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Collecting and living with difficult images

Collecting and living with difficult images

© Jerome Sessini/Magnum Photos

September 2016

Current photojournalism is under-appreciated in the photography print market. Its subject matter can be very challenging and not deemed sellable but art consultant and curator Tristan Lund thinks there are other reasons why the market is so small. Lund writes an insightful essay for CPN explaining why the sale of vintage prints dominates and most makers and viewers of contemporary photojournalism still regard newspapers, magazines and screens to be the appropriate end point for their work, not the gallery wall.

I have come to this field through working on The Incite Project, a private collection of issue-driven photographic prints, motivated by current political and social concerns that are still within our power to change. This is a collection of photojournalism and documentary photography primarily, but not exclusively. We are used to seeing these images in the press, in transient form, with a caption and more often than not as an accompaniment to text but the Incite Project focuses on the physical print form of these images and treats these objects with the same reverence as a work of art. The images can be extremely difficult to look at because the subject matter is often showing humans at their most desperate but it is an incredibly moving and unusual collection-in-progress. Its custodians live with it, inescapably so, on the walls of every room in their house, not for shock value but because they believe in the work, its makers and its ability to affect change in the world.

© Pete Muller
© Pete Muller

Medical staff escort a man, delirious in the final stages of Ebola, back into the isolation ward from which he had escaped, in Hastings, near the capital Freetown, Sierra Leone. The man had attempted to climb over the back wall of the complex, before collapsing in a convulsive state. A complete breakdown of mental facilities is a common stage of advanced Ebola. The man died shortly after this picture was taken.

The core of the collection are the classics of twentieth century photojournalism that have superseded their medium to become visual markers of a moment in time. But these icons have been overtaken by images made in the twenty-first century by practitioners who are still producing work. The collection is motivated less by an academic fascination in history and its documentation than by a passion to support the photographers and artists currently making extraordinary, thought-provoking images about contemporary issues. It is this transition to collecting contemporary photojournalism, especially work made this century, that I think will be the lasting legacy of this collection and I hope will lead to a wider interest in this genre in print form.

Few working photojournalists have gallery representation and there is little auction activity around this kind of work. Instead the market is focused on black and white press prints, often from World War II and the American Civil Rights era. As a market it is interesting because, until recently, these prints were deemed to have no intrinsic value. Before the digital era they were the means by which publishers reproduced images, their value was as a tool and they were treated as such. They are often very glossy, resin-coated and sometimes heavily retouched, making them quicker to dry in the darkroom and better originals from which to print from. The image quality is sometimes poor and evidently made from a copy negative (a photograph of a photograph). They are often dog-eared, creased – and, if you are lucky, the back is marked with captions, crop marks, copyright and date stamps – all adding to their romantic connection with the past. Once digitised at the turn of this century there was no need to keep the prints and many were discarded or sold off cheaply and since then a market has grown.

© Jerome Delay/The Associated Press
© Jerome Delay/The Associated Press

A victim of an attack in Paris lays dead outside the Bataclan theatre, Paris. The vibe in the Bataclan concert hall was hot, steamy and electric as the California rock band Eagles of Death Metal jammed away a half-hour into a set. Suddenly, the drum beats gave way to a different kind of rat-a-tat-tat-tat, and flashing stage lights met with glints from automatic rifle barrels. It was the beginning of the worst carnage of the Paris attacks that killed 130 people, injured over 300, and caused the French president to declare his nation at war with Islamic State extremists.

Stomaching the present as well as the past

They are tactile, seductive objects and the images are important, but their age somehow makes them easier to stomach than work from the present. There is that fascination with the visual record of history - the clothes, the cars and so on - and the antique in your hand. It is from a different era; it isn’t my war. Nostalgia, romance and time are, I think, largely responsible for these prints becoming accepted and collectable, similar to the fashion photography market. Traditionally, it has taken several decades for fashion images shot for magazines to make their way into galleries and homes, in frames and behind glass. The passing of time causes us to be more detached and so few contemporary fashion photographers or photojournalists make prints of, or sell, their most striking imagery. Rather they wait decades for the accepted viewing context of their work to change.

© Matt Black/Magnum Photos
© Matt Black/Magnum Photos

El Paso is a city in El Paso County, Texas. The population is 649,121 and 21.5 percent live below the poverty level.

This is fundamental to the entire medium – is the photograph a transient image for newspaper, magazine and screen, or is it a physical print? Despite the digital era, physical, crafted objects are still important to us. The effect of putting this work in a frame on a wall forces the viewer to regard the images and events differently. It liberates them from accompanying text and creates a reverential atmosphere, akin to a painting, sculpture or ‘fine art’ photography. Furthermore, we become aware of the maker and not just the subject, the style and not just the content, again key in the western tradition of art appreciation. Photojournalism is judged on its relevant documentation of events but, just as importantly, also on composition, often conforming to traditional rules of picture making in order for it to be understood easily and quickly on the news page. In print form these classical and cinematic references become even clearer. The images published here by Matt Black, Jerome Delay, Pete Muller and Jerome Sessini all convey the horrors that confronted them beyond simply a recording of the moment. Their colour palette, lighting and aesthetic choices all emphasise the biblical proportions of the crises they depict.

The secondary market of black and white press prints exists because a value was recognised in objects that had been made redundant by computers. Contemporaneously the images were seen by the public in newspapers, intended to be digested and discarded, but the images in a physical form endured in archives around the world. Now photojournalism is disseminated by even more transient methods. It is up to photojournalists to foresee the value of their work in the long term and aid this by making and storing their images in print form, not just digitally. They will be encouraged to do so if a market for their work grows before it becomes nostalgic. These can be difficult images to live with but they are important and worthy of consideration now beyond their primary, transient form.

Biographie: Tristan Lund

Tristan Lund

Tristan Lund is an art consultant and dealer working in London. He is collection curator of The Incite Project, a UK based collection of photojournalism and documentary photography and he represents a select group of emerging photographic artists including the 2015 Magnum nominee Max Pinckers. He is a trusted advisor to private collectors of photography internationally, sourcing works from artists, galleries and auction houses and navigating the art market on their behalf, both in buying and selling. With experience in the field of vintage photography he is a member of the Frieze Masters vetting committee and as the Director of Michael Hoppen Contemporary from 2010-2014 he is in a position to advise and support emerging and established photographic artists.