Thoughts on International Diversity in Contemporary Photography

“To celebrate new ideas in photography, we are asking people to nominate up to five photographers who have demonstrated an openness to use new ideas in photography, who have taken chances with their photography and have shown an unwillingness to play it safe."
Towards The 21st Century
Joerg Colberg, Conscientious

This was an open call to photo bloggers initiated by Joerg Colberg and Colin Pantall. Initially, a small group of bloggers were asked directly to participate, but the request for nominations was open any blogger that wanted to participate. Those who participated were asked to post their choices on their own blogs and help to spread the word to others. At some point Pete Brook, on his Prison Photography blog, renamed the initiative “The Best Photographers of the First 1/8th of the 21st Century”.  Suddenly a compilation of names suggested by a group of bloggers that was only meant to represent individual examples of artists who were working with new ideas morphed into what many took to be the blog world’s presentation of the Best Photographers of the 21st Century.  And within a day or two it was being called “The Best White North American and European Photographers (with Minor Exceptions) of the First 1/8th of the 21st Century That We Happen to Be Familiar With.”  

I can’t speak for Colberg or Pantall, but I’m highly confident that they were not asking bloggers to nominate the BEST photographers of the 21st Century.  In a nutshell, they were looking for the current Avant-Garde, and I think it is important to distinguish the Avant-Garde from The Best.

Have we become so accustomed to “best of...” lists that any list we see is automatically assumed to insinuate some sort of ranking by favorability or popularity?  Best is a dangerous term in considering something as subjective as art photography. Colberg and Pantall were pretty specific in their parameters; openness to new ideas, taking chances, and avoiding artistic safety. These are things that can be cited without getting into aesthetic subjectivity.  One can point out a photographer who demonstrates those characteristics in their work without claiming they are among the best contemporary photographers.  

“The Best” is easiest to determine with hindsight. We can look back at a past decade or century and compile a list of who was the best at something based on things like popularity or financial success, and it is those things that best quantify pop culture. Box office success in movies or downloads for recording artists. It is harder to quantify photography success, but with so many photographers obsessed with numbers such as follower counts and website hits there is no denying that mass appeal is extremely important to the current generation of New Media artists. It is digital media, and not digital photography, that is to blame for the current epidemic of low brow art. Media that provides every artist with instantaneous ratings feedback in the form of likes and comments results in trends of very conservative and safe art. Art produced under the thumb of ratings is nothing more than Television. We can have fun producing and consuming it, but let’s not pretend it isn't kitsch. Colberg and Pantall’s initiative was a search for photographers producing work outside of the synthetic and artificially created pop photo culture.

People get very upset when a “best of” list does not include their own favorite choice, or lacks the perfect ratio of diversity.  I saw this list described as ‘a travesty’ in a comment on Facebook. The participating bloggers were accused of being myopic and racially biased . I found that extremely disappointing. A positive and optimistic initiative of searching for new directions in photography was twisted around to become something so negative and ugly. I won’t spend even five seconds defending my contributions to the list, or the history of international diversity on PHOTO/arts Magazine.  The only energy I want to expend is on moving the conversation forward.

Tom Griggs has written a brilliant two part essay on his Fototazo website entitled Diversity in Photography and Contemporary Image Distribution Problems in which he skillfully investigates many underlying reasons behind the lack of diversity on mainstream photography internet sites.  If this subject interests you at all, I strongly recommend reading Grigg’s essays.

We are ALL photographers now” isn't globally accurate. The reality is...“We are all photographers now, in the Industrial World”. For better or worse, photography is a consumer driven art. It is a product of Capitalism. It has always been a hobby of the wealthy. Global industrialization has enabled a wider and wider consumer base, and millions of people are now “wealthy” enough to afford digital cameras, smart phones, web access, etc.  But billions of other people around the globe are not part of this picture. Photography remains the artistic medium of the global elite. Equipment cost is a huge investment for any photographer, so imagine what it would be like for someone living in a developing country. Major contemporary photography competitions and portfolio submissions that charge upwards of seventy five dollars per entry are not an option for most emerging photographers across the globe, if they even know about them at all. It might be grossly naive to ask... “Where is all the innovative photography from Africa?” (or India, South America, etc etc.)

This is obviously a very complex problem involving economic and political issues beyond my knowledge base. I can only speak to this issue as a casual observer of contemporary photography. But I am very interested in this topic, I had a chance to meet with Tom Griggs when he was recently traveling through Philadelphia. These were the issues we discussed and made a commitment to continue the conversation.

In the meantime I extend an open invitation to anyone who wants to submit the work of artists from developing areas of the world to feature on PHOTO/arts Magazine.  This site remains an open venue for emerging artists across the globe.

As a final note.... One small thing you can do to help is to donate some money to one of these Micro Grants for South American photographers. This is a fantastic project started by Tom Griggs and something I fully support. I would love to know about other projects similar to this around the world. If you know of any, please let me know.

LBM Dispatch: Michigan

Alec Soth    Lake Superior, Marquette (2012)

From October 20th through November 5th, Alec Soth and Brad Zellar will be on the road in Michigan, producing an election season version of the LBM Dispatch in one of the country’s most diverse and politically fascinating states. The trip —a rambling search for the state of the union in towns all over Michigan— will take them across the Upper Peninsula to the Mackinac Straits, and then downstate through the enormous territory of the Lower Peninsula, including stops in Saginaw, Flint, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, and Grand Rapids.
Michigan  will be the third edition of LBM Dispatch books produced by Soth & Zellar. The two previous titles were Ohio and Upstate. Both are terrific and I am looking forward to seeing Soth's images from Michigan, having just traveled through almost everywhere this book will cover.

The LBM Dispatch

Self Contained

I am pleased to announce the selected photographers for Self Contained. Two hundred and fifty photographers from all over the world submitted almost seven hundred images to this project.  The resulting exhibit will consist of sixty eight photographs by forty six artists.  As I hoped, the images submitted were deeply personal and full of emotion.  I'm looking forward to releasing the online exhibit on November 3rd

Dan R. Talley   Self Contained   (2012)

Mildred Alpern New York, NY
Sheri Lynn Behr Edgewater, NJ
Cary Benbow Greenfield, Indiana
Patricia A Bender Somerset, NJ
Inga Bugaeva Saint Petersburg, Russia
Laura Chenault El Cerrito, CA
Sansert Choabert Buenos Aires, Argentina
Janis Deinats Olaine,Latvia
Sylvia de Swaan Utica, NY
Emily Franklin Dekalb, IL
David Gardner San Francisco, CA
Chernega Gennadiy
Laura Glabman Hewlett, NY
Mira Gohel Philadelphia, Pa.
Max Gorbatskyi Krivoy Rog, Ukraine
Dan Hayon Paris, France
Louis Michael Hernandez Rochester, NY

Ekaterina Vasilyeva  Self Contained (2012)

Aaron Hobson Adirondack Mountains, USA
Rose Hunter Puerto Vallarta, Mexico  
Ellen Jantzen St Louis, Missouri 
Viacheslav Kabanov  Moscow, Russia  
John King Clarenville, Newfoundland
Ilya Kuklinsky Krasnoyarsk, Russia
Anna Laurinavichyute Saint Petersburg, Russia
Douglas Ljungkvist Brooklyn, NY
Daniel Mosher Long Storrs, CT
Mark Lozier Glen Oaks, NY
Julie Nymann New York, NY
Roberta Orlando Italy
Mikhail Palinchak Jr. Uzhgorod, Ukraine
Natasha Podunova Yekaterinburg, Russia
Gilberto Salazar Caracas, Venezuela
Oleg Savunov Saint Petersburg, Russia

Garrett Williams   Self Contained   (2012)

Andi Schreiber Scarsdale, NY 
Alexei Shved Moscow, Russia
Anton Singurov Kiev, Ukraine
Denis Sivack Brooklyn, NY
Jessica Skelton Dublin, Ireland
Kenneth Smoot Manchester, CT
Masha Svyatogor Minsk, Belarus
Dan R. Talley Kutztown, Pa
Satoshi Tsuchiyama New York, NY
Ekaterina Vasilyeva Saint Petersburg, Russia
Irina Volgareva Perm, Russia
Garrett Williams Oslo, Norway
Zac Wray Stockton, Ca. 

Willson Cummer "Altered Environments"

Altered Environments
Szozda Gallery
Syracuse, NY
October 10- November 4

Willson Cummer  Selkirk Shores  #7

Willson Cummer's photographs are included in this two person show at the Szozda gallery in Syracuse, NY entitled Altered Environments. The images are from several of Cummer's projects that investigate the boundaries and interactions between man and wilderness. These boundaries are often subtle and go unnoticed to the casual observer and visitor who may take for granted that these spaces have been improved upon for the convenience of man. Cummer has a fine eye for these subtleties and his images are very carefully produced observations.

In his Parklands Series mounted in this show, Cummer documents the natural and human elements that, for him, elicit ‘great beauty though not the picturesque kind that one might expect.’ He says, “The man-made placement of benches, fences, roadways, signs and other ‘improvements’ in park lands embraces the ‘half-nature’ that exists there. When these areas are not in use, they look almost wild, yet nature is controlled and contorted.” His Green Lakes Project investigates off-season scenes in areas normally crowded, but when vacant, ‘boundaries to the natural world invoke solitude and loneliness.’ He says of his Lake Ontario Project, “Standing at the edge of the lake is like standing at the edge of the ocean: the water extends to the horizon, waves break against the shore.” He comments about ways in which use of water is controlled with signs and fences, and how improvement to the natural world is tied to benches and volleyball nets. “Visitors to this New York state park will struggle to have an unmediated encounter with the great lake.

Willson Cummer, Green Lakes Overcast #25

In addition to his photography, Cummer is a curator and teacher at Syracuse’s Light Work/Community Darkrooms. He maintains a studio in the Delavan Center in Syracuse. He is also the editor of New Landscape Photography.

Willson Cummer's website

Curation 101

Alpena, Michigan  (2012)

A friend was insistent yesterday that I express my own definition of Self Contained.  I do have one, but I wouldn't tell her what it was. As I look through the submitted images of this recent project, I am always trying to be aware of avoiding my personal biases. I stated in the call for work that I was open to a wide range of interpretations on this theme and I meant it. The most important thing for me to do right now is to keep an open mind and allow the work to unfold and teach me new things. Why is that the most important thing? The artists who have submitted work have entrusted in me the care of their work and statements. To take the time and effort (and angst) to submit work, and to risk rejection, deserves the assurance of mindful consideration and lack of personal agenda.

The root meaning of Curate is cure or care. The religious context is one who cares for the souls of a parish, and in Scotland the term Curator is used to describe the guardian of a child. It is an over-used term in the art world and has almost lost meaning. I don't think many people really think much about it. To me, the association with the soul and/or children is significant. Shouldn't the art curator treat the work under review with complete reverence and the assumption of innocence?  To quote E. H. Gombrich, "There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists."  Artists with hearts and souls and fearful inner-children in need of occasional hugs. I don't need to remind you of the internet universe filled with artists seeking positive feedback and attention in the form of likes and favorites. Most of the time this is the best we can hope for. We all spend a significant amount of time producing art that receives little more than a glimpse of attention.

Set aside one's own opinions and agenda and let the work of the artists tell the story and explain the theme. That would be the ultimate goal in curating an exhibit.  Likely impossible to completely avoid subjectivity and aesthetic prejudice, but certainly worth striving for. Every image submitted to Self Contained is now in a folder on my desktop and I look at them throughout the day, everyday. I look at them front to back and back to front. I look for patterns and relationships between images and artist's statements. I study your work. I care about it. I know that it comes from your soul.

Self Contained 2012

Whitefish Bay, Michigan  (2012)

I've just returned from nine days alone (with my dog) on the road exploring virtually the entire coastline of Michigan. Twenty seven hundred miles round trip from Philadelphia. Following the entire Eastern shoreline of Lake Huron along Route 25 up and around the tip of the thumb, down to Bay City and then up Route 23 to Cheboygan. From there I crossed the Makinac Bridge and spent four days on the North shore of the Upper Peninsula along Lake Superior, and then the last two days driving down the Western shoreline of Lake Michigan along Route 22 before heading home yesterday. Nine days of driving wherever the road led and the map looked interesting.

Every night was spent in a different State Park right on the beach with a sunset view like the one above. With only one exception on the first Saturday night of the trip every park was virtually empty and I had the entire place to myself. Lonely at times and a challenge for sure, but a meditative retreat in the best possible way. This was my sixth trip to the Great Lakes & North Woods area of Michigan and Minnesota.  Eighteen thousand miles driving what I consider to be the most beautiful coastlines of the United States. I always return from these trips renewed and uplifted.

I returned to find all of the work submitted on the final days of the Self Contained call while I was away. 250 photographers sent in almost seven hundred images and now begins two weeks of curating this project with a fresh set of eyes and a quiet mind. The work and the statements are beautiful and well thought answers to the theme and I will enjoy every minute of the selection process. Thanks and appreciation to all who participated this year.  Selected photographers and the winning entries will be announced on October 20th.