“Authorship May be One of the Least Exciting Aspects of Photography”: Bird in Flight Prize ‘21 Jury Member David Campany
The title of Campany’s 2020 book refers us to Susan Sontag’s book On Photography. When David was a student, he met Sontag and questioned her assessment of photography. She kindly suggested that Campany write his own book on this topic one day, which he did. David Campany talks about this book, his research, and the stories behind the pictures.
Curator, writer, and Managing Director of Programs at the International Center of Photography [USA]. David has worked with institutions including MoMA New York, Tate Modern, Whitechapel Gallery London, Centre Pompidou, ParisPhoto, and has curated many projects worldwide. He has published several books on photography, cinema, and art, and over a hundred essays.
As a writer, curator, and editor of photobooks, what methods do you use in your projects?
I would say that what is common to all of my activities is editing. My projects take shape through the editing process – whether it is a book of essays, a photobook, or an exhibition. It is through editing that relations are formed or suggested between elements. Of course, the nature of the material and the context’s specifics determine how each project is edited. A project often begins as a loose set of fragments – thoughts, images, words, paragraphs – that don’t seem to mean much, or their meaning seems hidden and obscure. That’s where the editing begins. Often there is a lot of experimentation, trying things out to see if they work together or resonate somehow. Sometimes, shaping a project happens very fast; other projects may take a year or more. I’ve found that I can’t really speed up the process. Each project has its own rhythm.
I am not sure I would call editing a “method,” though. Most of the time, it feels more intuitive than methodical, at least at first. It becomes more conscious as the process refines itself.
It seems that you are one of the rare professionals trying to take photography beyond its traditional boundaries. Why do you think it’s important?
What has always fascinated me about photography is the range of different audiences and contexts it has had almost from its beginnings. Photography falls into specialisms and functions very quickly, which can be a problem, so in the books and exhibitions I work on, I try to keep the door open to new audiences, looking for the overlaps. This is always a challenge because the tendency in the 21st-century culture has been towards bubbles of one kind or another. But photography is probably the best medium for pricking those bubbles and crossing those cultural boundaries. I am attracted to projects where I don’t know in advance what the audience or the reception will be. It’s in those areas that culture is at its most interesting and least predictable.
In the 21st-century culture has been towards bubbles of one kind or another. But photography is probably the best medium for pricking those bubbles and crossing those cultural boundaries.
You chose to organize your recent book On Photographs not so much around names, as it happens in most photography books, but rather around particular images, some of them even made by unknown authors. Why is that?
In the case of On Photographs, this was quite deliberate. The project includes images by well-known photographers, little-known photographers, and photographers whose names have been lost. This was done partly to move away from the traditional idea of “Great Photographers,” whose names we are all supposed to know, and suggest that authorship may be one of the least exciting aspects of photography. Most people don’t care who made an image, and actually, the viewer is much freer to respond for themselves if they are not overburdened by the baggage that is often attached to a name. If you don’t follow the names or the money, you end up with a much more dynamic and possibly emancipatory view of photography.
Most people don’t care who made an image.
All the images are taken from the book On Photographs and published with the permission of its author David Campany.