As photography continues to evolve and expand, so must the network of support around it. Maintaining a curiosity and open understanding of the medium and its many different possibilities is one of the key tenets of Oliva María Rubio’s approach to photography. Having curated over 60 exhibitions as Director of Exhibitions and General Curator of PHotoESPAÑA and headed up contemporary cultural centre La Fábrica as Artistic Director since 2014, María Rubio has a nuanced appreciation of photography’s persistent evolution.
As Artistic Director, she has worked closely with both established artists and educational initiatives over the course of her career. The one constant in the shifting sands of photography’s landscape is the importance of putting the work in. Growth as an artist doesn’t come without passion and interest.
We’re delighted that María Rubio is one of the jurors for this year’s LensCulture Art Photography Awards. We reached out to speak about her role as Artistic Director, how to stand out as a young artist in a sea of images, and the highlights of this year’s edition of PHotoESPAÑA.
LensCulture: You have an academic background in the Art History. How did photography come to the forefront of your interests? Have your studies shaped your approach to photography and the work you do now?
Oliva María Rubio: When I finished my career in the History of Art, I had the chance to work in a space dedicated to art in general. It was called the Canal de Isabel II, an old water tank in Madrid. After several exhibitions, we decided to dedicate the space solely to photography, since there weren’t many spaces dedicated to the medium in Madrid.
Of course, my studies have shaped my approach to photography, my way of seeing, and my own work. My doctorate thesis on Surrealist theories of Art and the role that photography played in the movement impacted my perception of photography as a discipline open to many different possibilities.
“For me, ‘art’ photography, as with any other art form, is work that broadens my vision of the world. Work that questions and challenges me as well as telling a good story.”
LC: The role of an Artistic Director is a varied one. How would you describe the core of your work? What is the most exciting component for you?
OMR: My work at La Fábrica as Artistic Director generally leans towards advice: proposing themes and suggesting names of artists for any projects that the company is involved in. But more specifically, at the moment, my task is to curate exhibitions—something I have always done—as well as directing Master PHotoESPAÑA, a comprehensive program in photography training.
During all my years at La Fábrica and PHotoESPAÑA, the most exciting component has been deciding which artists and photographers I want to work with. In this sense, I have been very happy to have the opportunity to work on exhibitions of artists whose work I truly admire, which naturally inspires me to devote time to working on them.
LC: Both La Fábrica and PHotoESPAÑA share the aim of stimulating and supporting photography. La Fábrica has a broad output, comprising many different arms from publishing and exhibitions to education, while the festival format presents the opportunity to engage the public with many perspectives on photography at a particular time and place. What is it like to work across many platforms? Do these different ventures influence each other?
OMR: I think that working across multiple platforms that support photography is very enriching and stimulating, because one nourishes other people. These different projects feed into each other. For instance, for me, it is very interesting to work on an exhibition and catalogue simultaneously with my colleagues. It allows you to explore and understand the work from the inside out. Additionally, Master PHotoESPAÑA takes advantage of the festival experience, and then becomes a platform to publicize the work of the students in Spain and abroad, as we receive invitations from other festivals.
LC: One of the outcomes of the countless transformations photography has undergone in the past few decades is that the boundaries between different genres have are blurring. How would you define ‘art’ photography?
OMR: For me, ‘art’ photography, as with any other art form, is work that broadens my vision of the world. Work that questions and challenges me as well as telling a good story.
LC: This year marks the 20th anniversary of PHotoESPAÑA. What excites you about how the art of photography has changed over the years, and how artists have responded to it?
OMR: I am always excited by artists’ ability to regenerate and respond to the challenges posed by new technologies.
LC: Experimentation is at the heart of any progression in an artistic medium, and new technologies and their effects always open up many new possibilities for artists to explore. But they can also lead to repetitive trends and empty aesthetics. What, for you, makes a project stand out in our highly-saturated visual landscape? What qualities do you look for when searching for new work?
OMR: A project excels in a world saturated with images when there is strong work behind it, a deep involvement from the author, an honesty when facing their subject, and a desire to speak in their own language. A body of work is exceptional when it answers profound questions that the author has asked themself.
I always look for work where the voice of the artist is present—a work that tells me about our world and obliges me to open my mind to other possibilities, the worlds of others, and different ways of thinking.
LC: What advice would you give to young artists developing their practices today?
OMR: I always tell them that they have to work hard to find their own voice and their own style. In order to achieve that, it is very important to look inside and to work, work and work. I also advise them to be curious, to read and see exhibitions of all kinds of art, to watch films and to live. Because all of this will nourish and shape them as human beings.
LC: The festival program features many strong artistic voices that push the boundaries of photography, inviting us to think about what it is today, what it does to us and how it can speak to other art forms, such as painting and sound. Can you tell me a bit about this year’s edition? What are you most looking forward to?
OMR: One of the characteristics of PHotoESPAÑA over the years has been to avoid stagnation and repetition, and to be a festival open to all kinds of photography. Therefore, we have changed the artistic direction every three years, which results in a continuous renewal. In recent years, we have experimented with the idea of giving carte blanche to different professionals, like photographers and curators.
This year, we gave carte blanche to curator and writer Susan Bright, allowing her to create six exhibitions, all around one theme. This allows Bright to give us her own vision of photography. The program she proposed explores strong artistic voices. I am very happy, for example, that we can see the work of Elina Brotherus, whose first exhibition I presented at PHotoESPAÑA in 2002, as well as Clare Strand. These are two major voices that have pushed the boundaries of photography, which is why we put together these events in the first place.