Interview with David Campany
Monthly Photography, South Korea, September, 2020
David, you are well known as a curator and a writer. Why did you begin to take photographs?
I have had cameras since I was a kid. Photography has been a way to understand the world and myself, and to take pleasure in both. At university I studied photography, cinema and critical theory, and soon realised there were many ways to be connected with photography. Curating, writing, editing, teaching. But I still take photographs every day. The fact that I do certainly informs my work as a writer and curator. It is important to know the detail of how picture-making decisions are made, how photography can transform thoughts and reactions into images.
What are you like as a photographer? Please introduce yourself.
I have made all kinds of approaches to photography, from long-term documentary projects, to staged images, and photo-text works. Those are more ‘planned’ projects, but photographs can be made with very little planning. For many years I carried a small 35mm camera, then a digital camera, and now an iPhone. Going right back to the 1920s there has been a desire for photography to be as fluid as writing or speaking, as easy as breathing. Making more or less observational pictures is a daily activity for me, an integral part of my life. In the analogue days I used to post prints to friends in the mail. Now they are posted on Instagram.
Nathalie Herschdorfer (from the Museum of Fine Arts Le Locle Switzerland) said that you have a very good eye when you make photographs. I wonder what kind of scenes your eyes are attracted to.
That’s difficult to answer. I think I am interested in the relation between walking, looking and thinking (this informs my decisions as a curator too, making exhibitions that unfold as you move through them). It was Hölderlin who said we do our best thinking while walking. So, as I walk, sometimes my mind is on internal things and sometimes I am thinking intensely about what is in front of me. It could be anything. Then comes the little adventure of turning what is seen into a picture. Framing. Timing. Light. Photography is good at transforming inconsequential things into pictorial signs of themselves. I think this is one of the great gifts of photography, something no other medium can make happen.
For a while I have looked at your Instagram project @dialogue_aandd with great interest. What is the motive for this project? And what is the main purpose of this project?
In 2017 an artist I had never met, Anastasia Samoylova, reached out to ask if I would like to have a conversation about photography, but without words. Just an exchange of images. So, we set up the account @dialogue_aandd. We take and post pictures alternately, in response to each other. It is a kind of visual ping-pong. Anastasia is based in Florida. When we started, I was in London but I am now in New York. Currently there are around 4500 images in the project. It is an unbroken visual chain of connection and association. I think it means different things to each of us. For Anastasia, the Dialogue is probably a break from her main practice as an artist. For me, it is part of my overall relation to photography. But what is fascinating for each of us is the challenge of looking closely at an image and thinking about making visual response to it. The project is deeply collaborative but without compromising each of us as individuals. I think we both find that enormously appealing.
As a photographer, what do you think of the attraction of Instagram in ‘un-tact(contact) Covid period’ era?
There are probably as many answers to that question as there are photographers using Instagram. When it is used intelligently, Instagram can be an incredibly rich and exploratory way of expressing and connecting. Somehow, I have ended up with over 55,000 followers on Instagram. I do not follow that many myself but it does allow be to keep an eye on what a whole range of photographers are doing all over the world. I am in regular contact with quite a few, sharing thoughts and ideas. It is a platform for words as well as images.
As Instagram appears, what kind of changes have photographers gone through?
Instagram has accelerated and intensified the social and cultural dynamics that were already in place when photography became a medium of mass participation. Most of the images it produces are conformist clichés. That is no surprise. When the Dialogue project began, Anastasia sent me an essay from 1863 by Oliver Wendell Holmes titled ‘Doings of the Sunbeam’. He was writing about Daguerreotype images but he speculated that two photographers on different continents could exchange photographs and come to know each other on that basis. That was quite a prediction! Social media platforms such as Instagram have turned one-to-one exchange into broadcast to potentially millions of people, and it favours the making of ‘statements’ rather than meaningful exchange. But it does not have to be that way, and in some respects the Dialogue project has been an attempt to use Instagram to return to what Wendell Holmes had in mind over 150 years ago. Anastasia and I make the images quite literally for each other, although the @dialogue_aandd account is public and it has followers. Others can look and follow but they know they are not the primary audience.
As a curator, what do you think of the difference between showing photography as prints in a gallery and as a digital file on Instagram?
Well, photographs seem to belong wherever you put them. Walls, pages, screens. That is in the nature of the medium. This is because in photography there is image ‘capture’, and then there is image ‘output’. Once you have the image you decide what to do with it. The Dialogue project began on Instagram but we also exhibit it in different ways. There is a split screen video projection of all the images (which last about five hours), and we also show sequences of prints in different combinations. There is a book of the project too, published by The Fulcrum Press, and eventually there will be five books.
In my role as Managing Director of Programs at the International Center of Photography in New York, I am putting together an exhibition drawn from images posted on Instagram. Back in March ICP launched #ICPConcerned, inviting its worldwide community to post images of their experiences of Covid-19. But it has grown to include all kind of photographs, especially of the Black Lives Matter movement. Staff from ICP are selecting around 1000 images, reaching out to all the photographers for permission and hi-res files to make an exhibition. I am currently installing the show, even though the gallery is closed to the public. We will post online our documentation of the process of making this big show. Eventually when ICP is able to reopen, the public can come and see it in reality. But the show will continue to grow, right up to the US election in November.