A Chance for the Unpredictable

Photography is – and has always been – closely connected to the idea of control: control over time and space, control over history and memory, control over society and nature, control over reality. Photographers try to control their images through perspective, composi-tion, light and colour management, time of exposure, through interventions, arrangements or even through simulation of reality in the studio. Today, photography and camera based ins-truments are part of a general development that tries to make every facet of our lives pre-dictable. And yet, photography does not owe its power only to the controllable aspects and the machine based elements. On the contrary, much of its attraction and vitality comes from the uncontrollable aspects and the unpredictable elements that leave their traces on the photographic image. 

Throughout the history of the medium, artists and photographers were fascinated by the tension between controlling the image and capturing the unexpected, between conscious perception and the unseen (which may be discovered in the image after the exposure, for instance). Sometimes they even invent systems to introduce chance, coincidence or acci-dents into their concept. Uncontrolled and unpredictable happenings are part of the beauty, the poetry and the magic of photography, and maybe more than with any other medium they are essential to its permanent reinvention. The Austrian photohistorian Timm Starl once wrote: «Chance is the determining element of the photographic.» The spontaneous snapshot, as a genuine photographic expression, is an obvious example for an image that includes many unintended effects and contents. But also when documen-ting reality with a clear focus – be it with genres like street photography or precisely prepared monothematic longterm projects –, photographers not only capture one single object; the camera usually registers an immeasurable amount of information which simply happens to be there as well, just by chance. Even staged images are full of unintended or unforeseen effects – let alone camera systems without a human photographer: in these cases, the di-chotomy between the idea of control and the resulting unpredictable images becomes ma-nifest in a form that is highly inspiring for artists.

For Lianzhoufoto 2019, I have selected photographers and artists working in different directions to include the unpredictable. Basically, we can distinguish four different approaches. 

The first group of artists include into the process of creation automatic camera systems, originally developped for surveillance and control. They use them as instruments for their proper artistic research. Hereby, the electronic devices and software are redesigned or functionally inverted to produce alternative aesthetic experiences and a new vision of the world. Some of these artists also redefine the meaning of authorship: they are no longer concerned with taking photographs themselves, but focus more on the process of editing. Following the surrealist invention of the "écriture automatique" and avoiding the subjectivity of human decisions, they manage to open our eyes for the beauty of certain images gener-ated by software or through the errors of the machine. 

A second group reminds us of the ancient techniques of photography, of the times in which the production of images was an adventure and the outcome unpredictable, due to the physical and chemical processes at every stage of image making – when taking a photo-graph under difficult climatic conditions, or in the darkroom, where the photographers and printers often acted more like magicians than like scientific engineers. In this respect, we seem to experience a revival of the materiality of photography today which is certainly more than just a nostalgic regression. It is the manifestation of a deep desire to rediscover the sensual qualities of analog photography related to the uncontrollable forces of nature. Not surprisingly, many artists who use analog process also focus on nature as a subject of strange beauty beyond civilization. 

A third group works with strong concepts to leave some space for coincidences and random results. For instance, they appropriate images found on a fleamarket, in magazines, in a family album or in the internet. The artistic creation often concentrates on playful rear-rangements and narrative sequencings and finally leads to surprising perceptions of the "real". With these conceptual approaches, the fluidity of photographs becomes obvious – they shift between documentation and fiction, between memory and projection. Instead of documenting reality they only document a certain perception of reality. In fact, their meaning always depends on a specific context and is open for many different or even controversial readings. A selfportrait based on the photographs taken by others can be just as revealing as a story composed of randomly collected images: it allows the author to look at the world (or at himself) through the eyes of a stranger. 

Finally, a fourth group of artists rely on their intuition, using the camera to explore the world without preconceived images. They just wait for things to happen instead of forcing reality into a set of standardized parameters and a previously defined plan. This kind of visual meditation is also connected to giving up control over time: at the beginning of their project, these artists usually do not know where and when their project will end. As narrators, they deliver themselves to the unpredictable aspects of life, always ready to open a door to the realm of the unconscious. 

Appropriation, intuition, intervention, coincidence, conceptual destabilisation, unexpected findings, uncontrollable reactions, and the magic of the material: these are some key notions that are common ground to the different approaches. In all the varieties of  the presented artworks, there is an element of surprise, some unexpected happenings or unintended effects that break into our everyday life. They challenge us to re-order the world. And isn’t this what art is all about? It is not about reasserting, but about questioning reality. 

"A Chance for the Unpredictable" is a fascinating topic with many options for subtle com-ments on the current state of our world – it is implicitly political by focusing on a genuinely photographic subject. And we need it more than ever as an antidote to rationality, efficiency and predictability

Peter Pfrunder 

Curator,  Director of Swiss Foundation for Photography