This is my ‘go to’ question when speaking with young photographers when attempting to gauge their engagement with photography and the creative arts. Over the last few months I have asked it a lot during interviews with students looking to join the photography course I lead. The answers have been dispiriting and suggest an underlying theme of disconnection between the potential exhibition visitor and those staging the shows for a potential audience.
In my experience, the responses fall into two distinct categories, the first “I have been to Tate Modern – insert any other large museum in here depending on where you live – on a school/college trip but I can’t remember what I saw”, the second “I have never been to an exhibition!”. Neither provide particularly convincing evidence of engagement or interest with photography or the creative arts. So what is going wrong here? Is this the fault of the students or is it the fault of the exhibitions and their creators?
I speak with many students based in or around London and not one I have spoken with this year has visited or even heard of The Photographer’s Gallery, a space dedicated to the subject they are intending to study and make the basis of their future lives. Whose fault is this? Well, I suggest that the problem lies with both the potential visitor, the gallery/museum space and its management.
In a Love Island environment focused on the ‘perfect look’ where the dominant messages are based on an aesthetic of the six-pack and the sculpted eyebrow and where health messages concerning frequent visits to the gym and healthy vegan living are being promoted loud and strong. The idea of a work out for the brain does not seem to be on the agenda outside of formal education. A sense of enquiry and inquisition are not promoted or encouraged as desirable qualities for either sex, in the gym or within grade based education.
The one exhibition that seems to have been popular is the Tim Walker extravaganza at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A highly stylised, visually rich display of his work, props and inspirations that have appeared in high fashion advertising and issues of Vogue magazine over the last twenty years or so. I’ve visited the show myself, and enjoyed it having known his work from the very beginning of his career. It provides context for his work and engages the visitor on multiple visual levels.
Sadly, many of those I have spoken with have failed to absorb the context of the work or learnt anything about Walker himself, engaging with the show from a perspective not dissimilar to that of glancing at an Instagram page.
The lack of an inquisitive nature is clear in these responses but strangely there is no feeling of remorse or failure in not engaging with the photographer or his photography just an acceptance that they hadn’t and that was that!
I recently said this in a tweet “If you have a child, whatever age, please take them to see exhibitions, introduce them to books, challenge them with different forms of music, explain the importance of history and politics, encourage them to make mistakes, explore, create and take risks.” The comment was positively received by many and I stand by this suggestion, that a sense of inquisition can be nurtured.
But what of the galleries and museums? Are they taking their responsibility to encourage the same sense of enquiry or are they building barriers to engagement?
As with many questions there are multiple answers, there is no doubt that many galleries, particularly those small in size and funding are doing great work, reaching out to their local communities and encouraging people from all backgrounds and all ages to enter into the potentially forbidding gallery space. The problem is that the students I am speaking with are still not visiting exhibitions outside of these initiatives and school led projects. They are not making an independent decision to visit and learn.
I recently took my seven year old to see an exhibition of photography, something I do regularly. She took her camera as she always does, and photographed everything she saw. She chose her favourite image and we discussed why she liked it. She also chose her least favourite and we had a similar conversation, but after 30 mins or so she wanted to know what else there was to do! She had looked at the photographs on the wall but wanted to go further in her experience of the visit.
Now I am not suggesting that every photographic exhibition should be turned into a kindergarten experience but it is clear that something needs to be done to encourage the next and future generations of photographers into the exhibition space to engage with work and help them develop an understanding and appreciation of the medium.
Imagination and creativity is clearly called for in the when, where and how photography is shown in the 21st century. It is time to promote the benefits and importance of imagination, knowledge and questioning alongside those of a meat free diet, beauty regimes and physical fitness. It is therefore the responsibility of those staging these exhibitions to ensure the future of the medium, a future that is in their hands.
© Grant Scott 2020
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.
Image: Tim Walker: Wonderful Things, Victoria and Albert Museum