CURATING PHOTOGRAPHY: AN INTERVIEW WITH TOM PAGE
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 Álvaro Martínez García –
Strict definitions prove insufficient when we you stumble upon platforms like Open Doors. In just three years, this initiative has grown from a mixed media gallery to the consolidation of a unique and effervescent identity in the industry.
Tom Page is at the core of this proposal, which, among other things, represents a solid line up of young talents, runs a constantly-fed Instagram account and operates with an ongoing commitment to accessibility.
Page, who is part of the judging panel for Loupe’s upcoming Another Graduate Show, speaks with clarity about photography’s current situation, and what Open Doors has to say about it.
Álvaro Martínez García: To introduce our readers, what was the premise behind Open Doors? And what is your own background?
Tom Page: I respect artists who manage to make a living from their art. It’s not easy!
I gave it a go for a while instead of going to Uni, and remember finding it incredibly hard to get my work under the noses of the tastemakers. To be honest I don’t think I even knew which noses were important. So after years of working in dry office jobs and generally banging my head against a wall I found another way to do it. I opened up my flat to the public and invited people in to see my work. The trick was not to display only my prints, I lured people in with the prospect of a group show…’HA, now they’ll have to see my work’ I thought. I don’t think we sold one piece that weekend but the thrill of assembling artists’ work, getting people through the door and somehow being picked up by local press clarified things for me. I could see the positive effect our little show was having on the artists involved and the local community who passed by. What if we could do this on a bigger scale?
So Open Doors Gallery was born. Thankfully I stopped trying to show my work at our pop-ups and we chose to concentrate on much more talented photographers. An area we now specialise in. You learn by doing and our shows got bigger and better.
We are all about giving people opportunities. Whether that is selling artists work, promoting them on or offline, or simply making connections. A photographic tinder.
ÁMG: What is your responsibility in relation to the artists whose work you support/represent?
TP: A lot of it is about guidance. I’ve been in this silly photo bubble for some years now working for major galleries. We have some experience when it comes to putting on shows, setting up editions or knowing what our collectors want and expect. It’s about trying to align all these things. Making sure photographers’ work is as appealing to clients as it should be, as it deserves to be.
We help in selecting work we think our customers will like but also in terms of helping the artists realise projects. So for instance I’ve recently been working with Ian Howorth to produce his first monograph, ARCADIA, which is available now via Setanta Books, with prints available to buy on our site and an exhibition to be announced soon. I have also been working with Dutch photographer Berber Theunissen on her beautiful portfolio boxes, an amazing way to buy into an artist and start a collection. As well as several other projects that will be ready later this year. Its full on at times but I love it!
I’m not saying we have it quite right yet but the idea on our site and at our exhibitions is to clear out all the misleading and over-complicated industry talk, and instead let the artists talk about their work. After all, they created it. They know it intimately. Without pointing fingers, there are some shows around town that you need a PhD in gobbledegook just to get through the door. We are not like that, we try to remain approachable, and to demystify the work on display as well as the industry mechanics wherever possible. I would hate for people to fear asking that ‘stupid question’ that we all have lurking in our heads at exhibitions and events.
ÁMG: It’s clear you’re aware of the need for accessibility in photography, particularly for emerging artists hoping to be noticed as you mentioned. How did you arrive at Open Doors’ solution, and how do you think the platform differs from others in this aspect?
TP: I’m pretty tired of white cubed stuffy galleries that you feel afraid to express a view in. I don’t think I’m alone there. I think commercial galleries in London and across all major cities are finding it pretty tough, and so they should be! I think the gallery model of old is dying and it’s time they adapted to the changing high street. Not just digitally and in embracing social media etc. But the actual physical gallery itself. I want to turn the model on its head and create something pretty special.
I think it’s easy to dismiss Open Doors as just another Instagram treadmill for photo enthusiasts. But offline we are working our socks off to build something exciting. There is no shortage of talent out there so our mission is clear: to find the best, and give them the best possible environment to succeed.
I want to create a photographic hub. Plans are forming. Watch this space.
ÁMG: Have you noticed any recurring flaws in the way young talents deal with their own work?
TP: I think the effect that tools like Instagram are having on the photographic community cannot be downplayed. It’ll be fascinating to see what this generation of photographers’ produce, with everything being aimed at the few inches of screen at our fingertips.
I think many young photographers care too much about likes and not enough about the physical aspect of their work. The prints, the process or even their reason for taking those images. The danger is if you go chasing likes you can end up with quite a hollow body of work.
I really enjoyed the Don McCullen exhibition at Tate Britain recently. He is brilliant at getting right up close to his subjects, living the experience with them and in doing so taking photos that resonate with millions people. I think there are valuable lessons for young photographers to unlock in that exhibition. The Don didn’t have an education, he left school at 16, photography was his way of learning about the world. It’s not important what camera he had in his hand, it’s was about being curious in the world around him and finding a way to best represent that.
I get lots of submissions that come in to OD every day. Most you can see are very apt and capable technically but without a compelling context it’s difficult for the viewer to connect. That was always the aspect that alluded me in my efforts to become a photographer. It’s what I am still searching for in other people’s work now. At Open Doors you’ll find a clutch of super talented photographers all with their own way of addressing that problem.
ÁMG: I’m also interested in Tom the photographer. Are you currently involved in any project/experiments as a practitioner?
TP: Absolutely not I’m afraid. I have a rather lovely collection of cameras that are sadly collecting dust on my shelf at home. Including a beautiful Super 8 camera that I’m sure has some lovely footage of my niece trapped on it’s coils but, at the moment at least, I’m never really tempted to pick them up.
I do think about series from time to time though. I am waiting for a truly top project on social media use to surface. I have seen lots of people attempt this issue and they are nice looking bodies of work, but I think they can go further. Artists like Ruby Steele and Abi Rice are doing great things using the light emitted from these devices as a kind of spot light on the issue, how it can isolate people even though they are more connected than ever, but I would love to see the effect our addiction to these devices has had on family dynamics for example. Not easy to do, probably involves living with your subjects for a period of time…send in your suggestions, would love to see what I am missing.
ÁMG: Can you imagine which direction OD could evolve in, let’s say 5 years time, or is the industry changing too fast to create any predictions?
TP: Not sure the industry is changing fast enough! I think people want more from their high streets these days. They want an experience and I don’t think many commercial galleries are reacting quickly enough. So you see many of them shutting down.
Don’t want to give too much away just yet but I have some exciting plans for OD. In hot pursuit of a physical space to enjoy photography and film in. I want OD to be at the forefront of digital as well as a fun place to hang out and explore the medium. Let’s see. 5 years is a long time!
Álvaro Martínez García is a Spanish photographer and writer, living and working in Bristol. His creative practice utilises new methods of visual-storytelling, with a particular focus on found and archival imagery. You can follow his work at www.alvaromartinezgarcia.com
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