Take 700 portfolios from 120 of the world’s top colleges, select the best 80, and what do you have? A pretty good indicator of where photography is headed… William Ewing and Natalie Herschdorfer, curators at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, explain the thinking behind their second worldwide survey of graduate talent, Regeneration 2. And Diane Smyth talks to our selection of 10 of the most promising photographers among them.
The idea for Regeneration dates back to 2001, when the curators at the Musée de l’Elysée began questioning how they could get a more direct handle on the work of emerging photographers. How do you even find photographers who have never published and never exhibited, who don’t have a gallery and therefore remain completely unknown to us?
Two years later, we decided the answer was to focus on what was happening in the schools. And although this would exclude the many gifted independents out there, we felt that most ambitious young people are attracted to these veritable magnets for talent. At the same time, the Elysée was also thinking about how to celebrate its 20th anniversary, coming up in 2005. Rather than look back nostalgically on what we had accomplished, we decided to try and look another 20 years into the future.
If 20 years is the time it takes photographers to reach artistic maturity, then which of the young photographers emerging today, we wondered, will achieve this maturity by 2025? And then there were the more general questions we wanted to pose: What are young photographers up to in the 21st Century? How do they see the world? How do they see photography? How much do they respect, build on, or reject tradition? As the project was eventually defined, “50 photographers of tomorrow” would reveal talented young artists who we believed had a good chance of emerging as fine artists of their generation. We never claimed we had found them all. The number 50 sounds substantial, but any one country could field that many.
By 2009, encouraged by the success of the first Regeneration [which was exhibited at the Elysée and published as a book by Thames & Hudson, then toured Europe, China and the US over the next four years], we decided to try it again, expanding the net from 60 to 120 of the world’s top photography schools, eventually deciding on 80 emerging artists. We tried to keep an open mind throughout the selection process, whether the photographers had chosen a documentary or an artistic approach, or something in between, or whether they preconceived their work with a detailed plan, or preferred shooting spontaneously.
Collectively, the Elysée curators have a great deal of experience, and that experience – of looking at work every day of our lives – we put on the line unapologetically, choosing the 80 photographers ourselves rather than the compromise of a jury. We strove to fairness to the nth degree, but there were never quotas per country, or thoughts such as, “Maybe we should have a photographer from Country X or Country Y”. Nor was the selection based on “new tendencies”. Innovative approaches were welcomed, but so too were traditional works, if well executed.
So what conclusions have we drawn to date, on the eve of the exhibitions’ almost-simultaneous openings in Lausanne, Arles and Cape Town? Including all the work from the 700 portfolios submitted, we found that the urban space – an environment that has scant regard for the individual human being and nature – is a subject extensively addressed, as is globalisation.
Many photographers use their medium to observe the sphere of the intimate and the personal, and to explore identity, which seems more than ever to be characterised by insecurities. The beginning of the 21st Century seems to be marked by excessive speed and the transitory, which undeniably weaken human beings, and these themes were also tackled by the young photographers. They also tended to mix techniques, switching from analogue to digital photography as easily as they switch from documentary to fiction.
Today’s artists are flexible on many levels. They move around, in both the literal and figurative senses. A Lebanese student in Regeneration 2 goes to school in the USA, an Italian goes to Spain, a Serb to Sweden, a Peruvian to Italy. We believe this is an extremely important shift from a few decades ago, because people who study in other cultures are invariably marked by them and vice versa, but also because lasting friendships are created in these situations and this means that cross-fertilisation will continue over the years. Only a few decades ago it was possible for like-minded artists in different countries to produce work for years and years without ever knowing that across the ocean similar interests were being pursued.
Contemporary photography does not stand still, and the students are keenly aware of the amorphous nature of the medium. They work across themes and genres with ease. Their work does not come in a unique style, and it is as diverse in its techniques – from the use of large format to small digital cameras – as it is in its influences. Regeneration showcases young artists focusing on major themes as diverse as the urban environment, globalisation and issues of identity and memory, and their use of hybrid techniques allows them to obscure the distinction between reality and fiction as never before.
How, it may be asked, do the two Regenerations differ in character? Does five years make a difference? Generally speaking, we found that the interests were actually quite similar. For example, we had learned with the first project that the old established genres – of landscape, street photography, the nude, the portrait, and so on – were largely irrelevant. Landscape has moved 180 degrees from the celebration of the sublime, à la Ansel Adams, to a cataloguing of environmental horrors. The nude has all but disappeared, and the body beautiful has given way to the aged and decrepit – a new penchant for realism has taken hold.
By examining art practices today, one might conclude that variety takes precedence, and that very few photographers limit their practice to a single technique or a single domain. A range of practices co-exist in the work of any one individual. Exchanges, hybridisations and mixing of techniques proliferate. The term “creolisation” has recently emerged in the field of music, and there is no doubt that contemporary art and photography (with their uneasy area of overlap) are experiencing similar movement. In fact, it is perhaps inaccurate to call all the young practitioners represented in Regeneration 2 “photographers”. In English (though not in French) there is a better term – “image-maker”.
Rather than witnessing the end of photography, we seem to be seeing a flowering, and some of the plants seem strange mutations indeed. There have been numerous debates surrounding the future of the medium over the past 15 years, and we hope that Regeneration 2 will do its bit to encourage them. The proliferation of digital technology has encouraged these shifts, by enriching our thinking regarding photography and its applications.
Our understanding of images has also become more sophisticated. We know it is possible to modify, distort, recreate and compose images without even using a camera. The internet also offers a myriad of images of all kinds. Digital technology, retouching and total construction techniques have become so widespread that nothing really surprises us when we discover new types of photography. But we find that the students take all of this with a grain of salt: they pick, they choose.
We are regrettably aware that some countries are under-represented or completely absent in Regeneration 2 due to their lack of specialised schooling. Teaching photography is predominantly an established tradition in Western schools, and this explains why so many Western photographers are represented in the project.
On other hand, let’s not be naïve: photography was invented in England and France, and seized upon and developed by the richer countries in Europe and the US. “We” have always had the lion’s share of the resources, many in the domain of education. Should it surprise us that this is reflected in the results of a survey like Regeneration 2?
Obviously there are parts of the world where good schools are not an option, or are at best few and far between, and we intend to keep searching for strong photographers in these areas. Africa and South America beckon. Indeed, the fact that Regeneration 2 will be seen in South Africa this summer is bound to open new doors. In the meantime, Regeneration 2 can serve as one window on the future.
Regeneration 2: Tomorrow’s Photographers Today by William Ewing and Nathalie Herschdorfer is published by Thames & Hudson (ISBN: 9780500288894), priced £20. To order your copy at the special price of £16.95 including UK mainland delivery (overseas costs available on request), please call Thames & Hudson’s Littlehampton Book Services on 01903 828503, quoting “TH070”. Offer runs until the end of December 2010. Regeneration 2 is on show at the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne until 26 September.
“There is this beautiful trend of abandoning restrictions and leaving aside what defines photography, reality, art or fiction,” says Kristoffer Axén. “Practitioners aren’t worrying about labels and definitions, putting the focus on the receptive experience and the mood within instead.”
It’s an insight into Axén’s work – encompassing photography, drawing and writing, his oeuvre is united by a common sense of darkness. Often literally dark, his images hint at sinister undertones beneath seemingly banal scenes, while his writing takes elements of everyday life and twists them into a nightmarish sci-fi world. “A trembling man glanced at a young girl’s calves on eight st. Fifteen rats died of starvation at six forty-five pm. It rained kindly during the first days of spring,” he writes in At Sea At Night, a story also illustrated in images.
Born in Sweden in 1984, Axén moved to the US to study at New York’s International Center of Photography. These days his images are heavily manipulated but, he says, retain enough photography to play on the viewers’ expectations of “truth”. “I got into the world of still imagery pretty late, but I quickly found the treasures belonging to this medium alone – the slowness of its effects, the viewers’ belief in reality, the access to the technology and its rather easy use, and the fragmentary way one can build a narrative,” he says. “That lets the viewer be a part of the creation and the conclusion within.”
Prison, as Joshua Bilton points out, is a place most of us will never see for ourselves. Instead we see it through images, many of which display the same characteristics every time they’re taken – dark and dingy interiors, shot in gritty black-and-white. “I was interested in seeing if I could shoot it in another way, playing with its fictions,” says Bilton.
The result is Ectopia, a long-term project he started on his BA at the London College of Communication. He finished it the year after graduation, writing to every prison governor in the UK and getting access to 45 inmates. The governors picked them out, and they varied from age 18 to 40+, and from category A (high risk) to D, but that was OK with Bilton – he felt that if he selected them, he’d be influenced by prison clichés. “In the end, some completely fitted in with my preconceived ideas, others completely broke them,” he says. “That’s the point – there is no type, no simplified idea. There’s no way of accessing what it is, you can only shift the perspective.”
Bilton shot each of the prisoners over 2.5 hours, talking to them about the project for 15 minutes before setting up his lights and starting work with them. He choose deliberately anonymous locations, which hint of prison life without overtly referencing it. One prisoner is standing on a giant chess set, for example, another poses with a swan. The result is eerie and off-key, and it’s not surprising that Bilton got onto the RCA’s world-renowned MA course with this portfolio. Once at the college he apparently changed tack, but actually started to explore similar concepts in different ways – his most recent work shows everyday objects in bizarre, constructed scenes, blurring the boundaries between the familiar and the strange.
Bilton graduated from the course last month, and is now concentrating on getting Ectopia published and working with Hal Silver, the collective he set up with his RCA contemporaries. “What’s most exciting about Regeneration 2 is I get to meet 80 like-minded photographers from all over the world.”
Born in 1979, Jamie Tiller was drawn to photography early on but only really decided to explore the medium in 1996 when he saw an exhibition of work by Michael Schmidt at The Photographers’ Gallery. “I was completely blown away,” he says. “I think it was the first time I saw that photography could be more than just a means to record something, it could also relate one’s thoughts and be wholly subjective, metaphorical even.”
He went on to take a place on the MA course at the Royal College of Art in 2006, and exhibited in the UK, Germany and Japan while he was still studying. His work reflects that metaphorical sense that so inspired him, with long-exposure shots of backstage areas and eerily-lit nighttime landscapes suggesting forces beyond the everyday. “The last two series that I worked on both investigated peripheral architectural spaces,” he says. “Not simply non-spaces but spaces that seemed through photography to express a certain drama, in which it is perhaps not so easy to separate notions of what is ‘real’ and what is merely ‘construct’.”
In doing so, he also explores the boundaries of photography itself, and he says he’s attracted to other artists who try to test the medium. He was nominated for Regeneration by the RCA course leader, Olivier Richion, and says he’s interested to see how his work is interpreted on an international scale. In particular, he’s pleased to be able to present his work via a book and an exhibition, because while he welcomes the internet, he believes it isn’t always the best medium.
“There’s a danger in thinking you’ve seen someone’s work when you’ve seen it reproduced on a website,” he says. “Of course, for some people that’s how their work is intended to be seen. But I think a lot of images are made to be viewed as prints or in book form, where the qualities of the photographs, such as the colours, the details, the scale and also of course the sequencing of the images can communicate as much as the image itself. In that sense so much can become lost simply flicking through a few low-resolution jpegs on a computer screen.” Fittingly, this young photographer only just launched his website.
Song Shimin was born in the Shandong Province in 1983 – when China’s one-child policy was well under way. This factor has underscored her work, in which lone children are depicted in fantastical, slightly sinister adult roles – caring for sick toys, or holding trophies amid clouds of swirling bank notes. The children look sad throughout, conveying a sense of unease at the adult expectations weighing on them. “In the memory of my childhood, there’s happiness, and there’s sorrow,” says Shimin, who’s currently studying at the Beijing Film Academy. “And without doubt there’s desire and fantasy, which are still impossible to achieve in today’s society. I reckon that these desires are the origin of pain.”
Shimin’s images depict intricately constructed sets and costumes, and they are shot in the studio. She’s interested in theatre as well as photography, and says she may explore other means of expression in future, to communicate ideas ill-suited to images. But in general she’s noted a great cross-fertilisation between the various forms of contemporary art, all of which have helped to make photography a richer medium.
“Photography is a medium of some importance in contemporary arts,” she says. “Its imaging language and representative form are rich and colourful in comparison with traditional photography. Today, the whole society [in China] is changing every second. It is unavoidable that our understanding and comprehension about things are altered at any time. These changes will be more evident among young artists.”
One of these changes is China’s greater openness, and Shimin says she’s excited about meeting with young artists from different countries, and with different cultural backgrounds. “I believe that through this communication we find new ideals and wide-thinking patterns,” she says.
“I decided to become a photographer when I was seventeen,” says Nelli Palomaki. “My sister wanted to be a doctor and I decided to do something completely different. I never doubted my decision after that. There is a habit in my family that when you decide something you have to stick to it.”
It seems her single-mindedness is paying off. Currently studying for an MA at the University of Art and Design Helsinki, Palomaki has already shown work at Rencontres d’Arles and Paris Photo, and this year is exhibiting at the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland and Photo España in Madrid, as well as picking up recogntion in Regeneration 2 and the Sony World Photography Awards and a Victor Fellowship from the Hasselblad Foundation. “I feel lucky in many ways; it’s not really easy for a young artist to get this many opportunities,” she says modestly.
Born in Forssa in Finland in 1981, Palomaki specialises in portraits whose timeless quality belie her relative youth. She shoots on a Mamiya medium format camera using black-and-white film, because “colours only stop you from seeing the real image” and because “she’s a nostalgic person”. She adds that portraits are the only type of photography she feels comfortable doing, because it gives her a special way to connect with people.
For the future, Palomaki hopes to continue to make her work, “enjoying life in some quiet place out of the crazy lifestyle that we have these days”. “Maybe this is why my portraits are somehow quiet and timeless,” she says. “I really miss these kind of surroundings.”
Like Song Shimin, Su Sheng’s work is informed by China’s one-child policy which came into effect in 1979, the year she was born. Sheng seeks out the “little emperors” and “little princesses” in their natural environment, surrounded by toys in homes richer than previous generations could have believed. Nevertheless, these children suffer a loneliness and emotional impoverishment that Sheng subtly conveys in her images. “Almost all of the time alone at home, these children live in their own space,” she says. “It seems these kids have got used to self-entertainment.”
This self-reliance proved invaluable to her work – Sheng played with the children and talked to them, but they soon lost interest and went back to their own worlds, allowing her to take natural, unposed shots. She hopes they document a uniquely Chinese phenomenon. “I want to reduce my involvement to a minimum,” she says. “The family environment and living conditions have changed, but the children’s well-being does not necessarily increase.”
Sheng is currently studying at the Xi’an Institute of Fine Arts, but although her course included a placement at the Ecole National Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, this is the first time her work will have been shown outside China. It is, as she notes, a very important step, and one she hopes it will bring new opportunities.
But for her work she has relatively modest, deceptively simply ambitions. “I hope to express my point of view freely and show my life through my images,” she says.
Richard Kolker’s practice centres around digital technology and its increasingly prevalent place in our life. Using computer-generated imagery and inspired by Second Life, his work evokes a world in which the virtual and the real are inextricably linked.
“My work is entirely computer generated but I try to reference traditional photographic technique and language when dealing with my subject matter,” he says. “I have been working with computer-generated imagery (CGI) for about five years, and became hooked after seeing work by fellow Association of Photographers members. Then it was used almost exclusively for automotive advertising; a CAD car would be “placed” into a traditional photograph and lit using high dynamic range images (HDRIs) with all the corresponding reflections making the finished image indistinguishable from a traditional photograph.
“I thought if I could get to grips with the fiendishly complicated software then, theoretically at least, the scope of my image making would be limitless. I am also fascinated by the way we can interact socially online by participating in virtual worlds such as Second Life, and as much of my work up to this point has been made around how we engage with this sort of virtual reality, CGI (the building blocks of the online world) seemed like the ideal medium.”
Kolker believes photography is going through a huge change at the moment, and CGI is just one aspect of that. Photography is now easier to retouch and alter than ever before, he points out, but the internet has also ensured that it’s more prevalent than ever before. It’s perhaps ironic, then, that he was originally attracted to the medium through “classic” photojournalism. As he puts it: “Photography has changed a lot since the 1980s.”
Like her two fellow nationals featured here, Liu Xiaofang’s work centres on lone children, but unlike them, she doesn’t comment on China’s one-child policy per se. Instead she factors in other aspects of Chinese statedom, such as atomic bomb tests and red pioneer scarves, and mixes them in with a dreamy celestial background. The result is a heady mix of fact and fantasy, which evokes her own experiences.
“I was born in the 1980s, and I have experienced the country’s enormous economic growth and success,” she says. “I want to express some of these complex and underlying feelings through my images. But although we all have our own childhood memories, they can become twisted and unreal over time. In this series, I remember, serene delusion follows memory to become surrealistic. A little girl in a white dress and red scarf is mixed in with an atomic bomb and cloud in all the pictures; she seems emotionless with all her feelings blending into a state of daydreaming. Through photography, illusion has become reality.”
As Xiaofang’s comments suggest, her work is informed by Western surrealists such as Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dali and Joan Miro, but she also draws on China’s long tradition of painting, referencing Ma Yuan of the Song Dynasty, Ni Zan of the Yuan dynasty and Bada Shanren of the Ming dynasty. Like these artists she presents the unreal in a realistic manner, however, and she comments that “photographic imagery is closest to reality but visual illusion and manipulation can be easily created through modern digital software. Photography is a big liar.”
Eerie twins and levitating women: Czech photographer Tereza Vlckova’s images don’t reflect the everyday. Instead they explore the possibilities of digital retouching and stop-frame imaging to show a world at the borders of fiction and reality. But in doing so, she says, she hopes to explore our sense of identity. “In general contemporary society is consumed by the same or similar problems, but because everyone is an individual, we are all trying to tackle them by ourselves,” she says. “One of the questions posed most often is the quest for personal identity. We all want to know who we are and where we are heading.”
Vlckova is currently studying at one of the Czech Republic’s most prestigious art schools, the Institute of Creative Photography at the Silesian University in Opava. Previous graduates include Hana Jakrlova and Lucia Nimcova, and the tutors include Jindrich Streit. But where their work emphasises documentary photography, for Vlckova, it’s become a means to explore her inner reality. It is, she says “a mirror of myself”.
As such each image is highly personal, evoking particular pieces of music, and even smells.
Her influences extend far beyond photography, encompassing art as well as day-to-day life. And her approach is artistically as well as photographically driven – she sketches out each image before constructing it, and includes visual puzzles for the viewer to work out. “I am always glad if someone is willing to solve them,” she says.
Vlckova’s work is already making waves beyond the Czech Republic but, she says, it’s really wonderful to be involved with Regeneration 2, and in particular to be picked out by William Ewing and Nathalie Herschdorfer. “Recognition by curators isn’t the most important thing, but of course I appreciate being recognised by people who have respect and authority in their field,” she says. “Thanks to Regeneration 2 my photographs will be seen by people all over the world; I’ll be glad if my work touches them.”
David Favrod’s photography is also motivated by questions of identity and, in particular, his own identity. Born in 1982 in Kobe to a Japanese mother and Swiss father, Favrod was raised in Switzerland but brought up largely by his mother, who instilled her culture in him. Keen to reflect this dual identity, Favrod applied for a Japanese passport when he was 18; his request was rejected.
The photo-essay Gaijin, which means stranger in Japanese, was his attempt to both come to terms with the rejection and assert his Japanese heritage, by illustrating his attempt to construct a mini-Japan in Switzerland, his memories of the country, and stories from both popular culture and his maternal family. “I’m attracted to photography by the possibility to tell stories,” he says. “My own story.”
As Herschdorfer and Ewing point out in the Regeneration 2 book, Favrod’s images move comfortably between genres, encompassing portraiture, landscape and art photography. Inspired by photographers from both the East and the West, including Larry Sultan, Rinko Kawauchi, Masao Yamamoto and Ari Marcopoulous, Favrod’s work is a very contemporary cultural mix, but he manages to find a distinctive individual voice. His images are touching and poignant but also unexpectedly comic, with a shadow of Godzilla threatening to take over a cartoonish high rise, and a hero of traditional Japanese art sitting in a flowery armchair. Studying at the Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne, Favrod was one of 10 students recommended to the Regeneration 2 project by the school.
For the future, Favrod hopes to continue to make art, and he’s excited about the opportunities Regeneration 2 could bring. But he’s as interested in magazines as art institutions – “They’re like a testing ground for research that can be purely visual,” he says. “And having a short time to produce new pictures is very stimulating.”
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