Conference: Uncertain States, Keepers of Culture

Yesterday (10/06/2016)  I went to a fascinating and inspiring symposium hosted by Uncertain States.  The  various talks given explored how a changing economy will and has already impacted on the way visual culture, in particular photography, is collected and archived.

The first presentation took place on the coach going up to Derby, where the conference was held, as part of Format’s international photography festival. Photographer Tom Hunter shared an extended edit of his recently published book Le Crowbar, which is a photographic documentation of Hunter’s travels round Europe during the mid 90s on a bus, along with an ever-changing group of other people from London and Europe.  Hunter’s talk was funny and interesting, and it was great to see how examples from someone’s everyday life, albeit one that is relatively exotic, can be made into an interesting, important photographic book.  Important because it records a moment in our history that might be difficult to see happening today as cultural life for that age group has changed so drastically in the last 2 decades. The images were taken following Hunter’s undergraduate degree but before he attended the Royal College of Art to do his MA and I found it helpful to see these candid and vernacular examples of his, having only been familiar with later more staged images, although you can clearly see Hunter’s progression in the bus images too.  I may discuss the images another time, as would rather take some time to look at them before recording my thoughts here. However, for now, the most compelling thing for me was a comparison I made between those revellers choosing to live outside of conventional society in fields around Europe and today’s familiar site of groups being forced to live outside society in similar fields dotted about the continent – perhaps I’ll discuss this more at a later date. The talk was really enjoyable though and worth getting up at the crack of dawn to catch the bus for.

Zelda Chealte

The first speaker at the conference was Zelda Cheatle who “is a well-known curator and editor of photography.  After some years taking photographs, she began a gallery career at the Photographer’s Gallery 1982-1988, working with internationally renowned photographers and emerging British and European Artists. From 989-2055 the eponymous Zelda Cheadle  gallery ….exhibiting iconic work from across the 20th century.” (Speakers website; Uncertain States, 2016)  Cheadle was commissioned to manage the recent Dubai Photo exhibition  which meant appointing and working with curators from all over the world.  The enormous amount of negotiation with photographers and curators, as well as navigating cultural differences was palpable as Cheatle took us through the many examples of work from around the world that were exhibited. It was interesting to see not only how important the middle east, and it’s access to finance, has become; but Cheatle also made it clear how cultural taste and custom had an impact on what sort of work went into the public sphere.  Although she did what she could to encourage certain work she was also limited by a strict directive pertaining to what sort of work could be shown in Dubai.  As well as managing the various different curators from all over the world, Cheatle has to liaise with the organisers in Dubai.  It sounded like an extraordinarily difficult job, especially when faced with views that were deeply unpalatable from a few. It was fascinating also to hear about how when Cheatle started, photographs by names we now consider incredibly important were being sold for very little money indeed at the The Photographer’s Gallery as there was no photography market to speak of. That has certainly changed now and much of the symposium looked at the monetisation of photographic art.

Prof. Richard Sawdon Smith 

Smith is an artist and lecturer who has always collected since being an art student.  He was surprised to be asked to take part in the symposium though since he said he did not consider himself an ‘important collector’ as someone like Saatchi might be seen.  However, he agreed that his collection was a good example of how someone with a more modest bank account than the famous millionaire collector’s, and others like him, can also be responsible for creating a socially valuable archive of visual culture.  He talked about how he bought work primarily because he liked it, and also as research for his own practise.  I was happy to hear that, since I have been buying photography books where I like work, and recently a print that was relatively inexpensive because I liked it.  He discussed different ways of collecting; such as looking out for large editions of work where the cost may be significantly reduced from different sized but much smaller editions, paying by instalments to artists who would agree to that, swapping work with other artists, and also modelling for artists too in return for a print.  He collects a range of work including his own students’ work.  Smith discussed the amounts he was able to pay for all the examples he showed us which demonstrated that often it is not necessary to be paying the astronomical feels which institutional and wealthy individual markets perpetuate.

Pete James

James gave a moving account of how his work with the Library of Birmingham came to an end last year when the photographic archive lost its funding (I remember signing a petition to save it). He discussed some of the political machinations that one has to navigate when working in a publicity funded institution, and went on to explore other ways of preserving archives. He showed us work by Daniel Meadows held by the Hyman Collection (which I remember looking at before for something, perhaps Chris Killop’s work or Mark Power’s Shipping Forecast.)

Camilla Brown

Brown has this incredibly long list of achievements and is an Associate Curator for the The Artist Pension Trust, which she described to us.  The trust has been set up to try and collect and sell photographic work in a way that enables the artists involved to continue to benefit if being included in a collegiate way, as it spreads income across the artists as well as time.  It is an alternative way of collecting and selling work.  She identified three separate ways of collecting other than the fund’s: Institutional -where history, context and medium are considered, private collectors, which is down to personal taste, and finally hedge fund managers who are simply trying to make money.  The trust collects work from artists that have been nominated (they can do that themselves) and if work makes it into the collection then, over time, as work in the trust is sold, artists in the collective are given a payout in the same way as an investor in a unit trust might be. As well ask being financially beneficial to artists the trust has responsibility for archiving a range of work that reflects a broad spectrum of artistic practise, and which is not determined by one individual’s taste, an institutional and therefore political mandate or simply an unmitigated desire  to accumulate wealth.

Simon Tyszko

Tyszko is a visual and conceptual artist who’s late brother, Stefan, was a photographer working in the mid 60s. Tyszko has access to that archive so discussed the role he plays in managing that in conjunction with Getty, and also talked about how his own work being collected has impacted on choices he has made, such as rendering anyone who bought his Absolute Hypocrisy a criminal. “Action I have taken, words I have spoken are cited in academic papers, and some of my ‘objects’, having been negotiated and exchanged for large sums of money, are now both on display and even in storage as elements within ‘art’ collections, they are a small part of the structures and contexts that make up our cultural landscape.  I have observed this landscape to be at times contingent, weighted, irrational, corrupt and perhaps ultimately meaningless, yet I continue, confused, nihilistic and enthralled asking what for me are “some of the biggest questions I can””. (Tyszko, 2016) This was an interesting and creative description of how collecting is part of a two-way conversation that goes on between collectors and artists.

Paul Herrmann

Finally, Herrmann who is from Redeye talked about how artists/photographers can help themselves as well others with the process of preserving cultural records from the present by archiving properly and leaving behind a well-ordered legacy.  He discussed the importance of this especially as so much is digitised now and there is no way of knowing if data today can be accessed in the future.  There is a website which offers advice about all of this, and when I receive an email having been added to the mailing list I will provide it here.  In the meantime the following points we recommended:

  • Write down captions, label and context
  • Keep good notes of your process and work
  • Keep a record of your sales
  • Make great prints soon after you shoot
  • Get your story out there – what are you going to give away to the web?
  • Your corpus

The day ended with a panel discussion which in the main was about digital records and whether or not that will be reliable in the future.


I thoroughly enjoyed the day and met lots of great people as well as learning and being inspired.  I have come away with the following:

  • Make an effort to swap prints with other photographers (other students/photographers please do chat to me about this)
  • Keep collecting the books I’ve started buying when I can – I follow lots of interesting people on Instagram and find out about them on Twitter too and it’s worth buying when and where I can
  • Print my work more regularly and write about the process in hard copy to accompany anything I do print – in fact I do talk about the importance of printing on my commercial site and in connection to the phone stuff I do with kids. The symposium has deepened my commitment to that.
  • Update the various About Me pages appropriately so that they say something a little more interesting about me
  • I wouldn’t say the symposium prompted me to think more clearly about where my main focus is at the moment in photography, as that is something which has slowly been becoming clearer, but it has forced me to begin thinking about putting it into words.  Which is helpful!

References taken from the Uncertain States book printed to accompany the talks.



4 thoughts on “Conference: Uncertain States, Keepers of Culture

  1. I think the thing about print swapping has been around for as long as prints and the idea of which is still as good today as it was then. Many talk about it but it takes an effort of will to enable it – perhaps something to consider at the upcoming TVG mtg.
    Uncertain States are good value and I think their agenda is something that would suit you very well going forward.


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