On being curated for the first time

The Prospect of Immortality, Impressions Gallery installation, 2011

When I graduated from Brighton University in 2007 I had no expectations of having a career focused on exhibiting. At Brighton there was little emphasis on this method of disseminating photography, probably because the tutors didn’t want to raise too many hopes, and I graduated having only contributed to a couple of internal student shows.

For many years the tradition for Brighton photography students was to take their degree show onto London, but our Year took the collective decision not to do this, especially after reports reached us that previous years had felt drowned amongst all the other graduate exhibitions happening in the same building.

But I was still keen to show somewhere and so I got together with six friends – also Brighton graduates – and we put on our own small group exhibition at an independent gallery in London. We funded, curated and hung it ourselves, and it was open to the public for a couple of weeks. Although we learnt a lot in the process – mainly practical things like how to find a venue, and how to advertise – we all felt a bit deflated afterwards. I think we were expecting it to lead directly to new opportunities. But of course it’s not that easy and, looking back, I for one wasn’t ready. My work still needed time to develop.

The following year, in 2008, I got together with three of those original six photographers to mount an exhibition for the Brighton Photo Fringe, part of the Biennale. Once again we did everything ourselves, but this time it was much more considered; the show was built around a central theme and we received funding from the Arts Council. The exhibition was much more successful and being part of a major international festival meant we had a much bigger audience. It was at that show that Anne McNeill of Impressions Gallery first saw my work; fortunately I happened to be invigilating that day and we struck up a conversation. Coincidently, I had just been selected for Redeye’s exhibition workshops for emerging photographers, which were to be held in association with Impressions. So, over the period of the workshops, Anne saw my project progress and afterwards she approached me with the idea of developing the work into a solo show.

The best thing about working with a curator for the first time was to have someone else – someone with a sizeable knowledge of photography – really sink their teeth into my work. The dialogue that ensued was really interesting and gave me a much better understanding of my work. That might sound strange, since you might expect that a photographer should really understand their own work, but I was often too close to it to be able to see it clearly. Anne was able to look at it quite dispassionately, from a distance, and that really helped. For three years since my graduation I had continued to work on the project with very little feedback from other people. I really missed the input I had had at university and, in hindsight, I should have been more proactive in seeking the opinions of others, but frankly that’s just not in my character; I’m more inclined to keep my work close to my chest and quietly get on with it. As a consequence I think I lost some perspective on what I was doing and stopped thinking about how other people would read the work.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the greatest asset a photographer could have is the ability to see your own work with fresh eyes, as if you were viewing it for the first time. That, I now know, is the key role of the curator. It’s almost impossible for the photographer to retain that necessary distance from their work. I remember a couple of occasions when Anne would question why I wanted to include certain pictures. To justify this I started to tell her the stories behind the images, and soon realised I was clinging to them because of the experience I’d had making them – be it difficult, or humorous, or whatever – rather than coldly looking at the strength of the results. Anne explained the need for the pictures to stand on their own without extended captions and so, for that reason, a couple of them got dropped from the show.

I learnt a lot during the process of editing the photographs for the exhibition. We began with my own edit of the work and then Anne took the time to look over a much wider selection of photographs, making her own edit, and picking out a number of photographs I had overlooked or disregarded. Then followed a rather lengthy process of discussing which pictures should make the final exhibition. We comfortably agreed on about two-thirds of the edit, but the remaining third was the subject of much debate and discussion.

In retrospect I stand guilty of the classic photographer’s desire to include as many pictures as possible. Anne referred to this as my ‘editorial training’ because I had a tendency to over-illustrate certain points by using several pictures, when often just one would do. She emphasised the idea that photography is about limitation, when less is definitely more.

I also had quite fixed ideas about how the photographs should be sequenced in the exhibition, which I suppose was again quite ‘editorial’ and probably a bit obvious. Anne introduced a number of new possibilities, seeing connections between pictures that I just hadn’t noticed.

The project was photographed in three different countries: UK, USA and Russia. I had always imagined the exhibition divided into these three distinct chapters. To an extent that’s what happened, but Anne merged the ‘chapters’ so that relationships developed between different locations and the transition from one country to the next wasn’t so marked.

I think I also held fixed ideas about how I wanted people to read the work. I had written extended captions for each photograph, with detailed explanations about the content. However, I soon understood that once work is in a gallery it’s more interesting to leave it open to interpretation so we agreed to minimize the text in order to open the pictures up. In many cases the extended captions took something away from what was interesting about the picture.

Murray-Ballard_Impressions_020

I also used audio in the exhibition. A number of pictures were accompanied by short snippets of audio, no more than two minutes in length, the subjects talking about various things that related to their pictures. These were accessed through QR tags using a mobile phone. It therefore became the viewer’s choice to make that extra effort to access an additional layer of information.

Murray-Ballard_Impressions_031

When it came to hanging the exhibition I realised how important it was to work with someone who really knew the gallery and understood how people would move around the space. We did a lot of preparation, using small prints to work out the layout and sequencing, but a lot of those plans fell away on the day of the installation and instead it became a more intuitive process. Everything was very different in reality. For example, when the pictures were printed at a larger scale, colours become more dominant and images I thought would work well together would sometimes clash. It’s a difficult thing to talk or write about because you’re dealing with something almost entirely visual. But once all the work was unwrapped we spent the best part of a day moving the pictures from one place to another, trying out a number of different sequences. It’s like a visual balancing act, but it’s not a precise science; when you get it right you just… know.

One of the key things I learnt that day is how the curation of pictures enhances the impact of the work in the gallery. Again I find this very difficult to write about, so perhaps it’s better to give an example: The exhibition is about cryonics, the practice of preserving the dead in the hope that future medical technology will be able to restore life. I had made a portrait of Robert Ettinger (the so-called ‘grandfather of cryonics’ because, in the mid 1960s, he gave birth to the concept) photographing him a year before his death in 2011, at the age of 92. The picture is quiet and soft in tone, with pastel colours, lit by natural light coming from the left-hand side of the frame. Ettinger is seen sitting on his sofa reading a book, apparently totally unaware of the camera; we seem to be getting a very private glimpse of this man’s life. In the exhibition it was really important to find the right place for this image. Putting it next to more vibrant pictures or in a dominant space would have stifled it. Instead we wanted to find a quiet place, slightly tucked away, which would emphasise this quiet, gentle moment. In the end we put the portrait next to a window so that light fell across it in the same way the light in the photograph falls across Ettinger.  For me it’s these subtle touches that really add to the experience of an exhibition.

My first solo show has definitely changed my attitude towards exhibiting. Firstly the whole process has been completely demystified. I have a much better grasp of it now and realise how important it is to work with a curator. What I’ve come to understand is that it’s their job to bridge the gap between the photographer/artist and the viewer.

It’s also encouraged me to show my work to others as it develops so that I can benefit from their feedback. It’s a mistake to keep the work locked away for too long. Having said that I recognise that showing people your work too soon could also be a mistake; it’s important to at least begin to investigate your idea before someone influences you to take a different course.

September 2011

This text was written for Exhibiting Photography: A Practical Guide to Displaying Your Work by Shirely Read, available here.