What Is The Future for the Photographic Exhibition?

As I sit writing this there is no recognised and agreed upon point at which social distancing, mask wearing and virus containment will end. We are living in a state of limbo, whilst adjusting to new ways of communicating, engaging and sharing. For the photographic community the exhibition has long been the fulcrum of these activities. An opportunity to meet, talk, listen and share opinions, news and gossip. To see work and drink cheap wine from plastic beakers. I have always enjoyed private views and exhibitions, but things have changed.

I have been working with the photographer Jim Mortram for the past year on a physical exhibition of his work focused on a particular long-form narrative he has never shown outside of his website. The exhibition was to have been based around a series of prints, with video, audio and physical artefacts included within the show to provide context and multiple touch points for people to connect with. It was to include numerous talks featuring experts discussing the issues raised by the work, not photographers, but people dealing with mental wellbeing, violence against women and those supporting people dealing with these realities.

The exhibition was due to take place within the Glass Tank Gallery at Oxford Brookes University as part of the Photo Oxford photography festival. Covid has meant that none of that is happening.

However, Jim and I have responded to the cards we have been dealt and decided upon a solution that I think points to an option that achieves many of our hopes and aims with showing the work. It also provides a creative opportunity to extend the reach of the exhibition that we had planned.

The solution is not revolutionary or particularly difficult to achieve. It is something that has been an option for all photographers for the past ten years at least and yet it has rarely been adopted.

We have decided to make a short film. An eight minute piece that includes stills, recorded testimony and a self-created soundscape. A simple, powerful, direct and emotional response to the narrative that will reach a far wider audience than the exhibition we were planning. It will also last much longer than than the physical exhibition would have done. There will be no private view or opportunity to experience the physical artefact, but in this case I do not think that is important. The physical exhibition may occur in the future at some point, but it doesn’t have to for the work to be seen and the story be told.

So why isn’t the creation of an exhibition film not a regular aspect of the photographic exhibition?

It is cheap and easy to do, most photographers will have the required functionality on their cameras, and they will most probably have access to the software needed to edit and output the film. They should have the visual and narrative sense to create something interesting and engaging. The photographer has everything they need to make a film of their exhibition so why hasn’t it been happening? Well I can only surmise that the galleries focus is on footfall and attendance – a metric that’s needed to apply for funding – or perhaps they want to sell books, magazines or coffee? I have no definitive answer but I do have circumstantial evidence that galleries do not feel that it is in their interest to share the exhibition to a broader audience than that which walks through the gallery doors.

This is of course, not in the best interest of the photographer or the work. The photographer will want maximum exposure for both themselves and their work, not a constricted exposure defined by the geographical location of the exhibition space.

I have previously written about the need for photography festivals to reconsider their lack of adoption of the moving image to widen audience participation. Covid has seen them stage online Zoom conversations with photographers for the first time – this could have been done for the past few years at least – but they have been forced to do this by the restrictions placed on them by government Covid guidelines. It was not voluntary it has been essential for them to exist.

If the idea of an exhibition, whether it is part of a festival or a stand alone show is to promote work and encourage engagement with that work, and if we have creative tools at our disposal to do this then why shouldn’t we use them? I am not suggesting the end of the traditional photographic exhibition but I am suggesting that the gallery walls need to be defined not by bricks and mortar. The virtual gallery is now available to all willing to expand their understanding of what constitutes a photography exhibition.

If there is a reason why every exhibition should not have an accompanying filmed piece I would like to hear it. But before you give me your reasons please consider that if you have a camera that shoots moving image, cost is not an issue. If you subscribe to the Adobe package, you are already paying for Premiere Pro. If you have a website you have a platform to share it on and if you are on social media you will be able to promote it. Any other answers than these would be gratefully listened to.

Jim Mortram: Helena: Everyday is a Morning After
Photo Oxford 2020
The Glass Tank
16th October – 16th November 2020

https://www.brookes.ac.uk/public-art/glass-tank/

Image: Helena, 14, outside number 68. 2011. © JA Mortram 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 (Routledge 2014)The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Taylor Francis 2015)New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Taylor Francis 2019). His next book What Does Photography Mean to You? will be published in 2021.

His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay can now be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=wd47549knOU&t=3915s.

© Grant Scott 2020

2 comments

  1. I find attending a photo exhibition is a ‘special’ moment, taking the time and effort to go, allowing time exclusively to view, especially now so much photography is seen on screen, from the back of the camera, to mobile phone or laptop.
    And looking at a skilfully printed photo made in the darkroom on bromide paper can be breathtakingly beautiful in itself.
    But well done on creating an alternative experience in these circumstances, I’ll look forward to seeing the photo film.

    1. I agree but a complimentary film extends audience and reach. During Covid it is a replacement, after Covid a potential important addition.

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