Interview: Susan Bright & Javier Vallhonrat
By Kala Herh
The extent to which society has defined emerging photographers is being exponentially expanded in contemporary times — and Madrid is among those leading the charge. PhotoESPAÑA is an annual festival that showcases the work of thousands of photographers, creators, artists, curators, and companies that are acute to both the culture and politics that shape our global understanding. The festival not only weaves itself with the world at large, but also firmly roots itself with the community of Madrid. The festival aims to provide a space for reflection surrounding photographs. We spoke to guest curator, Susan Bright, and featured photographer, Javier Vallhonrat, to gain insight into this unique festival.
KALA HERH: First of all, congratulations on curating at many major museums — including the Tate Britain, Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, and too many more to name. What makes curating PhotoESPAÑA unique?
SUSAN BRIGHT: Thank you. Curating PHE was very special and personal for me. I first attended the festival in 2004 and remember saying then that I would like to work with them. I have visited several times since and find it one of the most rigorous and well put together festivals in Europe. The museum standard and quality of the exhibitions is admirable and the range impressive. It was unique in that I had pretty much free reign in my curatorial thinking. Everyone was very supportive of my ideas and pushed me to develop them very early on in the process. This was the first time I have worked for a festival rather than a museum so the time scales were very different from my usual rhythm so to work so hard and fast was both challenging and good for me. The spaces I was given were all incredible, so it was also really nice to be able to make some of the exhibitions more site-specific. All in all, it really was a wonderful experience, and I am very proud of what we did together.
HERH: You should be, it is quite a feat. What initially drew you to enter into this world of curating?
BRIGHT: When I was about 15 I used to ‘curate’ my bedroom. This involved mounting my posters on a specially painted board, writing captions for the bands they represented and taking installation shots. It was a highly unusual thing for a teenage girl to do! There was no internet then so research was quite a process of sifting through magazines such as The Face and Melody Maker to get the captions right. I didn’t know about curating as a profession then, I was just doing what felt right. I studied a lot of art history and this lead me to it as a profession. I knew I was never going to thrive in a commercial setting and it’s a profession which seems to play to my strengths.
HERH: This new exhibition is framed around the concept of déjà vu. Can you tell me about what was the aim of this theme?
BRIGHT: I think at a very basic level it reflects my interest in photography at the moment. What I mean is that I am drawn to how the medium acts rather than what it shows. I like how it functions in the world rather than considering what it is as a stand-alone aesthetic object. So in the work chosen there is the idea had a past life in some way. Thus the title was Déjà Vu? The question mark is important. The artists favour the photographic event by illustrating that photography is unfolding, its life does not stop. It is not always linear but loops back and forth, much like history itself. In this respect, I highlight photography that is reliant on the traditions and ideas of the past in order to make work that is completely relevant for today. This included Fluxus ‘event scores’, reworking archive snapshots, using obsolete information theory or referencing art history. I think it’s important to always look back and to respect history and see what we can learn from it.
HERH: You once said that the work done here “is a return to the historical relationship that photography has with painting.” Why do you feel that this is important especially for the PHotoESPAÑA festival?
BRIGHT: I did, but that does not refer to all the work in the programme. Just some of it. In fact, there are five main themes I have identified running through the work selected. These include: art history, painting, communication and miscommunication, collaboration, and the archive.
In terms of painting, I think what some of the work does in PHE is reinvigorating that debate often when the links are made to refer to photography that looks like paintings. This is not what any of the work was doing in PHE. Sharon Core’s photographs are conceptual investigations into how photography is used to reproduce paintings. It asks us how paintings is communicated; and the answer is mainly through photography, whether in books or on the Internet. Her work is made directly from reproductions found in both sources, so they must be understood as photographs of photographs of paintings. Laura Letinsky turns to the still life tradition, associated with painting, but instead of using symbols and structures associated with its past every object also becomes rife with issues of want and need, capitalism, consumerism, and obsolescence. It is a sophisticated questioning of the medium of photography and how it makes us see, feel and make our world. It looks at how magazines, paintings, and photographs tell us how to live and deconstructs all the truths associated with such objects. And finally, Clare Strand presents ten monumental paintings. These are based on photographs that were transmitted via the phone by her husband based on a gridded photograph which he describes by number code. As you can the work has everything to do with how photography acts in relation to painting, rather than painting itself.
HERH: I’m particularly interested in your earlier work titled, “Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity” and specifically how this project shaped your current curating process, or if it just reinforced it?
BRIGHT: Home Truths was the first time I used autobiography as an initial impetus so it will always be a little different from a lot of my other projects. It was also the basis of my PhD in Curating which I completed at Goldsmiths, University of London. What this means is that I had really had articulate my theoretical framework. It was a curatorial project that examines photographic artworks depicting the experience and symbolism of motherhood in contemporary Western culture. Favouring autobiographical and documentary approaches in art photography of the 2000s, my curatorial practice drew on feminist precedents in art-making and writing. There were four main outcomes to this project: an exhibition; an edited book; public programmes and a digital display titled Motherlode. In its entirety Home Truths negotiates what it means to be a mother in the twenty-first century, grappling with stereotypes, personal expectations, and cultural constraints, revealing the maternal self to have both agency and power.
Doing a PhD makes you a more rigorous researcher and the subject matter demanded very close relationships be formed with the artists as a high level of trust was needed. It makes you test yourself and your ideas over and over again to make sure they stand up to scrutiny. I have taken all these elements through to my projects since.
HERH: Can you speak of any projects you are excited to be working on in the future?
BRIGHT: Not really as they are not yet announced. But of the projects that are, I am looking forward to seeing the exhibition ‘Feast for the Eyes – the story of Food in Photography’ continue its European tour and then go to Canada and the USA. I’ve got some essays coming out later in the year – some of which are not about photography or art at all. I am enjoying widening out my writing and addressing subjects that are close to my heart.
HERH: With working in collaboration with both iconic and emerging artists for several years, how do you see photography evolving in the next decade?
BRIGHT: I try not to answer this question whenever I am asked! I am not a gifted soothsayer!
KALA HERH: Let’s talk about your most recent project, La sombra incisa. It’s a wonderful project. This work documents Maladeta Glacier for a long time, over ten years long. What made you want to capture glaciers in such an ambitious project?
JAVIER VALLHONRAT: La sombra incisa is the continuation of a previous project, 42ºN, developed in the same environment. I maintain since 2009 a relationship of familiarity with this small and beautiful glacier, the best preserved glaciers in southern Europe. The Maladeta Glacier was photographed by Joseph Vigier in 1853. Before that date, no one had photographed a glacier so closely and explicitly in the history of photography. I received a proposal from the MUN of Navarra (a Spanish museum) to visit that photograph in their collection of historical photography. At that same time, I discovered that Richard Long had photographed one of his stone circles in 1994 from the same place and with the same background of the glacier as Joseph Vigier 150 years earlier. Both Vigier and Long understood photography as a discontinuous point in a continuum, as a construction and as part of an experience, and this made me interested in this particular environment.
HERH: When I saw your aerial images online, assembled as collages that could be said to mimic tectonic plates, they exuded a sense of fragility. What do you hope these images convey or what it doesn’t?
VALLHONRAT: The two ideas you propose - the tectonic (and in a broader sense, the movements or traces produced by the instability of the terrain) and the fragile are important in my work with the glacier. Also, the idea of photography as a fragile and hybrid medium or the fragility of the status of photography as a language interests me, but obviously the way in which different viewers receive it is very diverse.
HERH: You definitely seem to have a deep love. What is your earliest memory of being outdoors? Do you think this influenced making a living out of it?
VALLHONRAT: Without a doubt, the memories of my childhood in the mountains of Guadarrama (2,400 meters high) strongly influence me. My father took me to these mountains when I was 13 years old. I remember going with my classmates there, but while they were making snowmen, I was going with my skis on those lonely slopes with a mixture of fear and pleasure. There was awe, loneliness and gratitude. I think this continues to be present in the depths of my work.
HERH: I think it does, for sure. I heard that you lived with just your photographic equipment and a tent in the Pyrenees, so I have to ask, what was that like?
VALLHONRAT: Well, it is important to clarify some details. For the "Polípticos" series, I work from my tent, that is, my tent is a dark camera equipped with a large format lens. Inside the tent, for each of the polyptychs, I expose four negatives of 8x10 inches. I only work for 20 or 25 days of the month of August. It is the period during which the ancient ice is visible. Of those days, I only stay in a tent when the weather conditions are acceptable. Thunderstorms are very frequent in the Pyrenees during the month of August and it is dangerous to remain in the glacier with so much metal material. I keep in touch by walkie-talkie with a shelter located two and a half hours on the descent and about three and a half hours on the rise. When the risk of a storm is very high, from the shelter they let me know and I descend to a safe place with film and objectives. The rest remains hidden and protected in small rock shelters.
HERH: On the same trend, I can only imagine that packing is tough. What must you bring for a trip like this?
VALLHONRAT: Some nearby people help me, such as my son Pablo, video director, or my wife Concha, mountaineer. I have shared my mountain projects with them. Sometimes a friend helps me too. We do not know in what proportion we are responsible for the acceleration of the deterioration of this glacier, and of all glaciers. What we do know is that we remain impassive and inactive in a situation of true climate emergency. Some aspects of the human impact on the planet can radically change and produce positive changes. To see other changes, we will have to wait for time, if they occur. I cannot remain impassive in the face of the suffering of this lonely, beautiful little glacier. For me, it's like watching a whale stranded on a beach. It is sure that I will do something, like sitting nearby and sing to her, which could be seen like something highly ineffective. I know that my action is somewhat ineffective, but it is all I know how to do right now: pay tribute to this unique and fragile being, giving it a voice
HERH: How does the impending climate crisis influence the way you represent nature in your photos?
VALLHONRAT: I believe that empathy only arises when we contact the feeling of vulnerability of oneself and the other. This awareness of otherness is necessary today more than ever before a society engulfed in delusional egocentrism. I try to emphasize in the fragility of all the living, in its unavoidable material complexity, in the fragility of human dispositions of knowledge and representation and in the fragility of language. All these procedures seek to awaken in the viewer a state of sensitivity towards the living.
HERH: In the late 1900s and early 2000s, you were a maverick in the fashion photography industry and now you’re capturing nature. That’s quite a departure from the controlled studio setting. How do you know what to capture the essence when you’re out in the elements and are of the mercy of Mother Nature?
VALLHONRAT: I have a lot of patience. It's always about knowing what you are looking for. When the sensations that one seeks to convey are clear, in the studio you create the conditions and in nature, you wait for the circumstances to arise. Working with Nature demands patience and humility.
HERH: Can you speak of any projects you are excited to be working on in the future?
VALLHONRAT: I am interested in the relationship between the apparent chaos in the cycle of creation-destruction visible in natural forests, confronted with extremely geometric patterns expressed in the development of botanical gardens in the West during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, centuries of expansion of colonialism. I am starting a project in this regard.
HERH: What motivates you day in and day out to keep pushing yourself to take on new feats?
VALLHONRAT: Curiosity. Sense of wonder. Humility.
For more information on PHotoESPAÑA, visit their website here.