Eleanor Scott picks her favourite contemporary photography galleries from around the globe and speaks to a curator behind the images hanging on their walls.
Photography is always shifting and mutating. It’s a complex medium that, from its inception, has always been very responsive to societal change. From historical moments to technological advances, photography has long been used as a tool by artists to respond and communicate with the world. But where do all these images go? In the past they might have graced shoeboxes or, if considered really special, photo albums and scrapbooks. Yet now, in the digital age, we’re increasingly surrounded by intangible photographs. A stream of image-based documentation constantly appears on the screens of phones and laptops only to disappear just a second or two later. And though many images are created specifically for the screen and should be viewed that way, some are best seen in person.
“Photographs as images, objects and as a means of communicating are open to so many interpretive pathways”
—ISOBEL PARKER PHILIP, Curator
Galleries and museums don’t just allow you to experience photography as a physical medium, they also facilitate important dialogues by putting images in conversation with not only the viewer, but also with each other. Curators like Art Gallery New South Wales’ (AGNSW) Isobel Parker Philip spend countless hours examining the “emotional cues that can be wrought out of a photograph” and are as imperative as the images themselves when it comes to preparing the presentation of an exhibition. “Photographs as images, objects and as a means of communicating are open to so many interpretive pathways,”says Isobel Parker Philip. “My job as a curator is to be able to enable a visitor to look at an image in lots of different ways and to amplify the multi-facets of a particular work. Sometimes you can completely change the way a person looks at an image just by what you place in proximity to it.”
These conversations and amplifications happen in contemporary photography institutions all over the world. From large-scale landmarks like the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York to smaller galleries like the Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA) in regional Victoria, thought-provoking photographic discourse is a vital part of what sets certain photography institutions above the rest. With that in mind, we’ve put together a small selection of our favourite contemporary photography galleries and museums from across the globe. These are the places that continually put together exceptional exhibitions and make us optimistic about the future of photography as a physical medium.
Switzerland is home to a world-class cultural collection entitled the Art Galleries of Switzerland – 12 galleries that have been carefully positioned to guarantee the enjoyment of art at the highest level. The Fotomuseum Winterthur, which is located about 20 minutes outside of Zurich, is one such institution. As Isobel Parker Philip so aptly describes, it’s a museum dedicated to photography that regularly presents “rigorous and thoughtful exhibitions that are also incredibly playful and don’t necessarily always replicate the same kind of approach that other institutions take … they’re doing really interesting things in terms of interrogating how we relate to photography in the world today and historically, and the central role that [the medium] plays in our lives.”
A small city in China’s southern Guangdong province, Lianzhou’s biggest draw used to be the annual Lianzhou Foto festival but, as of late 2017, it is now also home to China’s first state-funded photography institution, the Lianzhou Museum of Photography (LMP). Designed by architectural practice O-office and set on the city’s oldest street, the space is made up of two interlocking buildings and is an artwork in and of itself, with the open-air theatre and sprawling rooftop terrace offering particularly appealing aesthetics. Developed by the co-directors of Lianzhou Foto festival, Duan Yuting and François Cheval, the rotating exhibition program is committed to exhibiting, collecting and researching Chinese and international photography. And, having launched with inaugural shows by the likes of Albert Watson, Zhuang Hui and Baptiste Rabichon, the LMP has made its intentions of being world-class photography institution very clear.
When talking about photography spaces in Australia there are so many places you could mention. The AGNSW always produces exceptional work, as do regional galleries like MAMA in Albury – which hosts the National Photography Prize and has proven to be a wonderful supporter of experimental aspects of photography. But it’s the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne (CCP) that really shines. “The CCP provides a platform for contemporary practitioners to do shows that they might not otherwise have an avenue for, allowing them to be playful and experimental,” says Isobel Parker Philip. “But then they also temper that with really well-researched group shows that are often a joy to visit. Their curatorial staff are incredibly interested and expansive in their outlook.”
The Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam (FOAM) isn’t a large-scale public institution and yet its practise and impact is remarkably far-reaching. Their website states in clear and concise terms that their mission is to “contribute to the development of photography by presenting, collecting and stimulating education and research in both a national and international context” and that’s exactly what they do. From publishing the exceptional Foam Magazine to the organisation of debates and educational programs, the vigour with which they approach the stimulation of photographic discourse is outstanding. “They have such a deep engagement with contemporary practitioners and the history of the medium,” says
Isobel Parker Philip. “They also present a lot of photographic work that doesn’t get enough attention elsewhere and have a really vibrant and vital way of looking at the medium.”
If you’re a photographer, or even interested in the medium, being able to view photographic imagery in the flesh – as an object, is a perspective becoming less common in the digital age. We couldn’t recommend it more highly and we suggest you get yourself to as many of these galleries as you can. There’s nothing quite like a masterful photographic print to leave a lasting impression of image.