In our series of interviews introducing the Selectors for the BA Phase of Graduate Photography Online 2018, we talk to Brad Feuerhelm, Editor and Partner at ASX.
Tell us about some of the projects you're involved in, and in particular the work of ASX? What does your core role at ASX involve?
Well, I have a multiple-hat sort of 'career' as it were. My day to day life revolves around acquiring and selling vintage photographs from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. That is the day job as it were. American Suburb X is a labor of love and not a financially remunerated hat. My routine there as Managing Editor and Partner is to explore content and write. The partner side of that involves speculating slowly on possible business manoeuvres and project-oriented package reviews, etc. There are only three of us involved with ASX at present, plus a few external writers and we all have other jobs and creative ventures that also demand time. Apart from those things, I also write for other publications and for artists books, which do pay from time to time while also pursuing my own creative interests be it book-making or archival projects from my collection.
How did you make your way into the career you're now in? Did you always want to work in a field that involved photography?
I started with all of this in 1998 when I was in my second year of University back in America. I had started as a sculptor, but moved towards photography after taking a foundations course. From that point, I also took up a degree in art history as well and began collecting and working for Martin Weinstein Gallery. After coming to Europe in 2004, I had already been dealing for a few years both in books, but more in photographs. I did this in London for a few years until being given the Director role for Daniel Blau, LTD. That was a sincere enough investigation into the proper art world at large to remind me of the powers of autonomy upon leaving. I'm an obsessive person by nature, so when I was bitten by the photography bug, it took over and I focussed on that. That being said, working in the field is not an easy task. You kind of have to find your own way, while also sustaining your life if you are not gifted by wealthy parents or trust funds, which sadly also seem to be taking over the arts a bit these days.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
That depends on whether you mean collectible or contemporary practice. In contemporary practice, there is a large desire for artists to head towards the intersection of where 3d meets photography. Given my own background in sculpture it always surprises me how cold this process leaves me. It feels like perhaps an artists using two mediums and not being very good at either. As a historic image or object, and I do have interesting examples, the point of which for me is the transference of past lives onto the object-the point in which it becomes a totem of remembrance. Hair in daguerreotype cases, cut out photos mounted to wood, objects that people were wearing in the accompanying photos such as shoes, dresses, or military badges. All of these things interest me about the object-hood of photography. As a document, I do not necessarily treat the photograph as such. An interesting photograph for me, having studied the medium's history is really comprised of what I have not seen previously. I can easily say a photograph by William Gedney is beautiful, but it doesn't necessarily excite me the same way an image with enigmatic qualities or perceived failures to print or negative can.
As regards the photographer's statement, what are the most important things for you to know about the work? When it comes to showing their work outside of University, have you any tips on how graduates should prepare their work and the supporting material that accompanies it?
This is a tough question as I am almost certain to de-stabilize a correct engagement with how I like to read. For me, the work comes first despite the intent that a budding image-maker may be making. I will not read the statement first as I find it often foreshadows my 'visual reading' of the work and can lead me down shorter roads. That being said, I realise the nature of the artist statement and how frustrating those can be for artists to write. I’m pretty sure if you ask most students about things they like to do least, this is certainly close to top of the list. That being said, I received a catalogue of Russian student photography recently from one of the schools in St. Petersburg. The catalogue was divided into maybe 8 chapters with one chapter per student. The first chapter I looked at engaged me by the work, then I read the artist’s statement at the back. It was spot on. There was no fluff nor fat in the writing. It was written by somebody engaged with his own practice, but also with philosophy and how others might perceive his work. It was written in a very concise paragraph and completely sold me on the work. IT was a shame for the rest of the statements that I read as they were not engaging, were too long and had no weight to the, whatsoever. You can tell when someone is writing from dread or a position of confidence. Over-confidence also kills it. It’s a fine line.
In your view, what are the kind of qualities that completing a degree course in photography should endow an individual with? Aside from specifically technical skills, what is the difference that having a demographic of emerging photography graduates makes in the world?
I covered this point not too long ago in an article we published at the end of 2016 on ASX. The core problem with art or photography programs in my mind is that the tutors have marginal experience in the market place. Now this point is more about the market side of wanting to exhibit prints and make money from the art side of it all. I cannot say much about the professional capacity of photojournalism for example as I have little experience with that. As it stands with the art side of things, I can tell you that Europe has a major problem currently. England in particular has made tuition mandatory and in doing so has made the arts an expensive vocation to consider. My main contention here is that if you are going to have a university system teaching photography, outside of simple technical matters, you must employ professors who have experience in the field and who have had substantial careers at some point. The problem is that at many of the universities you have professors that sit on the position for decades without actually being overly present and have little experience to dictate strategies for leaving education after matriculation. Photography programs need to ensure that students have some understanding of their chances, but also of the the numbers if they choose to pursue that unrealistic career choice.
What are the challenges you see facing graduates from photography degree courses as they make their way into the world at this point in time?
Again, this is depending on which side of photography we are thinking about. From the jobbing commercial side of things it pretty clear to see that the market is quite humbling when it comes to requirements for photographic output outsourced from iPhone flickr accounts or from Getty images etc absorbing stock imagery or up to the minute 'citizen journalist' material at a base rate of very little forcing the jobbing photographer into accepting less money for their work. It’s a narrowing field and that has not even spoken about AI or the way in which privatised surveillance companies and nano-drones will lead the future of street photography. The art side of it is just as terrible. We have a wave of wealthy kids entering the art schools, which are becoming more expensive as previously mentioned. These are the sons and daughters of well to do artists and business men and woman who can afford to send their kids who want to 'creative/don't want to work' to the art schools taking places of lower economy students and which helps to normalise the over-pricing of university tuition in the same ways that rich Asian students come to England to do the same in fashion. This means that what is a humanities led vocation has become rather inhumane for the lower to middle class student who can get into the program. The prospects are not great. If you are going to follow the creative industry, you must prepare to have things stacked against you. Not all is loss if you can stick with it. If you expect to make money in this field, enough to sustain a family etc, then you might want to look at how you can prop this up with other incomes.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your area of photography?
The best advice I can give has to do with the above. You really need to consider having a secondary income while you pursue your passion. If you can't see your way through 15-20 years of hard graft to get through the other side, you really probably won't make it. You will need to do things for free on occasion. You will need to take some unpaid or lower paid internships to make connections that become invaluable later. Most people do not understand how important this is and want to whine about free labour. I can tell you if you are 24 and are not prepared to do some pro-bono work, you won't get very far. Remember, the wealthy are already securing these positions as their kids don't have any overhead. So, if you want to make associations and play the game, you will need to work for free for short periods of time on occasion. The other thing I would strongly recommend is trying to find a way to contribute to your field that is not simply about you and your work. If you have a fluid position and can offer anything, whether it’s writing to perhaps sharing a passion about photographing Brutalist architecture somewhere physical or on-line, try to consider it. There is nothing more galling than someone who only wants to take or can only produce one thing and does not have the capacity to dialogue about the larger history or trajectory of the medium. If it’s only about you, that is what you will be left with.