Tag Archives: curating

Photography reading group – Solomon-Godeau’s ‘Canon Fodder – Authoring Eugène Atget’ (1986)

The Photography Reading group met yesterday  in a hangout, and five of us were present. The text for discussion was Solomon-Godeau, A. (1991) ‘Canon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget’ in Photography in the Dock. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 28-51 and the essay itself was written in 1986.

After a rather slow start and after getting used to SG’s hugely academic and complex style of writing, this text turned out to be about

  • authorship, and who decides it
  • who are the decision makers about what constitutes the accepted canon of photography, and what motivates them
  • the perceived importance of a singular style
  • whether the subject can be the photographer rather than his work.

SG used Berenice Abbott’s marketing of Atget’s vast oeuvre to the American arts institutes as a vehicle for discussing the enormous power that the gatekeepers in those ‘hallowed halls’ have to both make or break the careers of individual photographers and also to dictate what work the public should be told is important (the canon). She goes into some detail about John Szarkowski’s hold on the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and his commitment to making the previously unknown work of Atget an acknowledged part of the photographic canon and to bringing his work to the attention of the world through four separate exhibitions. In some ways, this trajectory to fame had much in common with the more recent ‘discovery’ of Vivien Maier’s work – the hidden genius making vast numbers of superb images that are only discovered later, and which make vast sums of money for the people who promote them.

All this was a precursor to asking questions about whether a singular view – the personal voice – is essential for work to be recognised by the establishment, whether the acknowledged canon of the history of photography is static or changes over time, and whether alternative histories using different photographers as examples are equally valid. With regard to the first of these, one of the issues with Atget was his great variety of styles which made pigeonholing him difficult, when the fashion in the 20th century was to focus on artists with a very specific, easily recognisable style. Although still very prevalent, there is an encouraging trend more recently towards accepting photographers such as Thomas Ruff and Wolfgang Tillmans, whose style is less important than the themes they explore. SG makes a good case for questioning the solidity of the accepted canon, offering several examples of previously lauded photographers whose work has almost completely disappeared from public discourse, while suggesting that a different establishment/ different gatekeepers would come up with a variety of alternative lists depending on their own interests and fashions within their own circles of influence.

The reading group then went on to discuss the effect of funding realities on decisions about what art is promoted to the public, and how current interest in the ethics of Corporate Social  Responsibility (CSR) can affect those decisions. Also, the bottom line that exhibitions need to make money and bring prestige to the organisations which stage them and that means making hard decisions about what the public would like to see, as well as what is currently viewed as ‘the best work’.

We talked about curation and how it is a subjective process which cannot escape the prevailing public discourse and the curator’s own interests, and how different curators would produce different representations of any artist’s work. (An interesting sideline from this is the idea of giving a group of people the same archive and asking them each to produce their own interpretation of it, which I think would be fascinating).

Finally, I very much enjoyed SG’s subliminal message in this essay. Without making any direct mention of it, I realised that almost all the photographers she referenced were women, and Berenice Abbott’s image came before Eugène Atget’s in the text, despite Atget being its ostensible subject. Abbott’s role and motives in the raising of Atget’s work was also discussed briefly, but without coming to any specific conclusion.

Overall, an interesting read and subsequent discussion, as always.




SW OCA study day – curating

Yesterday, I attended an excellent meeting of the OCA South West group. The theme of the day was exhibition curation and it was led by OCA tutor Michele Whiting. As usual, the programme for the day was tutor led work in the morning and student’ work in progress in the afternoon.

Michele began by giving us a brief history of artist curation from the late 1980s, starting with Damien Hirst’s led The Freeze, a group exhibit put together by Goldsmiths students, which was the first time that work had been taken outside the gallery setting and curated by the artists themselves. Prior to this, they were dependent on catching the eye of  one of the rather exclusive gallerists, but the BritArt group pioneered the use of other spaces and opened up exhibiting to a much wider range of artists.

She described the role of the artist curator (a particular term describing artists who exhibit their own work) as ‘translating and moderating the artwork from the place of production to the space of public display.’ Interesting use of the words place and space, for consideration later. This type of exhibition

  • brings objects artefacts and artwork together through a knowing, non-verbal dialogue
  • brings material knowledge to the expression of display
  • creates a narrative through collation, i.e. making new meanings through curation
  • can consider what and exhibition can be

We moved on to some theoretical discussion about exhibitions being dialogic spaces, encouraging a conversation within and about the space. It can question, point towards, elucidate and illuminate. Artist curation can be a medium in itself. An artist curator is telling a story, or at the least, providing pointers for the viewer to make up their own story. We also touched on practical considerations, such as thinking about how to encourage visitors back more than once, legacy aspects (important for funding applications) …..

For the workshop section we broke into groups and were asked to put together an idea for exhibiting and promoting the disparate objects that each of us had brought. The work my group had to marry together was a sculpture, a children’s book, some handmade paper and my assignment 1 work using lightboxes and old family photos.  (see below)


At first we were flummoxed, but then Michele suggested we think about accessibility, and we were off. Before too long, we had designed and thought of promotional ideas for a small travelling exhibition with a draft name of Please Do Touch.  The references are obvious with the sculpture and paper, but my lightbox work would be changed to individual acetate backed photos that visitors could change themselves to see the patterns, while we thought we could emboss the illustrations in Dorothy’s book, add a Braille text below, and have it being read aloud on a loop as well. The concept was a table-top collection of objects that people with sight issues, learning disabilities, dementia homes etc. could hold, smell and feel. We would then offer a workshop alongside for the participants to have a go at making something themselves. The exhibition would tour locations where our target audience met or lived and we thought perhaps it might open at the Exeter Sight Village. We were chuffed to have Michele come up, after all the groups had presented, to suggest that the idea had legs and that we should seriously think about doing it for real.

We also thought about venues, practical stuff like licenses, promotion (Anna G reported that an art centre had recently told her that 80% of footfall for exhibitions come from targeted advertising, and only 20% from flyers), size of exhibition and any particular events that we wanted to run alongside. Michele said that many exhibitions struggle because the communication to the public is poor, rather than the subject or venue.

She finished by saying that how we construct a show is part of its nature, and that the venue is as important as the work. When collaborating, a clearly understood group vision is vital. When thinking about putting a show together, start with the nature of the work, and then move on to the type of exhibition, space, promotions etc. Clarity of thought is essential.  Also, allow enough time (2 years is not too long). There are many issues to sort out and it really needs to be run as a project management exercise if it is to work well. Finally , we talked about catalogues, whether they were necessary, who should write them (it doesn’t have to be the exhibitors themselves) and a reminder that they are a part of the exhibition, so creative thinking is helpful.

It was very different from many of the study events I have attended, and refreshingly academic in tone, and I came away thinking I had really learned something new.

The rest of the day was occupied with showing students’ work and talking about how the assessment process works. There was some wonderful work there, two pieces of which are shown below. I can’t recall the name of the lady who had produced the textile work, but the second is Liz Nunn’s fascinating 3D photographs, which she intends to make into a star book.