‘The Idea Of The Iconic Image Is Shifting': A Conversation With Jon Uriarte

19 May 2015, 5:04am

Much of photography centres on connectedness: between the photographer and subject, the photographer and camera, and how the photographer presents their work, whether a shots works best as a framed print or part of a digital archive. In celebration of irista, Canon's cloud platform for the storage, arrangement and sharing of all your digital photos, we've gone in search of the most exciting and innovative creatives around. Which is where we meet Jon Uriarte, whose work is connected to the much-maligned family album.

His work conjures up ideas of intimacy; the cherished memories we share with loved ones, grabbed moments with the people we aspire to be, the subject caught in his most private space. Jon Uriarte is a Spanish photographer who has gleefully subverted these personal notions; whether erasing himself from old shots in Album, or capturing men dressed in their partner's clothes at home in The Men Under The Influence.

However, Uriarte has sought to progress his work from just capturing a striking, thematically underpinned image by asking: How do we make sense of a world bombarded by new imagery every day? Is the theoretical discourse around contemporary photography up to date? And just where does photography stand in a postmodern, post-internet age?

As he seeks answers, Uriarte pursues photography in a variety of mediums. In his shooting, he has exhibited worldwide and gained numerous press features, from the New York Times to Stern. He teaches at IDEP Barcelona and runs an influential blog, plus founded and manages the independent platform Widephoto, which puts on workshops, talks and lectures with contemporary snappers such as Jason Fulford and Adam Jeppesen.

I gave Uriarte a call to get some insight into the fast-paced, challenging but no less exciting world of modern photography and the issues that face it.

VICE:The Men Under The Influence is visually novel and evoke themes like gender relations and identity; what's your take on people's responses to your work?
Jon Uriarte: You can't always know what the interpretations of your work are going to be, with The Men Under The Influence it was crazy because the work went viral. It was published in China, Brazil, the New York Times, Germany, all over the place. Mostly it was on different websites and I could read many comments and many different perspectives on my work. You have bad critics, you have good critics, then you have much more thoughtful ideas around the work that you never really think about.

With that work, the theme was challenging; it's not easy to talk about gender issues, people get pissed off with what you're saying. Personally, it was really interesting. For instance, there were many people talking about that work from the perspective of gay people; it was kind of crazy for me because all that work, in what I was trying to talk about, was of straight men in heterosexual relationships. It's great if there's people who understand it in different contexts and it can be useful, then you can have open discussions and I'm happy with it. It grows much more than at the beginning, when you were creating the work. But it's not easy to control how people react.

With an ever-growing influx of photography of various quality, how do you see the role of photo editor evolving?
We need to edit much more than before. For instance, if you see how wars were photographed before phones, cameras and digital photography, like the Vietnam War, some pictures instantly come to mind; the girl running, covered in napalm. When we didn't have a mass of images, we had more iconic images to talk about. Now if I tell you about 9/11, there is no iconic image; there's a huge amount of images, but between each other, they speak about one moment in history.

The idea of the iconic image is shifting. As we're facing many images talking about the same thing, we have to learn how to manage all these images. It's not just a problem for photographers, but all of society. If we are facing a tsunami of images every day, we have to learn how to understand them, edit them, sequence them, give them meaning and put them in different contexts.

So for you, photography is moving much towards editing?
We're moving more towards editing, processing and sharing. If you look at the short history of digital images, the first photo that was uploaded to the internet was a Photoshop disaster; it became a meme. From the very first picture, the important aspect wasn't the image itself, but how it was done, what the purpose of it was, so I think we're trying to find a balance between taking the photo, processing it – which includes editing – then sharing it. There are many bad photos that succeeded because they arrived at the place they had to be, so I would say just capturing is losing importance, so processing and sharing is winning the battle.

Your interest in editing comes across with Album – a great series in which you Photoshop yourself out of your family photos. What were you trying to achieve?
Album was my final project while finishing my studies on photography. I wasn't aware at that moment, but now I see it as a way of trying to understand who I was since then, and who could I be from there on. Now I can also see that the project has the same concerns that I still have about photography and its boundaries. I guess that from the very beginning I was using identity issues as a way to talk and put into question the identity of photography itself.

It's very common in photography to start working with your own family pictures, which can be good and bad at the same time. It is good because usually those are pictures that you know really well, so it's easier to switch their meanings and play with them. And it's bad for everyone else, the most of humanity, who will be seeing you work who doesn't know and mostly even care about your family at all. I think that by removing myself from the photos I left a space where the viewer can put his or her own body in, making it easier to feel connected with the project.

What's your take on the increasingly prevalent post-internet aesthetic?
The photography in the past has been highly influenced by the history of art, in this history of art you have pop art, based on pop culture. The new post internet era is influenced by pop culture, everything is mixed and taken from images made for the internet; you see images that look like stock photos, retro computing, relationships between physical and liquid images. It's something that I'm writing about and getting to grips with, when I publish something it'll be more definitive, but for now I'm just amazed and trying to understand the whole thing.

You've previously said that Spanish institutions weren't doing their upmost to support upcoming photographers - has this changed?
No. Right now, there are no Spanish institutions helping anything in culture. Our government is raising taxes to go to cultural activities, from concerts to plays to exhibitions to cinema to everything. It's a horrible time for us, which simultaneously made us work really had. There are many things going on in Spain, there's a lot of really good young photographers doing really great work and getting a lot of recognition, initially just abroad but now in Spain too. But it's not work that's been supported by any public institution or even private institutions, it's just a generation that's been working alone, nothing to lose.

Tell us about your country's burgeoning photobook scene. What're the circumstances that've made this occur?
Our generation here is really connected, we really know each other and there's a sense of community. It's quite unique; I've been trying to find it in other countries and couldn't find anywhere else where this is going on. For instance, in Spain, there are fifteen photobook clubs, the second-most in the world has three or four. Here, there have been some exhibitions about this occurrence and I've written about it: I think there are many reasons. There's an excitement amongst my generation of photographers, I can feel something similar in the online photobook community, you can see it when someone makes a great photobook and you can see the reactions on different websites and Facebook groups. We're living through a really nice moment now in Spain.

It's much cheaper to publish and self-publish, which previously was impossible. There are also many more books about photobooks, such as the series by Gerry Badger and Martin Parr, plus various others from all over the world. There's also a need for photographers to show their work in an easy, cheap way, compared to exhibitions which take time and don't travel as much as books.

Now that so much of our lives take part in a digital world, we have a need for physical objects. But now I can see the photobooks being made in Japan, or the UK or the US, or even Australia, photobook nerds are connected on the internet to make a global community.

Do you think the theoretical discourse around photography needs revising?
I'm writing a lot and hope to publish a theoretical book. We need more books about photography, I would say that not even one interesting book about photography has been published recently. I believe we need some new thinking about photography.

Things are changing a lot in a really short time. I see it in my students, how they relate to images, how I relate to them and their differences. I'd say that my generation is in between; I learned photography in the classic way, but when I was eight or ten I had a computer. So for a generation that are digital natives, we need to think and talk about it. You can find a lot of writing about art and post-internet art in English, it's not easy to find it in Spanish.

Finishing off, talking about the new generation of photographers, who would you say are some worth looking up?
Spanish photographers worth checking out include Alberto Feijóo, Bego Anton, Carlos Chavarria, Lucia Gomez Meca, Erik Von Frankenberg, Rut Panuse, Roc Herms, Daniel Mayrit. There are some great photography indexes online too.

Thanks, Jon.


Jon helps run a photography programme called Widephoto and their first London workshop is happening at the end of June – find out more here.

Click here to find out more about irista and here to see the latest from Canon.

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