Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal 13: Interview with guest curator Paul Wombell

Established in 1989 to mark the 150th anniversary of the invention of photography, Le Mois de la Photo is a Montréal based biennale focusing on contemporary photographic practice. Since its inception it has pursued its goal of presenting the finest in local and international contemporary photography. Throughout the years the exhibition programming has demonstrated the organisation's ability to produce events that are artistically, intellectually and academically rigorous while still accessible to a large and diverse public.

Paul Wombell
photo: Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal
In September 2002, Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal became an autonomous organisation and this change in administration was accompanied by a shift in the artistic direction of the event. For each presentation a new guest curator is appointed to reflect upon and explore a specific theme. All the exhibitions, the publication, and the colloquium are organised around this theme.

Sarah Allen from prism Magazine sat down with UK based curator Paul Wombell to discuss the process of guest curating the 2013 instalment which took as its theme Drone: The Automated Image.

Sarah Allen: Could you speak a little about how you arrived at the theme?

Paul Wombell: Well I wrote the proposal over two and a half years ago during a period when the drone was receiving heightened media attention, particularly with regards to their military use in Afghanistan. I found the whole concept of using technology to extend the human body really intriguing. I am also very interested in the history of the camera so I wanted to draw these lines of enquiry together. Some works in the biennale connect directly to the theme while others address the overarching concept of how the camera is employed to extend human vision.

The idea of extending human vision reminded me a lot of how photography was perceived in the late 20s and 30s when it was really celebrated as a form of new vision. It's interesting to see a slight return to the idea of new vision in the show even though we are now so familiar with the camera.

Yes, what I find interesting is that the history of the camera predates photography: one could say it has a history of 3000 years. There are various different levels of human endeavour involved in the making of the camera; for example we can't really understand the camera without first understanding the invention of the wheel, the lens or with the idea of automatisation. Thinking of the camera in these different ways leads to new interpretations, among them, the idea of the camera having a life beyond the human hand.

Véronique Ducharme, 2012/09/27 00:45:37, 2012, from the series Encounters (2012–13).
Digital image taken with an automatic camera used for hunting, variable dimensions.
Courtesy of the artist © Véronique Ducharme
When you come to research future projects how much, if at all, do you consider the history of photography?

I think in many ways the history of photography is very limiting and needs to be rethought, reconsidered and rewritten. Primarily I believe that we need to see the history of photography within the larger history of technology. Unfortunately there are not many places in the UK where that research is taking place. From the 1960s onwards there was this extraordinary way in which photography was rewritten; there was an incredible focus on the ideology and the meaning of the image. For example when one begins to learn about the history of photography theoreticians like Sontag, Barthes, Burgin and Sekula are generally the first point of entry with the emphasise on the image. However photography's history stretches back much further. It's interesting to note that some of the photo magazines from the 40s and 50s would have included the technical information about how the images were taken but from the mid 60s onwards that died out. Then of course more recently the 'value' of photography as determined by the market has become a prevalent conversation. Unfortunately these discourses have taken precedence over a discussion on the history of the camera itself. There is also a tendency in photographic history to see the final image as primary, but what I am proposing through the show in Montreal is the idea that the image is secondary to the camera itself. I'm very interested in the idea of how the camera is remaking us as much as we are remaking the image.

Have you found any differences between the status of photography in Canada in comparison with the UK and do you think you could have curated this show in the UK?

I would describe Montreal as the Berlin of the Americas in so far as it has a large art community, a good system of museums and artists run spaces as well as bodies which are really supporting artistic production. Interestingly the art market is not all that dominant in Montreal. In terms of whether I could have curated this show in the UK, it's a question I have given some thought to in the past weeks and have come to the conclusion that no, I don't think I could have done this show in the UK. There are specific approaches that emerged in Canada in the last fifty years that never emerged in the UK; one example being the artistic work merging of art and technology. In essence there was more room for experimentation in Montreal.

Perimeter Wall. Deconstruction of Maze Prison. Maze Prison. Northern Ireland, 2009
From the series The Maze (2003–09) / Colour digital pigment print, 42 x 50 cm
Courtesy of the artist © Donovan Wylie

How would you describe the selection process and how did you find the process of curating the show...did it run very smoothly or did you face any challenges.

Although there was an open call for work my original research provided the core group of exhibited artists. The process of curating ran very smoothly however there was one significant loss related to the work of Michael Snow. For his seminal film piece La Region Centrale he constructed a bespoke camera that is in the collection at the National Gallery in Ottawa. Obviously we wanted to include the camera, which Snow made into a art work titled De La, however when we came to organising this it was found that the camera needed to be renovated so unfortunately we couldn't show the camera itself but we did show Michael's film and made the connection between this work he made in the 70s and more recent work in the biennale. Another point to highlight is the fact that the Biennale itself generally does not show work that is more than five years old, yet we did show historical work such as that of Mona Hatoum and Max Dean. We also showed a project by Ilse Bing from 1931 alongside Donovan Wylie's Maze series. When Bing was starting out in her career in Frankfurt she was commissioned by a local architect to photograph Modernist buildings and one of the projects she completed was a project on a H block social housing building for elderly people. The fact the building was a H block has a direct parallel with Wylie's work. There was also a comparison to be teased out with regards to how both photographers absorbed technology into the human body. Donovan talked about how he had to surrender to the camera and to the architect to make his work. In keeping with this notion the final image in his series was taken from Google earth at the moment the prison was demolished. This inclusion seems to suggests that technology is replacing the position of the photographer. Bing's work also showed an element of marrying technology with the body–she become known for using the Leica in ways that proposed the body as the tripod earning her the title 'The Queen of the Leica'...

...who was the king?...

...I'd probably say Rodchenko!... but in thinking about how Wylie's work was juxtaposed with Bing's we see how historical work is just as relevant to the theme as work that has been produced more recently.

What would you have liked visitors to take from the show?

One of the fundamental things I'm trying to do is suggest that the human is not the centre of the world. Humans take for granted that they are the centre of the universe however that simply isn't the case. Philosophers–in particular Kant–have done a lot to reinforce this idea through the notion of removing God and replacing it with a human subject. Yet we live on a planet that has been here for over four and a half billion years and which has its own time frame. We need to think through our position in the world more radically and truly acknowledge the fact that there are other forms of material and other forms of life...we are part of a complex network including technology, but we're not the centre of it. So I hope people consider the notion of what it means to be human as well as thinking about the camera in a different way.

Pascal Dufaux, The Cosmos in Which We Are, 2009–11
Kinetic video sculpture: machined aluminum, chrome-plated steel, inox mirror, Plexiglas,
1 CCTV camera, neon tubes, AC motor and control, slip rings, various gears, 183 x 122 x 122 cm
Courtesy of the artist / Installation view, Darling Foundry, Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal 2013.
Photo: Corina Ilea

What will your next project be?

My next project will take place in France and the point of departure will focus on historical photographic surveys that  have been commissioned by the state. In France there is a history of the state supporting surveys which document the French landscape, the last major one being DATAR in the mid 1980s. Next year marks DATAR’s anniversary and a group of photographers came together in 2010 to explore the French terrain partly in response to DATAR, but without the same focus on the documentary. They approached me as they were looking for an artistic director to give the project a specific direction, which I have been doing over the past two years. I suggested the title Liquid Territories and the project is planned for realisation as both a book and exhibition in Lille in Spring 2014.

You've had such an impressive career within the field of photography. What still excites you about the medium?

Definitely the camera itself. The project in Montreal has opened up a new field of enquiry and I now have a few exhibition ideas which I would like to pursue.

Paul Wombell is an independent curator and writer on photography living in London (U.K.). He has been the Director of Impressions Gallery, York (1986–94), Director of The Photographers’ Gallery, London (1994–2005) and Festival Director of the Hereford Photography Festival (2006–07). Since 2007 he has curated exhibitions for the annual photographic festival PHotoEspaña in Madrid and for FotoGrafia Festival Internazionale di Roma. Most recently, he organized the one-person exhibition Calves and Thighs: Juergen Teller (2010) and the group exhibition Bumpy Ride: The Prophecies of Photography (2010). He regularly writes for international photographic publications. He has edited eight books on photography the most recent being End Times: Jill Greenberg (TF Editores/D.A.P., 2012), and The 70s: Photography and Everyday Life (La Fábrica, 2009) co-edited with Sergio Mah.

You can read more about Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal on their official website: http://www.moisdelaphoto.com/

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