The curator of this year’s Krakow Photomonth is photographer, writer, magazine publisher and curator Aaron Schuman. LensCulture assistant editor Alexander Strecker talked with him about the ideas behind the festival's programming, Schuman's process as a curator, and his thoughts about what differentiates great photographers from everyone else.
What's the idea behind this year’s edition of Krakow PhotoMonth?
I'm fascinated by the relationship between photography and knowledge, as well as how photography often inspires a search for
I see photographers as people who go out into the world, and though they might not be experts in a particular field or on a certain subject, wrap a camera around their neck and begin to learn, and to search for knowledge. The knowledge that they seek and often find can be personal, philosophical, scientific, abstract, but the whole process becomes one of searching.
This is why the title of the Main Program is split—Re:Search. In a few words, I wanted to examine the photographer as a researcher, the process of searching that photography involves and inspires, and the relationship between photography and knowledge.
Of course, photography's search for knowledge can be useful and problematic. It can be a deceptive medium, a subjective medium, an ambiguous medium—but that's not to say it can't provide information and be applied to notions of fact, evidence and truth. So I felt it was important to include the work of photographers who explore how photos are used to prove things, whether those things are "true" or not. Some of the exhibitions, such as Forensic Aesthetics, explore how photography can determine fact and truth, and others, such as Clare Strand's Further Reading, show how artists can play with the authoritative language of photography, and often subvert the medium's claim of authority.
I also wanted to include a lot of work that not only presents its findings but also represents the journey and the searching process behind the finished product. A lot of the exhibitions contain material that allow viewers to see a photographer's process and shows how the photographer ultimately ended up with their work, which gives the audience insights into all the work behind each image.
How do you create a festival program that appeals to both a broad audience while also addressing these serious, intellectual questions about photography?
The truth value of photography is a serious, intellectual question but a lot of the work in the program is really playful. One of my goals as a curator is to make exhibitions which don't feel like a teacher saying, "You need to know this and you need to know that." My hope is that you walk in and it feels more like someone grabs your hand and says, "Let's go on a journey and discover something together." So, I did my best to pick work and choose artists who are interested in sharing their experience of making work, as well as the work itself, with anyone and everyone.
While some of the photographers are engaged with very
intellectual, medium-specific questions, the program as a whole aims to engage
the general public. Certainly, many of the exhibitions ask a lot of the
audience; they have to be active viewers rather than passive ones, and can't expect to be told everything. Nevertheless, I want to be able to reach out to someone who has never
thought about photography and get that viewer to understand how these
ideas relate to being playful and curious and interested in the world.
When you curate a large exhibition, what comes first — the theme or the works?
I write about photography, I curate photography, and I teach photography, but in my heart, I'm a photographer. So I always try to write about it or teach it from a photographer’s perspective. In other words, what really interests me first is the work itself, and the thought process of the photographer when they were making it. So, when I was coming up with this program, I said, “There are these 20 photographers/ideas/books/things that are interesting to me—how I am going to herd them all into one unifying theme? What can I wrap around them?” I know that many curators, institutions, academics—people who come from a more theoretical background—begin with a concept and then find examples that suit that their idea, and that can certainly work very well. But I tend to go the other way; I don’t understand why I like a particular photograph until I’m forced to articulate it.
Another consideration for the festival's program was the need to feature Polish photography and Polish artists. I've been coming to Krakow Photomonth for the past five or six years, and in that very short span of time, I've seen Polish photography change, grow, and evolve very rapidly and in fascinating ways. Polish photography today is experimental, rich, and really pushes some interesting boundaries, not only within Poland, but throughout the world. It just goes to show how quickly a national visual culture can take off and flourish, and I think that—at least in part—the last 12 years of Krakow Photomonth have been immensely influential in that growth and development. So for the program, I enlisted the help of two very progressive, informed, and interesting Krakow-based curators who did an amazing job of incorporating the Polish photography scene as well.
So, you're a curator, a photographer, a writer, a magazine editor—how do all those things fit together?
We're in this incredible situation where photography is growing exponentially—it surrounds us every day. But there's this concern amongst "real" photographers about how to define ourselves, how to become something unique and differentiated. My idea is that we don't have to separate ourselves from everybody, but we do have to become much more versed not only in the making of pictures but also understanding photography as a medium, contextualizing our work, and communicating those ideas to other people. To put it differently, I think photography has become a medium much like writing: anyone can pick up a pen and paper and write a poem or a letter or an article but there are some people who are really good at it and dedicated to the craft; often they write literary criticism as well as books, as well as edit other writing, and so on. Writers spend an enormous amount of time thinking about their medium, reading other writers, explaining why good writing is important—and I think photographers are in a similar position.
In fact, I think many of the best practitioners have always have been like that. Look at the history of photography: Alfred Stieglitz was a great photographer but also published a magazine Camera Work, ran the 291 gallery, and wrote extensively about photography. Walker Evans played a foundational role in Yale’s photography program, was an editor at Fortune magazine, wrote beautifully about photography and, of course, found time to take some pictures. At MoMA, both John Szarkowski and Edward Steichen were photographers and curators and writers and teachers. Robert Adams began as a poet and English teacher, and still writes stunningly about photography, as well as making his own work. Again, I think the best practitioners have always had a multi-faceted grasp of the medium and now it’s becoming more and more so.
You began as a photographer and then branched out into these other forms?
I studied photography at university. After graduating, I started SeeSaw Magazine with the idea that I needed to stop thinking only about my work and should look to see what was happening around the world of photography. I found it a great opportunity to build bridges between myself and my peers, breaking down the self-conscious and totally unnecessary feelings of competition and saying, "Let’s all share this together." Eventually, my writing about photography led to curating and teaching about photography. Of course, I continue to make my own work and I’m happy to say that one of the exhibitions in the festival features my own work (amongst many other things that I've brought together with it). But all of these activities feel interrelated to me and feed into one another.
Do you have a favorite part of the festival program?
That’s a tough question! What really stands out to me are the relationships, overlaps, and connections that I've discovered between many of the exhibitions in the program. Many of these connections are very subtle and often they're complete surprises to me, but it’s wonderful to see how it all fits together. It’s funny, I first chose the topic and title of Re:Search because it was open enough that I felt I could stick all sorts of things into it. But now, as I’m walking around the exhibitions, looking at the catalogue, thinking about the work, I realize that it turns out to be a really tight program. Details of certain exhibitions echo and reverberate with other parts of the program and the overall effect is really astounding to me.
So, ideally, I really want everybody to see everything. Of course, I know that if you come as a visitor for a weekend, that’s a challenge. You go to a few exhibitions and then you sit in the square to have a coffee (or a vodka) with your friends. But from my perspective, I hope that visitors will make the effort to see as much as they can while they're here.
As a teacher, a curator, portfolio reviewer — do you have any advice for students and emerging photographers?
Many photographers make the mistake that when they see a photograph they like, they want to make that exact same photograph or make a picture like that picture. What I encourage people to do is to look into the process behind the photograph on the wall. Rather than looking at a photographer’s final output, consider how they got there. Think about the approaches they used, the preparations they made, the thoughts they had, the research they did, the journeys they went on, and all the processes that went into the final body of work. And that's very much a part of the Re:Search program at Krakow Photomonth.
As I mentioned, a lot of the exhibitions in the festival are about learning and searching through photography and they shine a light on process. Photographers don’t just press a button and make their pictures in a split second. They spend all day, every day thinking, searching, researching, and trying to figure out how to take pictures. And of course, I think students and emerging photographers need to realize how vital the history of photography is, not only in terms of images, but image-making: they need to understand the ideas involved in the medium, dwell with the medium, connect deeply with their subject matter—and invest a lot in their own process.
— Interview of Aaron Schuman by Alexander Strecker
Editor's Note: Krakow PhotoMonth will be running from May 15 to June 15 in exhibition spaces all across the city. Be sure to check out the festival's website for more details about scheduling and accompanying events.