A Chance for the Unpredictable

—Peter Pfrunder

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, composition, light and colour management, time of exposure, through interventions, arrangements or even through simulation of reality in the studio. Today, photography or other camera based instruments are part of a general development that tries to make every facet of our lives predictable. And yet, photography does not owe its power to controllable aspects and machine based elements only. On the contrary, much of its attraction and vitality comes from uncontrollable aspects and unpredictable elements that leave their traces on the photographic image. Throughout the history of the medium, artists and photographers have been fascinated by the tension between controlling the image and capturing the unexpected, between conscious perception and the unseen (all that is discovered in the image after the exposure, for instance). Sometimes they even invent a system to introduce chance, coincidence or accidents 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 photography historian 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 documenting reality with a clear focus – be it with genres like street photography or precisely prepared mono-thematic longterm projects – photographers capture not just one single topic but also usually register with their camera an immeasurable amount of information. Information which simply happens to be there as well, by chance. Even staged images are full of unintended or unforeseen effects – let alone camera systems without a human photographer: in these cases, the dichotomy between the idea of control and the resulting unpredictable images becomes manifest in a form that is highly inspiring for artists. The selected artists in this exhibition are working in different directions to include the unpredictable. Some of them use automatic cameras and redefine the role of the author, who is no longer concerned with taking photographs but with editing pictures. They have discovered the beauty of images that are the result of computer programs – or of their errors – instead of conscious human decisions. In contrast to this subversion of technological systems, we find even more artists who work on the other end of the spectrum, where physical or chemical processes play an important role: they reactivate ancient techniques and materials, and the result of their experiments is often a surprise to themselves. At the same time, we also find conceptual approaches that leave some space for coincidence – in a way that questions the perception and meaning of images. The appropriation of archival photographs for instance, combined with playful rearrangements leads to completely unexpected perspectives on the world or on history. A self-portrait made with the photographs of others can be just as revealing as a story composed of randomly collected images: it allows the author to overcome the limitations of his subjectivity. Some other photographers rely on their intuition, using the camera to explore the world without preconceived images. They just wait for things to happen instead of adapting reality to fit a certain plan. This kind of visual meditation is connected with giving up control over time: at the beginning of the project, these artists usually do not know where and when the project will end. As narrators, they surrender themselves to the unpredictable aspects of life, thus opening a window for the unconscious and the uncontrollable. “A Chance for the Unpredictable” is a fascinating topic with many options for subtle comments 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.

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