the book fuels the exhibition and vice versa.There are so many books being published, many photographers feel it’s a requirement at this point. And it is so obvious that not all work necessary lends itself to the printed page, not everyone has to have a monograph. It certainly is important and can open doorways for people, but it’s frustrating for me to see artists all assume that that’s something they have to do.
Vince Aletti: When you say not everyone has to have a monograph, I would go a little further and say not everyone deserves to have a monograph. There’s an awful lot of material out there that just feels featherweight and doesn’t really hold the book. But it’s the same thing with gallery shows. There’s an awful lot of work out there that is easy to walk in and out of. I think it will always be the case that there’s good work and bad work or good work and not so interesting work.
I’ve been seeing that it’s process driven, that it’s essentially abstract, that it’s moved far away from the constructed photograph. And more and more of the work that I’m seeing feels like that it comes, maybe not from the darkroom, but with that sensibility. And that’s really struck me over the past year that I, frankly, have gotten very bored with fictional images – that kind of Crewdson school – and I’m glad to see that there’s not as much of that now. But it is kind of amazing to me how many people are working with process, with what feels like going away from imagery, going away from documentation and working almost completely in abstraction.
Brian Clamp: I think there are conceptual reasons why we’re seeing a lot of abstract photography, but I feel like part of it is market driven because we’ve seen edition sizes reduce and reduce and reduce. There are collectors that want to own unique objects, so now we’re seeing almost every gallery with one artist who’s producing unique photographic objects.
Andrea Meislin: Regarding the traditional image, we’ve all sort of moved on from street photography, which is really a shame. The most interesting work that I’m seeing is either composed, constructed or it’s played with; it’s conceptual in nature. And then the visual results have to be as stunning as their concept; they have to match well and be a cohesive presentation.
Charles Traub: I think what is incumbent is for people to figure out how to get beyond these very issues we’re talking about, of the problem of the gallery, of the problem of the book – not that they’re not important, but what else can one do and how can one use the devices and the technology and the public display and architecture and everything that’s out there. Certainly the curriculum had to change because of the digital world. And the artist/photographer is concerned about trying to say something individually through the lens, as the lens is a matrix. What has changed is we’re all much more visually literate, at least this group is, and better educated about what the image is, about what it can do.
Vince Aletti: The challenge for any artist is that you can pull off something wonderful, but then you have to do it again. You are producing something extraordinary, but that’s never enough. The people that excite me and keep me engaged are the ones that are able to sustain a career by constantly evolving, constantly changing and having a signature that is not set in stone.
Allen Frame: I wish more people were like you Elisabeth, and by that I mean, you write this column for Photograph and introduce a photographer in each issue and it is up to you to decide what type of photographer. You set the parameters of somebody that’s not represented by a gallery yet and you make that call of skipping the many filters that are in place before we see somebody’s work in a gallery because there are all those filters that occur before we get to find out about somebody. And I find as the art world becomes more and more corporatized in New York, that kind of risk-taking happens less and less and I wish that there were more people who would take that kind of a risk.
Allen Frame: The fault of a lot of curators, young curators, is they just put their friends’ work in it and it’s not that coherent or interesting.
This is the fifth in the series In Pursuit of an MFA by Theresa Ortolani. If you missed them, please also visit The Space Age of Photography: In Conversation with Elisabeth Biondi, Hangin’ with Foley and On Songbook: In Conversation with Alec Soth.