PhotoForum Members’ Show 2018 – a participant's view
541 Mt Eden Road, Auckland
11 April - 6 May 2018
Report by Stu Sontier
I've been thinking again about how to look at photographs. An awful lot have passed my eyeballs since helping to hang the 2018 PhotoForum Members’ show at Studio 541. In fact, ever since acquiring an Instagram account, a barrage of images have scrolled by. The temptation with this quantity is to skim. Skim and Like, Skim. Skim and Like. One in one hundred, a smiley face comment. But with this quantity even skimming takes time. As Instagram (and Facebook) have compelled into their algorithms, I stay on for longer than I expected. Skimming, looking for...?
There are bots to do this for the time-deprived. A bot can skim and like much faster and be tuned to your likes. skimlikeskimskimlike, and a bot is not emotionally attached to its selections. It leaves you to get on with the other important things in life. A bot that looks, and looks out for you. Likes for you. Without you needing to see.
We all know the statistics on the multitude of images that has overtaken us and overtaken our ability to take them all seriously.
Coming into a photo-packed show like this, or other collective shows, group shows etc, is a little like confronting Instagram’s infinite feed. You need a strategy. Where's my show bot?
For those of us who remember the processing lab, the cost of printing film, the photo albums, we should also remember the uniqueness, the precious quality of those prints. Many families, affluent enough to own a camera, could only afford to put 3 or 5 rolls of film through it a year - then select a few reprints from those 24 prints. Even fading ill-exposed backlit snapshots were precious. Even the 1/2 frame at the end of the roll might have a cherished snap, part of a head or pet.
Now, you can apply effects to create that black-red-white trauma of the end frame, and the faded print, the streaky dusty negative, the burnt or crumpled edges, the Polaroid that never actually saw the insides of an instant camera. Low to no cost, apps, the internet distribution allow these artifices to be applied and uploaded indiscriminately, but without the precious quality that comes only with the whole physical setup that surrounded those prints.
The internet and its infinite storage also allow me this overly long scene setting and divergences, so let's get through the front door - well, shortly. Because there is one more thing I need to say. Stepping out of Instagram and into the cold world of a real room full of pictures, there is (like at many art shows) the desire or temptation to skim. To look and like. And this is why the need for "so how to look at photos". When they are presented like this, non-thematically, in the rush of enthusiastic submission that is a members’ group show, it’s important to remember that each picture is just a glimpse of an individual's process and progress through ideas. Are they able to reduce their ideas to one image? If so, have they in fact chosen well or wisely?
There is a catalogue, both online and at the gallery for those who like words with their pictures. I do, and feel words are indispensable even though at times flawed.
Commendations to gallery owner Sonja Gardien who insisted on a bio and statement being supplied with each photographer’s work and produced this catalogue.
Of course, the text comes in as much variety as the images and it perhaps reflects or summarises the artists' personality. Some are presented in the first person, others in the 3rd (but most often I'd guess, still artist-penned). How much can we rely on this to inform the work? Sometimes the photographer is eloquent and their genre lends itself to an apt description. Other times the genre is obscure (perhaps even to the artist), and perhaps they work better visually than verbally. And sometimes they may be playing a game with us. So words may help contextualise and may obscure. More on this later.
Most important, and as I've alluded to, in a group show there may be overlapping or distinct genres. In a members’ show and in particular I think (although call me biased) in a PhotoForum members’ show, the genres are wide-ranging and have multiple overlaps. I celebrate that - there are no rules here, no rule of thirds has to be at work, the general obsession with sharpness that photographic technology can bring is let off the hook. That's to say that while there are many images that are 'technically' well executed, there are others where the light has been thrashed around inside the pentaprism and only reluctantly allowed to escape (this is not a condemnation; these are the pictures I gravitate to). And speaking of technology again, PhotoForum collects such a variety of members that we see everything from the large format view camera at work, through the gamut of digital (DSLR and snap), 35mm film, to boxes with holes in them and cameraless works.
This acceptance of varietal process and interests, arguably much more in evidence these days, is something that PhotoForum has championed historically, sometimes as a lone voice. When a comments book was available in 'Open The Shutter - Auckland Photographers Now' (from 1994), it generated the infamous comment "Does it have to be weird? Glad I'm not in your club".
While PhotoForum has a perhaps deserved reputation that it favoured historical and documentary, looking at its output belies that narrow reading. Many of the members and others that PhotoForum gave a platform to, work in areas that are diverse, and even when outwardly falling into those documentary roles, are much more questioning than didactic. Many have continued to work over decades with either recognition or not, some have evolved their practices or crossed boundaries.
A few dropped names might give an idea of the latitude PhotoForum gave to photographic workers who were doing "weird" work: John Lyall; Fiona Pardington; Haru Sameshima; Rhondda Bosworth; Marie Shannon, Greg Semu, Darren Glass. Less "weird" is the work of Mark Adams, John Miller, and a few who have done some jumping around like Jenny Tomlin (who has a multiple-pinhole work in this show but has showed what might be termed psychological landscapes in other PhotoForum venues). All are artists who have been involved with PhotoForum or included in one or more showings (many of those names had work in Open The Shutter), all continue to make work and to various extents could have fallen into this "club" where the club mentality of conformism and 'in or out' start to get applied. Maybe then, PhotoForum, if it might generate the idea of a club, is one for those who don't belong to clubs.
My own experience with PhotoForum is that if you want to do something enough (a book, exhibition, talk etc) and have the energy to get on and do it, there is a wide latitude for you to do so. This is echoed by Chris Corson-Scott talking about the book 'Pictures They Want to Make: Recent Auckland Photography'. He notes that the book is "published by PhotoForum who are amazing, and rare, in that they allowed us to make exactly what we wanted to". 
Tellingly, there are no mentions of weirdness in the guestbook at this show, rather there is a congratulatory reference to the variety and scope of the work.
One aspect that surprised me (submitting a large piece that I worried would overwhelm or take up too much of the shared space - disclaimer: yes I have a work in this show) is that the size of work has increased noticeably. I'm a veteran of participation in and organising of several PF shows and it is striking in this one. I started to say that its a reason that work might feel jammed in, but then past PhotoForum shows had that feel at times, due to the enthusiasm to show as much as possible.
I think this is indicative of a number of things - that photography has become comparable in importance to the other contemporary arts, and scale in these has become at times amusingly gross. Photography claims this place too and wants size both to show but also to support its claim. It’s also indicative of both a diversification of media and a reduction in price for printing and framing and a rising affluence of photographers. Notably in the 'Auckland Photographers Now' exhibition for example, many works played on their (small) size, and many were unframed.
Referring to the Dusseldorf crew, Lucy Soutter states that "while individual viewers may disagree, the general consensus appears to be that large scale photographs signal tremendous ambition and demand to be taken seriously." 
I think Andreas Gursky has something to offer in this regard. Scale is at issue in his work (as well as seriousness). Gursky remains contemporary photography's hero because he has very publicly broken through to the art world, in part because of superficial references to the size of the works and the fact that Rhein II became the highest auction sale for a photograph in 2011. 
"they have the size of paintings ... they seem to exist somewhere between photography and painting" Ralph Rugoff , Director of the Hayward Gallery, currently (as at April 2018) showing a major Gursky retrospective.
Neither of these things should have such bearing, but to outsiders (and here I include the market driven collectors who have much influence on how photography is placed in the art market), it most certainly does. And we photographers can jump on the coattails or at least announce that that debate is finally over. Although allow me to raise a further idea that reopens and shifts the debate. Auction prices might at one level be lauded, but the consequence of a major sale of an important artwork is that very often it goes into the portfolio of a private collector. This regularly takes a work out of public circulation for decades or forever (apart from when it resurfaces at auction again, perhaps as the result of a divorce or to facilitate money laundering ). So the irony is that most people will never get to see the original work that gets such publicity and the double irony with huge works such as Rhein II is that most of us only see it in tiny low res reproductions.
I got distracted with talk of size, technique and equipment but what I wanted to say is that this variety of genres comes with a disclaimer. When you approach a show like this, it is easy, but a mistake to skim and like. (Perhaps this could be applied more universally - to people and viewpoints for instance). You have to move with each pace, be nimble in your seeing. Genres swap from image to image, through explorations of space and urban landscape through what I guess is still called the 'New Topographics' and straight up landscape, psychological portrait, various kinds of abstraction and conceptual, documentary and street work. Use that catalogue.
For instance, Caryline Boreham's image is ostensibly a straightforward image of a rural lake or estuary on a cloudy day. But, spurred by the title (Very Fast Moving Lights, Mangawhai, 2017) to read the statement, the clouds take on another nature. Caryline is searching out sites that have had UFO sightings. The picture becomes eerie, suddenly jumping out of its straight document mode and into an unformed conceptual zone and loaded with personal interpretations depending on what the individual thinks about the existence or not of visiting aliens. There are no clues in the visual image, but what, if anything, happened here?
John Collie photographed around Christchurch after the earthquakes. His statement seems to revolve around loss. Many personal and public decisions were made as a result of the devastation in that city. Whether and how to rebuild (both houses, streets and monuments), whether to remain in Christchurch at all. There was the loss of life and the especially public loss and investigation of the CTV building construction. It’s fair to say that this series of earthquakes impacted almost everyone in New Zealand in a personal way.
I'd argue that New Zealanders have a social and cultural context they can apply when looking at Collie's three pictures - for many, there is a personal evocation of loss because of direct association with the earthquake. For others it may be a more glancing recall of the televised and talked about destruction, and the analysis of the various players, not least of which is the EQC and the politics of large-scale disaster funds. However, in all cases there is a personal emotional connection that can make these pictures more than what face value brings. At the great risk of over referral to cultural theorists, this is perhaps an example of the 'punctum'  - the mysterious sharp edge in some pictures that evokes more than surface reading. To address that mysteriousness a little more, I imagine that much more context is required for someone from out of New Zealand, with little knowledge of the earthquakes - what is the entry point for such a person? Collies' text certainly helps here, with his evocations of abandonment and loss which come not just from what earthquakes can do, but from other disasters, big and small; metaphorical earthquakes perhaps. When not punctured by the personal, these pictures might easily not move, without more work on the part of the viewer.
Victoria Hodgkinson gives away just technical detail in her text. These are relatively small works, and we learn that they are unique photographic prints by virtue of their production. This is chemically treated paper that leaves a lot to chance. Since the paper is light-sensitive, the results of treatment don't become apparent until the paper can be developed fully and fixed. But the photographer has never given up all control. Indeed, a resist is purposefully applied to the paper, which blocks chemical effect. But there are other choices that she makes to push the process in certain directions (and then no doubt the editing out of 'mistakes'). Such works are part of the large number of 'alternative photographic processes' that are becoming popular again almost as a rejection of the move to digital and quick-easy image taking. The edition of one, by it's nature, also pushes such works into the art realm in part by removing the ever problematic issue of having artificially limited editions of a generally unlimited print possibility. Collectors love to know that reproduction is limited, even if artificially done.
In this case, the statement describes the how but not the why. It does refer to artists working in a similar area as inspiration, including Len Lye, and the jazz-frenetic movement in one image certainly has Lye resonations and rhythmic intent. The images are left to work on an intuitive level and on one hand I applaud that, but am also aware that in a group show, two such disparate images do leave the question of why very much open.
Approaching the single work by Geoffrey Short (Director of PhotoForum) there's a direct confrontation of light and dark, an implied line surrounded by ghostly cloudiness. It could be Morse Code made visible (which might be N. U. in my translation), but the title pushes in a clear direction - "Long Sun #1, 2015". So immediately I know that the light has something to do with the sun, and the catalogue information of it being a 20 minute exposure lets me extrapolate that the camera was pointed at the sun (or maybe a reflection of it on another surface), the light line (which one can perceive is a very slight curve) documents the progress of the sun over the exposure time, and interruption by clouds is the cause of the dot-dash flashes. From what I've written, it might seem like the picture is essentially a straight-forward documentation of nature, but visually there is as much disguised as revealed and the idea of photographic documentary evidence is allowed to be examined - an elusive visual document that might hold potentially accurate scientific information. Lucy Soutter refers to the documentary dilemma that now exists in classic documentary work and contrasts that against a 'fictive document' where "key to their meaning [is] that they are seen and understood within the context of art. Nonetheless, their link to events in the real world is undeniable."  In light of Geoff Short’s more visually direct work with explosions, the links with real events that are then abstracted into aspects of energy and light frequency becomes clearer.
If there's a niggle here, it stems from an old dictum that art is a universal language, that it talks directly through a visual and mysterious process. For me, self-evidently (although hard to admit since I feel I am kicking a prickly cactus), that is not so. I struggle with many works in the contemporary scene, I want to skim without liking, I despair at the convolutions and effort that I'm required to make, especially when there are no clues in or around the work that let me find a hold and stick a stable foot into. I don't know Latin and so any such references in the work or the title leave me floundering. I also have huge holes in my pop culture knowledge from years of self imposed avoidance of TV and trash movies, so those references lose me and leave me cold. I seem to be out of the mainstream of this universal language when works travel in these areas (I'm thinking Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson in the latter case, and a number of recent contemporary photographers who use ancient Greek references). This is the old argument over whether the artist need say anything about the work, and I think the answer is – yeah-na-maybe.
Uta Barth is perhaps one of the more articulate of artists, who now teaches part-time at the University of California. She appears to advocate for words: " I learn much from teaching, I learn from students and I learn what I am thinking when forced to put language to it. "
Maybe others just aren't good at talking about their work (and they are yet to find someone else who wants to take that role). But inevitably you get some extra context. That's got to be better than nothing, and I don't think it can ever be a perfect balance.
I'm relatively happy to go with what I'm given in the knowledge that it has come from a messy human brain, with all the potential inadequacy that implies. (Of course if it’s the result of an Instagram bot, then all bets are off - we are in the territory of AI and the Turing Test). Having a work in this exhibition means I too have been through the process of trying to convey something of my reasoning around my work. I know the tyranny of writing when it is about yourself. I also know that a bot can do it for me and so as a gesture to struggling statement writers, here's a gift and an example: Statement for a yet to be announced artistic endeavour as generated by a bot:
"Ever since I was a teenager I have been fascinated by the ephemeral nature of meaning. What starts out as hope soon becomes debased into a dialectic of power, leaving only a sense of decadence and the dawn of a new reality."
Try this bot 3 times and as well as the fun, and the realisation that it is at least as good as you in statement creation, you will understand the simple algorithm behind it.
As a maker as well as the writer here, I'm aware that I implicate myself in all these points. From the self conscious and perhaps impatient viewer to the potentially lame artist statement. The use of words and the questioning of the use of those words to add to visual recognition. A cautious experimenting with size and a suspicion of the same.
I try not to care too much about my own doubts, about finding a single truth and about imposter syndrome doubled up with the imposter-filled contemporary world. I suspect that at the bottom of lofty statements and arty flourishes is that we first make the work in a conversation with ourselves and leave the audience to find what they can in it.
Or in the words of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan: "I don't know what art does for the people who look at it, but it saves the people who make it." 
So finally to reiterate my point - in a show with such diversity of genre and content, skim and like will not get you far. When in the space of 4 metres you can go from delicately printed abstraction to seemingly straightforward portrait to high concept or digital rendering, your sense of reading must change rapidly to keep up. You will not get the pleasure or whatever else you go to exhibitions for, if you do not nimbly progress with the challenge that this collection can bring.
And with that, I've about got you through the door, the hard work is now yours.
Stuart Sontier, May 2018
 Seja, PhotoForum at 40: Counterculture, Clusters, and Debate in New Zealand p159
 Soutter, Why Art Photography? p41
 video: https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/blog/andreas-gursky-redefining-photography
 concept of the punctum from Roland Barthes - Camera Lucida
 Soutter, Why Art Photography? p55
 Miller, Art Professor Wins MacArthur Fellowship https://ucrtoday.ucr.edu/9173
 Thornton, 33 artists in 3 Acts p128