Reality and Imagination
Frankfurt und Hamburg Celebrate Photography

This summer, two festivals are devoted to the medium of photography: in Frankfurt and the Rhine-Main region the Ray Fotographieprojekte are on the agenda, while Hamburg is hosting the Triennial of Photography. Deutsche Bank is involved in both events, as photography has been a focal point of the bank’s corporate collection from the very beginning.
The first cameras in the 19th century were described as “mirrors with a memory.” And in its infancy, photography promised to show the world the way it is. But the pioneers behind the camera quickly realized that the new medium is not only suitable for capturing historical buildings and picturesque landscapes. Photographs can also be staged, can depict fantasies, dreams, or utopias. Today, the medium is still characterized by this tension between documentation and imagination, though digital technology has radically expanded the possibilities of creating distinctive images. The programs of two festivals dedicated to photography, the Triennial of Photography in Hamburg and the RAY Fotographieprojekte in Frankfurt and the Rhine-Main region, investigate both tendencies.

The theme of the main RAY exhibition, for which three important Frankfurt institutions – Fotografie Forum Frankfurt, the Museum Angewandte Kunst, and the MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main – joined forces is “expanding reality.” Twenty-eight artists are presented whose work is permeated by real and virtual space, documentation, and staging. IMAGINE REALITY shows how artists take reality as a point of departure to create imaginary and visionary pictorial worlds. In the age of Instagram, Tumblr, and Photoshop, where the boundaries between reality and imagination are blurring increasingly, the question of how reality can be defined at all is particularly urgent.

The exhibition shows that photographic art can reflect reality in myriad ways. Beate Gütschow, for example, casts a glance at the cool side of modernism. In her large-format black-and-white photos, she transforms optimistic architectural utopias into uncanny, cloned-together new-building ruins. In Gütschow’s pictures, modernism is akin to an abandoned construction site. The Spanish photographer Cristina de Middel penetrates deeply into the myths and psyche of Nigeria. She went to Africa as a photojournalist, but at some point she got tired of the colonialist clichés multiplied in documentary photography. So she began looking for her own artistic form. Together with residents of a slum in Lagos, she staged her series This Is What Hatred Did based on stories by the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola. “I adapt reality,” says de Middel, “to my needs.” She produced incredibly poetic and visionary photographs in which fiction and reality are inextricably entwined.

Among the new works created for IMAGINE REALITY is an installation by Gusmão and Paiva made possible by Deutsche Bank. At the center of the Portuguese duo’s photographs and films are the mechanisms of seeing and human perception. Their films are based on shots of daily activities, physical experiments, and natural phenomena. By means of extreme slow motion or coloring, the material is distorted so much that it develops a virtually magical presence and simultaneously questions our ideas of reality. (More on Gusmão and Paiva and their MMK project in our feature).  

IMAGINE REALITY is accompanied by a number of other exciting exhibition projects. Within the framework of RAY, the Nassauischer Kunstverein Wiesbaden is presenting a new production by Ming Wong, who represented Singapore at the 2009 Venice Biennale. In his film and photo works, Ming Wong embodies classic women’s roles, from the housewife to the geisha, and makes it clear how present these stereotypes still are today. While Jörn Vanhöfen documents social change in the Rhine-Main region at the Opelvillen, the finalists of the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2015 are on view at MMK:  Nikolai Bakharev, Zanele Muholi, Viviane Sassen, and a cooperation project between the artists Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse. The show at the Frankfurter Kunstverein has political overtones. The American artist and activist Trevor Paglen shows things we really aren’t supposed to see: secret prisons, drones, listening stations – places and objects that don’t exist officially.

In Hamburg, the Triennial of Photography deals with the future of the medium – and our world – under the slogan The Day Will Come. Six exhibitions address this title in completely different ways. The Day Will Come …When Man Falls in the Deichtorhallen is dedicated to series by the New York photographer Phillip ToledanoA New Kind Of Beauty (2008-2010) shows women who have received cosmetic surgery and men in poses reminiscent of Renaissance paintings. In his most recent project Maybe, however, Toledano stands in front of the camera himself. On the basis of DNA tests and talks with psychologists and fortune tellers, he developed scenarios of what his life might be like in 30 years. In the elaborately staged pictures, Toledano can be seen in myriad roles – as a homeless person roaming around, a loser who has gotten fat, or a graying dignified academic.

In contemporary art, photo works often document political and social upheavals in the globalized world. At the same time, however, the medium is used to express utopias and hopes or to negotiate questions of identity. This ambivalence is addressed by the Hamburger Kunsthalle with When There is Hope. The show, mounted in cooperation with Deutsche Bank, presents numerous works from the bank’s corporate collection, by Carlos Garaicoa, Dayanita Singh, and Adrian Paci, among others. The work of the Albanian artist is inseparably tied to his experiences as a migrant. In 1997, he left his home country with his wife and two small daughters and settled in Italy. Paci uses his own life as the starting point for his photographic works and videos.. Mohamed Camara’s work is also autobiographical. The young photographer from Bamako, the capital of Mali, transforms shots from his daily life into poetic impressions far removed from the usual media images of Africa. Camara’s photographs create the impression that a different, mystical dimension is concealed behind visible surfaces. Yto Barrada’s approach can also be regarded as being poetic and political. The “Artist of the Year” 2011 condenses incidental scenes and impressions into visual metaphors that tell of the situation in her home city Tangier. The Moroccan coastal city is being turned into a tourist destination. At the same time, though, hundreds of Africans seeking a better life in Europe just a few kilometers away are stranded here.

The principal exhibitions of the Triennial are accompanied by many other projects. The Falckenberg Collection is honoring Lynn Hershman Leeson, a pioneer of media art, while the project #snapshot focuses on the current flood of digital images. Within minutes selfies, cat photos, as well as snapshots of disasters or political events can reach a global audience via smartphones and the Internet. Never before in the history of the medium have so many photographs been produced and shared. In light of this fact, it is important to realize that photography does not reflect reality, but our image of it.

RAY Photography Project
Imagine Reality
6/20/2015 – 9/20/2015
Fotografie Forum Frankfurt
Museum Angewandte Kunst
MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main

Triennial of Photography in Hamburg
When There Is Hope

Hamburger Kunsthalle
6/19/2015 – 9/13/2015