Photo. Art. “Photo Art” – what could be simpler?
Surveys of the world of art photography are not thin on the ground these days, and fears were growing that we might soon run out of titular permutations of “art” and “photography”. In recent years we’ve had the undergraduate essay flavour of “The Photograph as Contemporary Art”; and the attention-seeking tabloidese of “Art Photography Now”. Or the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin, “Art and Photography”. “Photo Art” manages to sound both fresh and confident…without giving away too much about the work it collates. On the book’s spine the title is written as one word “PhotoArt”, suggesting a coherent, established category of work and practice. But the words are only tentatively conjoined on the cover; and the introductory essay describes the collection as “about photography and about photographers”
Authors Uta Grosenick (curator and editor) and Thomas Seelig (Curator, Fotomuseum, Winterthur) suggest, optimistically, that their work constitutes a “comprehensive survey of photography in the 21st century”. Meanwhile – back on earth – “Photo Art” showcases the work of over one hundred photographers introduced by useful and astute commentaries written by assorted, mainly European, curators and critics. The vast majority of photographers included are represented by galleries but they are by no means all internationally recognised.
This is a collection of predominantly emergent, divergent and innovative practitioners, and perhaps the biggest names are those of Alec Soth, Tacita Dean and Luc Delahaye. Andreas Gursky, Nan Goldin, Gregory Crewdson and their ilk do not get a look-in. This makes for an exciting and unpredictable mix – one that reflects what the authors call “the most striking current trends in the market and in exhibitions”. Even so, it is a mix with a distinctly north European flavour in which, for example, Belgium (trois points) has a stronger presence than China (a measly deux points).
©Charles Freger (Thames & Hudson) – Winner Face 1, 2002.
To an extent many of the photographs included reveal a willingness to test the boundaries and conventions of traditional practice. Charles Freger’s series of portraits of “Winner Faces”, for example, refute the opportunity to explore the possibilities of picturing the personal or the psychological, to concentrate instead on the processes by which individuals are subsumed into collectives. In his own words, “Belonging to such a group demands total abandonment on the self, and this is shown by the changes in the body.” By the same token, in the work of Mika Ninagawa, the portrait is used as a vehicle for a colour-saturated parody of the kitsch and the commercial in Japanese culture.
©Mika Ninagawa (Thames & Hudson) – Shokol et Mikanne, 2007
In keeping with the innovative nature of the photography the authors have shunned the traditional corralling of material into (often art historical) genres, and instead the book is organised in alphabetical order. The effect, by turn invigorating and suggestive, is to emphasize the diversity of much on offer. So Taiji Matsue’s precisely realised aerial reconnaissance pictures abut Hellen van Meene’s enigmatic and intimate portraits of adolescents; Heidi Specker’s explorations of architectural space and colour rub shoulders with Jules Spinatsch’s webcam images from the World Cup.
©Hellen van Meene (Thames & Hudson) – Riga (Latvia) – 180, 2004.
An accompanying essay by Paolo Bianchi offers a thought-provoking overview of the photographs, suggesting they can be categorised by virtue of their relationship to imagination, emotion, memory, association and sensation. A surprisingly informative and eclectic glossary complements the pictures, confirming “Photo Art” as a lively and heterogeneous compilation of the possibilities of contemporary photography.
Photo Art – Uta Grosenick & Thomas Seelig (Thames & Hudson) £24.95