The Photographers’ Gallery explores the relationship between image-making and play

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Aneta Grzeszykowska, Selfie #10, 2014
© Aneta Grzeszykowska / Sammlung Fotomuseum Winterthur

Opening today, the show features over 30 international artists, including Ai Weiwei, John Yuyi, Cindy Sherman, and more

“Follow the rule of thirds, catch the decisive moment, master the shutter speed, play against the camera, collect likes and followers, challenge everything, fight the apparatus, win the game.”

This is the manifesto of the latest exhibition from The Photographers’ Gallery. Opening today – Friday 24 June 2022 – the multimedia exhibition explores the relationship between photography, image-making and play, inviting visitors to explore playful aspects of visual narratives and consider wider digital screen culture.

John Yuyi, Julia's Twitter 2, 2016 © John Yuyi

Spread across five floors, featuring over 30 artists and encompassing all of the Gallery’s main exhibition spaces, How to Win at Photography is arranged into five thematic sections: Game Travel, Game Play, Replay, Camera Play and Role Play. Designed to be experienced in any order, these chapters explore connections and rule-sets between image-making, identity, politics, technology and entertainment.

The exhibition’s opening chapter, Game Play, features the work of eight highly varied practitioners, exploring the popularity of navigating online environments in the manner of a digital tourist. It includes works such as Gloria L.pez Cleries & Sive Hamilton Helle’s The Unreal – an exploration of techno-colonialism – focusing on the metaplay of creating images within videogames.

Cleries Helle Gloria López Cleries and Sive Hamilton Helle, The Unreal, 2019

Later, Role Play considers the ever-present and shifting nature of identity. From photographic portraits to selfies, and from video game avatars to film stars, the works explore the qualities with which we imbue our digital selves. Here, Polish photographer Aneta Grzeszykowska confronts gender norms and beauty ideals with her series The Selfie, recreating body parts from pig skin to produce a stark commentary on objectification.

 Further chapters present the work of Cindy Sherman, John Yuyi and Ai Weiwei. Sherman’s widely celebrated self-portraits move between different identities, presenting cliches of femininity and critiquing the construction of identity through media. Meanwhile, Yuyi’s images, including Julia’s Twitter 2 and Belly Button, offer a visual expression of the value of images in the age of social media, exploring attention as a form of currency. 

 Finally, WeiWei’s long-running series, In Study of Perspective, expresses mistrust towards socio-economic systems of power. Through the collection of images, in which the artist and activist shows his middle finger to buildings including Paris’s Eiffel Tower and New York’s Trump Tower, he pushes the viewer into the role of accomplice.

Study of Perspective - The White House, Washington D.C. USA, 1995 Ai Weiwei Studio Courtesy the artist, Lisson Gallery and neugerriemschneider, Berlin

Each of these bodies of work contribute, in their own way, to the exhibition’s overarching notion: that photography is inherently playful, but that play is not free. Seen together, these images challenge the rules assigned to photography in the digital age, and beg important questions about who adheres to them and why.

What expectations must photographers fulfil? How is the digital circulation of images tracked? How are these images ‘scored’ via likes and reposts? And, when photographs are so quickly monetised, who is really winning the ever-growing, gamified race for attention?

How to Win at Photography: Image-Making as Play is on show at The Photographers’ Gallery until 25 September 2022.