Luvera on Participation

MA in Photography, Falmouth University, Module 3, Surfaces and Strategies, Week 3

Anthony Luvera spoke at the State of Photography II Conference I attended in Birmingham on 16th June 2017.  This was timely as my group was just completing the crowdsourced zine project that week.

Luvera (born 1974) is both a teacher and practitioner – his practice has, since 2001, moved from commercial photographic work to a collaborative form.  Palmer in his book Photography and Collaboration (2017) cites Luvera and provides a useful historic context to his work, ranging from the Half Moon Gallery in 1975 when the merger took place Jo Spence and Terry Dennett.  Palmer quotes Jessica Evan’s term (1997:11), the orthodoxies which “claimed for photography the status of art with its ideological baggage of expressive individualism” noting that there was a dismantling in progress.  He cites Su Braden (1983) in her book Committing Photography the movement in community photography as a reaction and counterpoint to the ‘high end’ galleries which only celebrated individualised art at that time.  The era saw the co-ownership of equipment essential for taking charge of image making and processing; cameras, darkroom, shows and magazines.  This led to “empowering participants…in the politics of distribution of mass media and its investment in retaining the status quo” (pp91).  The arts funding cuts that began in 1979 saw the demise of the essential funds to make holistic projects such as this viable, the activity thus became minimal for a period.  Luvera moved by serious social issues such as homelessness began to collect tokens for the purchase of cameras and processing.  His first foray was tentative and the strategy of learning by developing ideas prevailed and he now uses what he describes as ‘assisted portraits” using professional standard cameras, flash guns and remote shutter releases enabling complex control by the subjects after being offered a session to learn the techniques.  Film or digital images are then captured and any adjustments are done with his co-participants.

I recorded Luvera’s latest account of his work at the conference. He spoke about “communities being fluid’, whereby the ‘membership’ may vary and circumstances will change through the life of a project.  He placed emphasis on how is the “process briefed and predicted for participation”, thinking through the journey and most importantly how the conversation is engaged and encouraged, to create actual ownership.  He cautioned against funders and the fact that “commissioners sometimes predict and position the lead photographer”, I surmised that his body of work and visible outputs would enable him to withstand undue pressure to bow to a funders expectation of output as the very essence of the practice is to submit and facilitate the group to define its choices each time.  He stated a point suffixed with a question “using images there is representation – what is the power balance?” he notes the fun element and socialisation of defining a project and making the images, many of which are also aligned with textual statements of the personal.  As soon as an image finds its way onto social media, posters, conference presentation, there is an exposure; an audience beyond the group.  I assume that this is the most delicate and sensitised forum for debate and decisions with a mixture of fear and excitement.  Luvera cited an example of one participant deciding that their portrait could not be shown on the London Underground station displays; it was able to be removed; this exemplifies the difference between the notion of display and the reality of visible experiencing your own portrait to a huge audience.  Fundamentally Luvera is providing a voice to his groups.  Not going Shopping (Brighton) and the forthcoming Let us Eat Cake (Belfast) are visible manifestations of his teams’ work.  He insists that a project starts with an open view of its benefits, values, outputs they become cemented only when you ask the participants.  This conversation would help to define audiences for the work, a question all photographers and facilitators should be asking.  I suspect that his ethical positioning would prevent Luvera from making work that defies the wishes, expectation and involvement of his collaborators and this it is infused with authenticity.

Practice Impact

Reading and writing up my conference notes has enabled me to reflect more on how I make work with others.  The most immediate example of my work as a group was the zine project (week 3) – in retrospect agreeing the ‘brief’ more throughly as a team then explaining in more detail the outputs and use of imagery and subsequently sharing would have been good.  I could envisage more learning, founded on this experience in the future as I may involve myself in a zine.

On wider practice, I am currently working with 4 people who have been provided with compact digital cameras and SD cards for 6 weeks to capture the area where I work.  I am increasing my level of interim engagement with them.  This group differ significantly from the groups Luvera engages with but there has been some transferred learning.

References

Palmer D. Photography and Collaboration. London. Bloomsbury (2017)

Evans J. (ed) The Cameraworks Essays.  Rivers Oram Press (1997)

#seeingbidspaces Episode One

MA Major Project – Evolving Practice

“Re-seeing Public Art”

Episode 1 in the visual participation element of the project : getting started.

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As part of my Major Project I made the decision to test out the potential for expanding my theme of re-seeing the city of Birmingham and its particular accent on public art into visual participation.

These blog entries will follow progress and outcomes from the project.

Whilst not being experiences at all in this area of work, I embarked on some research looking at practitioners such as Penelope Umbrico http://www.penelopeumbrico.net/ and Wendy Ewald http://wendyewald.com/.

The premise for my engagement proposal was for the public to look and re-look at public art.  Art in public spaces.  There is a good precedent in Birmingham for the commissioning of pubic art over three centuries.

A was delighted to receive sponsorship from Colmore Business Improvement District (BID) in Birmingham city centre for the purchase of 5 compact cameras and SD cards which have been loaned into the project.  The BID also paid for the launch event on 13th February over lunch.

The launch was oversubscribed.  An invitation out to the BID database achieved a response in 15 minutes of the email being sent out.  This clearly demonstrated a powerful desire for photography in place making.  The launch event involved becoming familiar with the project as part of my MA studies, familiarisation with the cameras and an illustration of my images of public art in the city.  I also asked them to sign a form about personal safety, camera care and releasing their work to allow the BID and I to use imagery for our own, none commercial purposes.  We also discussed the fact that this is the vanguard group working with me for the first time on such a venture, so feedback would be welcome during and at the conclusion of the exercise.

The initial group of 24 people set off on a two week mission to engage with the city in their own time.

A meet-up in one of the main squares in Birmingham was held on 21st February.  8 people attended and we talked about experiences and observations to date, practicalities and how to handover the imagery.

Despite the British weather being consistently dull since the project began the group talked about what they liked about looking at public art and what they were seeing.  I encouraged them to exploit the selective qualities of wet surfaces to increase shooting even when the light is dull as the even light from cloud covered skies and the rain on surfaces can provide for interesting views.  Many wanted to extend the project to looking at architecture which we all thought was a good idea and we entered into a debate about the decoration that adorns the Council House and its friezes and caryatids.

A number of the group had used their phone cameras more than the issued cameras for several reasons; convenience, there being too few cameras to share and because they felt less self conscious using a camera phone than any other device.  One person had taken the SD card and placed it into his own camera.

The discussion was drawn into an area about being ‘seen’ as photographers, how people react, the subjects being viewed and I encouraged thinking about the audience, thus highlighting the subject/photographer/viewer triangular relationship.  This led to a brief discussion about the ethics of shooting people and in a moment ‘owning’ their image/face/person.

We had a debate about art out in the open and whether it should include in its definition railings, street furniture and things ‘applied’ to buildings. 

A number said the Antony Gormley “Iron Man’ was liked because it was modern and created controversy locally.

We talked about the historical and hierarchical nature of public art on pedestals (such as Queen Victoria in the eponymous Square) and the Gormley piece which is rooted directly into the surface paving.

The request to keep the cameras for another week was agreed.  We also came up with the hashtag #seeingbidspaces for use on Instagram to allow the project to exist visually and persist after the cameras were returned with there cards for me to download. Several people asked for a workshop to learn more about photography and that has been set up too.

I was able to hold a Skype discussion session with Anthony Luvera on 17th February 2017 (www.luvera.com and  http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/story-1-by-anthony-luvera) who has great depth of collaborative photographic practice.  He spoke about the practice and theory of visual participation and the process of making provoking ideas thoughts and challenges.  He put a deal of accent on the process of making (people) rather than the output (imagery).  He felt that is was important to document the meeting sessions with any participatory group.  he recommended a blog to share inputs.  His advice was to make sure as the ‘leader’ of the idea one loosens up as to process and expectations by having many conversations, being attentive, talk about some photographs, give the project a title, avoiding dictating a process.  As the leader you are a kind ok mediator or stage director, place the participants into the limelight.  He recommended two books

Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook. Helguera, Pablo. 2011.

Photography and Collaboration: From Conceptual Art to Crowdsourcing. Palmer, Daniel. 2017.

I was able to apply some of this learning at the group session on 21st February (hence this blog).

I shall be posting the next episode as the project journeys into its next phase.

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