Photoworks: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. For anyone unaware, could you speak a little about how you came to be involved with Flowers Gallery and about your background more generally?
Chris Littlewood: After visiting a summer group photography show at Flowers in 2006, I made it my mission to become part of the gallery. Titled The Living is Easy, the show included a range of photographers across different career stages and modes of practice. The likes of Edward Burtynsky and Robert Polidori were shown alongside Yto Barrada and Mikhael Subotzky, all of whose work I had been studying and admiring. I was also attracted to the physical space of the gallery and the warm approachable atmosphere they had created. Prior to that I had cofounded an artist-run photography studio in the roof unit of an east London warehouse, which followed a photography degree and a stint at Tate Modern’s bookshop.
PW: What are the challenges of your role?
CL: First and foremost, I would say introducing photographers with little in the way of profile or market success. Assisting and nurturing these younger artists along their journey to becoming recognised figures is both the most challenging and rewarding aspect. With the more established names, the challenges can come from sustaining relationships with loyal collectors established over a long period. Cementing an artist’s legacy within the history of photography through critical reviews, museum shows, awards and publications is the ultimate aim. Marrying commercial success with creative experimentation is our collective goal.
PW: One of the advantages must be engaging with new work and different practices on a regular basis. How do you like to find new photographers to work with?
CL: It’s always different. A recommendation from someone in my network of other curators, publishers and artists is one way. Discovering entirely new voices via international festivals or student exhibitions is another; each year I run a mentorship programme with the BA photography course at LCC. Occasionally I am asked to sit on the jury for competitions, which is an excellent way of seeing a lot of work in quick succession. These days I tend to do less portfolio review events but as I was starting out this was an invaluable way of broadening my knowledge. In general just surrounding myself with photobooks and to be honest Instagram has become such a great tool for delving into a community of image makers.
PW: You recently guest curated our Instagram takeover where you referenced photographic work coming out of Africa, with an interest in alternative working methods, such as sculpture and performance. What draws you to this type of work?
CL: Africa is a magical, troubled, complex and important place and has become of personal interest to me in recent years. After travelling extensively in Madagascar and Mozambique for my own photography, I have developed a deep level of curiosity about the region. In 2012, I accompanied photographer Jason Larkin on a few excursions in Johannesburg during his time working on Tales from the City of Gold – a trip that not only opened my eyes to the many layers of society in relation to its landscape, but made me aware of how rich the evolving art scene is there. Until then I only knew of a small number of predominantly white South African photographers, who whilst still producing excellent work were amongst the rare few whose work was celebrated internationally. More recently the emergence of art fairs such as 1:54 in London means there are now focused platforms allowing us to explore what other African nations’ artists have been creating.
By weaving a patchwork of images derived from Africa – both by African artists and by international artists working with related subjects and traditions, the aim is to highlight a type of hybrid practice. Increasingly, I am drawn to work that combines observed reality or documentary with improvised sculptural or figurative interventions performed for the camera. I think it has something to do with artists embedding more of themselves in their work and communicating in a more varied and obscure way. Whether staged in dense urban settings or on remote islands, what links these artists is their shared spirit of experimentation where people, found objects and the environment become playthings for their photographic laboratories.
Geographically speaking, prior to this my focus was very much preoccupied with China and specifically western eyes looking at the massive change taking place. Reflected in the programme at Flowers through representing the work of Nadav Kander and Michael Wolf in addition to Edward Burtynsky, whilst also exhibiting single projects by photographers such as Ian Teh and WassinkLundgren. As African cities and economies are now amongst the fastest growing in the world, in my opinion now is the time to turn our attention to the continent’s wealth of artistic production.
PW: Mixed media approaches in photography are becoming more popular. What other trends do you see coming up?
CL: With mixed media I think it might be useful to recognise those artists who have actually originated from other art forms. There’s a difference between a photographer incorporating a sculptural element into their work and a sculptor or a set builder working with photography for example. In my experience that crossing of disciplines can produce some of the most surprising and progressive results.
One of the most fruitful transitions I have encountered has been that of Julie Cockburn, who originally specialised in sculpture. Photographically, Cockburn has never touched a camera; her unique works are derived from found photographs onto which she applies embroidery or re-arranges them through precise alterations. Similarly, Niko Krijno’s background is in theatre and experimental video whilst Lorenzo Vitturi was a painter of cinema sets before working on photography projects.
As far as trends go, I have an uneasy relationship with that word and would actively stay away from anything overtly trendy. More interesting to me is finding unique voices amongst the sea of practitioners out there. The following is from a recent essay of mine titled Means of Production. ‘Observed, constructed, appropriated, abstracted, expanded, reduced; the photographic arts are not possible to summarise by any singular trend or direction. As modes of practice become increasingly intricate and forms of presentation expand to include new materials, it might be helpful to visualise the world of photographic strategies not as a linear chronology but as something that explodes and contracts.’
PW: What’s coming up next for you?
CL: 2017 sees a host of exciting projects: firstly Dutch artist Scarlett Hooft Graafland will have her first solo exhibition with the gallery in March, followed by Chinese artist Shen Wei at our New York gallery. AIPAD moves to its new location, where we will exhibit a range of photographers including John MacLean, Tom Lovelace and Edmund Clark. Photo London is becoming an extremely important week for the gallery and this year coincides with the Prix Pictet shortlist exhibition at the V&A; Michael Wolf’s Tokyo Compression series is in the running.
Later in the year Julie Cockburn will have her fourth solo exhibition with Flowers and Nadav Kander’s latest work on the Thames Estuary will launch with a major show in our main space in October. Unseen Photo fair, Photofairs Shanghai and Paris Photo round off the year’s fair programme. In the background we’re working on a longer term book project with Simon Roberts bringing together 10 years of work on the political landscape of Britain, aiming to launch it by the end of the year.
PW: Flowers Gallery has seen the inclusion of emerging artists under your direction. If you had one single tip for emerging photographers, what would it be?
CL: Watch Thijs Groot Wassink’s keynote graduation speech from Leeds College of Art on how to get out of bed, make work, and show it to the world.
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