HARD FOCUS: The Physicality of Photography
Exhibition by Nightlight Darkroom. ArtWork Atelier. Salford. (November 2016)
This was a half-day symposium examining the position of tactile, physical images taking up space in a tech-complex, claustrophobic world. It accompanied the exhibition HARD FOCUS, organised to celebrate the opening of Nightlight Darkroom, a new space for analogue photography in Salford, Manchester.
Speakers: Peter Kennard, Karen Harvey, Anna Douglas, Andrea Allan, Moira Lovell, Alexandra Hughes & Martin Shepley.
The city of paper-pasted billboards has become rebooted with a number of immersive digital LED screens displaying slideshows of ice-white teeth, wish you were here beaches and crisp-edged condensation on bottled water. Images have become slimlined, squeezed and boxed-in to a series of pixels, of zeros and ones viewed on glitchy, fragile devices. There are plenty more images in the ether than ever before, yet the physical experience of photographic material could be in danger of being permanently ripped down and digitally replaced from the gallery space, in the same way that the family snap storing ritual of mounting glossy moments in leather-bound family albums has been abandoned.
Curated by Helen McGhie (Director of Nightlight Darkroom), the exhibition examined the role of how in the context of contemporary art, photography has become entwined and closely connected to other art forms and systems of communication including sculpture, video, computer graphics and virtual space.
“Everywhere one looks today in the world of contemporary art, the photographic object seems to be an object in crisis, or at least in severe transformation.”
The symposium highlighted that physical space is very much a valuable commodity and how densely populated cities, towns and even villages encourage its inhabitants to compress and compact their lives into the smallest places possible, to de-clutter and minimalise. Digital technology is has led to the tactile family album being abandoned in favour of storage and filing on plastic discs, or online social media.
Moira Lovell is an artist whose work deals with photography, gender and power. Moira is a lecturer in photography at the University of Salford and a distance-learning photography tutor for the Open College of the Arts.
For the symposium Moira explored the ‘excess’ of photography, the photographs that were never meant to be tactile or physical. She explained, “These are amateur snaps of stuff for sale, made by women.” Here Moira is referring to the likes of Depop, a ‘young persons’ mobile shopping app.
Is the intention here to really sell clothes or is there another agenda? The first image may well be niave, but the angle is a little risque. The second image presents mixed messages. If this were my daughter I would be having words…. This is a good example of why the instant access, digital image is preferable to the unnecessary printed photograph.
Moira gave us a comment she had received from a teenaged girl. “I trust the Selfie more than I trust the mirror”. This reminded me listening to Dawn Woolley’s talk “Hysterical Selfies” (Photography Matters, Doncaster Symposium). See more here. There is a growing desire for virtual community inclusion, comparisons are made of model-like images on social media. Whilst the darkroom could ‘fix’ appearance, it was slight compared to the wonderous results Photoshop and the likes can provide. The instant spontaneity of digital images are therefore more desirable than the printed, physicality of the photograph.
Digital files don’t have a tangible existence, even when interpreted as prints. One used to be able to buy autograph books – beautifully textured ones or leather bound or covered in delicate print fabric. Now the collecting of autographs is a rare hobby, much more desirable is to “grab a Selfie” with your idol. There is also a “materiality” of knowledge, when I read a book, I need to be able to hold it in my hand, to feel the material reality of the knowledge, of the effort. For me, the same applies to some photographs.
Alexandra Hughes is a visual artist with a practice in the field of expanded photography, undertaking physical explorations of the photographic medium, moving from the 2D to 3D. Doing so brings image and material together to explore our mediated relationship with the landscape through technology and seemingly immaterial, ubiquitous photographic images in the current digital age.
For Hard Focus, Alexandra questioned both the effects of engaging with the photographic image and it’s tactile, spatial and temporal dimensions and considers, through the mediation of the photographic object how can a wilderness be constructed and explored as a site.
I create works that lean on the borders of photographic processes, materials and technologies, examining thresholds of time and place. Currently, I am testing installation-based pieces that explore ideas of materiality, experience and duration. I recently installed a wall-based work that consists of sheets of steel and brass arranged with black and white photographs of undulating patterns of waves. The warm brass sheets ripple reflected light as the viewer traverses the piece, which allude to the motion of water and reflected light on its surface. 
Alexandra works with both analogue and digital, therefore combining the virtual and the material. Her work shows no indication of one medium replacing or superseding the other, but instead promotes a fresh insight to how physical materiality can support our connection to photography.
2. Baker, G. (2005). Photography’s Expanded Field. p. 121.