2016 Aperture Summer Open: A Conversation with Charlotte Cotton

The curator of Aperture’s Summer Open speaks about the relationship between photography and magic.

The call for entries is now open for the Aperture Summer Open, an open-submission exhibition for which all image-makers are eligible. Entries for the exhibition will be accepted until Wednesday, April 6, 2016 at 12:00 p.m. EST.

This year, the exhibition will take its cue from Aperture’s recent publication Photography Is Magic, and will be curated by the book’s author, Charlotte Cotton. As Cotton notes, a single, “straight,” photographic image can be as rich, complex, and magical as one essentially made in post-production. Aperture Foundation’s executive director, Chris Boot, recently spoke with Cotton about the relationship between photography and magic and how she expects the exhibition to come to fruition.

color photograph

Featured submission: Bubi Canal, Beautiful Mystery, from the series Dreamtime, 2015

Chris Boot: You came up with the phrase “photography is magic,” a brilliant slogan for what’s going on in photography at the moment, even for the medium as a whole. Where did you get the idea for it?

Charlotte Cotton: I often decide on a project’s title quite early on in the process—it helps me keep a project on track! The title is intentionally optimistic and multi-layered, which was important to me. Originally, there was an exclamation point in the title—Photography is Magic!—but as the book began to take form, we felt that the imagery included did the work of the exclamation point. Of course, the title refers to actual, secular performance of magic—and I write about that in the essay. In particular, I was interested in the idea of a close circle of magicians paying attention to the skill, craft, and innovations in the magic being made by their peers. That feels like an important aspect of contemporary art photography, and relates to the literal and intellectual connections between practitioners at a global level. And you are right: the title at its most general makes an enduring declaration that photography is a magical medium.

Boot: Doesn’t it also refer to the history of photography? I grew up in a world of photography where the darkroom was central, where the emergence of a picture on a piece of paper in the developing tray was always thought of as “magic.” Photography has always been a medium of magical transformation, hasn’t it?

Cotton: The alchemical magic of photography is a very established line of thought. But what I’ve become interested in is the idea of magic as something that is triggered in the imaginations of the viewers of a magician’s sleight of hand—something much more to do with the perception, reception, and attention given to photographic imagery rather than what you are talking about, which is the magic of photographic processes. While I do think that your magical alchemy is undoubtedly alive and well and at play in the practices of contemporary photographers, the magic I’m interested in is that which is activated in the viewer—those transformations and awakenings of perception that art and its processes can prompt.

“I am as interested in photographs that embody this very special, and magical, type of engagement with the unfolding of real time that photography has always provided.”

Boot: The Photography Is Magic book is about a very particular group of artists who are deconstructing and reconstructing the traditional expectations of photography in very playful ways, often using scissors, computers, etc. But you’re treating the idea of “magic” more broadly for the Summer Open. Can you say a little more about the idea in this context, and about what you’re excited to see? Can “straight” photographs—scenes represented as they appeared in front of the viewer, via a camera, without manipulation—serve the idea of photography as a magic medium, and might you select some “straight” photographs?

Cotton: The book does concentrate on the work of artists who are highly conscious of every active choice they make in their photographic work, from the choice of the ostensible subject to the use of analog and digital techniques (and their hybridization), through to the rendering of physical objects. My choice to concentrate on a range of related motivations and working processes in the book is not, of course, the full extent of where I see photographers drawing our attention to the magic of photography. And, yes, I am very, very interested to see Aperture Summer Open submissions that approach the theme in other ways.

When I am looking at so-called “straight” photography, I am often drawn to pictures that I think of as “lucky pictures” or “pictures waiting to happen,” you know, those kind of celestial “gifts” that you can come across when you are working and looking photographically. I am as interested in photographs that embody this very special, and magical, type of engagement with the unfolding of real time that photography has always provided. A single, “straight,” photographic image can be as richly complex, fantastically confusing, and inherently magical as one essentially made in the post-production and rendering stages of photographic practice.

“The idea about photography that I am obsessing about centers on curating image and media streams in real time.”

Boot: You look at new photography all the time. Can you mention a couple of things—single pictures, bodies of work, or even ideas about photography—that you’ve encountered this year, that you were really excited to see . . . or hear or read?

Cotton: Some photographers have contacted me in response to the launch of the Photography Is Magic book and I’m thrilled to know about their work (and a little sad that I did not see it before we went to print)! Valerie Green’s practice has been a welcome revelation to me. Right now, the idea about photography that I am obsessing about centers on curating image and media streams in real time. It’s my first real foray into this area. I’m collaborating with an amazing thinker and creator, Mark Ghuneim, and we are working with Elizabeth Kilroy and her New Media Narratives students at ICP. You will see the fruits of our labors at ICP’s new space at 250 Bowery when it opens in June this year.

Boot: Five years ago, I think most of us involved in photography felt we were in the throes of an incredible revolution, and we had no idea what the world of photography might become. Now it feels like we’re in a new landscape for photography, but the pace of change has slowed down. Do you think the revolution has happened, and we can begin to see it in the past tense? Or is it still just the beginning?

Cotton: Oh, I think this is only the beginning. But beginnings are exciting and perhaps the slowing down that you’re feeling is more to do with us having reached a bit of a plateau where we can take a breath, look around us, and pay attention to what has unfolded so far. Within that is the chance to think about both the ongoing magical properties of photography and what is genuinely new within this landscape of practice. And that’s a collective effort for us all—sharing and linking our perspectives, thinking about our own individual practices in relation to others’, and mapping an extremely exciting chapter in photography’s story.

For more information on how to enter the 2016 Aperture Summer Open, visit aperture.org/summeropen or contact [email protected].