"Like a book, they are the public manifestation of a work, the point at which you have to come to a conclusion about the purpose of what you’ve been doing."
Based in London, Simon Bainbridge has served as editor of British Journal of Photography since 2003, and is the original founder of the International Photography Award. Over an editorship of 14 years, he has moved the publication from a news-based weekly to an award-winning monthly magazine, with each edition dedicated to exploring the ideas and narratives behind a different theme.
This year’s IPA winner will receive extensive coverage from British Journal of Photography across print, online and social channels, bringing their work to an audience of more than a million creatives worldwide.
Bainbridge has co-curated two exhibitions, Paper, Rock, Scissors: The Constructed Image in New British Photography at Toronto’s Flash Forward festival, and Time & Motion Studies: New Documentary Photography Beyond the Decisive Moment at Hereford Photography Festival. He has been a judge or nominator for dozens of international contests, including the Prix Pictet, Deutsche Börse Prize, ING/Unseen, Tokyo International Photography Competition and the Contemporary African Photography Prize.
In the lead up to the deadline for the International Photography Award 2018, Bainbridge sheds light on the significance of the solo show as both an opportunity for artists to develop and review their own practise and question what it means to translate their work into a gallery space. Enter the Awards today to win a solo exhibition at the leading London gallery, TJ Boulting, and much more.
What is the importance of the solo exhibition for emerging and established photographers, both in terms of the progression of their work and garnering publicity?
Like a book, they are the public manifestation of a work, the point at which you have to come to a conclusion about the purpose of what you’ve been doing, and think how that communicates to other people in a way that’s readable, and not just a whole load of stories and ideas running around in your own head. They’re a test of your ideas and abilities, and whether other people can recognise them. But they also provide a full stop to what you’re working on, a kind of fulcrum that brings everything together and then sets you free to move on to produce something new. In that sense, it doesn’t matter too much about how big or small your audience is.
Of course, they’re also important signposts in your career, a mark of recognition and legitimacy. They give people confidence in you and your work, which will hopefully lead to sales or other opportunities, which has certainly been the case with many of the previous winners of our International Photography Award. It’s therefore important to capitalise on a solo show. The gallery should be doing it’s job to find an audience, but it’s your job to persuade the people who might be helpful to your career to come and see it, or at least be aware of it.
What have been some of the most important solo exhibitions of recent years and why?
Wolfgang Tillmans has consistently challenged and redefined convention about how you present a photography exhibition, experimenting with scale, testing the limits of a space, kicking against the sterility of the white cube. If it wasn’t for him, maybe we’d still just be looking at framed pictures of same-sized images hung in linear arrays.
When I first saw his work at The Serpentine more than 20 years ago – Take Me (I’m Yours) in 1995 – it was a revelation, not just for the photographs, but seeing someone use the whole space as a room installation, pinning pictures to the walls in seemingly random configurations, presenting it in such a way that it appeared very direct and immediate in this rarified space on the edge of a royal park. His shows are immersive, and the configuration of the images allows for a more open or ambiguous understanding, because you’re not just reading an edit of one image next to another in a series.
Exhibition making is as much his practice as the pictures he takes. It’s very loose and intuitive, and it should be a total mess, but somehow it works, and ultimately the hang contributes as much as the pictures to the work. For me, he hit new highs with New World, which I saw at Rencontres d’Arles in 2013. Travelling around the world to make the work, rarely stopping over anywhere for more than a couple of days, it’s an incredibly ambitious project, almost arrogant – his attempt to see the world afresh, in the context of our digital age and the avalanche of images we’re presented each day, in every increasing detail.
The images, seen individually or as a whole, don’t make much sense. There are no overriding themes, only repeating motifs, such as animals, plants, cityscapes, car headlights and aspects of science and technology. Yet in his shows, presented on a grand scale, using different images and configurations for each exhibition according to the space and his own intuition, you’re confronted with his sense of wonder and curiosity. And in Arles, even those who had previously harboured doubts about his work were won over by the originality of his holistic approach.
Very few people can pull that off. But his shows have given the generation that followed the confidence to break away from the conventional and try to create exhibitions that are more engaging in their immersive approach, to be their own curators and take responsibility for how their work and ideas are communicated.
It’s also worth remembering that while these experimental looking shows felt quite novel to us a decade ago, they’re nothing new. If you see installation views of legendary exhibitions such as MoMA’s Road to Victory in 1942 or The Family of Man at MoMA 1955, or the late Robert Delpire’s shows at the Centre Pompidou in the mid-1980s, they look very contemporary to our eyes.
When judging the IPAs, is a project’s ability to translate into a successful solo exhibition something you will be looking for?
Absolutely, especially as we get down to the the final contenders in the latter stages of judging. Initially, we’ll be looking at the merits of the work, but once we’re down to 10 or 20 projects, we’ll have questions in mind about how it will translate into a show, and which will make most effective use of the space. One of the judges is Hannah Watson, who is the director of TJ Boulting Gallery where the IPA winner will be shown, and she will offer plenty of advice on that. But it’s not the only factor, and I’d like to think we’d be able find solutions to any problems there might be in exhibiting a work that was really worthy of attention.
What will you be looking for when judging the IPAs?
It’s got to have a voice. We’re looking for an outstanding contribution to the field of contemporary photography, be it an emerging talent with some original take on the medium, or someone very established with an important story to tell. Having something to say – in terms of the concept, the narrative or the visual language you’re using – is paramount. We’re not looking for the selected highlights in your portfolio, the work has to make sense, and it has to convey your authorship or visual signature.
And do you have any advice for this year’s entrants?
Does your edit clearly express your ideas and visual signature? A project may encompass hundreds or thousands of images, so the edit is crucial in how you communicate your concept or story. But what might work for a book dummy or a portfolio might not work for a competition entry, where judges are looking at dozens of people’s projects in succession.
Don’t just send your ‘best’ pictures; make sure your work can be read and understood. Even if your work is very esoteric, don’t leave the judges in any doubt about what it is – unless that really is the point, in which case you need to provide some kind of hook that encourages curiosity. Nuance and subtlety are important qualities, but they are often lost in translation between the photographer who is very close to the project, and the judge who is looking for some unique take on a subject. Use your statement or your captions to help the judges understand what you’re trying to get at, and how you’d imagine the work being shown.
That said, I can’t imagine Wolfgang Tillmans following any of these rules. Ultimately, we want to be surprised by someone’s unique take on the world …