Nuggets of Gold in Charlotte Cotton’s Reddit AMA

Last week acclaimed photography curator Charlotte Cotton, author of Photography as Contemporary Art and Photography is Magic (PiM), took some time out to do a Reddit AMA (ask me anything). Charlotte answered a whole bunch of questions on photography and it’s current status, and where she thinks it may be headed.

Charlotte Cotton's Reddit AMA proof pic.
Charlotte Cotton’s Reddit AMA proof pic.

She gave us some really interesting pearls of wisdom on how she curates exhibitions and plans her writing alongside some insights into her inspirations and thinking on photography, so here are what we think were Charlotte Cotton’s most interesting questions and answers:

Stopmakingsense: What are some of your concerns with the contemporary photographic practice? Are there any trends/schools of thought/traditions you see that worry you or that you believe hinder photography’s growth?

Cotton: I’m not overly concerned about the state of contemporary photographic practice – honestly, it’s so alive! And with the incredibly healthy competition and vital dialog happening between artists. But I am generally concerned about the idea of traditions and the prospect of artists having to somehow conform to the models set in a pre-Internet environment. What I love about this moment is that no one is an expert – the jury is out on where our post-Internet shaped culture will take the idea of photography. The good news is that you can be 19 or 79 years of age and make a meaningful contribution into the conversation that is unfolding. If you need to have the validation of ‘the’ history of photography then that’s fine by me but I think we have gone beyond the point where you need to have an MFA from a handful of programs in order to sit at the table or that establishment recognition is the end all and be all for this moment in photographic practice.

Xaznx: I have a few questions: Who and what pieces of writings on photography do you find influential in your work, and are must reads? How do you feel about the current state of photography, the institutions/world that surround it and where do you think the future of contemporary photography is taking us?

Cotton: In terms of writing about photography, I can pretty much read on any aspect so long as it is beautifully written! I guess the most inspiring strictly-photography book that I re-read while I was writing PiM is Vilem Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography. It’s one of those actually quite short texts that acts as an imaginative springboard – so predictive of where we are right now. I feel the same way about Fred Ritchin‘s writing. For PiM, I was also still returning to the theater director Peter Brooks’ lecture transcripts compiled in ‘The Empty Space‘ – such amazing insight into a discipline (and easily applied to photography) at a point where much is at stake.

Fred Ritchin's 'After Photography' book cover.
Fred Ritchin’s ‘After Photography’ book cover.

I feel like I talk in interviews a lot about institutions! These pieces being probably the most outspoken!

and, more recently

As you can tell from PiM I am extremely optimistic about the current state of photographic practice! In part because it is an artist-led moment rather than one defined or even generated by an institutional vantage point.

Hannah Whitaker, Photography is Magic, 2015 (Aperture).
Hannah Whitaker, Photography is Magic, 2015 (Aperture).

Throwaway765445467: I have two questions: 1) What are your top 3 photobooks of all time? 2) If you could have dinner (and drinks) with any photographer from any time period, who would it be?

Cotton: Nice questions! In terms of artists’ books (rather than text based books)

Richard Billingham's 'Ray's a Laugh'.
Richard Billingham’s ‘Ray’s a Laugh’.

And which historical photographer would I like to have dinner with? I’m tempted by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre because I like a showman and I bet it would be spectacular! But I think I would really like to spend time with Felice Beato – the first Western photographer to spend time in Japan when Yokohama opened up to Western settlers. He had an incredible life and I suspect great taste in all things.

Woman combing her hair by Felice Beato (photo taken between 1863-1877).
Woman combing her hair by Felice Beato (photo taken between 1863-1877).

Frajer: What’s your favorite thing to photograph?

Cotton: Oh, definitely puppies. My smart phone photo album is made up of image research (normally when I am working on a piece of writing, a way for me to visually think about my concept) and pictures and videos of puppies frolicking or napping in NY pet store windows!

Photobrando: I was wondering if you could talk about how you, as a curator, make selection for what photographs are important and should be seen or considered by a wider audience. Is it something you have some kind of guidelines for? I imagine it has becomes more and more difficult as there are so many photographers wanting to have there work seen. What is your curatorial process like?

Cotton: For me, my book and curatorial projects are about what I think would be the most useful and meaningful thing to contribute and the challenge is conceiving of the best form for those ideas. Some of my projects are quite classical (i.e. selecting works that embody an idea, which is typically an act of distilling/subjectify what I think is actually happening in creative culture for me) but others are much more process-driven, more iterative and about creating a framework for other people and new things to happen. I also always have a fantasy viewer in mind! Although I trained to be a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum where our audience was everyone who came in the doors (so I have a grounding in communicating to a constituent that may not be part of an ‘inner circle’), I tend to think of a viewer as being at one of those turning points in creative life:

  • At 16 or 17 and needing to see what creative practice looks like, to have ones taste validated and the gap between your own practice and the wider field bridged
  • Post-college, when you need a lift and a boost and to know that it is worth it to carry on making and contributing
  • At points when you want to strike out on your own and have a safe and stimulating experience that gets your mind working hard
  • When you want to re-engage with photography and grasp the most up to date understanding of the context we are currently living through.

I think it makes the formulation of curatorial ideas so much easier. To quote my collaborator Mark Allen (of Machine Project in Los Angeles) ‘curating is doing creative things for other people’.

'Photography is Magic!' exhibition curated by Charlotte Cotton for the Daegu Photo Biennale 2012.
‘Photography is Magic!’ exhibition curated by Charlotte Cotton for the Daegu Photo Biennale 2012.

Heytheresunshine: A few years ago I attended one of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s lectures where he informed us that the golden age of photography has ended, and that the younger generations have missed out on a world that no longer exists. Do you believe this to be true? Is it an over saturated market where fewer photographers are able to gain recognition? Do you have any advice for emerging photographers on how to establish themselves?

Cotton: Well, I think that it depends on where you are standing, whether the last century was the ‘golden age’. A golden age for the mere handful of white men who got a stable position on the art-world plateau called ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art?’ A golden age for anyone with talent attempting to make a living from editorial and advertising commissions? A golden age for MFA teaching institutions that made promises to kick start a ‘career’ as an ‘art photographer’ rather than a rigorous critical framework? Yes, hopefully all of these versions of a ‘golden age’ are over. By-the-by, P-L diC is remarkably astute about the realities of now, I feel like I am not getting the full sense of what he actually said!

So my advice to anyone who wants to forge a sustainable creative life (including myself) is that, yes, the fat years are over, the money is all spent, and the gloves are off! And bring it on – I think we are perfectly capable of coming up with a better and more diverse model for photographic practice. To quote my design hero Peter Saville, ‘the solution is always in the problem’.

New York, 1994. Philip-Lorca diCorcia.
New York, 1994. Philip-Lorca diCorcia.

CleftAss: What are your thoughts on photo manipulation versus traditional photographic techniques in terms of artistic credibility? Also do you value “found” moments in photography over deliberately arranged and lit shots or vice versa?

Cotton: I think everything is at play right now – the gamut of traditional analog techniques through to subjective deployment of imaging software. For me, all processes are credible if they are active choices of their makers. I value the magical happenstance of observational photography (those ‘pictures-waiting-to-happen’) as much as I appreciate photographic ideas that are more obviously preconceived renderings of ideas. I suspect I have an especial preference when what I am looking at is not explicit about where on this photographic spectrum it resides.

INTJKCT: There are some publishers making digital versions of their books available, but print is still the dominant format for artist monographs. Do you have any thoughts about why there aren’t more digital photo books being made as stand alone products or being sold side by side with the printed version? Am I wrong to think that it would be cheaper to develop a book in digital form? More people could own the book/work and that seems like a positive, am I missing something?

Cotton: Well there are very few ebooks that have gone beyond essentially formatting printed books for the kindle/ipad form. I think that Jason Evans’ NYPLT App published by Mack Books in London is the best thing I have seen that explores the form of a tablet photo book.

I think the economics of what it takes to create an ebook versus the reality of sales is still a challenge. You see the same issue with paper magazines versus online. But I think it is telling that while we have seen a total renaissance in self- and small press publishing (i.e. lots of creativity combined with individual low cunning on finding the money to make photo books) that’s not really started for the ebook form. Perhaps it tells us something about the lack of coding skills in the realm of photographic practice?

NYPLT by Jason Evans, available in print and digital forms.
NYPLT by Jason Evans, available in print and digital forms.

SoUpInYa: Do you think that photography isn’t taken (as) seriously because it doesn’t have the history of more traditional art forms?

Cotton: Well, I actually like the fact that photography is a fantastically broad and grey arena! Photography is many things – not just a subjective art form but a prompt for social change, a set of industries, a day-to-day visual language. Photography doesn’t make sense if you contextualize it within the story of modern and contemporary art. I actually think that if we consider photography as merely an art form (one that was popular at sporadic intervals from c. 1840 – now) it will become a very deathly subject. I’ve said this before but the risk of thinking of photography as primarily an art medium is that it becomes the watercolor of the 20th century.

Solidanarchy: My question is, do you come up with the names for your books before or after you write them? And when did you first started to show interest on photography?

Cotton: Nice question! I come up with the names of books and other curatorial projects quite early on – Imperfect Beauty, Words Without Pictures and Photography is Magic are all examples of project names that were there from the tangible start of my working process. It helps me focus and keep on track. The Photograph as Contemporary Art was the idea of the book’s commissioning editor Andrew Brown – I didn’t immediately like it because it sounded to me as if the jury was still out on whether photography was actually contemporary art. But I grew to appreciate that it was the right title – with that the edge of doubt and the suggestion that photography can be other than art being incredibly accurate.

I am like many people in that photography came into my life as a shiny sign of a creative adult life when I was sixteen. It began for me with a week of work experience at a photographic darkroom in Oxford. When I was seventeen, I went to London on a school trip and somehow managed to skip the scheduled visit to Lloyds of London and get myself to Kensington Market, followed by the V&A to see an Irving Penn exhibition and to The Photographers’ Gallery to see what I should be wearing if I was going to fit into the creative arena! I am very grateful to the curators and programmers who created those safe environments for me to find the permission for my own future and I think that’s a big part of the inspiration for how I have ended up doing what I do.

Lordroticiv: How do you capture good quality pictures of moving subjects?

Cotton: I am literally the last person you should ask this question! I have zero experience of actually making photographs. That isn’t as obtuse as it sounds – when I started my curatorial career I decided that I would not make photographs or collect them. I feel incredibly lucky that I have been able to develop my love and understanding of photography from a vantage point where I never feel jealous of an image-maker nor acquisitive and that I get to see in a way that is beyond a conventional idea of personal taste.

Charlotte Cotton, photography curator and author. Photograph by Spencer Weiner, Los Angeles Times
Charlotte Cotton, photography curator and author. Photograph by Spencer Weiner, Los Angeles Times

NB. We’ve edited Charoltte Cotton’s AMA slightly to cut directly to the questions and answers given and avoid any repetitions. The full AMA is available to read here.


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