Over a particularly fine meal in a Paris restaurant I get a chance to explore the folio of a fellow photographer, Hans Hiltermann. His work was equalled only by the 'confit de canard' which we were both lucky enough to order. We've both come to Paris Photo 2011 to participate in the portfolio reviews and have survived 3 days of demanding and humbling sessions.
Not only does the review process expose your work to intense critique, but you're suddenly immersed into a community of fellow artists whose work is impressive and diverse. Hans described his career at the moment as 90% fighting and 10% despair, a common sentiment amongst this group of registrants. We're all here with an eye to the future and we've all worked our souls to the bone to get this far.
I looked over his portfolio and was seriously impressed. Not only did he have 9 years of momentum behind his project but he can boast an elegant concept that provides a foundation beneath the images and a focus for his artists statement.
His work gathers beautifully refined images of naked faces shot with a unique light regime but absent of make-up, jewellery or other adornments. Bare and exposed portrayals of these people are revealing of their bare skin and penetrates deep into their eyes. There is an aesthetic quality to the series, described as 'hyper-real' images with stunning detail and tonal range, but the real treasure in his work is the conceptual framework of how the faces act to reflect our own perceptions and indeed reflect ourselves.
The people in the photo are looking at you, and in a way you are really looking at yourself. Hans called the project "YOU".
I stopped at one portrait of a woman and commented on her lip hair. Hans replied that I just got a glimpse of myself through my observation. Everybody who rolls through the series of images sees something different of course, and these differences are reflective by nature. By choosing these subjects Hans has created a valid concept of peoples faces acting as a mirror to our own perceptions.
And there's more. Hans has a story behind how his subjects entered the studio, eventually became present in the series, how they are prepared for the moment of capture and give themselves to the process. I wont steal all the magic, but suffice to say there is a concept embedded in the process of the photography as well - not just in the selling of his images.
Imagine if you will the conversation between Hans and potential publishers and galleries? His concept is easily articulated, can be explored in depth from different perspectives and has great appeal on many levels. Lastly, his concept is backed up by some superbly executed photographic work. No single image is a work of genius when assessed in isolation, but when combined as a series and presented within the "YOU" conceptual framework the result is compelling and expressive.
After 3 days of sessions with reviewers Hans has got three serious leads for his work.
A little bruised and battered from my own reviews I can now reflect on my offering in Paris and can see where I went wrong. I arrived in town with an editorial essay about life in Bhutan. My work is essentially Reportage rather than Fine Art, and the concept behind my portfolio was no deeper than "Isn't Bhutan lovely when you get away from the tourists?" Some reviewers noted my ability to gain intimacy with my subjects, others dismissed the body of work as shallow and predictable. Harsh words but not unfounded.
In the absence of a strong concept all I have is a bunch of really lovely images which add up to zero. From a Fine Art perspective my work is pointlessly lovely.
Some of my reviewers were editorially focused people who appreciated the editorial value of my work. In these instances I had no trouble offering detailed conversation about the culture of Bhutan and why it inspired me. Elements of my collection have glossy appeal but in hindsight it seems obvious that a clear concept behind the series would have made for a better presentation to a wider range of reviewers.
A concept doesn't just equate to a "strong theme" however, it means much more than that. A unique perspective that allows for different layers of interpretation turns a set of images into a work of narrative. Conceptual photography also infers that the shooting process has been influenced by the concept too, not merely the selection process. In this way the visual aesthetics of the work should bare some evidence of the concept.
You can spend a lot of effort cultivating photographic skills, learning to work with the light and developing your own style of expression but that alone is not enough. When it comes to exhibiting a collection the most powerful bodies of work are ones that are born of a well defined idea and have taken shape accordingly.
Such work takes time and effort, something not easily accomplished while we're busy trying to make a living. This is where the world of Commercial photography and Fine Art diverge. Hans Hiltermann has spent years building an income from his studio work, and continues to wrestle with the realities of being a self-employed photographer. I can relate to his situation.
More often than not the pursuit of Fine Art photography feeds the soul of an artist, rather than feeding their family. Gaining recognition for such work in the form of a book or exhibition is a substantial challenge. Hans has a great concept to offer and he's made the right move by coming to Paris and putting his work in front of the reviewers at Fotofest. This process takes a firm step outside the commercial world and into the artistic.
For myself, as a travel photographer working in editorial, it was enlightening to see where the worlds of Reportage and Fine Art mingle along the edges. They are distinct communities and yet speak a similar language. Both talk about 'the story' and deeper meaning to photographic work, but there are subtle differences in their meaning. It took a pleasant meal in Paris with a table full of struggling photographers to realise where these differences lie.
The extent to which your photography is driven by the conceptual will determine the extent of appeal your work has to the Fine Art audience.
There is a connection between Fine Art and Reportage however, something they have deeply in common. For that matter any form of photography. The need to show your audience something they can't see for themselves. Great conceptual work must lead to unique images, and great editorial work must also avoid simply repeating what has been seen before.
Commercial photography is often conflicted in this manner because your clients usually want precisely what they have seen before. If I send my travel editors a bunch of images that reveal a unique side of life in India they'll simply send it back and ask if I have a photo of the Taj Mahal. Commercial work is full of iconic images, styles and themes that connect with existing culture. Sometimes the clients don't even realise that they're asking for this, the process is subconscious.
Wedding photographers already know the truth in this. Clients will say they love their work for the originality and they don't want the same photos as everybody else. But when the day comes you better get that handful of standard shots before you start putting your own stamp on the wedding album.
And what happens when someone Like Hans Hiltermann successfully shares his concept with the world, and eventually the entire world has seen it? His work too will become iconic and those who mistakenly follow in his footsteps will be resigned to the category of Commercial instead of Fine Art. In due course Hans will 'own' this concept, not only by virtue of being the first but being prolific with it.
At that point he will be Hans the artist instead of Hans the photographer and his story will be known and understood by more than just a few struggling photographers having dinner in Paris.
Photography for the sake of art is extremely demanding by virtue of reaching for commercial quality while excluding iconography or derivation. Conceptual work can often include references to other artwork, ideally tucked away in the complexity (or mystery) of the narrative, but ultimately your objective as a photographer is a simple one...
Show me something I haven't seen before.
Make me think of things I haven't considered before.
Don't be pointlessly lovely.