Sunday, April 20, 2008

Public Commissions - or the lack thereof...

(Bas Princen)

I saw a link on
Hippolyte Bayard the other day about Bas Princen and Vittore Fossati being commissioned to photograph the changes in the landscape of Northern Italy along the construction of the Bologna-Milan high speed railway.

I find it interesting that certain places - especially it seems France and Italy - have a strong practice of commissioning photographers to "document" regions in their countries (and I use "document" in it's broadest and loosest sense, after Walker Evans' "working in the documentary style").

(Vittore Fossati)

Sometimes it is a regional government or development body, town or city councils, or the likes of the national railway which commissions the work. Sometimes it is a regional art body or museum which does so. Occasionally an enlightened Corporation.

This isn't to be equated with the work done by tourist agencies or promotional photography or, in the US, by the likes of the HABS/HAER project - which, while historically important is more often than not deadly boring photographically and is probably as close to "pure documentary" as you can get in this area.
No, these projects are the regions or places in question as seen from the creative point of view of photographers, commissioned particularly because of the their individual style, vision and approach - for want of a better word, "art photographers".

(Vittore Fossati)

As a result there are some wonderful projects and in almost all cases, books, which show the changing landscape and development of regions and towns of Italy or France, the changes wrought by the development of Autostrada through agricultural areas or the routing of high speed trains. Urbanisation. The growth or decline of coastal regions and ports. Insights from a dozen different photographers of the industrial areas of Venice, or of the town of Dunkerque as seen by Eggleston and so on.

All this with photographers ranging from William Eggleston to Gabrielle Basilico to Stephen Shore, Geoffrey James, Bas Princen, John Davies, Lewis Baltz, John Gossage, Axel Hutte, Olivo Barbieri, Toshio Shabita,
Gosbert Adler and many more - often pairing up local photographers with those bringing and outsiders view.

(Gabriele Basilico)

Now I'm not sure about countries like Germany (?) or Spain - I haven't come across so many examples - and certainly in Britain there was only a brief short spate of this which seems to have died out a good few years ago (though strangely enough there has been a periodic longitudinal documenting of Beirut). But in N. America - considering the rate of social and urban change and the vast amount of creative resources here, I can really think of little on a similar scale in the last 25 or 30 years or so. And yet this wasn't always the case - especially when you look back to the 19th and early 20th century (and even through to the likes of the FSA with Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and the rest of that crew).

So, aside from the obvious - politics - why is it I wonder that other places don't seem to feel the need to commission similar work and learn more about their own back yards? Somehow there seems to be, among other things, a sort of devaluing of photography - that now we are in the realm of the ubiquitous digital camera, we no longer need to actually commission individual photographers to present their point of view - we can just harvest what we need in the future from local newspapers or from flickr or such.

Though in part I also think it has something to do with the conflation of time and history and there being a sense that the pace and nature of our "progress" no longer requires this kind of studied documentation.
Which, in the end, is something I think we will regret - the lack of photography whose intent was to show a view of such places as they are now.

(John Gossage)


Anonymous said...

I think European countries generally adhere more to their (glorious) past. Perhaps more Europeans are seeing life in a historic perspective.
France is pretty chauvinistic /narcistic country ;-)


claudiocambon said...

Another way of saying it is that Europeans, especially but not exclusively Italians, have preserved the tradition of patronage that helped spur along the Renaissance by incorporating some of that impulse in modern government.

The new world is in fact a bit anemic in that regard. America still has a much bigger art market that Europe, so if you can find a way to survive in the marketplace, either directly through your art or through auxiliary activities such as commercial work, you can have a lot of room and time to make work. But it's not easy, and I sure am envious of these sorts of commissions.

Roy said...

I'm pretty sure it is the lack of a 'national identity' that makes formal documentation of major change such a no-go area in Britain.
That and the fear that artistic involvement/intervention will lead to delays and possibly even fuel protest at what is being done.

Although there have been a few 'documentary' commissions of major changes in the UK landscape they are little known. Some of our best landscape photographers (John Davies an example) must rely on continental European commissions to further their work.