Is Erik Kessels the smartest photo curator around?
Dutch art director, collector and curator gives us the lowdown on his new Arles Rencontres show Small Universe
He might not shoot pictures himself, but the Dutch art director and collector Erik Kessels has certainly changed the way we think about photography. As a curator of amateur photography, he's elevated discarded images to gallery status, finding beauty and insight in pictures of, say, 20th century German police uniforms, or one woman's lifelong love of fairground shooting galleries.
At last year's Rencontres d'Arles, Kessels printed off every image uploaded to Flickr in a 24-hour period, filling a room with an avalanche of vernacular imagery. Next week he returns to the French photography fair with a far more focussed show of distinctly Dutch professional photos, entitled Small Universe. We spoke to him earlier this week and found out about his love of high-concept photography, his interest in apps that "fuck up" our snaps, and why he thinks Holland is like a JPEG.
How did the 2014 Arles show come about? I was asked to curate an exhibition of Dutch documentary photography. That was too broad, so I focussed more on a group of photographers who have an obsession to document things. Specifically, I was interested in how they document things in very close surroundings: in their house, on their balcony, in their city. These are small topics, but they enlarge it by obsessively photographing it.
Does this sort of documentary work speak to something in the Dutch character? I think so. We live in quite a small, densely populated country, with a lot of people dwelling quite close to each other. I think that could have something to do with it. You could almost compare it to a JPEG: compressed, but containing vast and unexpected riches.
Tell us about the photographers you chose. Half are almost in their seventies and half are in their twenties. I think, back in the 1970s, there was an awful lot of conceptual work going on, and you find those sorts of concepts in younger photographers today too. Decades back it was in keeping with other trends in conceptual art, but today, I think photography has become such a mundane, everyday thing - people shooting more as artists have taken to placing a story or idea behind their work.
Can you give us some examples? Sure. There's Erik Fens. He takes pictures of the cars parked below his balcony. They're parked under a tree, and sometimes, if the light is right, the tree's image is reflected perfectly in the car's roof. So he looks for the moment to capture the tree's reflection.
The great Dutch art photographer Hans Eijkelboom, is featured too, isn't he? Yes, among the pictures I'm showing is a series that dates from the 1970s. Eijkelboom went to a group of houses, rang the doorbell during the day, and the housewife answered. She and the children were home, but the husband was out at work. The photographer asked if he could make a photograph of the family without the father, and he made a picture with them on the sofa. He did that in every house. You look at them, and he looks as if he's been accepted as the father in every picture. There's another series, where he wrote a letter to girls he used to go to school with, asking what they thought had become of him. Some wrote to say they thought he was now working in a forest, or had become a jet pilot or a barfly. Then he dressed himself up to match these descriptions, sent a picture back, with a letter that said “you were spot on.” He did it 10 times.
How about the younger photographers? There's Maurice van Es. He's taken very small croppings from his childhood pictures, the pattern on the sofa fabric, or the texture of flooring in the house that he grew up in. For him, these tiny details suddenly had more resonance than the whole photograph. There's also Melanie Bonajo. She shoots lots of different things, but for this exhibition we've taken some very personal photographs of hers that she shot of herself in moments of sadness – things like breaking up with boyfriends. It's almost like a therapy for her. She never exhibited that work before.
You're better known for curating vernacular photography. How was it putting together a show of pro work? Quite different. The vernacular photography almost feels like stuff I've created myself, recycling material to give it a different meaning. The show had more in common with my work as a designer and art director. Mostly I work with photographers who use very strong ideas in their work.
Is there more skill in taking a photograph than appropriating a found image? It's an interesting question. For me, it's always more interesting when images have been made, because then I can work like an editor; it's a different way of working. I'm not sure of the answer, but I'm more interested in images by amateurs that come to us in their thousands to us everyday. They seem more free spirited.
At Arles 2013, you filled a room with prints of the thousands of images uploaded to Flickr in a 24 hour period. What did you think when you first saw that pile of prints? First of all you're amazed by how many pictures are uploaded in 24 hours. Then, when you walk over it, you realise you have access to very many intimate moments. We're living in a totally different age, compared with when everybody had a family album. So there's that whole discussion about private and public, when you're in a room, walking over pictures of babies being born, and private parties and weddings. It can be quite awkward.
What happened to the prints after you showed them? They're reused. The show has travelled, and every time it's shown, fresh prints are made. Then, afterwards, they often go to art schools or workshops, where people can cut them up and make new things. It's nice to distribute those boxes to other places.
What else interests you in photography at the moment? The trend towards perfection and imperfection. At the moment, with ever-improving digital photography, everything is moving towards perfection. Yet we have these applications on our phones to fuck up our photographs, to make them look overexposed or with flares on them. That's an interesting new development. In the world where everything is pointing towards perfection, it's interesting to look towards purposeful imperfections.
Find out more about Erik's show here; for more on Arles, go here; and for a greater understanding of contemporary picture taking, consider our book, Photography Today.