Photography and Communication • A Conversation with David Campany, by Rica Cerbarano
Vogue Italia, 2021
Photography and Communication • A Conversation with David Campany
David, can you tell me how did you become interested in photography? How did you realize that you could be many things—curator, writer, editor and lastly, photographer?
When I first went to study photography it was a very unusual program where you did as much writing as image-making. Some of the students went into writing, sometimes they became photographers, editors, publishers or curators, or something more unusual… I just knew that I wanted to be with images somehow, it didn’t really matter if it was writing, or teaching, or editing, or curating or whatever. I didn’t mind what it would be, and that is how it worked out.
However, the very first interest in photography came from movies and cinema when I was a kid. In Britain, we didn’t have many TV channels, but they did show great movies. So by the time I was 15 or 16 I had seen lots of Godard, Fellini, Hitchcock, Varda, Kurosawa, Bergman, and Antonioni. That was just normal. There was a whole generation of us in the UK that had a broad cultural education from movies on TV. I would buy books about cinema and I really liked the photos in the books, and then I realized that I often liked the photos more than the films. So it was film stills, first of all, that got me interested in photography. It is a funny and strange way to enter photography because film stills don’t really appear in the history of photography and are not discussed much in the history of cinema, which has a really odd relationship to them. The film still is a hybrid form. I then went sideways to photography from there. I set up a darkroom at home, like enthusiastic kids do, and then I went to study. I worked at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, where there was a really good bookshop, a gallery and a cinema. There were a lot of public talks and lectures as well. I think that kind of mix was interesting; you could think about imagery in the gallery or think about it in the bookshop, or hear somebody talking about it, or watch a movie—it was all to do with images somehow. I think my way to approach photography from different angles kind of came from there.
Do you believe that taking pictures yourself, gives you a higher sensitivity towards the work of photographers?
For sure, it does. I think sometimes you can tell the difference between a writer or curator who doesn’t take pictures and one who does. It doesn’t make it better, necessarily, but I think it helps in lots of ways to know what it is to make images. I know it helps my judgment, it certainly helps me to write. I get asked by photographers quite often either if I’d like to write about their work, or if I’d like to have a conversation with them that might go in a publication, and I think it helps that I do make images. But I have no great desire to be a well-known artist, or something like that. I’m perfectly happy just taking pictures as a way of thinking about photography.
Your research as a curator is focused both on the relationship between photography and art, and photography as a means of communication. How do you feel about these two souls of photography? Do you think that one influences the other, or that one prevails over the other?
I think it’s almost in the nature of photography that it belongs to different ways of thinking at the same time. Even if the photograph has some kind of status as art, it still doesn’t preclude it being a document; it doesn’t stop it from being a social description or commentary. And I think this is what was always interesting about it. When photography became modern, in the 1920s, it stopped trying to imitate paintings and it realized that its natural condition was to be where all of these different things came together: the document, the artwork, the commentary—you didn’t have to fight it. That is what is interesting about photography: there is no one way of looking at it or understanding it. There is an example that I often use to illustrate this: I was doing an interview/conversation with Stephen Shore, the American photographer, and he was due to come to my house at lunchtime. In the morning my brother-in-law, who used to be a car mechanic, was looking at a book of his work. He looked through Stephen’s book and said. ‘Oh, there’s quite a lot of MGB cars’—a little British sports car—‘in this book’, and he continued ‘Do you think there were lots of them in America in the 1970s, when he was taking these pictures, or do you think he just liked them?’ And I said, ‘Well, he’s coming for lunch so you can ask him’. And when he asked, Stephen said ‘That’s interesting. A photo person, like David, would never notice that. But you’re a car person. Yes, I was very interested MGB’s then, and my wife, Ginger, had two of them at different points in the 1970s, so they do recur in the work.’ Maybe my brother-in-law wasn’t thinking about the photographs artistically, and was focused on the documentary content of them, which is a perfectly legitimate way of looking.
Funny anecdote! Indeed it helps me to think about how photography can be a lens to learn something about the world we live in, and where everyone adopts the lens that suits them best.
Of course. It’s very confusing. It can become humbling. It’s interesting as a curator because I often try to be in the galleries incognito, just watching people looking at the images. I try to figure out if they’re enjoying the experience, how much time they’re looking or talking with each other. You still can’t quite know what is going on in people’s minds. Even if you make an exhibition and it gets great reviews and lots of people see it, you still don’t know exactly what people are responding to. You really don’t; it’s strange. Mysterious, somehow. There is a kind of magic too and there is also something that just escapes language all the time that you can never quite define, and I like that about it. The relationship between photography and language is so interesting and so complicated… So much going on unconsciously. A large part of how we respond to images is barely conscious at all.
The more we study about photography, the less we know about it. Somehow we can’t really grasp the full meaning, the dynamics, and the language of photography…
Yes. You can also think about this in terms of the way photographers manage to make the pictures that they do – not technically, but how they are in the world. Whether the image is a really good indication of what the photographer is thinking, is very difficult to say. With painting, nothing gets on the canvas unless you’ve thought about it and put it there, but that’s not how it is with photography, or it needn’t be. You can go into the street and make a picture very quickly and you can tell yourself you know what you’re doing, but you cannot know fully. This is why photographers like to look again at their own work, perhaps after a few years, because they’re often surprised; they thought they were doing one thing, and it turns out that they were doing something else, yet they still don’t know exactly what they were doing. It’s a really interesting problem.
The topic of the exhibition at C/O Berlin is exploring photography as a means of communication and here you’re showing Dialogue, your artistic collaboration with Anastasia Samoylova.
Yes, Dialogue is a purely visual exchange, making use of Instagram. Anastasia and I make and post images in response to each other. Currently it is an unbroken sequence of around 4,500 photographs.
The project has two very interesting aspects. The first one is that you’re running the project on Instagram: however you’re not really doing it for other people, but just for each other—you and Anastasia—and this is quite unusual for Instagram-based projects. The second aspect is that you don’t sign or caption your pictures, so we don’t know which one comes from you and which one comes from Anastasia—this leads to a truly collaborative and non-authorial approach. Can you tell me more about the project? How this visual conversation started and what the reasoning was behind it?
The two of us have quite a lot of overlap in the way that we think about pictures. I think she’s an amazing image-maker, a really fantastic artist. She was mainly a studio-based photographer making very complicated still-life collages, and was just starting to make more observational pictures out in the world, often with the same sensibility. She lives in Miami, Florida, and that place really looks like a collage. She asked, ‘How about we have a conversation which uses no words at all, just images?’ It sounded interesting. Then she suggested ‘Let’s do it on Instagram, I’ll set up an account so we both have access to it, no rules, no nothing and we see what happens.’ I’ve always carried a camera, always taken pictures as part of my daily life. She said ‘Why don’t you start? Take and upload an image and I’ll respond to it.’ The task of responding to someone else’s picture became really interesting, and challenging. You have to look at it very carefully and think about a number of different ways that your image might relate to it, or might provoke something. So it took off. I thought it would last a few weeks but has been a part of our life for a few years now. At points our images become very similar, because we anticipate each other… you start predicting what the other person will post. You’re looking so carefully at how someone else makes pictures that you start to internalize that. When I look back I often can’t tell who took which picture, although the Dialogue strictly alternates—one of mine, one of hers, one of mine etc. It got to 1000 pictures, 2000 pictures… of course posting slowed down during the pandemic because we were not out in the world as much! But there was never any timetable or rules for it. I think the most pictures that were ever posted on one day was 28, but sometimes there can be almost a month that has gone by with no pictures being posted, which is fine. It fits around our lives. It’s interesting what you were saying about the fact that it’s on Instagram but it’s not for an audience. So much of Instagram is about self presentation for the world, but it doesn’t have to be. You can just have a private account between two people that doesn’t exist for anyone else. We never made Dialogue private, and many people follow it, but they’re kind of looking in. It’s not really produced for them.
When you describe how the project developed, I feel that what you are talking about is very similar to the process of knowing somebody. A natural flow—no rules, no timetable. Just how it is.
Yes, the Dialogue was going on for a long time before we met face to face, so it was a little like in the old days, with penpals. When I was young I was part of a program where you were paired up with somebody from another country. I was paired up with a boy in Kenya and we exchanged hand-written letters, sent by post. There was a hope one day that we might meet, but we never did. Unless you made a copy of your own letters, you didn’t keep your side of the communication. You write your letter, you put it in the post and then it is gone, so all you have is the other person’s side of it; and they have yours. With our Dialogue being on Instagram, you can see it all, and it is a much more shared experience in that way. A few months into the process, Ana sent me an essay by Oliver Wendell Holmes from 1863, called ‘Doings of the Sunbeam’. In this text Wendell Holmes was thinking about what a visual communication would be that didn’t really rely on words, only on the exchange of pictures. What kind of relationship would that be, what kind of knowing would that be… is the not knowing as interesting as the knowing?
In a previous interview, you said that Instagram is much more about text and words than we might believe. I totally agree with this, but at the same time, I see that in the Dialogue series there are no captions at all. How come?
I was always interested in Instagram, but I didn’t join it at the beginning. I looked at it now and again, and I realized that I was intrigued by the fact it seemed like an ‘image/text’ platform right from the beginning. I think that people want to communicate things that the photographs alone just cannot do. Photographs can show things but in a very fragmentary, decontextualized way. Imagine someone wanting to show you their vacation photos, they would never just give you a pile or folder of photos; they would narrate them for you. I think most people feel that the image is not enough as a form of communication; somehow I think it frustrates people. Imagine if Instagram suddenly denied you the possibility to write… that would be interesting. I think at that point, people would realize that it isn’t just a visual platform, it is an image/text platform. I follow lots of people that do very interesting things with image and text. Sometimes on my own Instagram account I write quite extensive text, and sometimes I don’t at all. But the Dialogue series with Anastasia was just an experiment in purely visual exchange. We don’t have to explain anything, and we don’t expect the images to do anything they cannot do.
Photography can take on different forms depending on the context and the medium and it’s always surprising to look at this aspect. How do these different forms apply to the display of the Dialogue series? What is the difference between Instagram and the way you are showing the project in the exhibition at C/O Berlin?
I’ve always been interested in the fact that it’s natural for a photographic image to take different forms. If you see a photographic image in a book you don’t say to yourself ‘Where is the real thing?’. If you see a painting in a book (which is actually a photographic reproduction), you know that the painting itself is somewhere else. Moreover, photography has no true relation to scale. If you’re a painter, you don’t paint a painting and then decide how big it will be. You don’t paint a painting and then decide what materials it will be made from. I often think, when people are looking at a framed photographic print on the wall, they know, maybe unconsciously, that what they are looking at is a choice. They somehow know that there are more than 500 other ways of doing it. When you look at a painting, you don’t say: ‘Why have they done it in oils, they could’ve done it in water-colour; why is it not 3 metres wide instead of 2 metres wide?’ You don’t think like that about paintings, not really. But with photography, you do. And of course, it makes it very difficult. This is an exciting thing about photography but it is often very confusing. Photographers often don’t know how to present their work in an exhibition, because there is too much choice.
When we first exhibited the Dialogue, some people were very purist about it, and said ‘No, this is an Instagram project, it shouldn’t be translated into any other context’. But photography has always been translated. If you’re a contemporary photographer, you might make books and exhibitions, you might have a website, your work might appear in magazines and on each occasion it just belongs there; that’s where it lives. When we first considered exhibiting the Dialogue, we thought about the most obvious way, which would be to reproduce the Instagram feed on a screen, as if it was scrolling. But Ana and I don’t like exhibitions that feel like websites, we like them to feel like exhibitions.. At C/O Berlin we are presenting the work as a split-screen video projection. You only see two images at a time, side by side, my image on the left, Ana’s on the right. Her image changes, then my image changes. This was done to be able to see the continuous chain. I think currently the duration is about 6.5 hours! Nobody is expected to see it all, it just plays silently as an ambient loop. Each time we’ve decided to try and show it slightly differently just to keep it alive. We have shown printed sequences too. But the video component is always there.
Send me an Image. From Postcards to Social Media attempts to demonstrate the fact that we are flooded with images every day but it’s something that is not just happening in this age. Photography has been used as a means of communication since the very beginning of its invention, and actually every generation has been worried about the huge amount of pictures presented to our gaze. I’m curious to know your opinion about this topic!
I always find the metaphors really interesting. You used the term “flood’. We often hear people say ‘We are bombarded by images’, like something coming from above. Those metaphors and that presumption is so strong right now, people don’t think about it. You can go through life having very little engagement with images if you wish, and you don’t have to feel flooded, and you don’t have to feel bombarded. I have never felt flooded or bombarded, although I’m well aware of the amount of images in the world and that they set the agenda in many ways. But I’ve always thought that the excess of photography is within each image. Every photograph gives you more than you expected. There is all of that information, and all of that detail and it doesn’t explain anything. A photograph can show you things but it can’t explain them. So that idea of looking or being shown and not being able to understand, I think that is the excess, the flood, and the bombardment. It’s not to do with the number of pictures. I mean, the number of pictures is interesting, and it’s kind of fascinating, and I guess there could be something sort of terrifying about it. I will curate an exhibition at the International Center of Photography, New York, next winter about this topic, but I will approach it from a historical perspective. In the 1920s and 1930s there were quite a few artists engaging very directly with mass media images, and they were trying to shape it the way they wanted, or produce a type of critique of society. That was almost one hundred years ago. If there are too many images then it’s not just our problem now; it’s a problem with a long history to it. Often when people say that there are too many images…what people probably mean is that there are too many of the wrong kind. There are too many clichés, too many stereotypes, too many repetitive and empty pictures. I think that’s what they mean.
In conversation, when I think somebody is in an unthinking way saying that there are too many photos in the world, my first instinct—which is partly sarcastic and partly not—is to say ‘If there are too many pictures in the world, how many should there be? At what point did we reach the correct number? How many pictures would you like to be in this world?’