Many of us create music or write, and some of us paint or sculpt or dance. But virtually all of us make photographs. It’s the medium we work in constantly, using equipment now so portable and simple to operate that it’s more or less an afterthought.
“It really is overwhelming, and I think it changes people’s ideas about what is photography and what is art,” says Kim Spencer-Nairn, executive director of the fast-emerging Capture Photography Festival.
“When you can so readily make the same kind of image in the same way that an artist might do it, how do you differentiate that snapshot from something that really is an artistic practice? So I think that makes it more challenging for artists to distinguish themselves, but it also engages more people in the conversation, because everyone can relate to that experience of taking a picture.”
And so the sheer scale and diversity of Spencer-Nairn’s festival makes immediate sense. The upcoming edition of Capture, running throughout April (with postfestival dates continuing into May), is only the second in the event’s history, yet it encompasses more than 100 exhibitions of work by such artists as Angela Grossmann, Karin Bubaš, Henri Robideau, and Greg Girard, at galleries and venues around town and from North Vancouver to Burnaby and Richmond. On top of that will be public-art installations, panels, workshops, and films (many of them showing on the Knowledge Network).
Unlike most arts festivals, Capture was this big right from the start, with an inaugural run that was just as sweeping back in the fall of 2013. It could be no other way, according to Spencer-Nairn. Over the preceding years, her lifelong interest in the medium had deepened as she became more and more versed in Vancouver’s world-renowned lineage of photographic artists, from Fred Herzog to Jeff Wall, Ken Lum, Rodney Graham, and Stan Douglas. And when she and her husband visited Palm Springs a few years ago and came across a photography festival there, a lack became clear.
“I thought, ‘Really? Palm Springs has a photo festival and Vancouver doesn’t?’ ” she tells the Straight at a bustling café next door to Capture’s new offices near Victory Square. “And we celebrate everything in Vancouver. Right now it’s the cherry-blossom festival and an international burlesque festival—you name it, we celebrate it here. But there was really nothing that recognized this badge that Vancouver wears internationally. It was really strange.”
The challenge was to reflect not only that heritage, but also the huge array of lens-and-light-based art that has grown alongside it. “I had a choice,” she says. “We could have started out really small and gone with just a few galleries and done one public-art installation. And then we could have got the small-project grant that would have been a significant portion of our budget. But I felt that Vancouver deserved something that was a serious, well-polished, citywide festival. And we decided to take that risk. And the community responded.”
Acting as the centre of gravity of this sprawling network is Images That Speak, a 10-artist show opening Thursday (April 2) at the Satellite Gallery downtown. Commissioned by Capture and Presentation House Gallery, it has been tuned by curator Christopher Eamon to investigate some of our most basic assumptions about how photographs represent the surrounding world. The variety in stance and aim of the figures at work here—both local and international, including the acclaimed English artist and feature-film director Steve McQueen—makes the show a kind of conceptual hub for Capture.
“It is the heart,” Eamon says, on the line from his home in the Ottawa Valley, to which he recently moved after spending 20 years based in New York City and curating shows of cutting-edge video, film, and photography at major galleries around the world. “It’s logistically the heart because it’s the lead show, but it also could become the conceptual heart because there are so many taking-off points from each individual approach by each individual artist.”
Vancouver’s Stephen Waddell, for example, creates large-format streetscapes that seem to waver between posed tableaux and fleeting instants caught on film. Elsewhere, Taipei-born artist Arthur Ou has used a traditional view camera to produce a series of interlocking images that encompass the Vienna house of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, resulting in an experience for the viewer that Eamon likens to “walking through a film”.
On another part of the spectrum are artists working without cameras of any kind, as if following trails blazed by such early modernist photo-print experimentalists as Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy. Among these are Boston’s Eileen Quinlan, with her highly abstract images generated by abrading the negative, and local artist Ryan Peter, who creates “autograms” by exposing photo paper to sheets of Mylar covered in cracked paint, and to a system of masking that allows him to build multiple visual layers.
Peter is working “in such a complex way in the darkroom that you can’t even really pin it down,” says Eamon with enthusiasm, having encountered the artist for the first time in the process of curating Images That Speak.
“You’ll see digital effects on some film and a lot of effects that are just cracked paint that look like wood,” he explains. “We want to make the images look like something as viewers.…We want to make something in our visual subconscious of these. And we turn them into tree bark when it’s actually just painted film with light. And it’s actually very creative—it’s really one of the most creative things I’ve seen in photography in a long time.”
In the middle of it all is McQueen’s chilling 2001 piece 7th November, a single projected slide image showing the scarred top of a man’s head, accompanied by an audio track recounting a violent incident—possibly fiction, possibly not.
“I’ve always known this to be a great piece,” Eamon notes in light of McQueen’s filmmaking career, which was punctuated with an Academy Award last year for 12 Years a Slave. “When he started making his feature films that were so well-received, I was like, ‘Well, that’s not a surprise,’ because if you had seen this piece, which is quite rarely shown, you would know that he wasn’t just a structural filmmaker, making installations. He had incorporated storytelling into earlier work to different degrees, and this one is the piece where storytelling is the most prominent.”
We may be awash in images as never before, a glut that threatens to dull or limit our ability to see. But, in Eamon’s view, that makes the ingenuity on display in shows like Images That Speak all the more fascinating and urgent.
“I think the artists and the work selected for this exhibition show that there’s always room for new kinds of seeing,” he says. “Sure, my phone makes beautiful pictures—I’ve never been such a good photographer, and I’ve been making photographs since I was five years old. I’ve never had such great luck, because of this equipment. And in a way I think the work in the show proves that the equipment is not the generating idea. It’s the creative use of whatever aspects of photography can be—whatever creativity can be eked out of different aspects of photography, be it the lens, the darkroom, handwork versus digital work.
He adds: “Whenever the art world decided, ‘Oh, photography’s done now...now the auctions only deal with young painters or this or that,’ or ‘Performance art is the only thing, photography’s over’—that’s just the time when you should be looking at photography, because following those trends is always late. Once they’re discussing the end of something, you really should be looking at it. It’s coming back in a new form.”
The Capture Photography Festival runs until April 28 at various venues.