Interview: Hercules Papaioannou speaks to in[+]frame
Hercules Papaioannou (Thessaloniki, Greece, 1962): Photography scholar and curator of photography exhibitions and publications. He has published the books 'The Marlboro Land and the Lukewarm Wild West' (Agra, 2009), 'The Photography of the Greek Landscape - Between Myth and Ideology' (Agra, 2014) and he curated the publication 'Hellenic Photography and Photography in Greece' (Nefeli, 2013).
- You are well known in the photographic world by your multiple activities (curator, writer, ‘teacher’ etc.). Can you tell us shortly, how do you define yourself and what has been your photographic course?
I define myself as a person who loves to study photographs and consider the connection they propose with the world. Curating, writing, teaching, translating, arise from that basic desire, originating in childhood. We live in an era where the image (artistic, advertising, selfie, any kind) is dominant in terms of quantity and effect, while its meanings, apparent or latent, are not being adequately discussed. This is a severe shortcoming with social and political consequences. I feel that especially writing, which today consists a sufficient part of my work, is an effort to pull aside the curtain of photography, attempting to open dialogue on various issues, and not solely about art. Besides being creators and consumers of images it is important to be educated viewers as well. Maybe then, photography and the technical image in general can begin to play a more balanced role in peoples’ lives.
- Quentin Bajac (Chief Curator of Photography, MOMA, New York) said that one of the photography curator’s roles is to ‘educate the eye’. What do you believe about the curator’s role and its importance, and more, what are the artists’ expectations from a curator?
Quentin Bajac’s phrase seems very suitable to conclude the previous answer. Certainly, curators have to educate the eye in a time where vision dominates over the rest of our senses and vast numbers of images stalk in front of us, in many cases uninvited. Of course, curators are mainly concerned with the photographic art rather than the image’s other applications that affect even more drastically human consciousness. A curator has to mount an exhibition or edit a publication in a way that the artworks constitute a result stronger than a simple aggregation or apposition. This presupposes a thorough study of the works involved, the making of careful choices, sequencing and argumentation, a well thought presentation, and many more which comprise the ‘dirty work’ of any complex undertaking of this kind, which there is no need to mention here. As museums and art institutions have grown enormously over the last years and obtained enough power, curators’ role has been upgraded, maybe excessively, in the global art scene. A curator has to remember that without the raw material of the artistic work, his would not exist. No curators are needed without artistic work. The opposite has always been valid. Ideally, a curator functions as a projector that illuminates a work of art in the viewers’ eyes, sometimes even in the eyes of the artist himself.
- What is usually the target group of an exhibition of artistic photography that you curate, and finally what kind of people responds to it? Is there any interest and participation from plain people, not initiated in art?
It depends on the exhibition. A historical exhibition, with the work of a postwar photographer such as Kostas Balafas, always creates stronger emotions to the public because, apart from the quality of art, people recognize the significance of the facts, the adversities of an epoch. People are more touched. Besides, historical photography’s language is often more accessible. Occasionally, contemporary photography attracts less the public. People though, are always interested in exhibitions that respect them, which means an effort has been made so that the exhibition is not exhausted in a hermetic communication between initiated people and specialists. In simple words, even complex concepts can become considerably comprehensible. A curator has to focus, at the back of his mind, on the ‘critical’ visitor: meaning, the one who is interested and open, regardless of educational level, but has no special knowledge. On the other hand, the viewer has to be willing to make his own steps, to forget everyday trivialities and let himself immerse in a world of artworks, ideas, concepts that may make him feel unexpected things, even change his life.
- In a recent article (‘where have all the people gone’) you argued that today we witness a turn of photography into a more detached and impersonal form, comparing to the human-centered approach that dominated much of the previous century. Are there significant differences between the art photography that emerged in the middle of the last century and the one featured today?
Art, photographic or other, is a reflection of its time, and at best it even precedes its time. We live in a fairly passive time where many people seem more like viewers rather than protagonists, even in their own lives. Part of contemporary photography addresses this social shift, through impersonal, pathetic images. Snapshot and street photography are maybe connected to a time carrying more physical action and maybe more daily drama as well. A main feature of our time is that tendencies do not succeed each other easily any more, ideas do not clash as much, they are just being aggregated one next to the other and heaped on. It’s a pluralistic era in which anyone can find something interesting. Some are omnipresent, they attract enormous publicity. For others, one has to dig deeper to find them, maybe much deeper. However, what is largely consecrated during a certain period does not always comprise the best of this period’s art. That is what history teaches us.
- A photographic work is often accompanied by texts, such as a contextual description of where and how the photograph was created or information about the artist and his work etc. Do you believe that such information is important? In other words, couldn’t a work of art –a photograph for example- exist on its own, independently, regardless of its context?
You ask me to shoot myself in the foot. I will kindly resist, not for reasons of self-protection, nor out of self-interest. The idea that a photograph is a self-explicable image sounds somehow naive. Very often, but not always, photographs emerge through certain contexts which if not brought out, may result in a severely incomplete interpretation. The absence of text may also have a negative effect on a number of viewers who without special knowledge seek for historical and aesthetic grounds to stand on. Texts of course are not a panacea. And they are not always necessary. Often in the past few years, we came across incomprehensible texts, even for experts. I don’t understand the role they are thought of to play. Furthermore, not all texts are good, the same as not all photographs are good. At best, the text becomes a bridge between the public and the artwork. Let us not forget though, that even if a text is displayed upon a wall, one can pass it by if he so wishes. A good text is not sufficient enough to save mediocre photographs. Equally and conversely, good photographs ‘know’ how to survive from scrapes such as mediocre texts.
- Over the last years many museums are trying to establish a dialogue between photography and other forms of art and mediums such as video, painting, sculpture etc: the so called ‘installations’. What is your view on such an intersectional and interdisciplinary approach? Is there a danger of degrading any of the participating forms of art?
Before this dialogue was adopted by museums, it was designated and explored by the artists. Let us remember the groundbreaking and experimental environment of modernism. It left behind a heritage that was never forgotten. Besides, there have always been ‘purists’ and those who could not feel at ease with a single art medium. The degradation of a form of art lurks as a danger when its best possible samples are not presented, when petty compromises and mercenary calculations begin. Art has nothing to fear from the mixing of different mediums, techniques or practices. On the other hand, many artists jump from one medium to the other with great ease (especially in photography this happens frequently), without being aware of its aesthetic qualities, history, grammar and syntax. In order to conquer a medium serious effort is necessary, even if the medium itself seems emphatically simple, like photography, maybe even more in this case.
- Who decides nowadays which photographic work is worthy of showing? What is the role of museums, galleries and collectors in the world of artistic photography in our case?
Undoubtedly, institutional factors (museums, art institutions) and those who belong to the market (galleries, collectors) play an important role in the selection and presentation of photographic works, providing them with authority and consequently added value. However, the true value of an artwork rarely goes along with its price. When photographic works that are presented publicly and through institutional routes, are being adequately supported in a theoretical, historical and aesthetic way, then the danger of potential arbitrariness is significantly reduced. Of course, everything is there for the public to judge also. One visits a museum with the hope to encounter important works of art. If that does not happen, he may feel his certainties shaken. However, there are so many museums, art institutions and festivals globally today, that it is very hard to maintain consistently high standards.
- What are the difficulties and the barriers that talented photographers face today concerning their recognition and their success in the modern context of artistic photography?
Young photographers have today many more prospects and possibilities of presenting their work and gain recognition in comparison to previous decades, both in Greece and internationally. The field of art and culture has greatly expanded; institutions and festivals show up in local and international scale. This environment is favorable and quite friendly to young artists, who are often, but not always, carriers of new ideas. On the other hand, young people, living in the conditions of their time -according to which everything has to happen fast-, may sometimes grow expectations that do not always meet the level of work they have accomplished. Art requires time and patience; it unfolds through the artist organically, just like a tree grows, branch by branch. It does not sprout up arbitrarily in a week. Furthermore, there is the Internet, which is a powerful tool for knowledge, research, and information that young creators choose frequently as a means to present their work. However, it is also a tool that can corrupt the eye, offer unjust reward and put the brakes on creativity instead of setting it free. Young photographers must have the courage to show their work to people whom their work they have studied and admire and listen carefully to the paths opened by a critique. Generally, although there are certain difficulties and distortions, I think that our time is better than any previous. We have to keep up improving anything wrong, without forgetting how things were two or three decades ago for example.
- Do you work on something new at the present time? Do you prepare some book or anything else interesting beyond your regular activity?
I am preparing a theoretical essay that hopefully will be published before the end of 2015, as well as two publishing collaborations, which I also hope they will be soon culminated. There are other long-run plans too.
* translated from Greek by Gerasimos Lountzis and edited by Athina Stathaki