Photography as a tool for visual communication is utilized within various art disciplines, although not everyone using the medium associates themselves with the field of photography.
Identification with a certain discipline of art, even for multidisciplinary artists, inevitably brings about questions about the boundaries of the medium. Is professional membership determined by approaches and thinking or is it simply about longing to have clearly set boundaries for one’s identity?
What are the aims and visions that drive new photographers towards the art of photography and what are the observations and expectations held by educators, curators and representatives from various arts institutions?
Photography thrown into relief
Šelda Puķīte opened by highlighting photography’s problematic relationship with other mediums. She noted that there were still institutions, events and university departments dedicated solely to photography, which aspired to preserve their current identity, despite the prevalent discourse of eliminating boundaries between different disciplines in the art world. Hence the discussion title ‘Longing for a Border’.
Each panelist was then asked to introduce themselves and their practice, and presented the work of photographers of their choice. Marianne Ager, curator of photographic and cinematic art at Brandts in Odense, had selected the series ‘The Same New Pet’ by Finnish photographer Akseli Valmunen, which depicts animal cloning in South Korean laboratories. For her it is important to see work that constitutes more than just a collection images. ‘There must be a strong narrative too. I wish to see a story that influences me in one way or another. A story that is important.’ The second artist presented by Ager was Norwegian photographer Kristine Wathne. Her work ‘Mania’ depicts people who are passionate collectors. ‘There are many ways how photography can be applied. I like the fact there is a lot of variety between young photographers’, concluded Ager.
Gintarė Krasuckaitė (Lithuania), art critic, residency and gallery curator at Kaunas Photography Gallery, noted that many emerging Lithuanian photographers were based abroad. Her first selection – photographer Visvaldas Morkevicius lives and works in Berlin, although he has become widely known in his native Lithuaniasince the self-publication of his photography book ‘Public Secrets’. Artist Gintare Marija Kincinaityte currently lives in London. In her work ‘You Belong to Me’ she combines images of the planet Mars with photographs taken in Iceland.
Laura Kuusk (Estonia), photographer and associate professor at the Photography Department of the Estonian Academy of Arts, introduced her own work and emphasised that she considered herself an artist using photography in her work rather than a photographer. She also presented the work of several Estonian artists Karelu Koplimetu, Marge Monko, Alissa Nirgi, Paul Kuimet and Katja Novitskova. She reflected that Estonian photographers had started to use more installation art and mixed media in their work.
Marina Valle Noronha (Finland), curator of Helsinki International Artist Programme (HIAP) presented the work of Finnish artists Sara Bjarland and Hertta Kiiski, both merge the boundaries between photography as a medium and physical space.
Baiba Tetere (Latvia), the researcher of visual culture and co-founder of ISSP (International Summer School of Photography) had selected the work of Latvian artists Diāna Tamane and Elīna Ruka, both have studied abroad and explore the issues of place and identity, birthplace and family in their work.
Adam Mazur (Poland), critic, curator and editor of the ‘Szum Art Magazine’ introduced the work of Polish artist Aneta Grzeszykowska who challenges the boundaries of photography in relation to her own identity. In her work ‘Album’ she has erased herself from her family photos using Adobe Photoshop. Her series ‘Untitled Film Stills’ reference the identically titled work of the renowned American artist Cindy Sherman, and features Grzeszykowska’s self-portraits as film stills from imaginary movies. In series ‘Selfie’ she has photographed sculptures and presented them as fragments of her own body.
The subsequent discussion focused on the issue of perceived boundaries between art and photography. It was moderated by Kārlis Vērpe, visual culture researcher and philosopher, who invited participants to reflect on the most important changes that had taken place in the field of photography and the work of institutions during the last twenty years in relation to boundaries.
Mazur’s response implied that the world of photography was very conservative and suddenly artists were striving to become photographers instead of photographers wishing to become artists, as it was before.
In his opinion, Aneta Grzeszykowska would have never even contemplated to show her work at a photography exhibition a few years ago. Kuusk contested his opinion by arguing that as a lecturer she had noticed the opposite held true – often photography students were looking for ways to widen their experience, for example by introducing video work and performances in their practice.
Differences between modern and traditional photography
Vērpe advanced the discussion further by asking each participant to reflect on what they considered contemporary photography and how it differed from traditional photography. Kuusk thought that contemporary photography asked questions about its own characteristics as a medium. Tetere added that various cultural practices of mediating, disseminating and presenting photography should also be considered. Krasuckaitė noted that in Lithuania the prevailing opinion on photography was still very conservative, especially in relation to institutions. Although Kaunas Photography Gallery had always made a conscious effort to include experimental work in their exhibition programme.
In contrast, Ager revealed that Brandts' approach to photography was very broad, which consequently allowed for different types of images and objects to be included and exhibited alongside art photography, thus any discussion about the boundaries between art and photography was already dated. "Nowadays people are constantly bombarded with images and it is essential to understand what that does to us as human beings. We would like people to think about essential subjects such as peace, war, sorrow and happiness," she said.
Mazur suggested that there were two distinctive definitions of photography – one was very narrow and equated photography with a silver gelatine print, and the other was a much broader definition. Institutions responded to these definitions in different ways, for example by adding a photography section to their general art collection. In Mazur’s opinion, the latter carried the risk of photography becoming devoid of its own specific history.
"Artists and institutions live in different eras"
Valle Noronha argued that in her opinion the divide between artists and photographers was unnecessary, as well as limiting. She admitted she had no idea how to differentiate between contemporary and traditional photography, and therefore, as in most cases, the distinction was largely dependent on the viewer’s personal point of view. "I think, it’s great that institutions approach this medium from various standpoints. There isn’t a right or a wrong way," she said.
She also added she was more interested in the issues that had emerged in relation to handling photographic work and its preservation. There is still a lot of uncertainty, since photography is a relatively new medium, but nonetheless photographs fade and print techniques and materials continue to change.
Mazur added that institutions always came around when it was already too late. "When they finally decide to collect Instagram photos, Instagram will no longer exist. Likewise, when they resolved to collect photographic prints, photography had already reached its end." he said.
"Artists and institutions live in different eras", concluded Vērpe, to which Valle Noronha added that those artists she had learned from were always a step ahead of institutions.
The discussion featured Baiba Tetere (Latvia), the researcher of visual culture and co-founder of ISSP (International Summer School of Photography); Laura Kuusk (Estonia), photographer and associate professor at the Photography Department, Estonian Academy of Arts; Gintarė Krasuckaitė (Lithuania), art critic, residency and gallery curator, Kaunas Photography Gallery; Adam Mazur (Poland), critic, curator and editor, Szum Art Magazine; Marina Valle Noronha (Finland), curator of Helsinki International Artist Programme (HIAP) and Marianne Ager (Denmark), curator of photographic and cinematic art, Brandts Odense. The discussion was moderated by Kārlis Vērpe, visual culture researcher and philosopher, and curated by Šelda Puķīte, art critic.