Musee Magazine, April, 2021
An interview with David Campany
Musee Magazine, April 2021
Andrea Blanch: You’ve chosen to work with ICP at this moment in your career. Why did you shift to a more structural space, rather than continue to work independently?
David Campany: The attraction is manifold, but ICP is a very unusual institution in that it has an interesting exhibitions program and history, as well as a renowned school. I’ve always had one foot in teaching/academia, and one in curating exhibitions, writing books, and so on. There are very few institutions that are a good match for that.
Andrea: What plans, do you have for ICP? And have those plans been altered at all?
David: At ICP we’re trying to work in several tracks at the same time. Some exhibitions take an awful lot of planning and fundraising. However, if you only work on shows like that, then you’re not being reactive to the culture that’s around you. We’re trying to stay light on our toes, especially this past year when we had to pivot and change gear. We made a really ambitious exhibition, #ICPConcerned, where we launched a hashtag for people to post images of what was happening in their lives. At the beginning, the images primarily had to do with COVID, isolation, and social distancing. Then so many other things ended up happening, and it turned into a globally-encompassing exhibition of nearly 1,000 images in the gallery. That was something that we were working on as the situation was evolving and we committed to putting up a show even before we knew we could reopen. I always want to leave space in the schedule for ICP to respond to the restlessness of culture. That’s important if you’re an institution that’s dedicated to photography, which is a form that mutates very quickly – culturally, artistically, and technologically.
Victor Burgin, Zoo 78, 1978, in Victor Burgin – A Sense of Place, AmbikaP3, October 31-December 1, 2013.
Above: Scheltens & Abbenes, COS Collections / Light bulbs, 2012, exhibited in Between Art and Commerce, Port25 Mannheim, as part of Die Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie, 2020
Andrea: You’ve said that a print magazine has one function and an online magazine has another, and that those functions shouldn’t necessarily cross over. What do you think the print magazine’s function is today?
David: I’m old enough to remember the arrival of the internet and everyone said, ‘This is the death of print.’ Yet, there is more printed media now than there has ever been before. I actually thought that might happen, because the internet alerts people to the specific differences of the printed page. So it’s not that new technologies replace older ones, but they do redefine them in some way.
Andrea: In terms of curation, how and where do you begin?
David: I might be quite unusual among curators in that I don’t really begin with an idea. Sometimes you find that if you begin with an idea for a show, it becomes a bit like a shopping basket, where you go around looking for things that will go in your bag. I tend to be aware of certain artworks or projects that stay in my mind and are grouped together. Then I ask myself, why do I keep thinking about these things in relation to each other? A concept for an exhibition grows out of the work, not from some abstract idea that I then need to illustrate. I think there’s a temptation among curators to be more important than the work that they’re showing, and I have always tried to resist that.
Andrea: That’s exactly what I did when I first started the magazine, so when I read that that’s how you went about things, it was very validating.
David: This isn’t to say that the shows that I do are just manifestations of whatever is obsessing me. I’m constantly curious and looking at new areas of photography, that I may not have engaged with before. For example, there is quite an ambitious show formulating in my head. It comes from a notion that I’ve noticed people expressing an awful lot, but that I’ve never agreed with, which is that there are too many images in the world, or that we are bombarded with images. Well, my response is, how many should there be?
George Georgiou, ‘Pride Parade, Dallas, Texas’, from the series Americans Parade, 2016, presented at the International Center of Photography, New York
Andrea: Good question!
David: The interesting thing about “too many” is that it’s a complaint that first surfaced in the 1920s, that is the beginnings of what we now call ‘mass media.’ After World War I, there was a great proliferation of illustrated magazines and books, and you can find cultural commentators seriously worrying that there are too many images in the world. They worried that it would destroy society, send everybody mad, and truth would go out the window. So if there are too many images, then we’ve had at least a century of it. Several artworks from the ’20s onwards, in which various artists are dealing with the idea of image excess, have stuck in my mind.
Andrea: I’m very curious to see what you do with it.
David: I think it would be very illuminating for a contemporary audience. Often my exhibitions draw together historical and contemporary works, because it’s nice to see that our current problems, challenges, and pleasures have come up earlier. Photography exhibitions tend to be either historical or contemporary. If I look at the photo-montages by the German artist Hannah Hoch, I see clearly that they belong to their own time, yet there is something about her sensibility that resonates with audiences now, and on that level, it must be contemporary. It’s important in an exhibition to be able to bring out the contemporary resonance of historical work, so that it’s not just wheeled out because it’s venerable and dead. You bring in the historical material because it feels alive.
Bryan Schutmaat, ‘Jimmy’ from the series Vessels 2014-present, exhibited in Walker Evans Revisited, Kunsthalle, Mannhein, Germany as part of Die Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie, 2020
Clare Strand, from the installation Girl Plays with Snake, exhibited in Yesterdays News Today, at the Heidelberger Kunstverein, as part of Die Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie, 2020
David Jiménez, ‘AURA Diptych’ 119, 2016, included the exhibition When Images Collide, the Wilhelm-Hack Museum, Ludwigshafen, Germany, as part of Die Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie, 2020
Andrea: What do you think your biggest challenges are in curating now?
David: I’m juggling shows that are quite complex with others that are simple. However, the biggest challenge is cultural, because ICP has a commitment to respond to the present. A lot of my time is spent being as responsive as I can to what’s going on in the world and trying to apply a certain kind of intelligence to it. That comes out of discussions and testing out ideas in order to produce exhibitions that will be enjoyable, but will also help people think through what images are, how complicated they are, and how difficult the current moment is. We live in strange, messy, unfair, fraught times, and one does not want to simply mirror that back. One wants to be able to process it and offer an engaging way to think about it.
Andrea: When I say the word intention, what comes to mind?
David: How complicated intention is in relation to photography, in so many ways. A photograph is not a very good communicator of the intentions behind it; photographs have a way of covering their tracks – you can photograph somebody sneezing and it will never tell you how they caught a cold, or exactly why the image was made; many theorists of photography have pointed out that when you take a photograph, you can’t possibly see as much as the camera is seeing, and the camera is always taking in information beyond your intention; all the photographer does is marshal the world into a certain representation, but they can’t be in charge of it all; and viewers have their own intentions when they’re looking, conscious and unconscious.
Jean-Marc Caimi & Valentina Piccinni, from the series Güle Güle, 2019, shown in When Images Collide, Wilhelm Hack Museum, Ludwigshafen, Germany, as part of Die Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie, 2020
Andrea: I think of somebody like August Sander. He was very intentional.
David: Yet, if we’re still thinking about those pictures, it is because they are so rich and complicated. He made a book titled Face of Our Time. Nobody knows who bought it or what the audience was responding to in those pictures. Were they looking at it in terms of advanced photography? Was it anthropology? Was it fashion? A political statement? I once gave a talk at an art school where there was no photography program, and I went into their library where I saw a big book of Sander’s work. It had been thumbed through so much that it almost looked like an old telephone directory. I took it to the librarian and asked which students were using it. It was 90% fashion students. Sander certainly had a sophisticated project, but that doesn’t mean he’s controlling meaning or that his images are limited by his own intention.
Andrea: What about staged photography? With someone like Gregory Crewdson or Jeff Wall, their intention is fully realized, at least as far as they’re concerned.
David: I would agree with you on that, but chance always creeps in, or is permitted in. Wall in particular is always waiting for the gift of chance beyond intention. Plus, a viewer comes with their own interpretation. I don’t like when you go to an exhibition and there is a text on the wall telling you the intentions of the photographer, as if that was the script for looking. It neutralizes the viewer because it abdicates them of the responsibility to think critically about the work. I am much more interested in an intention that’s present in the viewer when they look, and I’d much rather embolden the viewer to enjoy their own response. There is no great art or photography without great viewers, just as there is no great literature without great readers, and no great music without great listeners.
Andrea: Would you say there is a common thread in your visual choices?
David: Sometimes the continuities are less visual because the range of work that I’ve been interested in has been pretty broad. I think there is a willingness to let what’s fascinating about images be left for an audience, and that comes back to the intention question. I like to resist explanation, but encourage response. To allow one work to have associative relations to other works in a show is an unspoken form of thesis.
Justine Kurland, ‘Labor Anonymous,’ book collage, 2019, exhibited in Walker Evans Revisited, Kunsthalle Mannheim, Germany, as part of as part of Die Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie, 2020
Andrea: How do your own images inform your work?
David: I make photographs but it’s never burned in me to be recognized for it. I’m often asked to be involved with photographers or artists (as a writer, curator or interlocutor) because they know I understand photography from the inside as a maker. Sometimes one reads things about photography from a critic and you can tell immediately that they have never picked up a camera. That can be great and can give rise to many different insights, but I think there is a lot to be gained from practicing photography too. The act of picture-taking informs everything I do.
Andrea: I love what you’ve done with Anastasia Samoylova and the visual conversation on Instagram (@dialogue_aandd). It speaks to a climate where people are much more willing to share the stage with someone else. When I was brought up in photography, people just didn’t do that. It’s a much more democratic way of doing things.
David: The Dialogue Instagram project I had with Anastasia became a part of our daily lives. She posts a picture, I take a picture and post it in response, then its her turn, back and forth, and it just lived in our pocket on our phones. We have been asked to exhibit it a few times, which presents the challenge of how to turn a project that originated on social media into a worthwhile exhibition in a real space. The interesting thing is how applicable photography is to so many settings. Photography has ways of belonging wherever you put it, but only if you’re sensitive about it and alert to the specifics of the various settings. Plus, many contemporary photographers today think about more than one context as they create, and the different ways in which their project could exist, whether as a book, an exhibition, a website, or all three. So our Instagram project is also a split-screen silent video projection, and prints on the wall. We got to around 4,500 images and then Anastasia’s art career took off and she lost interest.
Andrea: Can you speak about photography in limbo?
David: I’ve often thought about photographs in terms of limbo. In a literal sense, they are suspensions of time and place or feelings. In another sense, limbo is outside of function, and we expect photographs to have a function, whether they’re documentary, fashion, or photojournalistic pictures. The primal condition of the photography is a kind of limbo.
Andrea: Do you think that curation is an art?
David: Man Ray was asked if photography is art, and he said, “No, but it’s an art.” I feel the same about curating and I want to be a gentle hand in it. I want to be an inventive curator but I don’t want the audience to feel the curation, because that can belittle the artwork and artist.
Sohrab Hura, video stills from The Lost Head & The Bird, 2019, shown in When Images Collide, Wilhelm Hack Museum, Ludwigshafen, Germany, as part of Die Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie, 2020
Andrea: Thinking about the way you approach curating, are you ever surprised at what ultimately takes shape?
David: Constantly. These things evolve and it’s very collaborative. Photographers are increasingly particular about the way their work is presented and that feeds into curating. I wouldn’t be interested in doing it if there weren’t surprises along the way.
Andrea: Given how you described it earlier, I can imagine it as a process that may sometimes flow according to its own momentum.
David: In a way it does, particularly when you are conceiving a show for a very specific space. It’s much more interesting to let the space be a very active element in the whole evolution of your thinking. The galleries are extraordinary at ICP, and I love the idea of going from one show to the next a few months later, where you become familiar with the space and learn how to reinvent it.
Lisa Kereszi, Ball toss, Coney Island, 2001, exhibited in Walker Evans Revisited, at the Kunsthalle Mannheim, as part of Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie, 2020
Andrea: Tell me a bit about “necessary refusal,” because today I can see that as a difficult thing to do.
David: It’s something that comes out of talking with a lot of artists, where they find that the agenda or presumptions of culture and different cultural institutions are restrictive. Sometimes it seems to image makers that you either have to play the institution’s game, or get out of town. It is awful to think that there are artists who feel like they don’t fit in because of the narrow, consensual categories of the culture that we live in. We expect artists to forge the path forward, so we should also expect them to make trouble, and we should try to shift the institution to fit them. Very often artists perceive cultural spaces as the taste-makers and citadels. It’s difficult for an institution to turn that on its head and be responsive, but I think that is our obligation. I’d rather be as elastic as possible.
Andrea: Are you noticing any trends in photography these days?
David: Yes, I spot them all the time. I’m often reluctant to talk about them because I don’t want to sound judgmental. Somebody could be working within very obvious trends and still do something extraordinary or unexpected. And if you described it on paper in terms of the “trend” that it belonged to it might sound entirely dull and conformist. Moreover, I never want to discourage someone from making any kind of work. The worrying trends are among curators, especially in a city like New York. When curators use phrases with each other like “the current cultural conversation”, which they really do, believe me, I want no part of it.
#ICPConcerned – Global Images for Global Crisis, International Center of Photography Oct 1 -2020 – Jan 3 2020.
Andrea: You seem to want to avoid being pinned down about anything. It goes back to being elastic.
David: The more time that I spend with photography, the more I realize how little I know about it. I’m constantly reviewing my own thoughts and preconceptions. That’s probably the source of the ‘unpindownable.’
Andrea: Let’s end on this: what about this work gives you the most pleasure?
David: Watching audiences in exhibitions gives me the most pleasure. You can feel very satisfied with a show that you have put together, and you can feel flattered by good reviews, but none of those things quite captures what is going on in people’s minds. After you’ve done your work as a curator or an artist, it’s really up to the viewer. You are letting something go, but you can watch it being received and formed by the viewer. Sitting in the gallery incognito, watching people, gives me the most pleasure.