The National Photography Symposium, Manchester, 19-21 June 2009

“If your photographs are not good enough you are probably not reading enough.”
Tod Papageorge

Red Eye

Chetham’s Library and Museum in Manchester, the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, hosted the first National Photography Symposium organised by Redeye, The Photography Network, in partnership with the University of Bolton, in June 2009.

The event held in this unique medieval venue instead of the somewhat cold and sterile alternative of a modern conference centre and opened with a truly inspiring performance on the subject of “the marriage of words and images” by the poet Ian MacMillan metaphorically suggested a parallel between various public creative languages including literature, poetry, music, photography, etc.  The idea that as photographers and facilitators we should look outside our own practice resonated consistently throughout the Symposium.

Medieval Venue

To say that Francis Hodgson, a photography critic for the Financial Times, and the former Head of Photographs at Sotheby’s, London, expressed dissatisfaction with the current position of photography in Britain would be an understatement. In his keynote speech he combined anger and passion in his exploration of everything that is historically and culturally wrong with the way photography – in his view the most important medium of today – is currently represented in the UK.

His arguments include the lack of general appreciation and the most basic cultural framework that is standard in France, Germany and certainly the US, among others, the absence of serious analysis and discussion of the “not quite proper art form” in the British press and on TV, combined with the loss of the London Photo Fair and the enormous number of unemployable people, “illiterate in their own art form,” produced by photography courses each year. He shared some rather depressing figures (for example, the ratio between the number of pop and opera correspondents and the number of photography correspondents, if any) which demonstrate that photography is currently very far from reaching the level of cultural manifestation it deserves.

Needless to say that this angry and intellectually engaging presentation made quite an impact on the audience, and it would be fascinating to see such sharp minds focus on the future and the ways of altering, if not revolutionising, current thinking about photography at the next Symposium.

Miranda Gavin, Deputy and Online Editor of the bimonthly contemporary photography magazine HotShoe, gave a memorable presentation on the dynamics and pressures of magazine publishing versus publishing on demand, blogging and other forms of online communities. She raised a number of crucial questions, answers to which will probably determine the development of print magazine publishing and the online environment in the future. The advantages of being able to reach bigger audiences online through blogs and forums are indisputable but it’s a whole other landscape that brings all sorts of additional colours and presents a new set of challenges: “…What about arbitrators of taste? How democratic is it? Do we want to have peer-reviewed exhibitions? What about a photograph and a magazine being an object? What about the idea of an emerging artist being discovered, do photographers get discovered online in the same way? What about the kudos of having your work published in a print magazine? How do we feel about digitalisation and the copyright responsibility that comes with it?…”

In her talk Miranda Gavin gave visibility to issues that cannot be ignored and echoed presentations by other speakers like David Brittain, the former editor of Creative Camera, who explored the idea of magazine art, a relationship between image makers and editors and how technology is forcing print to adapt; and Paul Herrmann, the director of Redeye who offered his vision of the successful 21st century photographer which almost inevitably includes being a part of an international virtual circle, as well as complimentary range of work as a result of a broad interest in the world.

Other topics discussed include the global overview of the photography market and how it was born and developed in The Art Market and Collectors by Jeffrey Boloten and Francis Hodgson;  photography festivals as an interruption of the everyday,  their agendas and geographical landscape in The Photography Festivals by Louise Clements, Yasmina Reggad, James McVeigh and Patrick Henry as well as numerous other sessions like Photography in the Press; Photographers, the Police, Security and Privacy; The Collective and the Library; Copyright; Political Activism; Documenting the Socially Excluded, etc and keynotes by a multiple award winning Magnum photographer Chris Steele-Perkins and the influential contemporary artist and filmmaker Hannah Collins.

Many sessions overlapped, allowing attendees to follow their own customised schedule and make the best use of their time, but this was at the cost of almost segregating what started out as a diverse mix of people that is so essential for creating a dialogue.

Whether the National Photography Symposium takes a radical format for creating a battle of ideas and becomes a regular major event in the British calendar remains to be seen, but its ambition is simply brilliant, so it is my hope that the event gets deserved recognition for its relevance to both practitioners and facilitators.

Alina Kisina

Alina is a self-taught Ukranian photographer who trained as a linguist. Her solo show ‘Zerkalo : Mirror’ was shown at the Scotland-Russia Institute in Edinburgh in December 2008 to January 2009.

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