I have been asked to write this introduction for this years NTU photography degree show. I wrote this …
This is an interesting time to be a photographer, the old sureties no longer exist and therefore new image-makers find themselves in an enviable position in that they, perhaps, have no old photographic guard to push aside. Coupled with this, the world they have inherited is one defined by images, as we will witness in this years US presidential election.
Exploring this world is something that photography, and our graduates, do very well. So it is a privilege to stand back and examine this year’s festival, to enjoy the pictures without the burden of being a tutor or examiner, to look without prejudice.
I am drawn first to landscape photography; here the camera echoes worlds past. Crumpling empty edifices whose damp concrete hints at swept away political dreams or perhaps lost Arcadias in which the very curtains seem to twitch back at us. This is photography stripped down to its very base, ‘this was here’, but these pictures work at another level. The photographer shows us what she sees within herself when she creates the artwork, therefore communicating and engaging with the myth that is embedded in the landscape.
Whilst topographical photographers share people’s dreams with us, portraits show us the dreamers. The best portraits retain the dignity of their subjects and then challenge us; as the subjects themselves seem to watch ‘us’ as ‘we’, photographer and viewer, dissect their lives. Some portraits beg us to share an unknowable dream. We wonder, like Roland Barthes, if we are looking into the eyes of someone who is already dead and shudder as we contemplate our own uncertain futures.
Playful image-makers then quietly take us by the hand to show us the beauty that surrounds us all, challenging us to give all artifacts the same aesthetic value. Some artists then use juxtaposition in their pictures, bringing in other narratives to remind us of all the unremembered desires that we hide away. There is also an ongoing lament for an old process, as we are reminded in a number of photographs of how beautiful and mysterious the negative positive process actually was.
Lastly, the documentary photograph shows us the power of the still image; stopping us on the brink of the action, what will happen next? These pictures can be uncomfortable, either for the viewer as they remind us of things we would rather forget or, perhaps better, to challenge and confront those in political power. But these images can also be a portrait of the photographer, the voyeur, as she watches the action intently, thus holding the mirror up to photographers themselves.
There are, of course, many more pictures that I could have considered, given more space, but it is useful to pause for a moment to reflect on the skills that all these young artists have demonstrated.
Three important items remain unseen; the first is the intellectual journey that these young photographers have undertaken, which culminates in an essay were they meditated on the purpose of photography. It is by understanding their own position within the practice that they have become better photographers, become reflective practitioners. This journey provides the intellectual keystone of the course. The other unseen is the multi-media artifacts; this catalogue cannot show the installations, nor play the photo-films or see and listen to the moving images. The last unseen is the work of setting up the shows themselves; this has been intense, but really rewarding.
Our graduates are well equipped to deal with the future, because it is their present. They have the intellectual skills to interrogate, to discriminate, and to navigate the contemporary image world. Unencumbered by old technologies they also understand the complexities of hyperlinked pictures, and benefited from digital democratisation. New technologies both in production and distribution have given young (and old) image-makers access to markets previously barred to them. The only barrier now is talent and passion, something our graduates have in spades.
So we celebrate our students, our graduates, but we are also a bit jealous of them. The image world is now theirs and we really look forward to seeing, and hearing, how they interrogate their fascinating futures.