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Everything Ahead of Us: Charlotte Cotton on What’s Happening in Contemporary Photography

Ahead of her talk at the High Museum, we spoke with the influential thinker on how she sees the medium evolving in our current moment.

By Eva Berlin, Digital Content Specialist, High Museum of Art

Richard Misrach, Swamp and Pipeline, Geismar, Louisiana, 1998, printed 2012, Pigmented inkjet print.

Photography fiends, take heed—esteemed curator and writer Charlotte Cotton will be giving a talk at the High Museum of Art on October 22, 2019 (tickets available on the High’s event page).

During her talk, Everything Ahead of Us, Cotton will discuss the climate of contemporary photographic practice — both reasons to be optimistic about the state of artist-led photographic ideas and the factors that militate against it.

She will address these themes through her recent curatorial projects and publications, including her 2015 survey of post-Internet photography, Photography Is Magic; her 2018 book Public, Private, Secret: On Photography and the Configuration of Self; and her current rewriting of the influential textbook The Photograph as Contemporary Art.

Charlotte Cotton has explored photographic culture for over twenty years and has held positions including Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Head of Programming at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, and Curator and Head of the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Cotton’s book The Photograph as Contemporary Art has been published in ten languages and is a key text in charting the rise of photography as an undisputed art form in the twenty-first century.

Hear from Cotton below, and catch her in person at the High on October 22, 2019.

An Interview with Charlotte Cotton

Your influential textbook The Photograph as Contemporary Art was first published in 2004. Now — fifteen years later — you’re publishing a revised edition. What has changed in the last fifteen years that’s prompted you to take another look at this book?

Paul Graham, American Night #58, Man under trees looking back, Atlanta, 2002, Dye coupler print.

The prompt came from Thames & Hudson, who publish the World of Art series, of which my book is a relatively recent addition.

They are in the process of redesigning and re-editing many of the titles in the series, which was started in the mid-twentieth century, and gave me the opportunity to go back into the original chapters of my book and think again. I was really delighted by the chance to do this.

The Photograph as Contemporary Art means so much to me, and I want it to carry on being a useful “first read” about this creative field. I was less delighted at the prospect of having to go back to meet an earlier version of myself, for sure!

The past year of thinking through and now writing an updated account of contemporary art photography in the twenty-first century has been a personal journey with a lot of reckoning with myself.

The spirit of the book as a whole hasn’t changed — I read World of Art books from about seventeen years old, before an essay was due or if an artist or art movement came up in class (in a pre-Internet age!), and I think its place is to open eyes and minds to the scope of photography as art.

The book still holds to chapter structures that are led, from my perspective, by the motivations and strategies of photographers rather than adhering to conventional art-historical or art-market categorizations. It has meant that my telescopic and structural rethinking has been mainly about articulating how those artist-led narratives have evolved over the past fifteen years.

For instance, the additions to the chapter about diaristic photography and photographers’ portrayals of intimate life articulate social change, whether that be the creative energy of a Gen Z community in Shanghai or a beautiful visual diary of a couple who happen to be transgender.

Richard Misrach, Bomb, Destroyed Vehicles and Lone Rock, Bravo 20 Bombing Range, Nevada, 1987, 1987; Mark Steinmetz, Athens, GA (Young Man with Jacket at Night), 1995, Gelatin silver print.

The “Moments in History” chapter is where I think there is the biggest leap in the past fifteen years. Back in the early 2000s, in the final death rattle of editorially commissioned photojournalism and some documentary projects, there was a direct shift towards books and exhibitions as the platforms for reaching audiences. I had reservations about how seamless a transition this could actually be in ways that both respected the strategies and viewership of art and also dealt well with the ramping up of the statement of authorship that a book or exhibition gives.

Dawoud Bey, Willie, 1996, Dye diffusion transfer print.

In an era that calls for our caution with news media, and media in general, and the meaning of patriarchal narrations of our lived realities, we more actively question who is the witness, who tells the visual story and when a photographic project is a true collaboration with a subject or a community.

Photographic artists lead our visual understanding of the time that we live through, and they do so from a genuine perspective of proximity, and that has really come to the fore in the past fifteen years.

How does your curatorial work inform your writing, or vice versa, and how does that affect your process of creating a photobook?

I think my curatorial energy really drives everything. On a fundamental level, curating is the action of doing things for other human beings: there is always an anticipated audience and an experience that a curator invites others to have. The big difference between curating and writing is that curating is a collective action — it’s very social — and writing is painfully solitary.

Nan Goldin, Cookie at Tin Pan Alley, NYC, 1983, 1983, Dye destruction print.

I hold onto the idea of writing as the space where you are really free to think through an idea or feeling in a non-relational way and to understand what you truly think at that moment. This gets me through the worst of the pain of it.

With a book like The Photograph as Contemporary Art, which isn’t a curatorial project where its form and design are mine, I’m still image led. The major proportion of the time over the past year has been about committing to the artists and single works by them that are being added to the fourth edition, making sure I can do justice to each and every one in the haiku-like format of their representation, and curating where in the flow of the book they land. I literally can’t write until the image sequence is there.

In the age of the Internet, how do contemporary photographers have to think differently about creating and circulating their images? With this new mode of producing and disseminating work, what do you see as the benefits or hurdles for artists?

I think all contemporary artists respond in some way to the shifts in imaging technologies and platforms, some directly and with full-on experimentation, and others by holding the established ground of their practice.

Everyone operating in the creative space of art deals with how their work reads, and what viewership is, so there’s just no swerving of the current conditions for having an artistic practice.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Lightning Fields 182, 2009, Gelatin silver print.

I think the diversity of contemporary photographic practices is testimony to many, many artists thinking through their contexts in their own way, and there’s a very material sense of this being an “everything-at-play” moment right now — whether that be the spectrum of nineteenth-century processes being reanimated, the rephrasing of modernist photography, or the inclusion of 3-D printing and software coding into the processes of a broadening idea of photography.

An artist’s social media presence, especially for an emerging artist, can have a real impact on initial notoriety and, of course, it just is a way for us to get insight into the processes and recent developments in personal practice.

I sound hesitant, don’t I! It’s not that I think social media is a hurdle or a problem, just that it takes up time and is highly restrictive and intransigent in ways that making art is not. Of course, the big shift in circulation of photographic artists’ work in its primary form over the past fifteen years is the photobook. What a wonderfully creative form the artist’s book is. I suspect that has something to do with the reality that there is no guaranteed way to make publishing or authoring photobooks a profitable business venture, which saves it from full commodification or standardization.

Where do you go to look at photographs and find new work?

I think the idea of “new” work is a pretty relative term in the age of social media; maybe the question is, where do I find work that is new to me!

Even though it is almost eight years since I have worked full-time as a museum curator, I still hold to the open-door approach for any photographer who would like me to respond to a project.

Zanele Muholi, Nini, Cotonou (Benin), 2015, Gelatin silver print; Matthew Brandt, Blacktail Lake WY 7, 2013, Dye coupler print soaked in Blacktail Lake water.

I think of myself as most useful when a project is still a work-in-progress and the conversations with artists are about amplifying their intent and taking out any elements that hinder the translation of ideas into final form.

I get recommended by artists to other artists as someone who is a good sounding board: both for artists who are just starting out and those who are going through a marked transition in their practice.

I also continue to jury photography exhibitions when I have time, and I teach. I try to spend time in at least one place that I’ve never been before as a visiting critic, which is what initially brought me to be visiting Atlanta to meet with GSU students and faculty, and I commit to teaching as an adjunct when time allows.

When I’m working on a specific curatorial project, I tend to present my ideas to formal and informal discussion groups and colleagues whose perspectives I truly value. I learn about artists from them as well as refine my antenna for what I am looking for.

The High has a long history of commissioning artists to make new work, most notably with the Picturing the South project, which has supported new works by photographers including Sally Mann, Dawoud Bey, and Alec Soth. What do you see as the role of museums in furthering contemporary photography?

Most museums are grounded in physical buildings in geographical locations. They have a civic role within their community, of which some serve (and I mean serve) their local photography community. I think that commissioning sensitive artists who work with photography to create works that speak specifically to a museum’s context and the fabric of its community is a remarkable thing. For both the artist and the community to be understood and to be seen is such a glorious iteration of photography.

Alec Soth, Enchanted Forest (36), Texas, 2006, Pigmented inkjet print.

For twelve years, the top line of my job description as a curator of photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was “to increase the physical and intellectual accessibility of photography.” That remains a divining rod for my work, and I think it just about sums up what photography and contemporary art departments in museums are there to ultimately provide. It has many iterations — from commissioning, collecting, debating, publishing, to exhibiting and appreciating — all in ways that curators feel really chimes with the communities they serve.

I think it’s entirely possible for photography departments to be regionally meaningful and internationally known for the thoughtfulness and specificity of what they provide as a service to the community at large and to photography as a living idea.

Charlotte Cotton’s talk is presented in collaboration with Atlanta Celebrates Photography and Georgia State University.

Need more photography in your life? Mark your calendar for all the photographic goodness happening at the High in the coming months. Look out for exhibitions featuring work by Sally Mann, Clarence John Laughlin, and Alex Harris, as well as talks by Sally Mann, Amy Arbus, and others.

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