your work

 Photography has never been taken more seriously in the art world, yet competition is even fiercer than in the commercial world.

MATT: Hello to Clare Grafek, who is one of four curators and the Head of Exhibitions at the prestigious The Photographers’Gallery. And hello to internationally exhibited photographer and artist Melanie Manchot. We re here to shed a bit of light on the process of establishing oneself as a photographer in the world , which obviously involves getting work shown at gallery-based exhibitions. As the person who organises solo and group photography exhibitions, including accompanying literature, the curator obviously has a very important role to play so I wanted to start by asking Clare how one becomes a curator. Is there an established path?

CLARE: I wouldn t say there is one. I studied Philosophy and Art History and then an MA in Photography and took up related roles before becoming a curator after deciding I didn t have the guts to be an artist! There are people who take specific courses in curating too though, so this is another route in.

MATT: Melanie, does it takes guts to be an artist?!

MELANIE: Guts is perhaps the wrong word. I think you become an artist when you realise that therenothing else that you really can do, in the sense of it being a kind of calling. You continue no matter what the barriers and constraints, financial or otherwise. Ita matter of recognising that interest does come in waves and being prepared to work with that fact.

MATT: How does a photographer go about getting curators interested in their work?

MELANIE: The way my work gains attention is perhaps different to say 10-12 years ago, now that I have an established network of contacts in the field.

Word docs get around if youworking on something, or most often I invite people into the studio to discuss something that Iworking on. Or if theresomeone writing something related Itry and setup some sort of discussion.

I also have a lot of artist friends and very often theyput you forward for an exhibition if itsomething that they think your work is particularly suited to.

The recommendation aspect is very important I think.

MATT: The friendship thing is interesting to me as I find photography to be quite a lonely profession.

MELANIE: For me itvery much a social profession. I am lucky enough to have a group of artist friends that keep in close contact so therealways someone around to meet and discuss work. You get a lot of leads from being amongst people in the same field and tend to share contacts.

MATT: Is it a strong disadvantage to being outside London where such networks aren t so accessible?

MELANIE: I think there are strong networks in places outside of London; Newcastle and Manchester in particular.

MATT: What interests me though is how you go about getting a show when you donhave that network. What does someone in that position you were in 10-12 years ago do to get noticed in the fine art world?

MELANIE: Degree shows are a good way to get noticed at the start. Then ita matter of submitting work to open calls from galleries and competitions.

MATT: Clare? Is there a method that you would recommend?

CLARE: Icertainly agree with Melanie, though at The Photographers’Gallery we do tend to show photographers who are a little bit further on in their career, so someone just starting out is unlikely to be selected.

MATT: So what research do you do as a curator to come across potential candidates for exhibitions?

CLARE: Therea lot of research done as we rarely show a photographer more than once, and bearing in mind that you re creating a programme for

12 months or more. We do have portfolio reviews four times a year which are an opportunity for those who perhaps aren t yet high profile, but our outlook tends to internationally orientated so we re always looking at who is showing at other public institutions around the world. And we keep an eye on the commercial gallery scene which can be quite innovative and dynamic. We visit a lot of exhibitions at other venues too and keep a watch on the relevant competitions.

MATT: But it still worries me that if galleries look to each other for candidates for group and solo shows, how does someone get a foot in who hasn t yet had the privilege of being featured in these shows?

Can you contact curators directly?

your work

CLARE: Yes, you can send across a link to generate interest but we wouldn t consider proposals for exhibitions from individual photographers. Needless to say we do get a lot of emails through. There are people out there who do a lot of marketing and self-promotion but I often think that it s time better spent focusing on their work. I think if the work is really well thought-out it will eventually come to our attention at The Photographers  Gallery anyway.

MATT: But there still has to be some method of it finding its way into people s consciousness?

CLARE: Yes, and Isay gallery open calls and competitions are a good starting point, but new media offers a lot of opportunities now too. If younot getting the press you might like about your work in print magazines, you should definitely try and get interest in some of the online publications out there.

MATT: Melanie; you mention the established network of contacts that you now have, which ensures that details of any new works tend to filter through to the relevant sources, whether that s curators or critics. Does this mean now that you don t need to push your work at all in a marketing sense?

MELANIE: I do contact those that I know and think would have an interest in seeing a completed project, usually with a link. The interesting thing is that I didnhave a website up until a year or so ago; the work is often shown on the gallery websites so I didnfeel the need. But then you start discussions with people at talks and show s and they look disappointed that they cancheck out a website with all your works after the event, so I think now ita very useful tool for promotion.

MATT: Do curators tend to have favourite photographers that theyreturn to and re-collaborate with over time?

MELANIE: Yes itcertainly possible to build relationships with curators who arc perhaps interested in similar themes but the process of collaboration differs greatly between curators and between exhibitions. Obviously yougoing to be much more involved with a curator for a solo show than you are for a group show.

CLARE: Just to add to that; Isay that Ipersonally love to get involved with the development of an artist s work over the years, but at The Photographers  Gallery it s not really the role of the curator to focus on the photographers that interest them personally. And as previously mentioned, we rarely show the same photographer twice. As a charity wefocused on showing the public a very broad range of work from across the globe.

MATT: I  m interested in the fact that the discipline of photography is very broad as a whole. How do you navigate a terrain that also encompasses the documentary genre, which perhaps is much more of an instinctual medium, to the more conceptual type which is more about ideas than aesthetics?

MELANIE: I donthink itas simple as documentary on the one side and conceptual work on the other. Ita lot more complex than that. Ita very diverse medium.

CLARE: Yes Iagree.

MELANIE: And quite often all these various types of work can be shown together in group shows and this can make for very thought-provoking viewing.

MATT: But there are those photographers, such as Eggleston, who insist theydoing nothing more than looking through the lens and capturing things that interest them; Eggleston, as you know, is famously opposed to any intellectual investigation of his work.

MELANIE: Eggleston claiming his work has no intellectual basis doesnstop other people writing and intellectualising about his work!

MATT: So itnot important to be able to write intellectually about your own work as a photographer to be considered to have value by curators?

MELANIE: There are photographers out there who arennecessarily comfortable with articulating the ideas behind their work and itoften the job of curators or critics to discern those themes and ideas and to place them in context.

I think the important thing is that the work has to be deemed to have some interesting and cohesive thought processes behind it, even if the photographer hasnnecessarily articulated that process.

MATT: So not someone whojust shooting at random! Melanie; is this something you are comfortable with, writing about your work?

MELANIE: Yes, I do love to discuss the work and perform talks and write about my projects, though I think that there can be a danger in getting too deep into the subject before the work has been produced. You can end up doing very lengthy writing about something you want to explore before youeven taken a photograph. And quite often the production process throws up other things that you hadnconsidered in your pre-visualisation.

CLARE: And the work can take on different meanings to that originally intended and that can be a positive thing.

MATT: To finish then; Melanie, are there any magazines, websites or blogs for fine art photography that you can recommend to readers who might be interested in this field?

MELANIE: Magazine-wise, I regularly read Photoworks, Frieze, Parkett and the Tate Magazine. Online therePhotoMonitor which is very good, as well as Eflux and the North England Photography Network-Iworked with them and look at their announcements regularly for good opportunities up North. And then I read a whole range of material more irregularly such as Art Monthly, Camera Austria. Inot a big blogger or blog reader-yet.

MATT: Thanks to both Clare and Melanie this month for a very illuminating discussion!

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