Last weekend, Amsterdam hosted the seventh edition of Unseen Amsterdam, the leading annual contemporary photography fair. Thousands of visitors gathered at Westergasfabriek, a gasworks turned cultural venue in the city’s west, for this major international cultural event focusing on showing previously undiscovered photographic talent in addition to novel work by well-known photographers.
An Overwhelming Offer of Photographic Artwork
Upon crossing the entrance, the artistic offer immediately displayed itself to the attendees. The main building played host to the Fair, exposing artworks from 140 artists in 53 galleries from across the globe. In the CO-OP space, 12 international photography collectives presented their work, tackling themes such as mass tourism, migrant stereotyping and education. The Living Room hosted panel discussions, presentations and talks with artists, photography specialists and industry creatives. In the Book Market, visitors lost themselves among hundreds of experimental photo books from dozens of independent publishers. Single artists’ exhibitions took place in a separate building outside the main complex. Highlights included Futures Narratives focused on the work of photographers at the very start of their career, while Beyond 2020 by Japanese photographers #6 explored the challenges of technological advancements in the present-day society. The finalists of the ING Unseen Talent Award were also announced here, encouraging emerging artists to kick-start their career. The winner of this year’s €10,000 prize was Jaakko Kahilaniemi with the artwork Nature Like Capital, which reflects on the contradictory relationship between man and nature. In addition to the main event, Unseen Amsterdam also offered a rich city-wide program, involving local galleries and institutions throughout the city.
This Year’s Highlights
Awareness of global climate change was one of the main themes of this edition. When records melt, one of Unseen’s main exhibitions, featured artworks highlighting pressing issues around the environment, the aim being to demonstrate the power of photography to incite positive behavioral change. Shroud, by Simon Norfolk and Klaus Thymann, is a photo-documentary project on the Rhône Glacier in southern Switzerland, which is disappearing at a colossal rate. The glacier also being a considerable touristic business, locals invested in a special thermal blanket that prevented at least part of it from disappearing. Norfolk photographed the glacier wrapped in the thermal blanket, recreating lights evocative of a mortuary slab. Shaped by Norfolk’s eye, the thermal blanket becomes a shroud that prepares the glacier for its own death. When records melt was set up in collaboration with Project Pressure, a charity organization that works with different artists to document the effects of global climate change.
Awareness on political issues was also a recurrent theme. Among the photography collectives, the Migrant Image Research Group criticizes the media’s dehumanizing depiction of migrants. Images of migrants on a boat convey only the presence of a crowd, while dehumanizing each individual. The Migrant Image Research Group challenges this view, trying to document migrants’ rescue operations with more emphatic images. The project started in 2010, when photographer Armin Linke involved a group of artists in a trip to the Italian island of Lampedusa, known for being one of the major immigration destinations from Northern Africa.
The Difficult Process of Talent Selection
Stunned by the vast offer of photographic artwork, visitors hang around the Fair wondering how organizers and gallerists select talents out of the huge contemporary artistic pool. Dutch citizen Nick Mayor, 33, has been the director of the Amsterdam-based Galerie Ron Mandos for almost two years. “We select our artists at fairs, or through other artists,” said Mayor. “Artists’ network counts a lot, especially in Third World countries.” Art academies are also a bridge between artists and art sellers. “Every summer we host a Best of Graduates show. We make a tour of all art academies in Holland and select 20 talents that are then showcased at the gallery.” A combination of rational and irrational choices counts for artworks’ selection. “A picture has to be visually attractive, but also challenging,” said Mayor. “It has to make you curious, eager to have a closer look. It should push you questioning about the meaning of the photo, its story, and the message that the artist intends to convey.” Context also plays a role. “Knowledge of the image’s production background is important, because it gives an idea of how the artist’s mind works.”
Visitors were fascinated by the density of exciting work. “It is overwhelming,” said Renate Cremer, a 29-year-old Dutch communication trainer, after visiting the Fair on Saturday afternoon. Based on the trends she just observed, Cremer saw the future of photography as digital and interactive at the same time. “There are a lot of images employing digital effects or creating 3D illusions. Others challenge the viewer, asking for an interaction with the artwork.” Among these interactive projects, The Long Thing: Re-assembling Images by Italian Alessandro Calabrese addressed the concept of authorship by inviting visitors to take a picture from their phone and print it, just before deleting it from their device. As more photographs were printed and destroyed throughout the day, images were shredded and assembled into new works, receiving a new collective life.
Despite photography being seen in the public eye more and more as a technological toy, some think it should still fulfill a social mission. 26-year-old Kyle Seis, who hails from the U.S. but works in Amsterdam as a camera repairman, believed that “photography should insert itself into the public eye.” “All contemporary arts get isolated in their audience,” said Seis. “They should reach wider. Wider than the high-educated bourgeois that can afford a €30 ticket for an exhibition like this one. Photography should not be a thing for art school graduates and lobby collectors. [The] internet helps bridge the gap, but there is still much to do.”