Charlotte Cotton on her brand new book Photography Is Magic

The interesting stuff always comes from the artist, not the institutions. 

Interview by Nina Strand

In a large meeting room at Aperture Foundation in Manhattan, independent curator and writer Charlotte Cotton flips through the dummy of her upcoming book Photography Is Magic, which showcases more than eighty artists operating in the field of “photographic magic”.

“It feels like we’re looking at the manifestation of an idea, which is really heartening”, Cotton says. “In one way, the process has been really simple, very similar to curatorial work: you start off with a distinct idea of what you want the viewer to experience. Fundamentally, the reader needs to understand what the invitation is, and I feel that the invitation is really manifested here through the book’s design.”

Cotton, who defines curating as doing creative things for other people, has previously held positions at LACMA in Los Angeles and The Photographers’ Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum in London. She has curated a number of exhibitions on contemporary photography and her previous publications include The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Imperfect Beauty and Then Things Went Quiet.

“I always have an audience in mind”, she says, “so it’s not the same as being an artist, where you’re hopefully answering and responding to internal questions that are driven by your own ego. Curating has a sort of an indirect relationship with ego. Curating is finding form for ideas. In all the projects I do, I think about what form fits the project: is this an exhibition, a sort of private conversation, or is it a book? This project was too big to be an exhibition, although I did curate a show with some of the material at the Daegu Photo Biennale in 2012, which was the beginning of thinking through what I believe to be a shift in the relationship between the viewer and the artist. The basic curatorial premise of this book came from the idea that photography is genuinely magic, but maybe not in the same way it was once considered to be – I don’t mean ‘magic’ in the sense of the alchemy of photographic materials, but in the sense that the magic exists in the viewer’s imagination.”

Victoria Fu, Photography Is Magic, 2015 (Aperture)

Victoria Fu, Photography Is Magic, 2015 (Aperture)

For the past two years, Cotton has focused her attention on this project, at one time filling a borrowed apartment by the sea with 400 post-it notes in order to shape the structure of the book. The result is a gorgeous publication, designed by Harsh Patel, who is given great credit in the book; Cotton states in the acknowledgements that he shares its authorship with her.

“I’ve wanted to work with Patel for a very long time. Other designers have often told me that they appreciate what a good thinker he is when it comes to design. We almost worked together at LACMA, when I was commissioning a series of books with artists, the idea being that an institution like ours could actually do more for the artist through the book format than through exhibitions at that particular time. Patel has a natural synergy with the artists in Photography Is Magic, and the way he approaches design is very similar to the way in which the artists approach the photographic.”

Photography Is Magic is her second book to be published by Aperture, with a print run of 10,000 for the first edition, and there is even a Japanese version.

Photography Is Magic, 2015 (Aperture)

Photography Is Magic, 2015 (Aperture)

“People buying the book need no prior knowledge of photography. Someone might just look at these pictures to see which artists they should be looking at. I knew I wanted to make a trade book. I didn’t want to make it super niche, but a book that eighteen year-olds would like to receive as a birthday present from their parents because they're into photography. In terms of visual literacy, this new generation is very sophisticated, and we must take this seriously.”

Photography Is Magic does indeed take our visual competence seriously, with the emphasis given to the images, which Cotton believes will drive the reading. Divided into three chapters, the book opens with an essay by her, then presents the photographs, and finishes with artists’ statements. The series of images by names like Lucas Blalock, Hannah Whitaker and Victoria Fu, flow together well, creating a dialogue with each other.

“All these artists are navigating the network culture – many of them are directly responding to each other,” Cotton says. She sees this as an important shift in photography over the past ten years, along with a closer relationship between artist and viewer. During this time, the discussions concerning photography that she has taken part in have often claimed that photography is over. But Cotton never agreed with this.

“In 2010, I felt that when you looked at artistic practices that were not geared towards the heritage industry of photography, or the lineage of photographic history, you could find something new. The post-Internet discussion that’s happening in creative practice today shows that this is a really interesting and positive, fluid moment for photography. Those claims that photography is exhausted were very institutionally led. This book we have here is artist-led – it’s not about who’s being collected, but about artists finding positions within the image environment in which we exist. It’s about artists who have direct relationships with their audience.”

The shift, Cotton explains, has taken place since photography has become established as contemporary art and the false dividing line constructed by the market between the artist and the viewer has broken down.

Hannah Whitaker, Photography Is Magic, 2015 (Aperture)

Hannah Whitaker, Photography Is Magic, 2015 (Aperture)

"It was critically important in the 1990s to establish photography as a contemporary art form through a certain set of production values, but these have fallen apart in the new century, because as the technology has shifted, we’ve moved into a network culture where the relationship between the viewer and the artist is important. The art stars who emerged fifteen years ago were often reusing nineteenth-century technology and in that way suggesting a difference between what we experience in our image culture everyday and what a real artist does. This gives rise to very fixed positions, and artists who went through their training in the 2000s had to contradict their own education, which wasn’t keeping up with what they were actually experimenting with – which is all the positions an artist can have in our image culture today. 21st century artists reflect on how to exist online, how to make their practice about the distance between the work they’ve just done and the work they’re about to do. They operate in the gallery system where the artist is in a fixed state, but they’re really very much in their own image culture.”

So, the analogy with magic is primarily about the relationship with the audience, Cotton explains, and with something that happens in the viewer’s imagination.

“A magician practices with a three-faceted mirror: refining their sleight of hand through the perspective of the viewer. What’s going on in the artist’s work today isn’t about finding your voice in photography or demonstrating the virtuosity of photography; it’s about how the work is read by an audience who are just as nuanced and sophisticated as the maker. This, to me, is the optimism of this work: it’s not about the separation of the artist and viewer, it’s not about the market, it’s about the fluidity of post-Internet practices. What I wanted with the image sequence is an unfolding of pictures functioning very much like a magic trick, or a card trick. One of the arguments I make in the essay in relationship to magic is that the magic is something that happens in the imagination of the viewer. It’s the mechanics of the trick that gets you to a state of magic – the same ace reappears many times, and the mind tries to figure out what’s happening, but then it gives up and simply says ‘I'm in a state of magic’.”

Does she see any formal links between the works of the artists in the book?

Photography Is Magic, 2015 (Aperture)

Photography Is Magic, 2015 (Aperture)

"You think you're beginning to see a pattern emerge with these images, but it’s much more complicated than that. There’s no physical or technological relationship between, for example, Victoria Fu on the west coast or Takashi Homma in Japan, but they’re orbiting the same kind of concerns. The other interesting thing is that the images shown are a mix of installation shots, framed photographs and then just images, so there’s a confusion between the material form and the image that we have sequenced as one of the ebbs and flows through the artists’ work."

In her essay in the book, Cotton writes about how we’ve moved to a time where artists are no longer concerned with such distinctions, or those between disciplines.

"When you think somebody is a photographer, that's just the disguise they're using”, she explains. “In this post-disciplinary era, the artists are working with the photographic, the painterly and the sculptural. This book is really not about the ‘materiality complex’ in photography, to quote photographer Mark Wyse, it’s not exclusively about looking at the object, either, or working with analogue. Today, working in analogue is considered an obvious strategy of art photographers but this isn’t actually central to the post-Internet dialogue, I think we’ve moved away from this in photographic practice. We’re at a moment when all of these things – the analog history and contemporary default technologies - are at play.

This approach, she believes, is yet to find expression in an institutional context.

“I’m wondering how institutions should handle this amazing situation we’re in right now. Their vested interest is in sustaining quite a fixed idea of photography – and not the idea of the photographic. I hope they are thinking about what and where the photographic conversation is heading.

Photography Is Magic, 2015 (Aperture)

Photography Is Magic, 2015 (Aperture)

The recent book fair, Offprint London at Tate Modern, comes to mind as an alternative institutional approach, where curator Simon Baker stated: “Books are by far the best place to understand what’s happening in photography.”

“The interesting stuff always comes from the artist, not the institutions”, Cotton says. “Artists are leading in terms of book production through independent publishing. This is obviously a good arena, where artists have direct contact with their community. For institutions, however, doing things like fairs is OK, but I don’t know whether this is fundamentally represented within their collections. Doing a fair with independent booksellers is like using hand-written labels on mass-produced objects. It looks like a gesture of the individual voice, but actually it’s not. As you can tell, I’m really protective of the artist’s position in this: the artist should never be the performing seal at that particular zoo. I’ve been in those institutional positions, and Photography Is Magic was created in a time when I was actively choosing not to be in an institutional role. Those positions of power are ideograms for something: they’re not the reality of creative life.  Some institutions have a whole range of voices that they speak with, but the largest and most dominant are impossibly monocultural – they’re like the Starbucks of art. Who would want to use corporate language to talk about art?”

Photography Is Magic lets you in on a conversation that has happened independently of institutions and the market, Cotton says.

“It’s not fundamentally defined by the market or the institutions, and that’s the wonder and the magic for me. This book is a practice-led idea about the photographic that I hope will be a counterargument to notions that photography is over, and that it’s the materiality of photographic objects that is the main distinction between what artists do with photography versus the rest of us. In the 1970s, people came from all areas to this place called photography. It was inherently pluralistic and diverse, and then it was professionalised and became monocultural. The consequences of Web 2.0 is that the idea of photography became pluralistic again. If photography can get partially uprooted from the collecting-based understanding of photography within culture, if we stop looking to the history of photography to tell us what’s interesting now, then we’ll get another rush of people coming from different directions to define the photographic. And we’ll potentially see another pluralistic moment – especially if we stop seeing it as the responsibility of the institutions, who fought a good fight, to define what’s going on right now.”

Lucas Blalock, Photography Is Magic, 2015 (Aperture)

Lucas Blalock, Photography Is Magic, 2015 (Aperture)