The future of art spaces: How have photographers innovated?

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With perspectives from Juan Brenner, Charlotte Schmitz, Harley Weir and Josué Rivas, we explore how the last year has changed the way photographers approach their practice

It has been a tough year for artists. Across the globe, exhibitions, commissions, commercial deals and editorial shoots have been cancelled or postponed. With the Covid-19 pandemic, we are witnessing major shifts in the photographic industry; some of these come as a result of long term issues, others are born from new dilemmas. In the first article in this series, we asked how art institutions can improve in 2021. In our second, we asked the directors of art festivals how they adapted to a year of lockdowns. Here, we turn our attention to the individual. Over the last year, how has the artist adapted, and how do they use their spaces differently?

“In 2020, I had 17 exhibitions cancelled,” Juan Brenner explains. Brenner, based in Guatemala City, left a career in fashion photography 10 years ago. Now, his practice  focuses on Guatemalan identity. His project Tonatiuh was his first monograph, and was supposed to be exhibited at four different solo shows around the globe. Some 13 other exhibitions were planned, but none went ahead. “It was supposed to be my year, I dedicated so much time to the book and the shows. It was really, really bad.” In the aftermath of these cancelations, with limited resources and no access to a photo lab, Brenner began taking pictures of whatever he could find around him. “I really wanted to do something with the city. It was empty, and I was able to just walk around with my camera and just shoot the people, the streets, and the fashion,” he explains. “This new work was shot on 100 rolls of film that I couldn’t see, I just kept shooting.”

© Juan Brenner.

Brenner explains that despite his geographical isolation, the internet kept him connected. “Instagram was my weapon, it opened so many doors for me,” he says. “I was in the middle of nowhere, but in terms of putting my work out there, Instagram has been amazing.” Brenner is clear that since national lockdowns began, the platform has become essential. Brenner met his current agent, along with a community of fans, over Instagram. “I’ve made amazing friends all over the world, all great artists. There’s a real community on these apps,” he explains. “The pandemic made it evident that the tools are there, and that they work.” 

Some photographers have used the internet to change their practice completely. During the first few months of the pandemic, photographer Charlotte Schmitz turned her focus towards her new project The Journal, a global collective of women photographers. Like Brenner, she too faced the mass cancellation of all her work assignments and shows. “It was evident that many of us were quite isolated and losing income opportunities,” she explains. “[The pandemic] has disproportionately affected women in the industry. In just a few days, more than 400 women applied to The Journal. It developed quickly into a unique global collective. We’re divided into smaller groups that produce work collectively, and share it through our instagram account. We make sure that images by women become part of the history of this time,” she says. Collectives such as The Journal have become support networks. “I quickly focused on conceptualising, teaching and consultancy,” she explains “I don’t want to separate art from social entrepreneurship anymore. It’s wonderful to push collectively for an equitable society. I didn’t focus much on my personal art projects last year, but rather on global and digital projects, such as The Journal,” Schmitz explains.

© Charlotte Schmitz.

“I found myself quite lost without a personal workspace, but it’s really good to have time to think about what you want to make. When you’re running on that ‘treadmill’, you don’t have time to think about what you want to do. It’s nice to reassess things.”

-Harley Weir

Faced with the loss of a physical space, many photographers have used the last year to reflect. One of them being fashion photographer Harley Weir. “I got turfed out of my studio in the middle of the first lockdown,” she explains. “I found myself quite lost without a personal workspace, but it’s really good to have time to think about what you want to make. When you’re running on that ‘treadmill’, you don’t have time to think about what you want to do. It’s nice to reassess things.” The pandemic allowed the artist time to breathe, a period in which slower, more insightful research can be conducted. 

Nevertheless, the lack of a physical workspace can prove challenging. “For me, having a studio was a grounding,” Weir explains. “I need a space just to make a mess and experiment. You have to make mistakes to get somewhere different. I have definitely learnt how important a good workspace is.”

© Harley Weir.

In this time of uncertainty, photographers have adapted their practice, working in tandem with Covid-19 conditions in order to produce new work. Josué Rivas is an Indigenous futurist, creative director, visual storyteller and educator. His photography, which focuses on BIPOC in America, has been featured in National Geographic as well as The Guardian. Rivas shoots his subjects via video call. “I saw [lockdown] as this opportunity to be proactive,” he explains. “Photographing over FaceTime or Zoom became a ritual to me.” Rivas also covered the Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, once again using the confines of his environment to create new photographic spaces. “I had been out shooting the protests, and we printed the work and handed them out,” he explains. “We ended up asking local stores if we could put the prints up on their boarded up windows, and they said yes.” The resulting work became a makeshift outdoor exhibition, with Rivas’ protest images exhibiting on the very streets they capture. “As a storyteller, and as a community member, we can use our tools to heal,” he explains. 

© Josué Rivas.

Covid-19 has brought a sense of innovation to those working in photography, but it is yet to be seen what that will mean beyond the pandemic. “We are a new hybrid,” Brenner explains, speaking about the blending of spaces and practices; online and physical, “Many of us have realised how important spaces and institutions are,” explains Schmitz. “Many things work online, but art touches people, and I believe it needs physical encounters. I think that we will probably work more with hybrid spaces, combining the online and the offline.”

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.