March 14th, 2018
What New York Photo Editors Want to See
The curators of the Aperture Summer Open discuss what inspires them in photography today.
Katie Booth: Every year, Aperture calls on photographers from all over the world to submit their work for a juried exhibition here at Aperture Gallery. This year’s Summer Open will be curated by a fantastic group of editors and writers; among them is my colleague, Brendan Wattenberg, the managing editor of Aperture magazine.
Brendan Wattenberg: Thanks, Katie. The theme of this year’s Summer Open is The Way We Live Now. We’re looking for bodies of work by photographers who are addressing society in innovative ways, through fashion, through the environment, through portraiture, through documentary photojournalism: all kinds of photography that speak to our moment. We want to be open-minded. We want to take a broad approach and see what’s out there. (Submissions are currently open through April 4, 2018.)
This year, we have three amazing editors and writers who will join me on the jury for the 2018 Aperture Summer Open: Siobhán Bohnacker, a senior photo editor at The New Yorker magazine; Marvin Orellana, a photo editor at New York magazine; and Antwaun Sargent, a writer, critic, and contributor to newyorker.com, Artsy, Vice, Surface, and Aperture, among many other publications. They are some of the most creative and exciting editors and thinkers in contemporary art and photography today, so it’s a huge privilege to work together and curate this show as a team.
Booth: To start off, could you talk a little bit about your own point of view as writers, as critics, and as editors?
Siobhán Bohnacker: It’s a real pleasure to be part of the team curating the Summer Open this year. I’m especially excited because it gives me a chance to work outside of the weekly format of The New Yorker. It’s a different way of looking at work, separate from having to think so strictly about specific stories for the magazine: a bit more of a relaxed look at what artists are making.
Marvin Orellana: It’s one thing to work at a magazine and have deadlines, but it’s not just that. You’re constantly having to assign to very specific subjects. So this will be an opportunity to invite photographers to allow us to enter the different worlds that they all inhabit.
You know, the world is so big, and there are so many big forces shaping us and in so many different ways. What are we not seeing? I really want photographers to think about what that would be. I want to feel shocked. I want to know: What is happening in your country, in your part of the world? It will be very exciting to see.
Antwaun Sargent: I’m also really excited about this opportunity to see what photography means right now to different photographers around the world. I just came back from Marrakech, where I saw this wonderful photography show called Africa Is No Island, featuring forty-two African photographers, and a lot of work I’d never seen before, which really made me excited about the types of submissions we might receive and to think about what photography can do today.
And with a theme that’s so broad, we can think about how photography encounters identity, or politics, or culture. As Siobhán said, I’m excited to see work I’ve never seen before, but I’m also thinking through the possibilities of this show. Hopefully we will meet really good photographers who are pushing those types of conversations.
Bohnacker: A great example of a photographer doing just that is Eva O’Leary, who was in the 2015 Aperture Summer Open. I’ve worked with Eva a number of times, most recently on a project about a beauty convention in Los Angeles. Eva was ideal for that assignment because her work is so much about how young women conceive of their public identities versus their private identities. Her work has this kind of uncanny feel to it aesthetically, so she was great for this story about young girls and young boys going to these conventions and experimenting with makeup as a means to figuring themselves out.
In that respect, with the Summer Open, there’s a real Venn diagram between all of our fields. And the people who come to see an exhibition like this could very well be people who might assign photographers in the future or want to write about their work or collaborate with them in some way.
Sargent: Hopping on the Eva train, so to speak, I wrote about her work after seeing the Aperture show. I was interested in the way that she was thinking about beauty, but she also has a series of work that talks about her hometown. And the way that she is thinking about those moments where you’re looking at photography and you’re looking at magazines and you’re looking at images in the world, trying to find yourself. So, there is a dialogue between editors and writers and what is seen on the walls at an exhibition like the Summer Open, and this can lead to conversations and assignments around different bodies of work.
Wattenberg: Marvin, you’ve had a very interesting career. You’ve worked at The New York Times Magazine, and you were a photographer yourself, back in school.
Orellana: No one’s supposed to know about that! [laughter]
Wattenberg: Well, you know what it’s like behind the lens!
Orellana: I give my utmost respect to all photographers out there, because, yes, being on the other side, it’s a challenge to try and capture what’s in my head—this idea or fantasy of a photograph. But when you’re on the ground, obviously, the situation can be very different. I always feel like that is the hardest part of being a photographer. How do you walk into a situation and make something that hopefully will be remembered, be iconic, transcend the page, so that when we print it in the magazine, it’s not just something that we, as a publication, feel proud to present to the world, but that we feel like will also add to the bodies of work of those respected photographers? A lot of what we do, at least in the magazine, is to think about how certain assignments will also shape the way a photographer goes on to work or takes on the next stage of their career.
Booth: For all the brave souls who are working so hard to get their work seen, a question for all of you: When you’re looking at a portfolio, what is it that makes that body of work cohesive? What advice could you give photographers in pulling their work together, presenting it to editors, or a picture desk, or even to a writer like yourself, Antwaun? What are those qualities?
Sargent: One of the things that I’m always trying to find in photography, across a range of subjects and genres, is that it tells a story. You can tell if the photographer is truly invested in a body of images if it tells a story that moves you.
Bohnacker: And if the photographer has a distinct voice. I get so many unsolicited pitches—
Orellana: Sorry, Siobhán, I didn’t mean to send you those! [laughter]
Bohnacker: And there are some real tropes that I see, in terms of subject matter, for sure. Some things have been photographed to death, but depending on who is making that image, it can be told in a very different way from the next person. So, just as in fiction writing, where the writer’s “voice” distinguishes the writing, it’s the same thing with visual art making.
But on a practical note, in terms of storytelling, to speak to Antwaun’s point, I don’t think that necessarily means photographers should need to submit a very tight edit. I mean, that’s what we as editors are here for. I think, often, that photographers are not the best editors of their own work. So, I think they should leave the edit wide enough so that an editor can actually get in there and shape the narrative a little bit.
Wattenberg: Exactly. That’s how we like to work at Aperture as well. To see a wide amount of work and then think collaboratively about how to make the best presentation.
Bohnacker: I’ll speak often to the editors at Aperture or to writers like Antwaun, to find out what other people in the field are seeing. Or, if I’m looking for somebody making work on a certain subject. I might not know anyone, but maybe Brendan has been researching this very subject matter, and he’ll be able to give me a tip.
Wattenberg: Or vice versa.
Booth: There are so many calls for entries and numerous opportunities for juried exhibitions, but this one is very unique. Could you speak to some of the ways that the Summer Open is an incubation space for Aperture to meet new artists, for us to become familiar with what’s really out there?
Wattenberg: I’ll give you one example from Aperture. In 2015, the Summer Open theme was Black Mirror, which included the work of a fantastic young photographer named Farah Al Qasimi. The following year, we published a portfolio of Qasimi’s work in Aperture’s “On Feminism” issue. And during this time, she has been doing so well. She had a breakout show at Helena Anrather gallery last fall; Siobhán commissioned her for a fiction piece for The New Yorker; and she’s been reviewed in Artforum and a number of other magazines. So, it’s great to see photographers participate in the Summer Open and then follow their careers. I think that’s one of the most valuable things that can come from an open like this.
Sargent: Aperture’s gallery is in Chelsea, so photographers have the exposure of showing their work in a community where we have some of the best artists working today, who are showing their work down the street and around the corner. And there will be so many different people around and in the art world that will see the work and want to engage the work, whether that is in a magazine story or critically, through text, or people who might want to collect the work. All of that is possible given the location of where the show will be.
Bohnacker: There are few places I would commit so much of my personal time to, but I totally get behind everything Aperture does. I think in terms of programming, across books, exhibitions, and the magazine, Aperture is rigorous in investigating photography now.
Booth: One last question: Why should people submit to the Summer Open?
Bohnacker: You get to come to the party! [laughter] No, because it’s exciting to be part of a group show in Chelsea, in New York, and so many people will come and see this exhibition. I mean, we work with all kinds of people—dealers, curators, editors, writers—so it’s like a—what’s that phrase?
Wattenberg: One-stop shop.
Bohnacker: One-stop shop!
Orellana: Every opportunity counts, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t submit your work. It’s important for us to see your work, to be aware of what you’re doing. So, please submit!
Bohnacker: And, doesn’t it feel like a critical and urgent time to support artists expressing themselves? The way in which we are living now is just so strange and interesting. Aside from the professional-connections element to it, I think just making work and sharing that with people who care is important.
Sargent: This is a show that’s going to be about what it means to image the world and the people who live in it. So, I would hope that young and emerging and established photographers around the world will want to show their work in dialogue with other photographers who are having a conversation about how we live now.
Katie Booth is the digital manager at Aperture Foundation.
Submit your photographs to the 2018 Aperture Summer Open now through April 4, 2018, at 12 noon EST.