> A Creative Life
> Conservatism and creativity
> Revolutions and radical change
> Questioning authority and expertise
> Communities and conversations
> Genuinely open
> Mixed economies
Charlotte Cotton is a curator and writer. She is the author of The Photograph as Contemporary Art and founder of Words Without Pictures and Eitherand.org. She has held positions including curator of photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and head of the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Visiting Scholar at Parsons, The New School for Design, New York and CCA, San Francisco.
A Creative Life
NFS: We are here in the offices of Michael Mack in the heart of London talking to Charlotte Cotton. Welcome and many thanks for agreeing to take part in the conversation for Newfotoscapes. I think it would be fair to say that you describe yourself as a writer, curator and sometimes educator of photography?
NFS: I was fascinated to hear earlier this year, at the Association of Photography in Higher Education conference in Wales, how photography became your destiny and I wondered if you could share this with our community here?
CC: I was talking about the fact that at the moment I’m thinking a lot about an earlier point in my own life when I was seventeen or eighteen years of age, and what I remember needing to reinforce my aspirations to have a creative adult life. It didn’t really take much contact with cultural spaces for me to feel as if it would be possible to have a creative adult life. I was 17 and studying for my A levels and I came up to London and went to the V&A and the Boilerhouse, which was hosting a programme of exhibitions, including photographers such as Irving Penn, that felt sophisticated and relevant and exactly what I would want to look at. I think I then ended up at The Photographers’ Gallery off Leicester Square. I really wanted to see what I should wear, how I should interact and exchange and converse if I was going to have an adult creative life. And I am not even really that sure how I knew those 2 places existed, pre-internet age. But I did, and I think that antenna that you have when you are young is one of the most remarkable things! I really am concerned about what it would mean, what tangible evidence and support I would find if I was trying to navigate an entry into creative life if I was going through it in this era.
NFS: Why is that?
Conservatism and creativity
CC: For a number of reasons. One of them is, we are in a situation that is equally economically challenging for young creative people as the late 1980s. One thing that has happened within the creative industries in the twenty-first century has been an ageing of creative industries and their workforces. For example, if you think about fashion photography, which through the post-war period was an area where somebody who was young, whether it was a photographer, a fashion editor, a designer, a model, could innovate, could inject real life and the currency of ‘the new’ into image-making culture.
That dynamic took place in Britain through the post-war period including when I was young in the late 1980s early 1990s with what got labelled ‘grunge’ photography and photographers such as: Corrine Day, Juergen Teller, Nigel Shafrab and David Sims and stylists including Melanie Ward, Venetia Scott, Edward Enninful, and iD magazine, The Face. It is within our active memory that there has been a period where it was possible for a group of very young creative people to literally visualise what was going on within culture. Fashion photography post 9/11 became deeply conservative. We saw this impact across the commercial world: it was the time to get rid of the creatively opinionated, to say all bets are off, things are going to work in a different way, where creative vision was far from sacred and the risks in bringing in new and audacious talent would be made only sparingly.
NFS: And you saw the photographers’ day rates tumble…
CC: Right, you saw the mere handful of fashion photographers who represent the pinnacle that many aspire to, taking cuts in their day rate, taking jobs they would have discounted five years before. And what got broken was that quid pro quo of commercial image-making, namely that as a young person wanting to begin a career in fashion photography, you work like hell, you subsidise the costs of your first editorial shoots, you practically subsidise the editorial pages of youth magazines.
NFS: Yes, because it was about the portfolio of photographs.
CC: You build a portfolio and you reach a point where somebody picks you out of obscurity, and you are in line for a lucrative advertising campaign which brings in enough money for you to go off and do your own photography and also make a name for yourself as a new talent. That system was severely damaged in the commercial fragility of the US (the commercial home of fashion image-making) in the aftermath of 9/11. And even today, over a decade later, you pretty much see the same list of top fashion photographers as in 2000.
Revolutions and radical change
NFS: So broadening that out and thinking of the breadth of routes that the new landscape of photography offers, do you feel that it is still governed by the economics associated with photography then, in terms of the type of image-making that is produced or the type of work that is getting seen? Is it now more about free labour as opposed to really trying to push and enhance ideas?
CC: Well, those two things are mutually exclusive, but I think when there is a client involved in the production of photography, you are visually problem solving for someone else. If you are ambitious and audacious and are given the space you might also produce something which is the visualisation of a moment in time, and all of this is magical and worth chasing after. I think this dynamic does move to other areas of photographic practice. You could say that there is a parallel or even a precedent with editorial photography and the economy of documentary photography. The idea of defining your practice as an editorial documentary photographer or photojournalist has been under debate for a number of decades now. What we saw in the 1990s and early 2000s was the movement of some documentary photography into the new axis points for the cultural appraisal of photography in the book form and into exhibitions for non-profit spaces, museums and art galleries. However, it is a misunderstanding to suggest that that has been a secure and vital place for documentary photography, or that there is full career as a documentarian who produces books and exhibitions.
NFS: I think that sense of change and of considering the photographic object reminds me a little of your conversation with Aaron Schumann for FOAM’s project, “What’s next?”. A particular quote that stood out for me was where you said you “do fetishize revolutions and moments of radical change, that you really enjoy them and that you are enjoying this moment.”
NFS: That seems to suggest something very upbeat, because there could be a debate in terms of how we have approached our conversation up to now, the finances go down, and the demand is going down, a deep conservatism. But that quote very much suggest something different, a different way of looking at this kind of change?
CC: They are actually connected and I think the first stage of emancipation is to abandon hope that the situation is any less challenging or in need of radical change than it really is. Across the world, creative people in the fields of photography, curation, activism, writing, filmmaking, know that the money is spent. That is the first step, to know that there isn’t a reassuring paternalistic structure that you can literally buy your way into. It doesn’t exist, and if anyone promises you that they are lying to you. They might also be lying to themselves as well. They might have too much of a vested interest in keeping that idea of pedagogy and creative industry alive to admit the possibility of any other reality.
But it is over, and owning that is the first step, and I don’t see that as a negative. I actually think that’s a really positive thing in life to know where you are because this is the key to all things – to your mental health, to the sustainability of your creativity – you can only start from where you are, not from where you hope or wish to. You can only start where you are. I think that’s what the quote from the conversation with Aaron was really about.
NFS: I think what’s really interesting there is that often, and especially around academia, we talk about authority and institutions, and the canons of photography being the authorities, and I think there’s something quite powerful about freeing ourselves from that paternalistic notion, the idea of trying to please somebody. Maybe we should think about that time when we are young and creativity is the tool that we have to express ourselves – that actually maybe this is the space photography and broader creative fields can explore now and open up some really interesting possibilities?
Questioning authority and expertise
CC: Yeah, absolutely. I think the other thing to be said here is that authority and expertise are notions that are definitely under question with the dismantling of cultural structures that privilege such terms. Obviously, I am not thrilled at the idea that expertise is something which has become optional to the development of culture, but the reality is that no one is an expert on the future, especially in a time of change.
NFS: Yeah, that’s true… But is there something in particular that you feel or believe has been a defining factor and that has seen such a shift in the landscape of the lens, a particular moment or any other elements that have shifted things. We’ve talked about finance, for example?
CC: I think the shape of commercial image-making post 9/11, and also the decline of printed news media, are two of the biggest militating forces for the shape of what it means to be a photographer in the professional sense right now. But we should look at the other two important areas in relation to photography: what happened to independent artistic photography, and also the idea of the amateur or citizen photographer. Both of these facets have seeded profound shifts in the character of photography, even if they are not entirely evident to us yet in the behaviour of institutions. Shall I talk about those two things?
NFS: Yes, what would be interesting to hear is how that really is informing and changing your interpretation of your response to this field of practice.
CC: Contemporary art photography has become much more specialised and rarefied. In the early 2000s, we had a strong market for photographs that were printed large and laminated behind Plexiglas; it felt like a bubble market for photography. We’re at a period now where I think we are in a really good place, much leaner and more precise. Making photographic prints or using photographic language within artistic practice is something few people decide to do. At its best, it’s not a lifestyle choice and it’s not a career. It’s actually a very old school idea of the artisan, somebody who crafts and renders something.
Personally, I work more with artists who don’t necessarily come from a photographic training now, because I think the point we have reached within contemporary art is one where photography is a set of materials rather than a separate discipline. As you know from my writing I think one of the big things that we are grappling with is whether the structures to legitimise photography as an independent art form that began in the 1970s are going to work so well for what happens next in the story of photography. Those historic structures often relied on monographic narratives and separatist ideas of photography and its history, as devices to align photography with more established independent artistic disciplines. And all of those things actually are not very useful for interpreting contemporary photographic culture, I don’t think.
To think about photography at large at this terrifically exciting moment is where the innovative potential for cultural institutions lies. If you spend a lot of time with contemporary art, as I do, visiting exhibitions and making studio visits, I’d guess that as much as half of what is under artistic discussion uses the materials of photography and video. And very, very little of this critical mass would fit within the tail end of a separatist history of photography as proclaimed by most photography institutions and museum departments. I really want cultural institutions to offer points of view on the real practices of photography and to support emergent talents to know that photography is one tool amongst many that you can use to express yourself. The artists who I think will define this moment, who do define this moment for other artists, are actually invisible to most cultural institutions.
NFS: This quest for more from our cultural institutions seems to push the ideas you were writing about in “The Photograph as Contemporary Art” back in 2004. Interestingly, in preparation for our meeting today, I came across an article where you were saying that, even at the time of writing the book, you were bored of that debate and really you felt it was kind of over before you put it out there.
CC: The title wasn’t my choice, I thought it could just be “Contemporary Art Photography” because I really felt that was a statement of fact by 2004. But I am actually really glad that the commissioning editor, Andrew Brown, persisted with the title, because it suggests an active election of photography as art, as opposed to all of the other facets of the medium’s character. And of course what happened afterwards was the central idea of photography moving to the vital arena of amateur and citizen practices, and Andrew was right to give the book an equivocal title.
NFS: What becomes a testament to that is the fact that the projects you have been part of, and the ideas you are exploring, have consistently put you at the forefront of thinking around what photography is or where photography is going. As that example illustrates, that was the point where your book became a key title on a university reading list that students read, and are still reading, and one they continually refer back to. Is there an inherent danger that through the form and function of a printed book that over time you loose the currency of its content? As such learners both inside and outside of the education system perhaps still focus on that debate. So really the question is what do you see as the key debates now? What would you hope that learners today would be looking at now? And how would you like them to read your writings from eight to nine years ago? Photography in that time has become a very different beast, so what do you see those key debates as being?
Communities and conversations
CC: You’re right photography has changed during that time, but just to say the book was still the best way for me to represent that moment, in as much as it was quite a definitive moment, and that’s what books do – they are definitive rather than iterative. But in my own practices I have also been interested in creating structures for iterative processes, because we are at a time that is not definitive in a conventional sense – it is in flux. I started thinking seriously about how you might develop ideas within a self-elected community in 2006 when I was living in New York, and I wasn’t working for a museum, so it was the first time in a long while that conversation didn’t just come to me in my place of work.
NFS: You mean you had to seek it out?
CC: I think it was a more normal experience of how ideas and opinions develop. Working as a curator in a national museum is a very specific thing – it’s a vocation that I really believe in. For me it was the best way in which to engage with photography, within an environment where the stakes are very, very high. However, the reality of the way we discover and change our mind about culture, and especially in the 2000s when I think many of us were changing our minds about lots of things, well, I didn’t feel that those definitive processes of printed books and institutional exhibitions at best reflected what was actually happening in terms of ideas around photography. The jury was (and maybe still is) out about who is going to make visual culture, how the creative industries will reform, what we will consider to be the pivotal issues for visual practice. Where does the energy of photography at large move at a time like this? I mean, we are all to a certain degree kind of blinded by the empirical mass of citizen and orphan photography, and only to a certain degree have we began to analyse that. “Words without Pictures” was the first iterative discussion project that I staged, and it was borne out of the fact that some of the most meaningful conversations I was having around photography were outside institutional frameworks. These were important conversations for me because of the quality of opinions and an openness, a discursiveness, that was just in the air, in the absence of anyone or any institution having the answer.
NFS: Very much so, and this is totally at the heart of the Newfotoscapes project. A time to stop worrying that the landscapes are not formed. To stop trying to work out what is true, what is fact, what is finished, what is complete, and perhaps think more about how can we develop and evolve the tools. So, if we adopt the analogy of using a map and compass, our focus is perhaps more on the decisions and the paths that we navigate ourselves around.
It would be true to say that our senses become heightened and we are far more aware when we travel somewhere alien, somewhere unknown. I think and wonder what might happen if we consider ourselves at this point of the journey to discovery? And this seems to really chime with your earlier description of being young, and reminded me of one of your recent interviews, where you referred to the practitioner or process or thinkers that you seek out to act as your antenna. Who are they and why have you chosen those people?
CC: I think you are referring to my introduction to the spring 2013 Aperture Photo Book Review which I guest edited. The well of the publication is a series of conversations I asked people that I talk to about photography and creative culture to ‘perform’ for the publication.
I had an email this morning from someone I met very briefly a couple of years ago, and they had been reading the review and they told me why they liked it They said it was because I really had asked my friends to talk as they would talk to me. They appreciated that I hadn’t edited it in such a way that looked down on an audience, and I had just assumed that everyone is conversing in the same way. Actually I think that people really are, it’s human nature to have people whose opinions you seek out and to make the time to meet up and really talk it through. I think it’s a more useful way to form an understanding of this creative moment.
NFS: What is really important and ultimately compelling about this approach and way of working is that honesty and desire to offer clarity to an audience. It starts with that openness and transparency, rather than the hierarchy and “by invitation only” philosophy. It acknowledges the strength of a community and then seeks to build engagement and invite a wider audience to participate. We will talk a little bit more about “Words Without Pictures” shortly, but that would be a perfect example of how you consider the audience: not in a way to look down on them, as you say, but to seek to either engage them or look at methods of building networks or communities. And I think what is great is that you also speak about the importance for photographers to look at building their own networks.
CC: Yes, definitely.
NFS: Which makes for really exciting times for photographers today, and moves us further away from seeking approval from the institution or the gatekeeper. This could equally be quite challenging. Is it possible to just open up a little bit more about how you consider the process of engagement?
CC: I have been a curator for coming up to 20 years. I feel very happy with the role of curator, as somebody who does creative things for other people – there is always an audience with curating. I’m not an artist Although I’m very self-aware person, I’m not directly exploring the internal questions that I have for myself as an artist does. I don’t think a photographer needs to be a curator at heart, but I think a photographer does need to understand the curatorial mode of their practice for sure.
NFS: You have talked about this idea that you are mostly curating experiences, whether its digital, whether its online, or whether it’s a physical live event, which I think is a really important way to consider our roles as the field progresses.
It is a good reminder that we need to consider our purpose, not the apparatus. But we could perhaps suggest there have been experiential precedents. The camera obscura and the cinema: an immersive experience within a darkened environment, illuminated by a single project revealing and interpreting an ‘outside or alternative’ world. I also enjoy the similarities between today’s digital tablet and the early drawings of a painter’s canvas using a camera obscura. Similarly, we seem to have forgotten that the book is a piece of technology, so it really just reinforces the message that technology has and will always continually evolve and change.
I think interestingly your approach seems to seek to maximise the experience of a particular platform or mechanism, and in that way truly consider engagement and participation with an audience. Would you say that is that true?
CC: There is a multitude of modes to most creative people’s practices. The way that #phonar is structured consciously seems to address that given the emphasis placed on not only the ‘photographer-as-artisan’ training, but also, importantly, the ‘photographer-as-editor’ and ‘photographer-as-curator’, ‘photographer-as-researcher’. That’s the wonder of now – suddenly the true plurality of photographic practice isn’t something that you are supposed to keep hidden.
NFS: During the San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts “Is Photography Over?” debate that you were part of, George Baker, who I think you have worked with before, there is one particular thing he said that I thought was great, where he talks about the forgotten potentials of the medium. It seems that photography has almost become dominated by particular forms, by particular methods of commissioning etc. And that actually it was all there in the beginning, and that maybe we simply need to go back to remembering or look at those potentials and begin to re-explore them.
CC: Geoffrey Batchen’s writing about the earliest era of photography has been really instrumental in us thinking of photography as not an invention but a conception; that there was something in the cultural psyche that meant that photography happened when it did, and it was not just reliant on technological innovation. I think that the academic field of comparative media studies is an amazingly well developed area that is usefully applied to thinking about contemporary photography. I was speaking at a conference recently and really enjoyed the thoughts of art historian David Joselit, who talked about photography as ‘the many’ and related our contemporary sense of ‘image overload’ to the early 20th century, and the wholesale adoption of photomechanical reproduction methods. He talked very convincingly about how avant-garde and contemporary artists are negotiating parallel issues of what it means to create singular, artistic images in eras when photography embodied ‘the many’.
NFS: Absolutely. This would seem to be a good time to talk about a couple of your recent projects, “Words Without Pictures” and “eitherand”. You’ve mentioned earlier about “Words Without Pictures”, I wondered if you might summarise how and why did that project came about. You have previously mentioned a sense of frustration?
CC: I think my sense of frustration is very quickly followed by, “You might as well do it yourself – what’s the worst thing that could happen?” The worst thing that can happen is that somebody else does it and not as well as you could if you’d put your mind to it! “Words Without Pictures” was essentially driven by both my conversations with people I met in New York, as I mentioned earlier, and then finding the right context to develop the idea. I had just started as curator at Los Angeles County Museum of Art and I needed to rebuild a community around the photography department. I didn’t want to build a community based on explorations of the collection, which might have been the obvious place for a photography department in a museum! But I wanted to make an invitation to photographic practitioners living in Los Angeles to think of LACMA as a place where the crucial conversations about photography could happen. One of the areas I still feel very strongly that museums need to provide for, is in those years after college when you want to know where you can go for a really serious debate about the creative sphere you are passionate about.
NFS: It’s about that sense of the institution being regarded as safe and trusted, so you know the information you are going to receive has been filtered through your peers, which I think is vital.
CC: Yes, I mean think how radically we have shifted our view about peer reviewing and editing of photography. Even five years ago it was still something that institutions were very suspicious of endorsing. “Words Without Pictures” was one of a small number of projects that arts institutions initiated, which were genuinely open and which released editorial control. The smart institutions really did that. They saw that there was nothing advantageous in censoring or institutionalising the language of this particular moment and, instead, that we just needed to be generous hosts to the thoughtfulness of creative people thinking aloud and together.
NFS: It’s a shame really that in the UK I think we were only aware of it a little.
NFS: I am intrigued how you planned and mapped out the legacy of ‘Words Without Pictures’ in the context of the web as an open and free domain? You knew you wanted to have clear parameters for its timeframe: so that project had 12 months, with new stimuli on a monthly basis, mixed with live events, and then as the culminating physical resource. The book went from being print-on-demand, to its new association with aperture, and in fact to being published by aperture. Why isn’t it online anymore? Why take it away, close the door down in that sense?
CC: Obviously I’m not working at LACMA anymore so I am not in control of the evolution of the project. I decided from the outset that the website would only exist for a year, as I felt a year was the maximum amount of time before the behaviour of the site would become institutionalised. The next phase of the life of the project happened in other places, off-line, mainly in classrooms where the essays began to be used as prompts to live discussions. The pdf versions of the essays rippled out in the world and appear on curriculum reading lists. We didn’t work with a sort of modernist idea of the original “Words Without Pictures”, so all of these permutations, all of these iterations of the project, are part of it. Our success criteria for the project was that we wanted to create a framework for a discussion to be had, and I was happy that we only had 300 readers a day and a new response to the monthly essay came in very slowly, because we found the quality of the engagement was astounding.
NFS: I think that’s an interesting point, though, only 300 readers a day. If we equate that to a physical lecture theatre in the largest universities, that is often the size of one room. So the scale you cite, I think still makes a serious impact. But almost more importantly it demonstrates an active participation with the subject that you wouldn’t be guaranteed in that same lecture theatre. Having a desire for the project to achieve more, do you think that framework was enabled through technology? Was it able to become more viral or more permeable?
CC: It was beautifully planned and beautifully designed; it was very true all the way through. There was real thoughtfulness within the concept and throughout the design. David Reinfurt is an incredible designer. The amazing Alex Klein who is an artist and curator was the editor overseeing all aspects, every day. The most important thing is to use these platforms in a way which is really true to what it is you want to do, and all we wanted to do was to create a framework for the discussion to happen.
NFS: I’d like to end with two final questions. We have talked about the obstacles and challenges facing photography, and how perhaps these have at times shaped your future. What is your next project that begins to address or look at those and question them?
CC: I think I am going to continue to live in a mixed economy which sees me sometimes as the author with researched and definitive opinions, as a participant in things that I think are really interesting but I am not an expert in, and as a collaborator developing ideas with creative people who come from other areas of expertise. My next text book is under development. It’s going to take me a while but the title is ‘Photographic’. Contemporary photography is beautifully faceted – photography remains a prompt for social change. It is a vital vehicle for ideas. It is an astounding empirical mass. Photographic technology is an author of the ways we perceive the world. And photographic industries are challenged but reforming, and photography is of course a material form. I want to offer useful reading to people embarking on their creative, photographic lives that really embodies the current debates.
NFS: That sounds fantastic. My other question was really going to be about what would potential projects for you, thinking in 5 years time, look like, in light of this change and these exciting yet challenging developments? And I think what you are suggesting is that they would have multiple elements, but importantly that they should be a prompt for something more, something different. That’s maybe the space we are entering into, where being able to be fluid and responsive is going to be key.
CC: Yes, but within that is having your own internal critical framework for what it is you do.
NFS: It has been a real pleasure to speak to you today, you have been very generous with your time and we really appreciate your openness and sharing of your thoughts.
CC: It’s been a pleasure and thank you for researching me, that was slightly unnerving but really nice (Laughs).
NFS: Not at all, we look forward to your new book! Thanks very much Charlotte.
As a way of extending the initial conversation Charlotte has offered the following list of writers whose ideas are inspiring her in the continuation of her practice:
Fred Ritchin, Professor of Photography and Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He has written three critically acclaimed books on photography, In our own image, After photography and most recently Bending the Frame. Katherine Hayles, Professor of Literature at Duke University. Her recent book How We Think seeks to embrace the idea that we think through, with, and alongside media. Julian Stallabrass is a writer, curator and photographer. He is Professor in Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. He is noted for his controversial views on the art world and for his observations on the major transformations and opportunities afforded to artists by technological developments in production and distribution. Grant Kester is Professor of Art History in the Visual Arts department at the University of California. Kester’s 2011 book The One and the Many provides an overview of the broader continuum of collaborative art practices. David Joselit is the Carnegie Professor of Art History at Yale University. His latest book After Art defines a shift in the status of art under the dual pressures of digital technology.