The Lives and Loves of Images


David Campany, Curator of the Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie 2020

Photography has come to symbolize the extremes of contemporary society. It is deeply personal, and yet thoroughly public. Freeing at times, yet also limited and limiting. Expressive, yet culturally dominant. Pleasurable, but worrying. There is affection for photography, and it is a source of great fascination but we are, or ought to be, suspicious of its power and manipulations. If we are dependent upon the photographic image, as so many have claimed over the last century, this dependence gives us mixed feelings. If we were to teach young children about photography—which we really should—we would teach them to appreciate it and enjoy it but also to be aware of its manipulations, and distractions.

Across three cities, six museums and an extensive programme of talks, discussions and workshops, The Lives and Loves of Images explores how these tensions shape our understanding and appreciation of photography. A series of exhibitions, each thematically distinct, considers the hold, good and bad, which photographs have over us, viewers and image makers alike.

The emphasis is on contemporary practices, but throughout the Biennale we also showcase older approaches from the last century, placing the issues we face now in longer historical continuity. Although photography is supposed to be a medium of memory and history, it easily forgets its own past, but many of the possibilities and problems have arisen before. We should lay claim to that history. It is humbling, and gives much needed perspective on what often seems like a disturbingly amnesiac present.

At times the Biennale’s attention turns well known images, and image-makers, looking at the way contemporary artists understand them, absorb them, and contest them. At other times, artists return to quite forgotten or anonymous images and overlooked practices. Sometimes the artists are making new meanings from old images. Sometimes they are exploring different social contexts in which photography operates, while mixing images from different social sources. Sometimes the artists are working in modes first established by artists from the past, extending and expanding them. No single approach or theme unites all the works in this Biennale. Rather, their combined presence adds up to a set of propositions about the compellingly ambivalent status of photography.

Photographs do not explain themselves very well. They show, but they do not tell. They are good at the ‘what’ of appearance, but not the ‘why’ or the ‘how’. That means they are perhaps better at posing questions than answering them, and in this they are more like poetry than prose. The ‘messages’ they have for us are fragmentary and incomplete. It is for this reason that photography in visual culture has developed alongside language. Words explain, or supplement or expand upon what we see. It is often said that we live in a culture dominated by images, but really it is an image-text culture. Wherever there is an image there are words. Confronted by images without words, what do we do? Are we prepared to simply look and think for ourselves? What do we need to know in order to look? What if we feel we do not understand? What kind of understanding comes from simply looking? Above all else, The Lives and Loves of Images is an invitation to do just that, to look. Slowly, carefully, pleasurably, openly and thoughtfully. On the walls of the Biennale’s exhibition spaces, words are kept to a minimum. The images are arranged to form their own conversation, and to invite viewers to form theirs.

This catalogue is slightly different to the exhibitions. Here is where you can find a little more information about each of the artists, their projects, and the thoughts that motivated the various exhibitions. But of course, there is no substitute for looking, no substitute for confronting those moments when we are uncertain what to think of an image. In the end, and for art at least, uncertain-ty is a source of hope.