Interview with Sophie Hackett

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July 4, 2011

CIC: Are politics always poetic?

Sophie Hackett: For someone like Ed Burtynsky, the strategy he uses – striking compositions, his use of colour and his use of the aerial view, the way that he puts the pictures together – is impossible to separate from the content.

The question of, “does aestheticizing dull or seduce you away from the message?” is an old one, all the way back to Susan Sontag in the 1970s. This is not a stunningly original thought but, as we discussed at a recent symposium on Burtynksy’s art, the way he photographs his subjects allows him to maintain access to the sites that he visits. Many of the sites he shoots take two years for him to access – so if word gets around that he’s going to present them in a negative light, then he’s not going to get access to these sites. This isn’t his sole reason for doing this – but it happens to align with his sense of wanting to present something less didactic, less directive, something that allows the viewer to come to her awareness on her own. I think part of the reason his work has struck such a chord with people is that it is not preaching a particular position, and yet it doesn’t take very long for the pictures to nudge viewers down the road to the sorts of things he is considering.

Burtynsky is in a long lineage of artists who sought to grapple with the world through making something visual. He talks very much about making pictures, and how he did not set out to photograph oil as a show or as a book at the beginning; he realized after 12 years or so that oil is what tied it all together.

He’s very interested in the group of artists who came out of the 1970s and had a show called the New Topographics Show, which is jokingly referred to as the most famous show that no one ever saw. A lot of the artists in it – Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz – were artists looking at human intervention into the landscape. Prior to that, landscape photographs – Ansel Adams’s works, for instance – had been very operatic pieces.

(For more on this, Hackett suggests reading the most recent issue of Border Crossings and its interview with Burtynsky.)

CIC: Is it ethical to show such horrible things so beautifully?

SH: What is the hang-up we have about beauty? What is it that makes us so suspicious about beauty? Especially when we think about photographs, if you think about beauty in terms of social impact, in terms of what draws you in – the colours, the composition, how all those things come together – and without those things you wouldn’t want to look at the picture anyway! You can’t have a good artist without a visual language that is effective. So these artists have made their careers by creating a visual language that is uniquely theirs, and that grapples with the topics they want to deal with. If we didn’t want to look at the pictures, they wouldn’t be successful.

So the question of what draws us to pictures is complicated – it’s time and place, it’s scale. There’s maybe a sense coming out of the last fifty years – of globalized business and politics – that we’re trying to apprehend in some way that vast network. For some reason as viewers, we want to be engulfed by these pictures – we want to stand in front of them and feel small.

CIC: Does it matter whether a photograph of war is shown in an art gallery or in the New York Times?

SH: In the newspaper, we expect a narrative. Photographs with captions deliver a certain kind of narrative – it’s a combination that, since the 1930s, we’ve become very used to and expect from our publications.

There are different things possible in each context. When we walk into a gallery or a museum, we expect an experience of the visual, whereas when we open a magazine or a newspaper, we are looking for a story. The picture in the latter case supports the narrative, whereas in the former, the picture is the primary object.

It’s interesting to think about someone who is moving from showing their pictures in publications to showing them in galleries, for instance Louie Palu. His pictures have become more spare: the legs of a soldier on a gurney, a soldier eating grapes, the full-frontal portraits of heads. That context has allowed him to put forth his experience in war through the people that he photographs. It becomes more personal in that sense. In his case, it is a more personal version of war; in Burtynsky’s case, it is a more personal version of the global economic and political complex.

With a newspaper or magazine, the ultimate arbiter is the photo editor – and his job is to keep the interest of the reader. Tensions between editors and photographs are long-standing – in fact, that’s the reason that Magnum was founded, because photographers wanted to safeguard their own personal visions. In a gallery, in contrast, an exhibition is put together by a curator and a curator’s goal is to understand what makes an artist tick – and so there is a different grounding to this relationship from the beginning.

Part of this question of beauty and ethics comes out of there being a certain visual expectation when we think about war photography in particular – and that visual convention is black-and-white, it’s meant to be gritty, it’s meant to communicate a certain amount of stress, a certain amount of pain. Introducing colour, for instance, throws up that convention – it’s more realistic, but it can also be further manipulated. You can photograph things to give a greater range of emotional attitudes – and so in many ways I think this question is about that. When Susan Sontag is decrying the fact that the photographer is photographing someone being killed or shot, rather than helping that person, and suggesting that it is some kind of dereliction of duty, she is writing about black-and-white pictures she has seen in the news.

CIC: At what point did war photography become acceptable as art?

SH: Clearly they are different modes of working, but I do not see them as really different because of that visual element. The collection that my colleague Maia Sutnik has built at the AGO is largely about what a photograph can deliver to us. But, as she would say, “it’s all art.” A fashion photograph has different rules than a photograph that is produced primarily for a gallery wall, but these images have remained from a visual point of view tremendously influential.

In the earliest 20th century, artists were really concerned with limits and, at that point, photographers were saying, “this is my personal work” and “this is the work I do to pay my rent.” But I think we’re coming out of that moment.