PHOTOGRAPHY & POLITICS

Couple of things to make clear at the start . . .

I’m not talking here about the day-to-day, vernacular photography we see posted on social media. I quite like some of that and appreciate the function it fulfills. (Although some of what follows can be applied to that kind of photography, too. After all, all photographs define, somehow, some aspects of the aspirations and world view of the person who took them.)

What I am talking about are the bodies of work created and circulated by photographers who intend to situate their work within the confines of the “serious” and/or “fine art” realms of PhotoWorld™. What are their personal politics? How is it rendered in their work? Do they care? Does it matter?

So okay, with that out of the way, let me begin . . .

My view of, and interest in, photography has always skewed towards the political. And I define “politics” in photography quite broadly. It need not be, in fact often isn’t, overt. It includes informed and incisive looks at, and dissections of, the world. It might consider personal or global politics from a tempered, poetic perspective, or simply be a photographer trying to honestly define their life. (Can there be anything more political that trying to honestly define your life?)

And, it must be said that a good photograph, no matter what, contains a multitude of wonderful aspects to appreciate. What I hope to find is informed opinion and intelligence, photographs that will educate me by showing me something I haven’t thought of before. Or photographs that cause me to reconsider or expand my world view by shedding new light on something that I have thought of before.

But I also look for and analyze the politics contained in images, whether those politics were consciously embedded by the photographer or not. (And this coincides neatly with my belief that many photos are gateways to some aspect of their creators’ subconscious, to their aspirations and/or world view . . . i.e. their politics)

But (and remember I’m talking here about “serious” and “fine art” photography) . . . but a lot of photographs that are created, liked, and given blue-chip support seem to me to be nothing more than pro forma, commercial images that merely support a product. The product being the status quo.

There are, of course, a million shades of grey. I’ve seen quiet, beautiful work that is profoundly political, just as I’ve seen bold edgy work that seems nothing more than a clever way to separate money from patrons who want to appear radical (while at the same time making sure the art they buy matches their glamorous decor).

Don’t get me wrong, I know we need a certain amount of joy, distraction, and just plain beauty in our lives. And, sure, there’s no reason art can’t supply some of that.

But the embrace of anodyne photography equals a tacit acceptance of the tumult that the world (your world, my world, everyone’s world) is being subjected to these days.

Which side are you on?

OTTAWA NOTES

JUSTIN WONNACOTT STUDIO SHOW

This Friday and Saturday Justin Wonnacott will be opening his studio. You are invited to drop by, look at some photographs, have a drink and a chat. And, it must be said, chow down on some of the stellar snacks he’s been known to make.

Happening this Friday, November 29 between five and nine and on Saturday the 30th from one until about six.

Getting there is a bit tricky but will be worth the effort. This is what Justin says:

Folks are invited to a party in my studio with things to eat,
some wine and pictures on the wall.
My studio entrance is the north door at 82 Rue Hanson in

Gatineau on the second floor of La Filature .
I will leave a note on the door with my phone number to call
and I will open the door for you.
Come and see where I work. But….. If you plan to come please

RSVP in a facebook message to let me know when you are coming.
Thanks, Justin Wonnacott

REMI THERIAULT at STUDIO SIXTY SIX

Also on Friday, No Vacancy, a show of Remi Thériault‘s images of life on the road, in the clubs, and stuff, will open at Studio Sixty Six. That’s November 29th, six to nine.

BACK IN NOVEMBER

Last year I was photographing November. I had 30 or so sheets of 4×5 film and a month to do it. Vertical landscapes.

But not really just landscapes, no, I wanted the photographs to represent how November feels. Psychological. And for those of you not from here, here November is a grey, bitter month. Foreboding.

But November light and skies are something else. On the right day they encapsulate more than just November. Some primal thing . . . the end of the world, or maybe some new beginning. I reckoned this would be a kind of a riff on my last project, After the Fact.

November 10th last year . . .

And then, November sixteenth last year, there was a huge snowfall. Overnight everything turned pretty. Damn. I didn’t want pretty.

A different road, six days after the previous photo . . .

Well, I was bummed. How are you supposed to photograph bleak and grey when there’s a soft white layer covering everything? So I abandoned the project and began to think about other things.

And then what happened? I’ll tell you what happened. Another November happened. That’s what. Turns out there’s one every year.

So I loaded up some film and went out to feel the biting wind on my face and the waning sun on my back. Once again I was in my glory, out in the world feeling . . .

And then it happened again. Snow. Lots of snow. This is what the short walk to the street in front of my house looked like on November 12th . . .

But in the meantime I’ve managed to cobble together ten images that seem to get the job done. (Ten or twelve final photographs was my aim for this project). If you want to see them big click on this. (Best seen on a large monitor for all the 4×5 goodness.)

I might revisit this again next November. I might not. We’ll see . . .

___

OTTAWA NOTES

FIGUREWORKS

For those of you who like the competitive aspects of the art world, Figureworks Prize announces the big winner of their local portrait contest. Wednesday, November 10th at St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts, six to ten. Some photography is involved.

OPAL Issue Nº 3: launch

Local photo publication The OPAL Community launches Issue Nº 3. Featuring photography from all over. Thursday November 21st, five thirty to nine at House of Common, 11B Fairmont Avenue (around the back).

A TRIP TO THE ROYAL ACADEMY OF ART, DEN HAAG

Okay, my time in Groningen was over. The Noorderlicht International Fotofestival will carry on until December 1st without me. I was booked and bound to go, so I trained to Amsterdam and holed up there for the night.

Next morning made my way to Den Haag to give a Lunch Lecture to the photography students at The Royal Academy of Art, now known as KABK.

Donald Weber took me to the auditorium and kindly set me up. Then explained that they never know how many students will attend. Could be 10, could be 150. By the time I started the place was full.

I began talking about my approach, about how I do it for the experience, and that learning and discovery are very important to me. As is allowing the subject (whatever it may be) to dictate (up to a point) how it might be photographed.

When I was showing some images from USER an audience member raised his hand and made a statement. As far as I could make out he told me that addicts have no agency, are in a constant state of delirium so can’t make proper decisions about anything, and that I had no business photographing them. He seemed to be implying they shouldn’t be photographed at all.

Okay, I responded, although that’s not my experience, I understand why you might think that way. Photographing “the other” is a tricky thing. There’s a lot to be lost and little to be gained treading down that treacherous path. But, properly approached, I continued, there can be worth in working with subjects that are currently considered politically incorrect. (Especially, I thought to myself, in these extraordinarily reactionary times, the reactions coming, of course, from both the right and the left.) And in my opinion, I concluded, the risk is not only worth taking, but also necessary, otherwise our culture will just stagnate.

But this back and forth didn’t really go anywhere. He was certain I was wrong, maybe even a bad man (and is, of course, partially correct, because nothing in this world is pure). I was certain that there are, in fact, ethical ways to broach tough subjects (ditto).

With that dealt with in, really, a less than satisfactory way, I continued to the end of my talk. Don and I then made our way to his 4th year class where we were going to look at and talk about student portfolios.

After a bit of a continuation of the Lunch Lecture kerfuffle, Don began showing (referring to, really) a couple of the student portfolios. These portfolios were actually book-like compendiums of bits of 3 or 4 of their recent projects. The ones he handed to me were both quite esoteric, and I don’t really get esoteric.

Now don’t get me wrong, I recognized worth in both those book-things. Problem was the work just wasn’t speaking to me. I was not their audience.
So I got this sinking feeling that I would have nothing to contribute if all the student’s work was aimed in the general direction of academia.

But when I began to look through the portfolios and talk with the students individually I was pleasantly surprised. Most of them were going out into the world and engaging with what they chose to look at and wonder about. They were bringing back their perspectives in a way that strove to accentuate the storytelling qualities of photography in a personal, authentic and non-elitist way.

I wish I had images of the students’ work to show you. But things were moving too fast for me to even begin to think about taking the time out to photograph the portfolios. Instead I’ll break up all these words with a few random pix I shot in Holland . . .

. . . Anyway, here’s a quote from Dawould Bey that expresses what I think in a very succinct way: “. . . the best work tends to result not from the imposition of an idea on a situation, but from being responsive to what is going on once you get there. Otherwise, what results is merely the illustration of an idea.”

And that seemed to be how most of the KABK photography students were endeavouring to use photography . . . in a responsive way. As a result I saw a lot of smart, curious work in their portfolios.

All this made good sense to me, especially after immersing myself in the work on display at the Noorderlicht Fotofestival.

Much of the photography I saw in The Netherlands (at Noorderlicht and KABK) was the product of going out into the world and reacting to it in a personal, rounded and politically informed way. Those reactions (photographs) were then organized so that they communicated complicated thoughts in a non-precious manner.

And that brings me to the other thing I wanted to write about this week: The differences (generally speaking) between the photography I saw in Europe and what I’m seeing in Canada.

But this is already too long, so that’ll have to wait until next week.

Right now I’ll just get myself back home to Ottawa, via a one day stopover in Amsterdam . . .

OTTAWA NOTES

SOME SCENES FROM THE SPAO OPEN HOUSE

UPCOMING THIS WEEK. OF INTEREST.
___
Olivia Johnston and Janet Tulloch: Eternal Representations

Photographer Olivia Johnston and Janet Tulloch, artist and religious studies scholar, will have a conversation about Olivia’s exhibition, Saints and Madonnas. Carleton University Art Gallery, St. Patrick’s Building (no pun intended) Wednesday, November 6th, seven to eight-thirty.

___
Kat Fulwider: Voices of the Streets

Voices of the Streets will showcasKat Fulwider‘s portraits and stories of homeless and at-risk youth. The exhibition happens at Thursday, November 8th, Point Of View Gallery, 55 Byward Market Square, 2nd floor, five to eight.

___
Fran Ages: The Parkland Portraits

Fran Ages will be showing her suite of images showing survivors of the Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School shooting. Saturday, November 9, Cinqhole, 5b Fairmont Ave., two to five.

FINALLY THE NOORDERLICHT INTERNATIONAL FOTOFESTIVAL

TAXED TO THE MAX was the title of this year’s iteration of the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival. The rather jaunty subtitle being: “ . . . at least you are not afraid to live life on the brink of chaos“.

And that, in my opinion, is the best kind of subtitle. Cryptic with multiple meanings. Make of it what you will.

I couldn’t see it all. Too many events, too much socializing, not enough time. But the breadth of subject matter, and the photographers’ approach to that matter, was breathtaking.

Below you will see a bit of what I saw. This is not a “best of” list, merely some of what I noted . . .

The idea behind the festival was pointed enough: “The 26th edition of the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival examines the social tensions that international mega corporations create with their enormous accumulation of capital and influence on national and global politics. How does this affect the lives of ordinary people?

Good question.

The festival provided some answers . . .

___
The traditional way of living of the Khanty, an indigenous nomadic people in Western Siberia, is severely threatened by the pollution of the oil and gas industry. Igor Tereshkov documents this and then processes his film with leaked oil from the region. You can feel it.

Installation view and 3 images from Oil and Moss. ©Igor Tereshkov

___
With Overflow, Martin Leuvrey addresses the visual aspects of hyper capitalism and its self destructive plethora of technology and artifacts. The images were shot in urban places of transit, special economic zones, etc.

Installation views and 2 images from Overflow. ©Martin Leuvrey

___
Embroidered bankers. In an effort to break the hyper constructed image of the financial world Lana Mesic interviewed London bankers and translated snapshots of them into embroidered portraits.

Installation view and 2 images from Souls, Ties and a Pile of Carrots. ©Lana Mesic

___
Keijiro Kai records testosterone-fuelled festivals around the world. Here we see ritual fistfights in Bolivia and a Japanese fire-starter festival.

Installation views. Kaijiro Kai.

___
In Agreement, by Brigitte de Langen, shows the original, signed, final versions of a selection of trade agreements that the EU closed with other parties. Looking at the covers you can see some of the text and signatures inside, but you have to imagine what is contained within. Except there’s also an audio component with parts of the agreements, read out in different languages. Nevertheless . . . the words are almost incomprehensible to the average person.

Installation views and 2 images from In Agreement. ©Brigitte da Langen

___
Cryptocurrency is immaterial in itself but needs powerful material infrastructure to exist. With The Flood, Ivar Veermäe investigates crypto-money and its mining and energy needs using documentary images and simulated 3D objects on video.

Installation views and video stills from The Flood. Ivar Veermäe

___
Then I bumped into David Klammer (who, smart guy, had brought his bike with him from Cologne). We made our way to Fotogalerie Lichtzone, a cool photographer-run cooperative space in Groningen, to see his exhibition.

There were huge images stuck to the wall, surrounded by some of the battlements and debris from the site where he shot these images, which showed aspects of the lives of the occupants of Hambach Forest, west of Cologne. Since 2012 the forest has been occupied by anarchists and forest-savers who are trying to protect it from the energy company RWE, which wants to expand their open-pit operation into the forest.

Completely tired I made my way back to the hotel for a lay-down. The next morning I would leave for Amsterdam and Den Haag.

Next week I’ll have a bit about my trip to The Royal Academy of Art and some final thoughts on the Noorderlicht International Fotofestival.

(Need more Noorderlicht info? Just scroll down and keep reading.)