Feature

Brad Feuerhelm: Photography Class of 2016?

By Brad Feuerhelm on September 19, 2016

“That is to say that if you are going to pay a king’s ransom for an education, why would you do so with heads of the department whose own careers are not esteemed in the global art network”

This is a short attempt to look at my own thoughts on the photographic world of 2016. I am looking at this all from a position of having been the director of a gallery in the past that exhibited at all the big fairs including Basel, Parisphoto, AIPAD, etc. I still sell vintage photography as a day job. I am also looking at this from the position of a collector, a writer on the medium and somebody who also has his own practice and publishes books. I would say my position is somewhat unique, so that doesn’t make the position I take universal in any way. When I consider what I have written, I realize that there are no answers, no overly helpful tips, no discernible reason to have written it other than to share one position out of many working in the field of photography today. I am not trying to be insulting though it may seem that way at times. I simply refuse to sugar coat things to make them more palpable for an audience that deserves more from the market, education and it’s critics. My writing will solve nothing. It is more of a reflection.

Photobooks

The Photobook Crowd. Insular. Often Whiny. Short on answers for why they actually like the book format as they spend as much time bitching about “too many photobooks” as they do spending time trying to make their next photobook. The whole of the market is rampant with problems from the illusion that the photobook (thank you Cristina de Middel) will give an artist a career on a gallery wall to the often-clique-ridden Facebook groups devoted to the topic where all the people who have yet to publish anything substantial chime in on every post in an oft-thought out plan to get noticed or to befriend some photographer with some status who they can become e-friends with (again, thank you, Cristina), chiming in with excessive likes on every post, submitting their opinions on the opinions of another person doing the same thing and occasionally trying to bitch slap, by way of comment, another person’s opinion in a favor to show loyalty and gain recognition of said artist, who believe me, does not give a single solitary fuck because they are too busy writing on Phil Toledano’s posts to notice.

Let’s face it, the book format is great. There are no problems with photobook fairs and fetishists no matter how many paychecks Erik Kessels and Martin Paar take from them. The last time I looked, censoring books and complaining about their content was in 1933 and though I am not saying we can’t burn a book or two, or maybe cook one (Melinda Gibson), we can afford to have the opportunities associated with publishing even if the deluded paradox of building careers is forgotten. The book shall remain the book for the book’s sake, ok? If you’re going to keep bitching about it, perhaps stop making them yourself as you are only adding to the burden of the problem you perpetuate vocally, but secretly wish to be included in. The hypocrisy is numbing.

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The Art Fair and a Bit of The Market

Often Shameful. Ludicrously over-priced and boring to the point of no return. Why do we perpetuate these fairs with our presence? Everyone descends on Paris like it’s the Land of fucking Oz every November to see, to be seen, and to maybe throw a sausage down the hallway of the hopeful photographic art career pining incoherently to meet some gallerist (there are stand out Gallery people out there, but a good many are douschebags, in truth) that will put their work on the walls for the two months of representation that they will be given in an attempt to clear 4k on a 6k venture in producing their “work” and framing it just so their egos are given the boost they very much needed from a lifetime of perpetual insecurity (its worth the 2k). They will then be forgotten and if the gallerist moves their stable up the economic ladder and the artist will fade into anonymity as they were destined to.

Most photographers haven’t the faintest clue how the market works. They have no idea what the reality is of the collecting markets and they certainly have no ability to get their work on the walls. Trying to go through pricing editions with a photographer from “stacking” the edition to open editions, to strictly numerated 1/1 unique items is often time-consuming and is alarmist to a degree as there are no strict guidelines per se, only the guideline of the sale, not the probable sale or all the money said artist thinks his or her work is worth. The artist often gets too excited about the potential of return and does not get that the photographic market is not the painting or sculpture market. It is based on the reproducible, which is why most collectors avoid it like the plague.

The art market, very simply operates like everything economic these days…the inclined 2% buy the art helping make the careers of the artist by patronage and co-opting sales platforms with top tier dealers who notify them of the “talented” young artist they will take to frieze or might be in the next Venice biennale. The same dealers, who operate multiple outposts globally, attract other super rich clients in different locations who they then feed the gallery/patronage system these works by these select artists. The early buyers of the works (you on the gallerist’s list yet, will they call you first?) then feed the auction house system thus concreting the established value of an artist (who is generally quite good looking, possibly Ukrainian living in NYC or Sao Paolo, or from a decent background if not the son of an artist already or who might be ugly and poor, but improbably got accepted and matriculated from YALE) and name. Then the fun begins with collectors and dealers both slowly dropping pieces into the auctions and feeding the less rich from the global outpost of the gallerist or the auction house system. These smaller collectors possibly saw the show in Rio or Milan and can now buy the same material in a prominent New York auction house or gallery where very likely, the prices will be raised by the same dealer or clients of said artist by phone bidding, bids on the books or simple inflation thus pushing the prices up covertly (or by auction houses “taking bids off the wall”-i.e. illegal practice of an auctioneer pointing his hand to the back of the room to raise the price from a ghost against a phone bidder) and cross clientele in a serious bout of conflict of interest. Do you think that Hirst Sale in London was just Bravado? Everybody won except the middle class and Chinese and Arab rich who happen to have enough money not to give too many fucks, but aren’t special enough to buy directly from Jay Jopling. For the artist, when it starts to sour or if you’re unlucky sales-wise and tell the gallerist to fuck themselves for dropping you after they made off to their island with all the money because you are not hot anymore, you can look up what happened to Sandro Chia and his then dealer/collector Charles Saatchi. The floodgates open. All of your “precious” art ends up at auction with reserves at 1/10th of their current value (the rate Saatchi actually paid) and the market gets flooded and you never work in this town again. Who is Sandro Chia anyways?

“Why do we perpetuate these fairs with our presence? Everyone descends on Paris like it’s the Land of fucking Oz every November to see, to be seen, and to maybe throw a sausage down the hallway of the hopeful photographic art career”

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So, think about this, because…and I’m sorry, photography doesn’t even get to play that game. Most super rich collectors are very skeptical of what is not “unique”. It is beneath their status and self-admiration. They may buy a Cindy Sherman. They may buy a Larry Clark for their son’s New York Flat, but they are probably not going to buy a number of mid-to no level artists in photography that do not have considerable resale potential, have been written about in art forum, frieze, or by an important curator or have serious mega-gallery representation etc. Thus it will not give the buyer a chance to cash up hard in 2-4 years time.

Then there is the Middle class consumer art. The problem here is that with everything in the world, the market is saturated with material that nobody is buying “because they like it (bourgeois idea)” and with the elasticity of the class disparity at a breaking point between the evaporating middle and super rich offshoring, little at this level is being bought.

So, if you are not one of the big players in the game or almost a big player like Todd Hido, Harmony Korine, Jeff Wall, Christopher Anderson or maybe even Alex Prager (really?) then what are you attempting to do by patronizing these fairs and the people that give little to no fuck about you or your careers? Even if you do “break through” (Juno, you have a great chance), what are the odds that it will ever pay you more than you put in? Perhaps about a 2% chance. The cycle of works seen at fairs and auction houses is also repetitive to say the least. Why? Because this is what sells out of familiarity and to take chances on new works priced fairly is to not pay for your booth after the fair when it all goes the way of the dodo, sales-wise, no matter how fucking good or legit the artist is in his or her own practice. If you go to “x” fair showing “unseen” or new works as a gallerist, I assure you, business will not be brisk and do remember this when your gallerist has little to send you by way of a cheque afterwards. Are these fairs good because they give nobodies with short careers and short attention spans a place to exhibit? Possibly. Are they doing a disservice to the reality of a career or a giving themselves a mis-guided sense of importance? Definitely.

Criticism

Limited. Severely Limited. I admit that I am the problem. The photography community by and large has no capacity to actually be critical of work. Because the community is so small, it is more likely to see critics bitch about themselves or their peers (Danny and Hester come to mind) on social media than elicit any real active engagement. Everyone is just trying to keep status quo, and why not? I don’t get paid to write 95% of the time, so why should I spend my time trying to write something informative on something I abhor for a vacant community that does not want to hear me moan and to which I do not want to endeavour my time to facilitate their reception of said moan? I don’t want to review some twenty-something’s book about her latent and misinformed idea of what feminism isn’t only to combat a slough of negativity about my opinion (though I studied feminist art history in university) just because “fad feminism” is on the rise and I am a white male. Life. Is. Too. Short. The last time I went full on with negative criticism I saw everything from the threat of a libel lawsuit to me ducking a group of three overgrown boys wanting “to have a talk with me” at a Deutsche Bourse after drinks for which I can say, I’m still not sorry, Mishka.

The number of blogs I read about photography are few and here is why…most of the bloggers (is that what a critic is these days) are poorly misinformed, often have no insight into history, philosophy, political engagements, the actual market, the actual industry, art history, literature, or current events to even pen something that does not have a discourse wider than a pencil head’s margin (there be the metaphor for photography I was looking for) and it often shows in our communities “literature”. Can you imagine someone actually diving into Ranciere, Hume, Spinoza, Virilio, Wittgenstein, or Laruelle whilst writing for the photo community? I have seen it maybe three times. And so what does this mean? It means photography runs the possibility of being the dumb little brother or sister of the art community when it comes to having actual dialogue backed by contributions from the larger forces of contemporary thought. I can think of about three living photo-only critics who are not bloggers that I respect deeply and then I can widen that by a number of technically excellent writers in the field who make substantial contributions, but I can also subtract that from a number of people who write blogs that really say fuck all, but happen to have a standing due to algorithmic number monkeys clicking “like” and get invited to speak their fuck all about photography to another dumb fucking crowd full of misinformed or ill-informed artists without any sort of perspective. And that is my blog critique.

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Education

Dusty. Inappropriate. I am slightly at odds to discuss this element of photography mostly because I am not involved outside of sporadic speaking engagements at universities and further cull my indirect information from photography people who have passed through the Royal College of Art in the past five years that I happen to know well enough to elicit this type of information from. This does not make me an apt pupil or an insider. What I see from my oblique position are simple and disturbing pedigree systems that are out of date. This is not endemic of 2016 only. The point of education is to elevate one’s practice, but to also make connections with fellow students, educators etc. But, it really seems to boil down to the final show in which, if one attends the right school, may very well be the starting point of their 2% career. Highly coveted programs like Goldsmiths, RCA, and Yale all manufacture (at a very high fee) students, who have the potential for being “spotted” at their graduation exhibition and have the potential to gain access to the “art world”.

Being that I have not attended any of the programs that I mention, it is hard for me to take a proper position on the matter. From my outside perspective, I see nothing but the problematic. In particular, universities such as the Royal College of Art seem to offer a somewhat formulaic approach to the production of works by students. Much of this seems to be due to the heads of department pushing a certain aesthetic and discourse with the students if they can even be found on campus grounds. That is not to say that is a bad thing . Many students still seek the tutelage of people in the university they wish to study with because they like their work. One slight hesitation I have with the formulaic in the academy is that much of the work starts to look very similar and I cannot be positive that I understand why certain schools such as the RCA continue to have the same professors year in and year out.

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My quibble is that when I compare the roster of say YALE where educators have a commercial practice as their main source of income outside of the academy, versus the RCA, whose educators do not have a global standing, it seems awkward to me that the latter can preach to students (paying a considerable sum now) about a career when their own career seems to be well….unspectacular on grounds of commercial viability. That is to say that if you are going to pay a king’s ransom for an education, why would you do so under heads of a department whose own careers are not esteemed in the global art network? Sure, go to Yale study with Papageorge or Crewdson, maybe have Etheridge as a tutor. Sounds great, they have careers don’t they? Does Olivier Richon have the same presence? No. So, why does he occupy the head of the department for so long? Shot fired and long overdue.

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In America, institutions have done away mostly with the idea of tenureship. This means that professors need to be exchanged more often and cannot stay in the same position for decades at a time. This is terrible for an art educator as it means there is very little job security, but for the student this is a great thing. It gives them the chance to study under different educators and quite possibly with those whose career is in high esteem in the present, not the 1980s. Those who have been teaching for 40 years in the same place…does it mean they should be teaching about having an art career outside of academia? Clearly not or they would not likely be teaching unless they really enjoy it, which is fine. There needs to be some amount of a reality check in arts education as we churn students out through a system that is highly unrewarding in the job market. How can we ask the absurd amount of money that we do for a university education run by non-important non-networked artists who have nothing to do with the market? It is unfair. Is that slip of paper worth the mountains of debt accrued in a two percent market?

The Photographic Prize

Clichéd, over-valued, box-ticking nonsense. The Obvious problem with the photographic award is that to facilitate the award you will need 2-3 women, you will need an African photographer and one token white man to complete this assignment. You may not have more than one white male. The white male should be someone who probably doesn’t deserve the award, but he may be a curator that does a lot for photography and you can put him in the mix because it pacifies his ego and may build on something for your organization later on to use at will (DB 2016 anyone?). You and a small group of peers will be the judges of the award, but the finalists will have been decided long before you get the right to vote. This is good for your career if you are on the board of the voters.  This is better for your career if you are in the final four group of artists competing. It is great if the shortlist for said award includes maybe 200 artists that can write that they have been nominated all over social media. It won’t do anything for their careers, but it works very well for making the award highly visible so that your organization can continue to compete for state subsidy in the arts.

There is nothing wrong with the photographic award. There is everything wrong with how it is actually decided and manufactured. These awards are subsidized in large portion by corporate sponsorship. The ING Award and The DB award for example, seem to me to be awards that are symptomatic of the capitalist tendencies that govern our world at present to a negative value. By having your work supported by these corporate institutions, should you really accept the award if your work is political and counters the arguments global capitalism sets in place for you and your peers for the 10-30k? Sounds problematic, if not hypocritical to me. Everyone is a social warrior until confronted by a large cheque backed by the war machine or sub-primed mortgage loss leaders enjoying their bonuses off the backs of heavier taxes on citizens, globally.

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Auction Houses

Many of you will never have the problem of the auction house. It is the pantheon in which artists are validated by resale. The auction houses, due to the explosion of money filtering into the arts from illicit arms trading collectors facilitate the hype machine of economy within the arts after the gallery and fair. The super rich buy art because they have to find a way to offload their tax breaks. Often, they can purchase art and write it off if they put it in their office. They can then sell the commodity when it is at peak value through an auction house or directly donate it to a museum for a larger tax break. In fairness, this does help a small amount of artists enter into the museum. BUT, it also means that the economics of purchase and not talent decide the value of the art to be included based on how big of a tax break the collector can muster through the donation process.

But getting back to the auction house…the auction house seeks to bring into their sales the biggest and most expensive names in art because this is what will sell and this is how the auction house “expert” is able to keep their job and thus the profits for the house grow. The job of expert pays very little compared to the turnovers they must compete with internally. A sale that brings in 1-4 million dollars (3-4 times a year) has an expert on a wage of up to 100k a year and this is highly unlikely that most of the experts earn half of that. Why? They are replaceable and exist in the age of capitalism and hyper art market inflation. The auction house is seeking heavy profits and the position of the expert is easily expendable. They are not incredibly necessary to be honest, nor are many overly qualified to be experts in the first place. Any data analyst monkey with a memory can do a better job and algorithms are actually a better future-based way of looking at what an auction house should take in (artnet, make the algorithm already).

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Experts often have to fight very hard to bring in quality material if they are not actively engaged with a gallerist or dealer who works with a collector willing to sell their commodity. Unfortunately, most art is now being bought for short turn profit. And I do not mean profit like 5-20k, I mean hundreds of thousands as seen by prices achieved in the painting market by someone like say, Joe Bradley. This means a couple of things in photography. Firstly, photographs by price point alone, are being shelved from the auction houses contemporary sales whenever possible unless they are part of that elusive category of artist like Gursky, Sherman, Eggleston etc. that can sell their large oversized prints for lots of money. The Eggleston conspiracy is a fascinating look at taking a photographer whose work, blown up, creates a new dimension to the sale. Have a look at what happened with Mr. Eggleston’s blow-ups in the courts. Profits won. Historical propriety lost.

And on that note, auction houses (thinking vintage) have created a vacuum of historical interest. Apart from Vivian Meier, and god knows that story is corrupt with myth-making as a form of economic propensity, the “newly found” or “hidden” vintage works that could enter an auction house and thus historical tracts are now opted out as untenable to the reality of the market and auction house overheads unless they are coerced into the market by clever players working tightly with the auction house system and a few gallerists, globally. This means that unless a super dealer finds a batch of incredible work (need to be thousands of images and negatives like maybe Carlo Mollino at Gagosian) and is willing to bridge the marketing and myth-building, a lost Man Ray or a lost Brassai will never see the light of day and future generations will not be able to study the work or place it in the context of the historiography of photography. It won’t get published and it will not have a place in the history books because the auction houses cannot afford to give these images a place in the sales, thus limiting history. When we contemplate the inadequacy of the market in regards to female artists, minority artist or any art that went un-examined due to the patriarchy, well, the problem becomes really crystal clear quite quickly.

“you think…”Well Sweetheart if you don’t want to hear this …Why the fuck are you here in the first place? Go forth and make your way towards the golden honey pot of money and museum exhibitions, you terrible fuck”. Don’t let me stop you or waste my time with your bullshit. Seriously”

Portfolio Reviews and Audiences

I hear photographers whining about the high rates that are charged for these events. You might not believe me, but I have sat on both sides of the table. The point of the review is to hear words back about your work in an environment of professionals. We are paid very little if anything to be there. That is a larger issue I am keeping more quiet about than I should. Some of the reviews pay decently and those are generally the most professional review sessions to be involved in. ISSP in Latvia, for example was fantastic and professional on all grounds and from the perspective of the students also seemed to be exceptional.

In doing portfolio reviews, I generally find myself in a position of enjoyment. I think of looking at the work as a problem that needs to be thought through. This is not to say the work is wrong. It is simply that someone has paid for my attention and I generally want to deliver the best that I can to my abilities. I know this is not always the case. If you have been a reviewer at a lunch or a dinner after the event, you will know that many people who review work are not professional. They talk shit about the people who visit unless the work is really exceptional. It generally speaks more about the reviewer’s inadequacies than the artist. It is fucking cringe-worthy, I assure you. As someone who believes that I am being paid to do a job in the arts (fucking rare these days), I believe I should not be overly critical in front of my peers holding a bitch session about some poor bastard who has made admittedly shit work, but is earnest and has come to the review to try and better their approach and has paid to do so.

On the other hand, many people to come to sit on the opposite side of the table have not done their homework. They pay money to show up and sit in front of some arrogant prick only to hear their work needs much much much more work. The point is that the portfolio review is probably not for them. If the reviewers are professional at the table, hopefully they are there to help.

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Often there is an air of a silent power struggle over the portfolio table. I have had artists come in with such bravado and arrogance that I find it hard to engage with their work. When there is something said about what they might try to improve on, there can be a scoffable laughter emanating from their pursed lips and as a reviewer, you think…”Well Sweetheart if you don’t want to hear this …Why the fuck are you here in the first place? Go forth and make your way towards the golden honey pot of money and museum exhibitions, you terrible prick. Don’t let me stop you or waste my time with your bullshit”. Seriously. If you plan to go to a portfolio review, drop the arrogance. It won’t change anything for your career to be an asshole. Pretend for a minute that the reviewer might want to try and help and leave your fucking attitude at the door.

Reviewers-stop acting like anybody needs your goddamn advice. Most of the people who review …meaning 80%, are artists who have not necessarily succeeded in their own work enough to NOT do portfolio reviews.

Reviewees-DO YOUR HOMEWORK! Go see people who publish and write about things. I was speaking to Salvatore from YET Magazine and we were both a bit bummed that we did not get asked to review portfolios in Berlin at the end of September, though we were both invited for other events. WHY were we bummed? Because as writers and publishers, we look for new work. Do. Your. Homework. Find people to sit across that are not almost photostars or arrogant cunts and stop thinking that a review will get you an exhibition and for god’s sake…the cardinal fucking rule…DONT ASK FOR THE REVIEWER TO LOOK AT MORE WORK AFTER YOUR TIME IS UP! There should be no “If you have a little time later at break, I’d like to show you another series” Mate, fuck off. I have given you the attention you paid for and if I am actively engaged with you and every participant, I will be drained from a day’s worth of work, CAPICE?

I am probably over simplifying many key elements in my rant. It is only that- a rant. I am sure that I am missing other quibbles to have about photography and since I am not being paid to write this drivel, I am simply going to let the problems carry on as this is the truth that I have experienced and there is little I can do about it just as there is nothing I can do about global warming, the world debt (to the Martians?) or any other of the many complexities of any of the other markets that drive photography’s and humanity’s potential into the ground. What I do purport to do is to get these little things off my chest and perhaps give some small insignificant insight into the market, the community and the potential that is missing for photography in a few key categories. I do not have answers and I do not really even care.

(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm.)

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