Curating photography: An interview with Francesca Genovese

In a world saturated with imagery, the role of curator is becoming ever more vital. Curating Photography explores a changing industry, through conversations with those who shape what we see.

Interview by Harry Flook – 

Francesca Genovese is a curator, artist, and founder of the Francesca Maffeo Gallery, named after her Grandmother. After its launch in Leigh on Sea in 2016, it functioned as a permanent gallery for almost 3 years before recently becoming a pop-up, using spaces across London and elsewhere in the UK. I exchanged e-mails with Francesca to find out about the gallery’s inception, the importance of maintaining gallery spaces, her advice for aspiring gallery owners, and their upcoming solo exhibition Epidermis

Harry Flook: Setting up a gallery isn’t easy. How did you manage to do it?

It certainly isn’t easy, but it is incredibly rewarding. Francesca Maffeo Gallery took around 18 months to plan, strategize and put into action.  As you can imagine a vast amount of research was necessary in order to achieve the photographic focus and gallery aesthetic I envisioned.   At the heart of all my planning was the idea of inclusivity and accessibility, providing a space to access exhibitions and photographers who are leading the way for contemporary photography.

©Sophie Harris Taylor

In addition to this, the provision of education has always been the foundation of the gallery, providing educational experiences through accompanying artists’ talks, critical texts, workshops and mentor programmes.  Alongside representing photographers and the sale of photography, we promote the experience of engaging with and contemplating photography, offering the freedom to ‘simply look’.

My background prior to this was an artist and educator so this was certainly new territory for me; setting up something entirely solo and self funded.  Of course, I enlisted the help of some extraordinary people in the run up to our opening, Christine Santa–Ana and Paul McDermid were my wonderful Press & Design team who simply pulled all the strings together, and prevented my unravelling!

Our recent decision to move out of Leigh on Sea and function as a pop up gallery – with a permanent print room remaining nearby – has enabled us to expand our exhibition programme throughout London and other UK venues. The gallery pop-up model is becoming a firm choice for many galleries, affording the opportunity to work with exciting spaces in exciting places, reaching a wider audience.

Now that you’ve had those years of experience, what advice would you give to others looking to do similar?

I think the key is to be open-minded and adaptable, if something isn’t working, then don’t be afraid to change it. It is important to have a real handle on your budget, to not feel pressured to spend excessive amounts on advertising, production etc. and still maintain quality and integrity. Most importantly it is the relationships that you forge with the artists that are the most fruitful and rewarding exchanges, the curation process needs time, thought and collaboration.  Oh and list writing, you need to love a good list in an exquisite notebook.

Laura Pannack Exhibition ©Francesca Maffeo Gallery

Francesca Maffeo Gallery represents established names alongside emerging photographers. What do you look for in those you represent? 

My selection of represented artists are passionate individuals who work tirelessly to produce bodies of work that are considered and visually arresting.  Whether they fit neatly into genres is of no concern to me – they are artists and demonstrate the ability to produce work that they believe in.  

The categorising of ‘emerging’ and ‘established’ can sometimes cause contention, what is important for me is that graduates/emerging artists have access to support and representation in order to progress their practice. It is so beautifully rewarding to see an artist develop and succeed, navigating their way through this industry, I am privileged to have a hand in that success and be a part of it.

With regards to ‘established’ artists, I am fortunate to be able to work alongside names whom I revere and to have developed strong working relationships and friendships. Francesca Maffeo Gallery was founded with family at its core – it’s an ethos I hope each artist feels, to be part of a supportive photography family.

It’s great you offer such support to your photographers, without it the industry can feel quite isolating. Can you talk about the importance of maintaining physical gallery spaces, when so much photography is now consumed on phone screens?

Photography’s origins are in print, the medium is so much more than a jpeg, looking at backlit images on screens (often small smartphones) has its place but cannot replace the print.  However the quality of the printing needs to be right, as poor quality prints will undermine a project.  

The physical gallery space however is not simply about the print or a digitally presented image; it is the experience within a space, the flow of the curation and the hang.  The physical space affords an artist and a curator a space for choice, for creating narratives, for organising works in a controlled manner. Consuming work on social media for example is restricting.  We have grids, frame constraints, timelines and all contained within the small space of a screen; it cannot surround us or consume us. A physical space gives us so much more to engage with.

And let us not forget the act of ‘visiting’ an exhibition, solo or with friends, peers and as students, this is a social experience, group engagement is as essential as a private experience that exhibitions afford.

Alexander Missen Exhibition ©Francesca Maffeo Gallery

I’m interested in hearing about your own practice. Do you still find time to make work alongside running the gallery?

Naturally the gallery work has taken over my practice somewhat, yet I do still make.  My own practice has always been a very personal and private endeavour, I tend to make work about my family and those familial relationships.  I am currently re-visiting a body of work that has been on hold since before I had my son (who is now 8!).

I am viewing this work now with a whole new chapter of life having passed, the focus of it now is very different to its origins – it’s relevance to my family and I has shifted.  That is what is so unique about photography, time passes, and work takes on new meaning.

HF: Finally, tell us about the upcoming Epidermis exhibition.

Epidermis is a solo exhibition by Sophie Harris – Taylor, hosted by the wonderful Print Space and opening on Thurs 5th September from 7.30-10pm.

It’s a celebration of the beauty of imperfection. Sophie photographed and interviewed over 20 bare-faced women across the UK with common skin conditions. Shot in the style of a traditional beauty editorial, exploring the juxtaposition of style and subject – something seen in opposition to classical beauty. The series’ intention is as a beauty shoot first, the exploration of the skin is secondary.

When it comes to body types we have seen the industry swing one way or the other, idealising extremes. Sophie is concerned by this and the risk of fetishisation, through Epidermis she is motivated to record and revere the ‘normal’.

From ‘Epidermis’ ©Sophie Harris-Taylor

Harris-Taylor is renowned for her images created exclusively with natural and ambient light sources, which lend her work an unusual softness and depth. She embraces the challenges of working with natural light, liberated by the process of adapting to what she is provided with and to where she is led. Stylistically, Harris-Taylor draws inspiration from the Renaissance painters for their use of light, as well as cinema for its composition and storytelling.

A constant inquiry, often brought about by personal life experience, her work is largely comprised of research led projects that deal with both the familiar and the unobserved. Typically portraiture based, with some elements of place and surrounding and often accompanied by the spoken word, she uses people to express her own pre-occupations and concerns.

HF: Thanks for your time, and good luck with the exhibition launch.

www.francescamaffeogallery.com

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Harry Flook is a Bristol-based photographer, writer and editor. You can follow his work and words at www.harryflook.com