Before we get to the Looking At People thing, a message from HYPO . . .
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LOOKING AT PEOPLE
Everybody looks at pictures of people, most of which are in our line-of-sight because some corporation wants you to consume their goods or services. These are standard, or cliché-edgy, representations whose purpose is to get you to aspire to something and then buy it. Because of that they are, in a certain way, quite telling.
If you are interested, though, in representations of people by artists, the images you seek and consume will be a completely different animal. There, generally, the most interesting images of people are, in my opinion, created by artists who are slightly bent, or at least very curious, their viewpoint, to some degree, abnormal. That’s what makes the work interesting and different from images (commercial and artistic) that support the status quo.
But in these extraordinarily reactionary times (the reactions coming from both the right and the left) the very idea of being bent, abnormal, or curious is abhorrent to many. And each group and faction will have their own idea/definition of what is abhorrent (views that don’t mesh with theirs) and what is acceptable (views that do mesh with theirs).
And I get it. After all, we all filter everything through the prism of our experience, what Jack Kerouac calls “the stress of out lives since birth”.
Now, I’m a non-censorship kind of guy. I believe the world is best understood by considering it through varied perspectives, assuming, of course, you are seeking understanding. Sure, some points of view presented by artists are problematic and discussion must ensue. But an art world without irritants quickly becomes innocuous and, then, redundant. I leave it to the critics to flesh all this out. Me? I’m just a photographer who believes artists should do what they do and let the chips fall where they may.
Anyway, the reason I bring all this up is because I’ve been thinking about two small publications that look at people, or, in the case of Lindzine, a person. Both point to aspects of their creators’ bent and curiosity, their voyeurism and obsession. They are ways of looking at people.
This week’s post, The System, will begin after this important message . . .
I’m shifting my attention from drool. to HYPO, a newsletter. (I’ll still be posting to drool, but the posts will be less frequent.)
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We now bring you The System . . .
Recently I was asked to sit on a couple of arts juries, to decide on exhibition proposals and acquisitions. I gave it some thought, weighed the pros and the cons and, in the end, declined.
Well, you might be thinking . . . You, Tony, seem to have all sorts of complaints and/or thoughts about the arts system, why don’t you put your money where your mouth is and use these invitations to, you know, change things from the inside?
The answer is: I don’t believe the system can be meaningfully changed from the inside. The first rule of systems is to do whatever is necessary to perpetuate the system. If you put emphasis on being accepted, buying in, you get co-opted, no matter what.
In the case of an arts jury, sure, I might have enough persuasion power (or whatever you want to call it) to get something included that would not otherwise have been considered. But I still see this as, essentially, token.
Furthermore, it would feel to me, somehow, like collusion. I’d rather remain, as much as possible, outside the system. That way I can retain what I like to think of as my “observer” status. By remaining as independent as possible I have more room to move and critique.
You might also be thinking . . . Well, Tony, you participate in and reap some rewards from the system. Aren’t you being hypocritical here?
Another good question.
Yes, it’s true, I do participate in the system. I pay my taxes, stop at red lights, hold doors open for people, and so on. And, yes, I’m engaged with PhotoWorld™, after all, you’re reading these words, are you not? But one can be engaged, participate, from a position outside the system. What’s the alternative? Giving up? Becoming a hermit?
And I do reap some rewards. Get the occasional show or mention, make a print sale from time to time, and stuff like that. But that’s not a complete definition of success. The fact that I don’t feel I must conform or suck up to prevailing attitudes and systems leaves me free to be critical. It also leaves me free to see the world in way that’s less mediated by the prevailing systems of thought, politics and group-think.
Not that my work is radical or anything. I believe that to be effective expression must remain recognizable. But trying to see and render the world in a way that’s independent from how the powers-that-be want (demand) it be seen usually results in a more dimensional understanding.
But sure, I live in this world so am, by definition, a hypocrite.
But, you might wonder . . . What’s the point of being a serious photographer, putting in all that time, money and emotion, if you don’t get adopted by the establishment, if your work doesn’t get seen?
Well, my work does get seen. Perhaps not as much as it would be if I spent more time (and money) promoting it to the blue-chip movers and shakers of PhotoWorld™. But every book I’ve published has sold out, my two most recent exhibitions have been in art (as opposed to commercial) galleries in Groningen (Holland) and NYC (USA). So there are ways to penetrate the system without falling for it.
Besides, I do photo projects for myself . . . to learn, to get out of the house. Any other “exposure” is only a side effect of that primary impulse.
As to getting a pat on the back from the establishment: Fuck that shit. I choose to spend my time and attention on the periphery because it’s more interesting there.
(I also spend some time monitoring popular culture, trying to decipher that. Without understanding the status quo it is impossible to critique it. I want to occupy a space where I’m close enough to the system to see what’s going on, but removed enough to have a longer perspective.)
And, yes, I understand that the system will absorb, render effete and/or monetize any irritant it can. I understand that, until we get closer to the end, the system is pretty much unassailable. The edge either gets pulled to the centre and used, or is ignored.
So I’m not sure where choosing to operate and remain on the periphery leaves me, vis-a-vis having/building a career in photography. But this is the choice I make. I’m happy to let the chips fall where they may because, in the end, not only do I have to live with the system, I also have to live with myself.
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.
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.