Over the past decade, the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography has produced shows that have appeared in more than 35 countries around the world. In this interview Todd Brandow, FEP’s Executive Director, discusses the group’s drive to present images in communities that might not ordinarily have access to compelling images.
Sean: You started this project in 2003 – how have things changed since then and how have you had to adapt to meet today’s interest in photography?
Todd: I think interest overall has expanded. The number of people coming to shows has increased, the number of museums showing photography has increased. The accessibility of cameras and camera phones has made everybody feel they are like photographers and it has made the photographic image more accessible to more people. It has created an explosion in interest and demand which has led to a wider demand for what we do.
Sean: Why do you think that is?
Todd: I think photography is a medium people feel comfortable with. The ubiquity of screens means it is a language everyone understands. One of the problems historically is the museum experience tends to be intimidating to people, who don’t feel up to understanding the art that is on the walls, but photography is something people feel comfortable with because it is all around them, and it’s dramatic how this has all changed. Technology has really evolved rapidly, and, interestingly the ease of access of photographic images has made historic processes of photography more valuable, which also means the silver gelatin medium has become an historic process. It is no longer the medium everybody uses, it is more the exception, and so the exhibitions where we have been able to create that involve historic processes of photography have become more in demand.
Sean: How do you get your message across? How do you let people know that this is work they should take a look at if they are interested in the medium of photography?
Todd: Each museum has its own way of creating their audience and communicating with their community. We try to communicate with our peers in the museum community. We use the normal mediums of websites and we create exhibition proposals that we send out to them and we go to conferences of our peers. We have a small fellowship so to speak. I worked five years before forming FEP and so after working a total of 15 years in the field you kind of know everybody, and so it’s about communication. Through some of our exhibitions which have a wide appeal we have been able to now work on five continents, which again expands our range and our presence in the world.
Sean: Is that the hope to continue to bring photography to people including new work as well as more traditional material?
Todd: Sure, that’s our goal. We like what we do. We do it well and people seem to like to work with us. I find a great deal of satisfaction from taking well curated shows to large museums in major cities as well as taking well curated shows of important artists to smaller communities. When you take work to communities that don’t get exhibitions, you really reach a new audience. It’s a never ending process of discovering new thematic shows or reaching artists that haven’t had the recognition that they deserve.
Sean: Is there a moment when you have had unexpected thanks or praise for your efforts from a community for bringing an exhibition to their hometown?
Todd: I do try to go to most of the openings, and I have had very nice moments of people at the exhibitions being moved by what they have seen. We appreciate when we get good press of course. Some of our exhibitions have had hundreds of pages of coverage. At a recent exhibition open in Berlin we had 4,000 people at the opening and more than 200 pages of press from the German media. When that happens, you really feel like you are reaching your audience. The exhibitions are one aspect of our work and then the catalogues are another. The exhibition is an ephemeral product so to speak, but the book lasts and so we also get great satisfaction creating beautiful books that are documents which remain.
Sean: For your latest project – TheYouthCode – how did you source the images for the exhibition?
Todd: One of our curators Nathalie Herschdorfer, who is based in Lausanne, was engaged by a South Korean photo festival to do an exhibition. She presented the idea of The Youth Code there a year ago and it was a big success. I was interested, but I didn’t gravitate to it immediately until one day I was trying to understand my teenage stepson, who is 15 and spends a lot of his life in front of a screen. I realized that for him the screen was an entirely different entity than it was for me, and it was mysterious to me how he related to imagery on a screen. By definition adolescence is a mystery to adults even though we were all adolescents at one point. Today the advent of these new technologies which has created a whole new medium of exchange that I don’t understand. So this show is all about the younger generation of photographers photographing adolescence and the whole way that has changed adolescence.
This show was a tremendous success in Korea, and when we started talking to people we found immediate response from a number of very sophisticated museum professionals for the same reason – they all have adolescents they are trying to understand. We have this show opening in Somerset House in London in the Fall 2014. It has touched a nerve and that is something I am always looking for – something that is topical and speaks to people at that present time. There will be an element of interactivity from viewers who come to the show. A key element will be adolescents participating by creating photographs of themselves and the people they are with, and there will be some online presence that will be decided as we move along with the project.
Sean: Let’s talk about the Minnesota initiative. I understand it is wonderful region in which to work, is this true?
Todd: Yes, there are a lot of talented people here and a lot of interest in photography. There is a bit of a cultural oasis here. Growing up here I was exposed to the cultural institutions here which are very high level. It is not near either the media centers, or the marketing centers so many of these artists and photographers work away on great bodies of work. But my feeling is they do not get the recognition they deserve so the initiative is another thing that fulfills our mission of creating exhibitions of subjects that haven’t been done, but deserve to be done.
Sean: What about the publications you produce – they obviously bring in additional revenue for you?
Todd: Absolutely, they started when I formed my own company to produce books, known as FEP Editions. These were very successful. The books were in five languages and had big print runs, but it was too much work, too much capital investment and too much risk, but fortunately by virtue of that success we attracted the attention of major publishing houses and are now working collaboratively with Thames and Hudson and with Prestel to create our contemporary books print projects. Now we are able to use their production teams and the process is much less anxiety-inducing. Books are like children; they are wonderful things when they are done, very satisfying, but take an enormous effort.
Sean: Why did you start all this in the first place?
Todd: I have been involved with the art world for some 30-odd-years and I realized the thing that appeals to me most was the public element of art. What I realized I could create was the composite image of an exhibition or a catalogue by bringing together work from one artist or a number of artists and creating a large whole presented to the public. The fact we are independent gives us a lot of latitude to work with the collections and archives that may not be accessible to museums. I realized there was a demand for what we do and I liked doing it. The people I work with I like a lot and it just sort of naturally evolved.
Now after ten years we have a solid track record. We have done what we said at the highest levels and so we are well-respected. An important part of our work is to create elaborate co-productions with museums. We have several shows planned at the moment, and our goal is to have ten shows travelling at all times. Of course we want to partner up with more brick-and-mortar institutions to enable us to borrow works from certain prestigious museums.
Image above by Tom Arndt
© Sean Samuels 2014