PHOTOIRELAND:The art of photography will be celebrated at more than 30 venues in Dublin next month, with exhibitions of old and new work. AIDAN DUNNEpreviews the varied collection with its brave curator, FRANK MILLERsuggests how to get the most out of your camera and DAVIN O'DWYERinterviews a trio of photographers
IN ONE OF HIS short stories, Jorge Luis Borges imagines an empire that is so carefully mapped by a team of cartographers that in the end the map corresponds to the empire, inch for inch. Of course, this makes it pretty useless as a map and, amazing as it is, people soon lose interest in it. In our contemporary world, photography has taken on a role akin to that played by Borges’s imaginary map-makers. Photographs shadow every stage and aspect of our lives, personal and public. They permeate our world, providing a parallel, alternative version of reality.
They’re everywhere, and yet they’re nowhere, so familiar a presence that most of the time we simply take them for granted. PhotoIreland, the first Irish festival devoted to photography, takes place at some 30 venues throughout Dublin from next Thursday until July 11th, and aims to make us look again at photography. There are numerous festivals of photography internationally, but this is a first for Ireland and, as it happens, it was the brainchild of a Spaniard, Angel Luis Gonzalez, himself a photographer – and a graduate of DIT’s highly regarded photography school.
PhotoIreland concentrates on the endless varieties of contemporary photography, but it also harks back to earlier days in photographic history. There is an exhibition of photographs produced by the Lumiere Brothers, the inventors of cinema who also pioneered autochrome, a remarkably effective, painterly technique for making colour photographs using potato starch; and another featuring the work of Eadweard Muybridge, whose time-lapse photographs of horses in motion transformed our understanding of how horses gallop (never with all four legs off the ground, as had been presumed). That show, The Invention of Motion and Colour Photography, presented by Mondrian’s Room, is at 15 St Stephen’s Green.
In the international art world, photography is accepted as one of the most important art forms. It’s fair to say that in Ireland we have been much slower to come around to this idea, though that is changing, with an increase in the number of photographic exhibitions, and indeed galleries devoted to photography, and photographic degree and MA courses. Still, it’s fair to say that in Ireland, photography in an art context is viewed largely in conservative aesthetic terms, within a broadly pictorialist tradition. Elsewhere, that tradition has long been superseded by a greatly expanded appreciation of what photography is and what it might be.
And it seems that it might be anything. It’s hard to think of a technology or a medium that is indispensable across so many areas, is so democratically open, and keeps throwing up so many new possibilities. It embraces the most highly skilled professional and the absolute amateur alike. Or, as the photographer David Bailey put it rather harshly, one of the main effects of technological development in photography is: “To make the mediocre look good.” You don’t have to be Henri Cartier-Bresson when your surprisingly affordable 12 megapixel compact automatic is pre-programmed to be Henri Cartier-Bresson, or something close.
Practically everyone takes photographs. Looking at them is even more automatic a process than reading. We feel we know photography in a way that we wouldn’t presume to know painting or sculpture. But its history, its nature and its uses are more complex and more challenging that you might readily imagine. PhotoIreland offers an invitation to experience photography in all its range and diversity, from, for example, dramatic traditional black-and-white landscapes by Neil McShane at the Dublin Camera Club Gallery to Debbie Castro’s documentary images. They tell radically different stories in strikingly different ways, but both are equally compelling.
Also among the highlights of the festival are Italian photographer Giorgia Fiorio’s exhibition in black and white at the Gallery of Photography, The Gift. The show presents episodes of a huge project she has pursued since the year 2000. Travelling to every part of the globe, she has documented the universal practice of pilgrimage in all its different manifestations, as the human yearning for spiritual meaning is expressed in myriad journeys and rituals.
Mirjam Siefert’s brilliant photographs of urban architectural spaces offer an inquiring, critical view of the environments we create. Her show, Heaven is Under Construction, is showing at LBC. Meanwhile, the Scarred Landscapes in Debbie Castro’s photographs at Mill Street Studios are the sections of the Irish rural landscape changed and divided by the building of the motorway network. She looks at the predicament faced by farmers whose lands have been affected by the imposition of huge roads.
In a much mellower vein, Pierre Jamet’s sumptuous black-and-white photographs of another age, in Belle-île en Mer(1930-1960) at Alliance Francaise, are nostalgic without being overly sentimental. Anything but mellow, the Lighthouse cinema shows photographs from the F*** You All collection of the renowned American counter-cultural photographer Glen E Friedman. Friedman made his name initially with images of skateboarders and moved on to the music scene, documenting such musicians and groups as Public Enemy, Ice-T and The Beastie Boys. At Inspirational Arts, Liza Cauldwell documents traditional Irish dancers in costume. Mexican photographer Ruben Ochoa’s tales of city life in his 360° at Smock Alley Boys School demonstrate photography’s capacity to crystallise fleeting, everyday moments. Sean Hillen’s satirical collages are well known in Ireland and he features with kennardphillipps, a photographic collage duo whose work has a political edge, in Fragments from a Broken World at the National Photographic Archive.
There are also several thematic and group shows – watch out for Dominic Turner’s spectral images in Chasing Shadowsat The Centre for Creative Practices. The Thing that Bruises You in the Back Loft at La Catedral is work by recent photographic graduates, while Open Callpresents, on tables rather than walls, works selected from open submission at The Complex in Smithfield. Kleinburger at Exchange Gallery offers new photography and video from Austria and Aqui y Ahoraat the Instituto Cervantes presents new photography from Spain.
For a list of venues, exhibitions, and photographers, see photoireland.org
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PICTURE
DAVIN O'DWYERtalks to three eminent Irish photographers about the relationship they have with their cameras
BEHIND EVERY PHOTOGRAPH is a photographer with a camera, but the walls of the image erase the photographer and camera from the scene they bear witness to. As a result, that relationship between the artist and the technology is rendered invisible to us – all we get is the image.
While we are intrigued by the artistic process behind the making of paintings and movies and books, say, the act of taking a photograph is so familiar to us that we give little thought as to how professionals approach it, or even to their relationship with their camera. Discuss that dynamic with a few photographers and you will see how much the working process differs from one person to the next.
Amelia Stein, the celebrated portrait photographer and member of both the RHA and Aosdana, has used the same Hasselblad medium-format camera for more than 25 years. “It’s probably quite embarrassing to look at, it’s very battered, but it does the job so well,” she says. “I always thought you should buy the best equipment you could afford, so I bought a second-hand Hasselblad as soon as I could. I’m still shooting film, and getting it printed in Paris.”
Why has she resisted the move to digital? “The digital thing is fantastic – the other day I saw a child running around with a digital camera, showing their grandmother the shot they had taken, and I thought ‘Gosh, won’t they treasure having so many family memories.’ The other side is, however, are there more of these memories than people to look at them?”
Film, Stein believes, makes different demands on a photographer. “Because of the cost of film, it’s more deliberate. I think with film, when I push the button it should be the image I want to make. I bring the image through the lens and into the camera. My relationship at that moment is more with the tripod with the camera on top, rather than just the camera. I always use a tripod, because if you’re doing everything with your hands, it’s harder to be paying much attention to the reality, and therefore capturing the emotional moment, making the connection, is more difficult.”
Aidan Kelly, a Dublin-based photographer who works on urban documentary projects, is also resistant to digital. “The anticipation of waiting for film to come back, looking at the contact sheets; it just can’t be matched by digital,” he says. “If you look at the work I’m trying to do, there’s an awful lot of reality and documentary portraiture. Digital photography went in a certain direction, a kind of paparazzi-style, immediate result direction. The machines were created to be faster, but that isn’t the work I do. If the person you’re shooting is interesting, you should record them properly, and that means I’d rather wait for the moment.”
As for the ubiquity of digital cameras, Kelly quotes David LaChapelle, who dismissed the notion of a digital threat to professional photographers by pointing out that paper and pens have been around forever, but not everybody is a great writer. “For most people, their digital camera is just a machine, a gadget, says Kelly. “You’ve still got to take the picture.
What camera does Kelly work with? “I mostly use an old Leica M3 from the 1950s, that I use for portrait stuff, and a Canon Eos-3 35mm camera for more commercial stuff. They feel like an extension of myself, in a way. I almost feel a bit sad if I don’t get out with a camera every day. If I see something great and I haven’t brought ‘my baby’, I regret it. I’ve travelled everywhere with the Canon, it’s my old faithful. And the Leica has such a history, using it means you’re part of that heritage.”
At the other end of the spectrum is acclaimed landscape photographer Liam Blake. “I have no emotional attachment to the camera anymore,” he says. “I’m using two different cameras, a Hasselblad digital, and a Canon Eos digital, but as soon as the new model comes out, and if it’s better, the old ones are sold. I have no attachment to them at all. The Leica, for instance, is a great camera with a great history, but it’s only a means to an end.
“Digital has made life a lot easier,” says Blake. “I spent a lot of time looking at both systems, testing digital since 2005, though I used to photograph on film just in case. But I went digital full time in 2007. The Canon is like driving a Toyota – it’s not snazzy like an Alfa Romeo, but it’s reliable. And at the end of the day it’s the image that matters – the punter isn’t going to care whether it was taken with a historic camera or not.”
ART AND PHOTOGRAPHY
FRANK MILLER, Picture Editor at ‘The Irish Times’, welcomes a festival that puts photography in the spotlight
WHEN DID PHOTOGRAPHY ever become art? Almost from its invention, felt French painter Paul Delaroche, who was quoted as saying, upon seeing an early daguerreotype, “from today painting is dead”. According to Angel Gonzalez Fernandez, the director of the PhotoIreland festival, 1940 marked a change. In that year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which had been collecting modern prints since the 1930s, established its photography department.
The debate about whether photography, or what type of photography, constitutes art rumbles on to this day. Now we are inundated by huge volumes of photography, much of it online or taken with and shared by mobile phones – for instance the photo-sharing website Flickr carries more than four billion images, and at the picture desk in this newspaper some 100,000 images pass through our system electronically every 10 days.
Faced with such volumes, how can the viewer distinguish between visual spam and great photographic art? For better or worse, audiences rely on the filtering process of galleries, curators and picture editors, looking for something fresh, interesting and visually honest. And these arbitrators of taste are not infallible. Audiences here will have a unique chance to make up their own mind about what is good and what is not during the first 10 days in July when the PhotoIreland festival opens across more than 30 venues throughout the capital. Its ambition is to raise awareness of and appreciation for art photography in a country with a stronger literary than visual tradition.
The fledgling festival features a wide range of work by Irish and international photographers, and includes talks, debates and an “open call” for work from the public. It is a most welcome addition to the Irish photography scene and to the arts calendar – may it go from strength to strength.
Frank Miller, Picture Editor at The Irish Times
TIPS FROM THE TOP
Frank Miller’s shooting guide
WITH A COMPACT DIGITAL CAMERA
Keep it tight, move in close, fill the frame, don’t leave loads of extra space around your subjects
Press the shutter halfway to allow the camera to focus and work out the correct exposure; then follow through (without lifting your finger) by depressing the shutter the rest of the way to take the picture. This way there will be less of a delay and your pictures will be sharper because the focus won’t jump back to the horizon.
When there is enough light, take pictures without flash, they will almost always look better.
Don’t be afraid to experiment and take chances, you can delete your errors as you go and learn from your mistakes.
WITH A DIGITAL SLR
Don’t get obsessed with equipment: learn to walk before you run, restrict yourself to one or two lenses initially and concentrate on your photography, not the technology.
Do acquire a decent browser (Picassa, ACDsee, Adobe Lightroom etc) to view and edit your images, and it’s worth investing in Photoshop Elements for the fine tuning.
Don’t go mad with Photoshop. Less is more, so unless you’re looking for wacky effects, do everything in small stages.
Back up your photos on an external hard drive – all hard drives will fail at some point. Better again, print your best pictures.
Browse through books of work by the great photographers – Bresson, Capa, Salgado. Make up your mind about what you think is good, bad or indifferent.
Read all about it
Both Frank Miller and the curator of PhotoIreland, Angel Luis Gonzalez, recommend looking at as many photographs as possible, and reading about them, too. Here’s is Angel’s list of top 10 books for students and admirers of photography:
1. Ways of Seeingby John Berger
2. The Photography Readerby Liz Wells
3. Camera Lucidaby Roland Barthes
4. An Introduction to Visual Cultureby Nicholas Mirzoeff
5. On Photographyby Susan Sontag
6. Regarding the Pain of Othersby Susan Sontag
7. Photography: A Critical Introductionby Liz Wells
8. Criticising Photographsby Terry Barrett
9. Photography at the Dockby Abigail Solomon-Godeau
10. No Caption Neededby Robert Hariman John Louis Lucaites