Since its founding 15 years ago, Amsterdam’s Foam has established itself as one of the premier platforms for contemporary photography. Inside its canal-side museum, Foam showcases the many unique facets of the photographic medium—from the great masters of the medium (André Kertész, William Eggleston) to some of its edgiest, most cutting-edge practitioners (Daisuke Yokota, Roe Ethridge). In addition, the organization publishes its acclaimed Foam Magazine three times a year. Conceived as a “mobile exhibition platform,” each issue runs with a wide range of portfolios, which are then printed on individually selected paper that helps accentuate the qualities of the work. Adjacent to the vibrant offerings of the museum, the magazine has established itself as an important and widely respected channel in its own right.
For the past six years, the magazine has welcomed the keen eye and refined sense of materiality brought by its managing editor Elisa Medde. Given her broad, eclectic tastes and unerring sensitivity for discovering talent, we are thrilled she has agreed to serve as a juror for this year’s LensCulture Exposure Awards.
In the interview that follows, LensCulture’s managing editor Alexander Strecker sat down with Medde to learn more about the philosophy of Foam, the challenges (and pleasures) of putting out a print publication in 2017, and the responsibilities we each have to expand our visual languages.
LensCulture: I want to start with your background, which I think is wonderfully unconventional—though perhaps not in the world of photography. After all, everything can inform photographic work, as your story shows…
Elisa Medde: There are some people who work in creative fields who knew since day one what they wanted to do. For me, and many other people, the journey is a bit more complicated. You need to test out different fields and try different roads before understanding what you really want to do.
In my case, I first studied the history of art. Specifically, classical and contemporary art with a focus on iconography. While at university, I worked as an apprentice in a very old Roman laboratory for restoring paper. They had prints from Piranesi and maps from the 17th century. And I also worked as a darkroom assistant for a photographer. At the time, my activities seemed scattered. But now I understand why all those things made sense to me—especially since what I do now puts all these elements together.
After university, I worked for several institutions and museums as an assistant curator. But I decided that I was more interested in publishing: magazines and books, specifically. So I learned how to make books. I started by working at a publishing house with a graphic designer. This is how I acquired all the skills necessary to make the object, the tools of the practice: the software, the paper, the binding. How it all comes together.
Finally, I left Italy (with a stop in New York) and ended up in Amsterdam. I began working with Foam on a single issue and then the timing was right and the position expanded from there.
LC: How do you understand the philosophy of Foam? Or to put it differently: what is your philosophy when it comes to putting together a magazine, and how does it relate to the organization’s?
EM: I perceive them as complementary. It was very natural for me to blend into Foam; I feel at ease with how they work. As an institution, it has several key qualities. First of all, it’s very dynamic: a place that does many different things at the same time. Second, it has an experimental attitude, yet not in an overly complicated or avant-garde way, since its basic mission is informative and its aim is to gather the broadest public possible. This is a balance that resonates with me.
We never want to create something that exists just now. We want our selection to have something to say years in the future.
Our mission is similar at the magazine. In each issue, we choose a theme and try to explore it through different types of photography—from the historical to the most contemporary; with established artists and unknown, breakthrough talents. Our goal is to both pull in our readers and challenge their expectations. We hope to create a space for discussion.
It’s like cooking in a way, but without having a fixed recipe. I’m always trying out different tastes. Or perhaps it’s more like sculpting—for each issue, we have a final vision in mind, but we are working with materials to reach this vision. As we are creating each magazine, I step away, turn it a little bit, make adjustments. Then we go to the other side, see the theme from a new angle, under a different light. And then we adjust again. We continue until it makes sense, 360 degrees around.
Like sculpting, it is usually a reductive process. We start with a broad idea and get more narrow as we work. We try to avoid the mistake of trying to say too many things at once (because then you end up saying nothing). It has to be very clear what we want to say and we reach this clarity through reduction.
Occasionally, though, we have entire issues spring up from one portfolio. A really strong, generative idea that serves as the trigger to build up a whole foundation from a singular starting point.
LC: Foam celebrated its 15th anniversary this year. You have been working at the magazine for the past six. Is there a particular area of growth that you’re proud of during your tenure?
EM: One aspect is philosophical: the balance between reactivity and timelessness. We never want to create something that exists just now. We want our selection to have something to say years in the future. The hope is that it will grow like wine, changing its meaning with time.
With that being said, I’m very proud that we have begun rooting each issue a little bit more in the moment it is released. Again, a very difficult equilibrium! But the themes we have been choosing are more connected to what is happening, to our surrounding world. We want the magazine to relate to us, ultimately, rather than more abstractions.
LC: Given photography’s movement towards immateriality, the exponential growth in the production of images—have you ever felt like putting out this print magazine is some sort of…cause? Considering the attention you pay to the different kinds of papers, the binding, the object itself, do you feel like “members of a movement” defending print?
EM: In the past, I felt like I was on a mission. But then I understood that I was completely wrong; I was looking at the whole evolution from the wrong point of view. What I mean is that the transition towards immateriality is not a friction—it’s a liberation! More and more photographers today are freeing themselves from the strictures of media and finding ways to exert more control. They have more tools than ever at their disposal, from the antiquated to the cutting-edge, and they are using these tools to express their vision in the strongest possible way. Each photographer, for each project, can find the way that fits their souls best. This is what makes our time so absolutely fascinating and such an exciting moment.
So, amidst this environment, yes, I believe that what we do is important. It is part of our mission to keep certain crafts alive. It would be cheaper to go online, we would reach more people. But by producing this object, this thing with weight and tactility and binding, we are making a statement. For example, a printed portfolio of a body of work might communicate “A.” Then an exhibition of that same work might communicate “A” and “B.” But when you return to the magazine, you see there is also “C,” less obvious but definitely present. That’s what makes it so multi-layered. Paper matters, just as the walls of exhibitions matter. They work differently but also in tandem. There is no “ultimate” way of doing it—just different means, with different advantages.
I think the real challenge of photography today is how it is changing so much. In exciting ways, as I outlined above, but also with enormous rapidity. Which means we must continually ask ourselves: does it still make sense to put this out on paper? Up to now, the answer has remained: yes. What the future will bring, I cannot say.
LC: A big part of Foam’s mission, from my eyes, is the platform it offers to emerging talents. This happens both within the museum and through your yearly Talent Issue. I was curious if you had any examples of photographers you “discovered” as emerging talents that you have watched grow since then.
EM: First, about our selection process: we have endless discussion at Foam about how we choose artists as talents (and for publication). What are the criteria? Is it all subjective? Is it just the right work at the right time? Again, there is no unique recipe, there are so many factors influencing the decision. The first glimpse is often what has the potential to make my eyes stop, which is something important for me: feeling that something coming up. A personal pleasure; a visual feast for the eyes. But then, from my side, probably the key criteria is: does this image/body of work have something to say? And is it saying it?
One photographer who is very close to me is Daisuke Yokota. We published him for the first time as a runner-up in 2012. And from then on, we kept our eye on him. Personally, I’m a huge fan of his work, I love it. I adore his books, I respect the way he approaches images. So it was a huge honor to see him grow over the past five years: as a runner-up, then a Foam Talent, and from there, he quickly became discovered by the world. He had exhibitions at Foam but also many other institutions. With a little help from our platform, he made himself visible on a global scale. And now he is an established artist, but one who retains a very personal way of approaching the photographic lens. Someone who continues to do things his own way.
Another example is Alinka Echeverria. Like Yokota, she was featured as a runner-up in the magazine in 2011 and her work kept popping up in the following years. Thus, we were following her very closely: what she was publishing, the ways she was changing her work, her exploration of patterns and textures. And so it was a gorgeous moment when she submitted this year to the Talent Issue. When it came in, we all thought, “Ah, there’s new work from Alinka!” Then we looked at it closer, looked at each other, and said, “Yes. That’s it.”
That’s when I remind myself: I need to train my eye, I need to expand my view. When I face a visual language that is unfamiliar, I do not stop—I grow.
Of course, all of this should come with a disclaimer. While I imagine that real recognition offers complete catharsis for the artists who experience it, let’s be honest: it’s also a rat race. There are so many talented artists that receive no attention at all. They don’t “make it” for many reasons. Sometimes it’s a glass ceiling. Sometimes there are no access to opportunities where they live. Sometimes it is the Westernized context that freezes them out. In response to these structural reasons, which I think are totally unjust, we have a responsibility to rip through them; expand and broaden; make our institutions more inclusive. But even so, there will always be talented people who don’t receive attention. If you are good, you have a chance to make it. But it’s not a given.
LC: For those artists from radically different contexts (South Asia, Latin America, former Soviet countries, Africa), I think there is a delicate balance between being yourself and making your work legible. You want to be visible in a way that people will understand, but not so much that you become a copy of everyone else. As an editor, how do you remain open to different visual approaches?
EM: My background in iconography helps me a lot on this front. As odd as it may seem, studying visual history from one of the most deeply Western contexts (Rome) gave me a very deep mythology to draw from as I read images. This means that when I am unable to read an image, I stop; I stop and remind myself that it’s me who is not able to read the image, not the image which is unreadable. That’s when I remind myself: I need to train my eye, I need to expand my view. When I face a visual language that is unfamiliar, I do not stop—I grow.
Remember: we are all acculturated to visual categories. We are then drawn towards images that we like. But when we see something foreign and think, “Ah, this is too weird,” that is the moment to push ourselves. Those moments are great—we are really confronting new points of view. We must always challenge ourselves, as readers and viewers of the world.
Learning a new visual language is like learning a new verbal language. In my mind, the goal when learning any new language is to someday read its poetry. To set aside translations and access the real thing. For us, as image-makers and image-consumers, there is a similar process. We must learn in order to understand what others are trying to say. When you can do that, you will see if others, from contexts different than your own, truly have something original to show you.
—Elisa Medde, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
The LensCulture Exposure Awards 2018 are now open for entries! Submit your work now to have it seen by our distinguished jury panel, including Medde, editors from The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, and many more.
To keep up with the latest from Foam Magazine, you can purchase a single issue or sign up for an annual subscription.