Photography Is…

Generally you expect art fairs to be mixed-media affairs. A bit of painting, a bit of sculpture, a bit of photography, a bit of—sigh, all right, if you really must, but please mop the floor when you’ve finished—performance: the variety keeps things interesting. In the case of Photo London, however, you could say that the lack of variety is what makes it interesting. It’s about photography and nothing else. Exclusivity of medium is its USP.   

Taryn Simon, “Agreement Establishing the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation. Al-Bayan Palace, Kuwait City, Kuwait, May 30, 2006”, 2015

And yet, and yet… If you look at the public programme for this year’s edition, currently running at Somerset House, you’ll realize that the definition of photography has been expanded to the point where it now incorporates pretty much every other medium. Photography is video; photography is sculpture; you name it, it is photography and photography is it.

Though it has the alibi of recreating a historic photographic exhibition (William Henry Fox Talbot’s public display of prints at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, in 1839), Mat Collishaw’s Thresholds turns out to be an immersive virtual-reality artwork: you strap on goggles and a backpack and then stumble around a Gothic revival hall as a rodent scuttles across the floor and a spider scrambles up a wall to a rising soundtrack of Chartist rioters, glimpsable through a virtual window.

It’s fun but it’s only photography in so far as everything is photography. Asked at the launch what his next project might be, Collishaw joked, somewhat ruefully (VR is technically demanding, one surmises), “oil painting”. If that proves to be the case, the resulting work may well find a place in the next Photo London. After all, photography is oil painting.

Mat Collishaw. Courtesy National Media Museum Bradford.
Thresholds visualisation, Courtesy Mat Collishaw and VMI Studio

Which is not to say that there’s no what you might call “straight photography” to gawp at, and it’s always fun to see what’s trending as subject matter in such traditional (I’d better use the word to establish my commentariat credentials) “indexical” works. Muhammad Ali seems quite present this year, which may be related to the fact that the sporting hero and activist died recently.

“There are usually shots aplenty of (as well as by) Andy Warhol, who died a while ago; and then there’s Mick Jagger – he’s still alive, of course, but hasn’t released a really good album since at least 1983 (Undercover of the Night) and some would say 1972 (Exile on Main Street)”

There are usually shots aplenty of (as well as by) Andy Warhol, who died a while ago; and then there’s Mick Jagger – he’s still alive, of course, but hasn’t released a really good album since at least 1983 (Undercover of the Night) and some would say 1972 (Exile on Main Street); personally I still like She’s the Boss, a solo outing from 1985, but this is not the place to play you my mixtape, so perhaps we can just agree on the formulation that Sir Mick is a lot less musically alive than he once was. Someone mentioned that there were lots of pictures of cows a few years ago; this year I was struck by the number of elephants, which I find rewarding because this magazine is called Elephant. To me, every image of an elephant on display at the fair is a kind of more or less conscious tribute to us.

I enjoyed the sign at the entrance to the rooms dedicated to the work of Taryn Simon, who has been named this year’s Master of Photography. The display, it announced, “may contain graphic images”. Which made me want to say – and I did say it, though there was no one there to hear me – “Look, either it does or it doesn’t. Don’t you know?” The subjunctive mood seems at odds with photography, which is traditionally viewed as the most documentary and fact-based of mediums; something is either there in the frame or it isn’t. But Simon’s work isn’t really photography, or not old-style photography at any rate.

Taryn Simon, “Borders, 9/30/16, 12:19 PM (Eastern Standard Time),Image Atlas”, 2012

The centrepiece here is Image Atlas, a collaboration with programmer Aaron Swartz, which presents a real-time, internet-based investigation of global cultural differences (and similarities). Entering a sombre cathedral-like space, you step up to a console and type in a search item of your choosing, which prompts a giant screen to display the top results in different geographical territories. The person before me wanted to know about “Beauty”; from Germany to Egypt the results seemed fairly uniform.

“The centrepiece here is Image Atlas, a collaboration with programmer Aaron Swartz, which presents a real-time, internet-based investigation of global cultural differences (and similarities).”

I am proud to have a supremely uninquiring mind and no curiosity whatsoever, so when it fell my turn at the keyboard coming up with a search term proved a trial. “What would I like to know about?” I pondered, emptily. Time was passing; the people behind me were growing impatient. So I thought: “What would my football-obsessed son want me to type in?” To which the answer presented itself immediately: Arsenal. I was tempted to stop keying after the first four letters in order to deliver on that half-promise of graphic content on the entrance door. But in the event I typed in all seven letters: opposite the names of France and other First World footballing nations there duly appeared on the screen a Gunners club badge and/or pictures of Alexis Sanchez celebrating a goal; for Afghanistan and Iran, by contrast, there were pictures of mushroom clouds and munitions corresponding to a historically more enduring use of the arsenal.

Phil Shaw ‘Self Help’ (detail). Courtesy Rebecca Hossack

The Collishaw and Simon displays have strong elements of installation about them; indeed, one might even be tempted to say that they seem to be trying to demonstrate that photography is installation. Equally installation-y in feel, if in a rather more olde-worlde fashion, is the work of Prof. Phil Shaw. Displayed in the Rebecca Hossack gallery booth (S5), Prof. Shaw’s witty “bookshelf” prints interrogate the changing place of the printed word in the digital (and, if you like, post-truth) world. Colour-coded to suggest lines on the underground network or to hint at the outline of the British Isles, they also make you feel as though you’ve stepped into a hospitably furnished, book-lined room. Which is one of the nicer tricks photography can play on you.

Photo London runs until Sunday; www.photolondon.org

Phil Shaw ‘Shelf Help’ (2017) Courtesy Rebecca Hossack