This months biennial Liverpool International Photography Festival LOOK/15: Exchange, coincides with the 175 year anniversary of Cunard where the city welcomes the three grand dames of the ocean, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria cruise ships to its port in celebration of the first transatlantic crossing in 1840. LOOK/15 uses this history in part for its theme: Exchange – Women, Migration and Memory with 34 photography exhibitions and more than 50 events dotted around the city over a two week period.
In 2013 the festival attracted more than 325,000 visitors and although internationally known and respected, it still struggles to attract attention from a London audience and media. The festival’s Executive Director, Emma Smith, wants to put that right and has put together an impressive line up of events and exhibitions which feeds on the city’s local and international creative and cultural status and delivers a real festival of photography.
Ginger Liu: What is LOOK/15?
Emma Smith: LOOK began in 2006, when a collection of photographers decided they wanted to raise a festival supporting photography in the north. The first incarnation was held across venues in Liverpool and Manchester. Instigators included Document Scotland’s Colin McPherson and Redeye’s Paul Herrmann. Today the festival supports 34 exhibitions and 50+ events across a two week festival period, drawing together a critical mass of photography artists, speakers, thought leaders and audiences from across the arts, social sciences and beyond. We are linked with educators and networks, cultural organizations and independents and hope to support the local area by providing a platform for both local artists and international concerns. These connections are epitomized this year, with exhibitions such as Exchange at WarpLiverpool, which combines the work of American artist Jona Frank, with a curated selection of work from the Texas Photographic Society and undergraduate work from the photographic students at Hugh Baird, in a purpose built gallery designed and developed in partnership with Tristan Brady-Jacobs and WarpLiverpool.
GL: How long have you been connected to the festival and what is your background?
ES: I began working with LOOK in April 2014, following on from my role as Head of Creative Enterprise at the Bluecoat (Liverpool). In this role, I managed the creative community there and therefore a portfolio of artists and spaces with varying needs and at various stages of their career. Taking this and applying it to a festival model seemed like a logical next step. Speaking from my own experience of handling artists and their work, maintaining gallery connections, fundraising, event programming, marketing and PR, website building, social media streaming, public speaking and writing articles, you need to be able to approach all facets of the create and commercial process in order to create the perfect platform for others.
GL: How has the festival progressed over the years?
ES: LOOK has matured, but its principles of supporting artists and creating a critical mass of energy around photography, in all its forms, remains at the heart of all we do. Like photographers have had to, we have tried to professionalize and have moved from operating as a pop-up to being a regular cultural fixture of the city’s calendar. We are building our reach, increasing the depth of our relationships and reaching to new supporters for their assistance and ideas. Consequently, we have more exhibitions and events; work with more artists and venues; have a higher local and national impact and generate more press attention than even before. Writing from inside the festival experience, I hope that we have demonstrated an egalitarian approach to our program, by having some incredibly high-end shows (John Davies’s Out of the Archive, Open Eye Gallery’s Open 1, NML’s Only in England, the Bluecoat’s Nitrate, etc) as well as offering opportunities to emerging talent (Held at the Domino Gallery, Madonna and Child, Speke, 2005 at St Luke’s, Exchange at WarpLiverpool). We now offer talks and sessions where people can engage in the process of idea generation, enjoy peer to peer learning, hear from leaders in the field and enjoy practical sessions, or if someone prefers a lower level of engagement, they can see art work in the street, enter online competitions or pick up our brochure to read an essay. Our festival is not solely about exhibitions anymore, but about the breadth of photography and all areas of its discourse.
GL: Photography is back with a vengeance and experiencing a renaissance. Have you noticed even since the last LOOK how interest in the form and your festival has grown?
ES: Absolutely. We need to think much more broadly about where photography is witnessed and how people engage with it. As a result we have commissioned essays, developed new commissions in both printed form and engagement practices, encouraged photographic blogs, platformed people’s experiences with ethics in photography as well as practice, set up practical dark room sessions and pop-up studios and taken opportunities to put work in public places. Funnily enough, the ubiquity of photography (selfies, social media, web growth and newspaper feeds) has led to a backlash in the quality of photography. Photography isn’t pointing a smart phone and clicking to produce an image. Photography is about carefully panning a project to deliver a message about a matter you feel is important to the world. This could be about the death of your local corner shop, the plight of refugees around the world or the fact that we are all living longer, but it is always about something that has a longer term impact than that quick shot taken of a pretty evening sky. Portfolios are not full of disjointed images, they are filled with serious research projects or stories, they have depth and gravity and like all good art forms really try to get to the heart of a subject that has resonance with a larger audience than your immediate circle. Film, development processes and authenticity of practice are all back up for discussion. It’s an exciting time for photography.
GL: Can you explain the festival’s connection with Cunard’s 175 years anniversary in Liverpool and which exhibits exemplify this history?
ES: There are a number of exhibits, which contribute to the One Magnificent City celebrations, which are being held in honor of Cunard’s 175 year anniversary with the city. Women in the City is a public realm exhibition, generated by photographic audiences in response to an open call we planned with the City Council, in order to provide an exhibit for visitors to see when they step off the Three Queens, who will be visiting the city next weekend. Whilst they are here, they will also be able to see a number of shows about Liverpool, including Ab Badwi’s Life through the Lens of Another, Tricia Porter’s Liverpool Photographs 1972-74 and L8 Unseen. Celebrating all things transatlantic, we are working with a number of American artists looking at Britishness, including Sheila Rock, Jona Frank, Casey Orr and regularly, work shown as part of LOOK/15: Exchange involves travel and or migration; so just as the Three Queens cruise the Seven Seas, so does the content of our work. LOOK/15 is very much embedded in the city’s cultural program and thanks to our local City Council support and we are extremely proud to be partners in One Magnificent City.
GL: How do you balance internationally and locally themed photographic work?
ES: Working with the number of venues we do (c.30) LOOK understand that people will have varying interests, program needs and missions. What we have tried to do this year is understand those and work with them to create an overall theme. Having done so, we then worked with independent venues to bring them in to the overall agenda, suggesting artists and responding to requests for involvement. Moving forward, LOOK would like to be more pragmatic about themes, developing these earlier and working more closely with our partners to ensure they are supported and we can draw together the best stories and supporting program. This has been a crucial part of LOOK/15: Exchange and the program of events is a bespoke fit for the selection of exhibits, thus – we hope – each adds value to the next. Ensuring that we feel we present a good mix of local and international, practical and accessible, low and high engagement opportunities, etc, helps us develop a rounded program, which we hopes draws audiences from all backgrounds.
GL: Could you explain more about the three themes of Exchange – Women, Migration and Memory ?
ES: Despite a long history behind the camera, women are still the minority in industry. Though notable exceptions exist, women have long suffered the brand of the ‘domestic maintainer’ rather than ‘artistic creator’. LOOK/15 has provided a strong platform for women to shine, featuring several solo and first time shows amidst the pack.
Travel is often a cause for photography but the reason for that journey is often far more fascinating. Why did someone move their home? What and who did they leave, join or escape? These images speak – not only by documenting their environment – of much more than their subject matter dictates… LOOK/15 brings such work to the fore, offering opportunities to connect with other exhibitions about their shared/opposed experiences. The connection with the city and the Cunard celebrations offer us three, well-heeled female travellers in the form of Queens Mary II, Victoria and Elizabeth taking holiday makers, workers and goods around the world, building rich experiences for people, no matter their role, epitomising exchanges between women, migration and memory.
The key to LOOK/15: Exchange is that we encourage you to create exchanges of your own. We’d like you to enjoy the quality of the photography, visit more than one show and think about how the shows speak to one another. None of the work is here by mistake – it is provided by artists to tell you a story that has a profound interest to them and/or resonates with Liverpool. It has led them on a migratory path, delivering them to LOOK/15. We want you to take away a memory, build on it, discuss and explore the exchanges they have brought you and come back to see us for LOOK/17.
GL: How important is it to showcase Liverpool as a major player in the international photography exhibition circuit and why should people take notice?
ES: As we’ve documented, in the essay we commissioned from Paul Herrmann of Redeye, there is a real culture for photography in the north that plays out for artists just as importantly as it does anywhere in London. The quality of the imagery, the galleries that display the work and the artist’s depth of understanding, knowledge and quality of voice is exceptional and needs to be showcased. On a national level, Liverpool has never had a better footing, but in the regions we are still fighting for national attention, for people to visit us from the south and to be taken seriously for our excellence. This isn’t just attention seeking for no reason, this is to share the light and be taken as specialists in our field, as regions of great competence and futures and as thought leaders and peers. Internationally, Liverpool is recognized as a centre for sport, music culture and knowledge, why are we still fighting for this acceptance nationally? While we may not know the answer to this, we are still trying and interviews such as this and accepting the platform on which to speak about our achievements and use our connections is vital to attract regional support.
GL: What do you want people to take away and experience from this year’s festival?
ES: I want people to miss it when it’s gone; to see the value in the way a photographer build’s their project to deliver a message and show us something about ourselves. I want people to talk about what they’ve seen and tell us what we’ve missed. I’d like people to exchange views, think more positively about female creativity, consider what makes a really good photograph and how they engage with the imagery they see and most of all, I’d like them to come back and support us for LOOK/17!
Liverpool International Photography Festival – LOOK/15: Exchange
15 May – 31 May at multiple venues.
Ginger Liu is a photographer, writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles and London. Her work has been published and exhibited internationally. She holds a BA (Hons) in Contemporary Media Practice from the University of Westminster in London. @gingerliu http://www.photo.gingerliu.com