Photo50: Mapping Adulthood

Photo50 is London Art Fair’s annual exhibition of contemporary photography, providing a critical form for examining some of the most distinctive elements of current photographic practice. We speak to Christiane Monarchi, founding editor of the online magazine Photomonitor and one of the judges of 2016 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, about the 2017 installment, Gravitas.

A: For this year’s Photo50, the theme is Gravitas: what does this mean to you as a concept and how have the artists responded to it? Have any of the entries surprised or challenged you past what you were expecting?
For this year’s installation of Photo50, a curated exhibition inside London Art Fair, I’ve been working to create an exhibition which explores recent work by photographers and lens-based artists around the theme of adolescence. Specifically, I am interested in the time between childhood and maturity, and what coming-of-age looks like today.

The exhibition title Gravitas relates to a personality trait – a seriousness or solemnity of character. In ancient Roman society “gravitas” was one of the important personal virtues that one would need to signify maturity, to be considered an adult in Roman society.  I was interested in this idea, as the word “gravitas” is still very much in use today, conveyed by one’s manner and physical presence – in the past this would have signalled to others the arrival of maturity. Fast forward, and how does a young person signal “maturity” today, what does this look like? How is one’s character shaped today, and what is visible on the surface?

I’ve been following many photographers through my work on the online magazine Photomonitor, and have been thinking about those whose projects involve this developmental time period. I’m pleased to be able to invite 13 artists to participate in this group exhibition, comprising photography, moving image works and a photobook. I’ve been surprised to see how many artists are looking at this time period amidst other projects, and who have done projects spanning years and working collaboratively with others. I am looking forward to share these with a new audience in this curated exhibition.

A: How do you think that the exhibition confronts certain taboos about childhood and the media?
The popular press is full of articles and hype about the perceived state of childhood, usually portrayed at risk from outside influences adding to pressures of growing up. At the same time, it is difficult to negotiate photographing children in many circumstances like school or playgrounds; photos in the press are often censored with pixilated faces. It lead me to consider adolescence today as some kind of secret cave, where children need to hide out, away from the pressures of society, in order to emerge into the light of adulthood, but it obviously doesn’t happen this way. How do family, peers, community, social media, help shape the child into the adult, and when does that finish?  What does it look like just to grow up, to consider the future, to become yourself?

A:How do the works take on the theme with responsibility, and perhaps tackle societal pressures / self-image issues?
Body image, psychological disorders, gender and sexuality, identity formation, peer groups, role models, online gaming, play, tradition, counterculture, loss – so many potential themes exist in looking into this time of development that are also related to the pressures of growing up from external sources.  Gravitas includes work from artists looking at adolescence from personal projects like Abbie Trayler-Smith’s The Big O ongoing series on obesity, or Madison Blackwood’s moving work about loss. Baptiste Lignel’s photographs and photobook Pop Pills highlights six years of interviews and portraits of adolescents and young adults with a range of psychological conditions taking medication to fit in to society. Anthony Luvera’s participatory photographs with young people in the LGBT* community in Brighton share identity formation as do portraits of school children by Wendy McMurdo whose faces are digitally rendered to evoke the impact of online gaming and computers on young people’s personality. These are just a few artists works’ highlighted.

A: Is there something that you’re wanting audiences to take away from the exhibition?
What I’d like audiences to take away from this exhibition is to consider adolescence beyond the popular hype. It’s a quiet theme, I think, where each visitor may personally identify with some ideas brought by these 13 artists from their own perspectives. Having just spoken about all the “issues” perceived in adolescence today, I am actually interested in looking – moving beyond the perceived “issues” that we read about, to just observe, through the camera, this period of development, and the pure durational aspect of growing up. As one is shaped by particular forces and experiences, the personality grows – how and when does that finish, and when is the mature adult presented?

Melanie Manchot’s powerful moving image work 11/18 films the same subject once per month over eight years – we watch her development on video monitors, her face changing with age – what has been going on inside her head all this time? Who is she becoming? There is simple pleasure in freezing that precious time between childhood and maturity, to search for the visual clues as to how everything is changing.

A: What were you looking for in terms of curating the exhibition, are there connective threads between the works or do they simply stand as individual pieces?
: There have been a number of thought-provoking photography exhibitions recently about women, motherhood, family, identity – and I wanted to create one about this special time period of adolescence. Connection between the works exists on several levels – many of the works are portraits, or tableaux containing protagonists in this time period. I’ve also considered work by older artists looking “in” to this time period as well as younger artists looking at this formative period in their life, either being within or having just emerged from it themselves. For me, there are many different voices speaking at intervals to weave the story of a young adult today.

A: As a judge for the Taylor-Wessing Photography Prize, how do you think that prizes and exhibitions marry up in terms of artists’ careers and audience integration?
CM: The Taylor-Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize and other exhibitions judged from participants’ entries have always been an important part of seeing new photography; I think this exhibition take the pulse of the best of current portraiture every year. I’m proud to have helped select this year’s Taylor Wessing exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

Photo50 runs from 18 – 22 January 2017. Find out more:

1. Melanie Manchot, 11-18. Installation shot. Courtesy of Photo50.