Collaborator's Corner: A Conversation between Lucy Soutter and Duncan Wooldridge, on "Writer Conversations"

Cover of Writer Conversations (1000 Words, 2023), edited by Duncan Wooldridge and Lucy Soutter.

Lucy Soutter is an artist, critic and art historian. She is the Course Leader of MA Photography Arts at the University of Westminster, and is the author of Why Art Photography?. Soutter was a Guest Room curator around the theme “Interdependence” for us in October 2021. We invited Lucy to be in conversation with Duncan Wooldridge about Writer Conversations, which was edited by Lucy and Duncan, upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). It sits alongside the earlier book, Curator Conversations (1000 Words, 2021), edited by Tim Clark. Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is Course Director for MA Fine Art Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London, and is the author of John Hilliard: Not Black and White (Ridinghouse, 2014) and To Be Determined: Photography and the Future (SPBH Editions, 2021). Writer Conversations features; Taco Hidde Bakker, Daniel C. Blight, David Campany, Tina M. Campt, Taous R. Dahmani, Horacio Fernández, Max Houghton, Tanvi Mishra, Simon Njami, Christopher Pinney, Zoé Samudzi, Olga Smith, David Levi Strauss, Deborah Willis, Wu Hung, and Joanna Zylinska.

Spread from Writer Conversations (1000 Words, 2023), edited by Duncan Wooldridge and Lucy Soutter.

LS: How did the project begin? I was very pleased when you asked me, but I was never clear on how the whole project came into existence.

DW: In the summer of 2020, I contributed to Curator Conversations, which Tim Clark initiated. This existed first as a series online, and then was made into a book. Curator Conversations took the form of a set of standard questions about curating photography today that were shared with all of the contributors, with each of their responses made available to read and ultimately to compare. The book had proven to be really valuable as a snapshot of a moment of practice, but it also raised some really interesting observations about how different people had contributed. Perhaps inevitably, when you ask a number of contributors to do the same thing, some outcomes are super short and others are long. What made the book really valuable was when you saw interesting alignments and differences starting to emerge. Tim asked if I would be interested in editing a version dedicated to photography writing, and I immediately said yes, but that I was keen to do two things: one was to work with you, and the second was to go back to writers a second time, with follow-up questions. We’ve been having discussions about writing and publishing, and at that time we were talking about writers we valued, what we were reading and not reading, what was available and what wasn’t, and we had already mulled over some ideas about publishing and working together. It felt like a really natural decision to continue the conversation this way. I thought we should add follow up questions to the standard questions which everybody received. This was a way to play with and modify the form of the book, and to make it as a volume a touch more specific to the practice of writers - to encourage them to use the book’s questionnaire-style starting format as a jumping off point for their own views and writerly voice. It seemed only logical that Writer Conversations was a bit longer and encouraged writers to share something of their actual practice right there, on the page. I had in mind some of the exceptional Paris Review interviews with writers that were eventually compiled as books when I was a postgraduate student. There was something vivid about how writers described where they wrote and how they got started that I was keen to turn this field, which we probably think of as criticism and not as craft. From there, the process became very collaborative.

DW: Once you’d agreed to work on the project, we got down to some practical questions: what questions, which writers, and how we would put this all together. Could I ask you to talk about this process of selecting people to contribute? I felt you identified some really useful ways of thinking this through: what did you think were important criteria for the range of contributors we worked with?

LS: We had a few clear priorities from the start: we wanted a mix of writers from different parts of the world, from different stages of their careers and from different academic and artistic backgrounds. We had a few of our heroes on the list from the start, but we also wanted to stretch the limits of our existing networks and discover some fresh voices. Coming from an interdisciplinary background, I thought it was important that we represent some of the different fields that engage with photography, from anthropology, visual culture and art history to art criticism, curation and various forms of activism. We also wanted to include different kinds of writers, not just academics. Crucially, we felt that we shared an intellectual formation that involved a particular set of texts around photography that were taught in the 90s and early 2000s, and that there has been an exciting paradigm shift since then that has not yet been fully articulated–we invited writers of all ages who we felt had contributed to that shift. By asking writers questions about their own formation, habits and preoccupations, we offered a window into how and why the cultural moment has changed, and how photography writers are responding to that.

Joanna Zylinska, Planetary Exhalation (2021).

LS: One of our participants was annoyed that we were providing a questionnaire, rather than having a “real” conversation. Your response to this was a thoughtful articulation of the benefits of the chosen form. Can you elaborate?

DW: Oh! I remember being surprised that this was controversial. We were really playing to writers writing their responses - it seemed to be a way to engage meaningfully with a modern form of letters without over-emphasising our use of email. What we’d encountered as contributors and readers of the Curator Conversations project was that the conversations were multi-dimensional: there is a conversation we as editors are having, there is a conversation we as interviewers are having with interviewees, and there is a conversation that interviewees are having with their contemporaries. This is really the benefit of asking shared questions. Follow-ups were conversations in the middle of the process, but occasionally writers removed these or extended their answers instead. We also accompanied the contributions with texts that the two of us have separately written, exploring the field we felt we were starting from, and what we thought had started to come about from the answers we received. This is a form of conversation too, ongoing. Can you talk about this, as your text really sets the scene?

Tina M. Campt © Dorothy Hong.

LS: From the start, we envisioned our own contributions as providing bookends. Part of my own writerly impulse is to try to establish as sense of the “big picture” of artistic and intellectual inquiry, so I wanted to challenge myself to describe the changes that have taken place since that first flowering of photography theory in the mid-20th century (Benjamin, Barthes, Sontag, Sekula, etc.). I trace (albeit very briefly) the shift towards a more diverse, global, eclectic set of photography writing practices. I am fascinated by the strong core of social engagement that continues to run through the field. The writers share a sense of commitment to photography not merely as an area of cultural play, but as a set of practices that affect actual lives.

DW: At the end I reflect on the responses of our contributors and try to examine a few recurring or pressing realisations. There are some really interesting threads that came up which I think get to the questions of how writers write, and why we write in the ways that we do. These are questions like ‘do we write about images, as if they are at a distance from us, do we write with them, or around them’? Let’s talk about some of the questions that we asked. We edited questions in the project down to a really concise place, in the style of the first book, but also to leave space for really different interpretations.

DW: Two questions we asked - What is the place of criticality in photography writing now? and How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? - these were quite specific and a little provoking. How did you feel about the responses we got to them?

LS: When I was a photography student and later art history student in USA in the 90s, “criticality” was considered a supreme value in a certain strand of photography and photography writing, as opposed to the priorities of formalism and connoisseurship, perceived to be complacent, conservative, outmoded. This dichotomy was confusing for many photography students (and continues to be), especially where it appeared as an unspoken set of prejudices, rather than a properly articulated position. In the 21st century there has been a relaxation of this split, more acceptance that visual pleasure and serious ideas can coexist. I wanted to take the temperature of our writers to ascertain their take on this. Their answers were helpful to illuminate what criticality means now, not only in the western academy, but also in other areas of the world.

The curation question was designed to address a perceived power grab; if you read writer/curators like Hans Ulrich Obrist, Paul O’Neill or Clément Cheroux you might think that curation has stolen the impetus for the evolution of new ideas in photography, that curators have taken over from artists or academics as the arbiters of the contemporary. Within the art world, the history of art has rather fallen out of fashion, and there is a sense that the criticism found in many magazines is compromised by the cosy relationships between editors and galleries buying advertisements. We were curious to see if this perception was shared by our writers, but in fact few of them acknowledged a split between curation and other areas of inquiry. Many of them responded that curation was just one more set of skills that a cultural producer could bring to the table in the interests of expressing ideas, or interestingly that curation might allow a more creative or intuitive take on the material at stake.

Cover of Daniel C. Blight, The Image of Whiteness (SPBH Editions and Art on the Underground, 2019).

DW: Did anyone really surprise you in what they had to say?

LS: We were both surprised by the number of respondents who cited Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin as their biggest influences. While obviously, these writers have a lot to offer, we thought of them as so familiar as to be almost clichéd! On the other hand, we were very excited by the rich, eclectic reading lists that emerged from the project–including many references that were entirely new to us. We remarked several times how much we’d like to take a long retreat to read them all!

Cover of David Campany, The Lives and Loves of Images (Kehrer Verlag, 2020).

LS: What about the ones who got away?

DW: Although these things are often quite private - who agrees to participate, how they do it, who says no and why - we feel it is so interesting, the range of responses we’ve had. Of course a majority of people are easy to work with and happy to participate, some who are far far too busy, a few with egos, but then there’s the chase of actually managing to reach someone - we were never really sure if we reached Kaja Silverman (who is a Professor Emeritus in the US), nor were we sure if we reached Ivan Vladislavic in South Africa, who is a fiction writer who also writes about photography and has collaborated with people like David Goldblatt). Going outside of our networks means that you’re always involved in a series of unknowns, which might have led to different books. We asked Ariella Azoullay three times - she is so regularly cited in responses that we felt it was really necessary to just try and convince her to participate. It was like a conversation within a conversation; Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa was far too busy but kindly nominated someone, which was both generous and productive; another writer, who we won’t name, had an agent who major some really big demands that was clearly designed to put you off. My biggest regret was we had thought for a while that we wanted to invite both Aveek Sen and Moyra Davey - they were friends. Sen because he was an exquisite stylist and insightful thinker and Davey because of her capacity to move between personal reflection, theoretical engagement, poetics, and filmic narration. Sen passed away suddenly, and we just didn’t feel like we could ask Davey around that time because we knew they were in dialogue. On a lighter note, I wanted to reflect on something I couldn’t help but notice and maybe readers will see at play in the book, which was the play between the economy and openness of our initial questions, which we refined down, and the sometimes long or highly specific questions as follow-ups that I found myself writing.

Taous R. Dahmani © Lynn S.K.

DW: So a first question: why is it that my questions are twice as long as yours? And a second: do you have an interview strategy that you’ll share?

LS: Haha! Yes, we have different writing styles, though I think they emerge from the same impulse, namely that we both try to consider multiple different perspectives at once. For me, the result is that my questions are very careful and concise, so as to be clear but also open to a wide range of responses. In your questions (especially the follow-up questions), you use language to point more explicitly at different possible angles, perhaps even setting mini-provocations. I think both strategies worked in the end to draw out rich responses.

Spread from Writer Conversations (1000 Words, 2023), edited by Duncan Wooldridge and Lucy Soutter.

LS: It is often the case that an interview reveals as much about the interviewer as the interviewee. What do you think this book reveals about us and our relationship to the field?

DW: I think one thing is this real relationship between being a reader and being a writer, their inseparability - I’d argue that this is the same as the relationship between being an observer and being an image maker. I think that’s such a must - there’s still this crazy notion of genius that we’ve been trying to kill off but just won’t die, that suggests you can turn up and virtuosically do something. It’s passion, engagement and work. We’re passionate about it, we want to support and grow the field, perhaps more than we’re interested in our own promotion. And we won’t just talk about it, we’ll try and do it. More specifically, I think our selections likely reveal that we’re invested in what has been described as photography’s expanded field: I’ll stretch it from its original use to suggest that this has three manifestations: firstly, there is the multiple forms that photography takes - existing in space and in experimental modes, across materials, and in hybrid methods presence and display; second, there are the interconnections that photography has beyond its own domain. with anything we might describe as ‘media’ but also with images as they come into contact with the world, to explore photography as active and not passive, productive and not merely received; and lastly, but urgently, with expanding the geographical discourse that photography maintains, which comes from our curiosity and drive to enter into a different, more rounded discussion.

Tanvi Mishra © Aditya Kapoor.

LS: Francesca (who commissioned this interview) was also hoping we would say something about our parallel work on the Global Photographies Network. What do you think? It feels to me like a very big thing to try to explain even in brief. We might just allude to it in a tantalising way…

DW: Yes - maybe we won’t talk about it in terms of how it works, but we could talk about this as an extension of what we are doing in this book. In brief, in 2020 we set up a network of individuals, from universities, publishers and gallery institutions, across several countries, to explore, enter into conversation with and give voice to practices of photography in a global, connected manner. We hold a regular programme of talks - 8 a year, which are free online - but at the moment we’re working together to produce another multi-vocal book, which will be The Routledge Companion to Global Photographies, due in 2024. You and I are overseeing this as lead editors, assisting the sections, but at its centre are an array of exceptional contributions through a series of specific, positioned sections.

DW: Do you want to say a bit about this?

LS: One of the most exciting discoveries has been that photographers and educators around the world are engaging (in their own distinct ways) with an interrelated set of concerns, including climate change, forming communities, postcolonial and decolonial strategies, materiality, questions of gender, and the role of photobooks. It has been such a pleasure and privilege to work with our contributors on it!