9 questions with the keynote speaker for the Delhi Photo Festival 2015. David Campany is a writer, curator and artist who works with photography.
You are a prolific writer. How do you balance your time between writing, teaching and curatorial work?
Ha. The real balance is between all those things and family life! Writing has become a vital form of thinking for me. I genuinely don’t know what to think, or even how to think about photography unless I’m writing it down. So the need to write is closely wedded to the need to think. Beyond that I guess I’m prolific because my enthusiasms for photography and for the uncertainties it generates have not waned since I got interested as a kid. That came as a surprise. I thought photography was going to be another fad for me, like stamp collecting. Decades on, I’m still interested and still grazing on the lower slopes of my own ignorance. I would also say that photography can be a license to be interested in anything that it takes as its subject matter, which is pretty much anything. Politics, natures, cities, people, objects, superstition, science, history, anthropology, power, you name it. By definition, photography cannot be autonomous or isolated. It’s implicated in the world and the word is implicated in it. When photography is only photography it isn’t even photography.
What draws you to writing about photography? And as a writer, how difficult is it to interpret a photographer’s work for the reader?
I had no intentions of being a writer, until in my late twenties I was invited to write a couple of essays. On the basis of those I was approached to write a big survey book about photography in art since the 60s. I was teaching at that point, which meant I had spent a lot of time trying to express complex ideas and connections as simply as I could. The writing grew directly out of that. I write for my 19 year-old self, trying to interest him, prick him, help him notice things, tell him he’s not alone. Interpretation for others? I slightly wince at that idea. In writing about images one does, it inevitably. But it’s something a writer should be wary of. I don’t want to occlude what the reader might think about things. I want to supplement it.
Where do you get the time to practise your own work as an artist? Do you view yourself as a photo practitioner?
I remember reading an interview long ago with the British artists Gilbert & George. They were asked: “What made you want to be artists?” A boring question but the answer was great: “We didn’t set out to be artists. All we wanted was to be with art.” That is a great answer because it is not a careerist answer. For what ever reason I’ve wanted to be with photography and I’ve not worried too much about what form that might take – writing, curating exhibitions, teaching, making photographs, working with found photographs, editing. In fact the last one – editing – is probably the key. Every photographer must edit and so must every writer.
What are the biggest challenges facing photographers today?
There are as many answers to that as there are photographers. If you push me harder I would say there are three things, in no particular order. Money. The high standards of the past. The dizzying range of possibilities offered by the medium.
Is there a crisis in photography at this time?
Photography has always been in crisis. It’s a modern medium, so how could it not be in crisis? That’s what’s so compelling about it.
Where does the future of photography lie? In photobooks, on Instagram and social media, or on the gallery wall and in art institutions?
I never speculate. I’ve learned never to rule anything out. Ten years ago who would have thought printed matter would have had such a renaissance? The interest shown by photography in the art world has ebbed and flowed for decades. That won’t change. And who knows what individual brilliance will appear?
What are the exciting photobooks that one must look out for in 2015?
Justine Kurland will publish Highway Kind soon. I’m very much looking forward to that. She documents particular sub-cultures living away from mainstream society and its values. I presented a little preview of the work in my anthology The Open Road: Photographic Road Trips across America. David Batchelder’s Tidelands is published soon. He’s been photographing sand patterns on the same beach for years. Photography attracts all kinds of obsessives who ignore what’s going on around them and just do their own thing. The non-conformity of that is to be cherished.
While photography becomes a mass vehicle owing to the growth in technology and smartphones, will ‘fine art photography’ become increasingly more popular and accessible?
Fine art photography is for anyone but for everyone.
Tell us about your curatorial work, specifically your exhibition on Walker Evans for this summer’s Les Rencontres d’Arles. Its aims, challenges and reception.
Walker Evans (1903-1975) is as celebrated and canonical as a photographer can get. But the terms of that recognition have been pretty narrow, set by the big museums. His achievements were far wider. For example Evans made extraordinary work for mainstream magazines, setting his own assignments, shooting, writing the captions, designing his own layouts. He managed to fashion a sort of counter-commentary on America and its values from within its mass media. He hated celebrity, consumerism, waste and market-driven design. So instead he championed anonymous workers, conservation and vernacular culture. This work feels very contemporary, and it could be a beacon for all photographers with critical minds who have to ask themselves how they are going to survive without compromising themselves artistically or politically. So I spent years tracking down and buying up copies of the old magazines in which he published this work. I wrote a book about it and the magazines then became the basis of a traveling exhibition. I guess the project is an example of the way the official history of photography is still very much alive and contested. Exhibited printed matter is tricky, so alongside the original pages we made large blow-ups for the wall, to make them comfortable to read. The reception has been very pleasing both from visitors and the press. It shows there’s an appetite for this kind of rethinking.
David Campany, writes, curates exhibitions, makes art and teaches a range of modules in photographic theory and practice, from undergraduate to doctoral study. His books include: A Handful of Dust (MACK 2015), Walker Evans: the magazine work (Steidl 2014), Gasoline (MACK, 2013), Photography and Cinema (Reaktion 2008) and Art and Photography (Phaidon 2003). In 2013, he curated major shows of the work of Mark Neville (The Photographer’s Gallery, London) and Victor Burgin (AmbikaP3 and Richard Saltoun Gallery). In 2014 he curated three shows of the work of Walker Evans. He currently teaches at the University of Westminster, UK. For more click here: www.davidcampany.com
David Campany is the keynote speaker for the third edition of the Delhi Photo Festival that will be held from Oct 30-Nov 8. David Campany’s participation has been facilitated by the British Council of India.
For more details see: http://www.delhiphotofestival.com