Thomas Dukes, Curator
Open Eye Gallery Liverpool
Introducing the Selectors for the MA/MFA Phase of Graduate Photography Online 2017: we talk to Thomas Dukes, Curator at Open Eye Gallery Liverpool.
Tell us about your job and about the work of Open Eye? What does your core role at the gallery involve?
I'm the curator here at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool. We're by no means a large team, so I can be very involved in a number of different stages of project at once - so any kind of outline of what my core role will definitely miss something out. But I spend a lot of time in conversation with photographers, and those who work with photographs, about their projects and images, about their passions and perspectives on images and image culture. We are working hard developing thinking around Socially Engaged Photography Practice (SEPP) at present, and this involves becoming more of an enabling organisation - engaging photographers at the centre of many varied disciplines and peoples daily lives - so there is a lot of sharing ideas and talking with people from a non-arts background. My core role is enabling a dialogue, whether that be in physical space, or online, or offsite in talks and sessions, around photography and its incredible ability to connect people.
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 a degree in Law having always thought that I would be a solicitor. But during the single year I was there, I attended around 4 lectures and took thousands and thousands of photographs, then shared them almost daily over the uni' network with all my friends and people we had seen out. I think this was probably before Facebook, so it went down really well. The enjoyment I got from this made me think I wanted to be a photographer, so I left Law, got an Arts Foundation Qualification and a place at Blackpool & The Fylde College on the Photography BA. At which point I realised my enjoyment was definitely in sharing images, connecting people and stories through photography and less in being the photographer. So an MA and a number of incredibly inspirational people in galleries later and I'm in the incredible position I am in. I couldn't want to be in a better job, I think photography is only becoming more vital and essential to our lives.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
Well, everyone has different ideas of what might be interesting. But some projects are deeply personal and might be the obsession of a very small group - whereas some might be a clearly presented project around a very important subject. Knowing how and when to work across both, or use either, makes for a well crafted exhibition or discussion.
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?
I want to know, very simply, what the project is about and why you made it. Get used to explaining your project in a clear, structured way - do this in critiques or with your tutor, that way you can do it outside of University. Keep your projects direct and make them well! It takes a lot of skill and practice to make a project around Philosophy or Psychology that still looks great and makes sense (Esther Teichmann is a prime example of someone capable of doing this) and if a new graduate starts writing about a number of complex ideas that have inspired the work I become worried the work will be un-cohesive or overly complex.
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?
Visual culture is becoming essential in every discipline from Anthropology to Sales to Policing. I joke with my (incredible) Director, Sarah Fisher, how wonderful it would be if all the fast food places in Liverpool employed Viviane Sassen or Mishka Henner to do their visual merchandising. As you say, aside from the technical skills - and these are important! - there's a lot of space in the degree to explore how an emerging photographer may want to move forward in the world, and a great deal of this is understanding how images work in different audiences, or situations, or times. New photographers are masters of a new language, and can speak or provide platforms for new messages - you can do anything with a language - look at what memes accomplished.
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?
David Uzochukwu is 18 and just photographed the new FKA Twigs Nike campaign. As far as I'm aware he's totally self taught. It's not a challenge so much as something to be aware of - undertaking a degree means you've had access to incredible experience, resources and time, but if you don't make use of them the degree won't help you by itself. Whilst we're on the subject, talk about your work to people outside the university world - as it can be incredibly insular.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your area of photography?
Make work as much as possible, make work with people, make work that I can find online, join a studio and show work as part of that studio, do the flyers for your local anything - but keep making work!