Reformative vision that clicks

THESSALONIKI – Vangelis Ioakimidis wants to educate the masses about photography. Not an easy task, you might think, as the digital revolution and the influence of postmodern relativism have given birth to hordes of self-styled photographers. Yet ambition is not something lacking in Ioakimidis, the new director of the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography. His arrival last year brought a breath of fresh air to the brick-and-steel dockside complex that houses the museum, including a revamp of the flagging Photosynkyria show. Organized for the seventh consecutive time by the museum, the annual festival, now in its 18th year, wrapped up last month. This year’s theme, «The Photographic Document: Aspects and Transformations,» offered snapshots, past and contemporary, of photographic documentary and showcased 74 artists from 16 countries. Before announcing a series of changes last week – which included a new date for the festival, outdoor exhibitions, collaborations with foreign institutions and awards – the director spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about his plans, vision and photography. Are the upcoming changes connected with your appointment? They have to do with three things: my presence here, the museum’s potential as the event’s organizer and the fact that in 2008 the festival will celebrate 20 years. I believe that every festival adopts some kind of philosophy which can’t last forever. It’s like newspapers getting a revamp. We’re moving the event’s opening dates from February to April. We will host more outdoor events and we aim to get on the international festival map. Will this year’s event go down as a success? We had great response by Greek standards, though we would like to increase European participation. We faced several financial and organizational problems which we overcame as we went along. Aid from the Ministry of Culture and other big sponsors allowed us to get out of a financial deadlock. The festival will now comprise six sections, one central theme, one section dedicated to young photographers as well as a carte blanche for galleries. It will expand to encompass more sections and venues. The aim is to look at photography via its various uses and applications, with the help of outdoor exhibitions, audiovisual presentations, master classes and conferences – setting up a more lively, more interactive platform. We are also working on infrastructure. Many of the works shown will stay at the museum and allow us to enrich our collection. We would like to explore the medium from the 19th century to the present. We plan to clarify our final strategy by 2008. We have already started a cycle titled «Collections-Collectors,» where we present parts of collections from other institutions, whether private or state, foreign or local. As we are the sole state museum dedicated to photography in Greece, we must serve national objectives and operate on a local, national and international level. Snaps vs art How do new technologies affect the medium? Photography has gone somewhat haywire, a bit off track – and that’s where our challenge lies. Some might argue that the very idea of a photography museum, in relation to how the medium is actually evolving, might be a bit old-fashioned, or even futile. Photography has a life span of 150 years maximum; even with the best possible maintenance, it dies. It’s a paradox, perhaps a little philosophical if you think about it: You’re collecting material that is destined to fade away. New technologies will help by allowing storage in digital form, but the value of the image as a work of art will not be the same. It’s very different looking at a reproduction of a poster as opposed to the original from 1945, printed according to the photographer’s directions. At the same time, it is our duty to determine what should be safeguarded for future generations. How does the fact that anyone can take a photograph using a mobile phone affect the photography landscape? The problem with photography is precisely that: It has always been considered a highly popular art form, because it can be printed in countless copies and anyone can do it. It was an arduous process for it to gain recognition. We are all photographers in one way or another. As far as mobile phones go, 95 percent of users are snapping shots, which leads one to ponder what kind of images we are capturing. In what context and for what purpose? Our task is to sort the wheat from the chaff. Some just press the button and some create. The museum must operate as a kind of filter and help to train people’s eyes. Some works, particularly postmodern ones, are only appreciated by experts, whereas the public seems to snub them. This is true to a large extent. Highly conceptual photography is understood by very few, extremely cultured people with a vast theoretical background, while the general public doesn’t always grasp its meaning. I understand that. But just because the public doesn’t get it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t exist. It’s our job to come up with the right context. How can one evaluate postmodern art when postmodernism rejects any notion of objective criteria? It’s a vicious circle. It might be easier to assess things that are more traditional, because you can maintain some kind of distance. Things get more complicated when it comes to contemporary works as we don’t have the distance. What is true today may not be valid tomorrow. What about the future of photography? Well, to begin with, it is very important that photography has gradually found its place in art history. Every once in a while someone announces the end of photography. It might become more traditional in relation to other media, but eventually, it will find its way. The fact that it has entered the market is not necessarily a bad thing. The existence of museums and festivals is also a good thing. The point is to define the boundaries and the context. I’m not afraid of all this confusion, nor am I afraid of the fact that anyone can take a picture. What scares me is when the medium is abused; the fact that some people out there want to become artists overnight, publish books, mount exhibitions and break into the field without the appropriate background.