Every year, the highly esteemed Foam photography museum of Amsterdam organises a contest called the Foam Talent Call and puts on an exhibition of work by the selected talent in different cities. DAMNº couldn’t resist taking a look to find out what young photographers are into today. We sat down with three of the winners. Foam Talent | Brussels, a group exhibition of 21 innovative image-makers, opens on 19 March at De Markten in Brussels. And for this year’s contest, photographers between the ages of 18 and 35 are able to apply until 20 March.
AARON BLUM Foam Talent award-winner Aaron Blum got fatally inspired by his grandmother. Says this Appalachian-based photographer from West Virginia, USA: “She told me about our ancestors, who all lived in this rural, landlocked region in America about which so many hard-headed stereotypes exist.” Blum decided to embark on some serious research and ended up resolving to dig into the history and identity of his region. His series A Guide to Folk Taxonomy is the result.
“I wasn’t really aware of these stereotypes before I attended graduate school in Syracuse, New York. Then I suddenly realised that Appalachians are looked upon as dirty, uneducated, violent people, rapists even. All the worst things you can imagine. I was asked weird questions like ‘If you’re from that region, why would you study?’. I was honestly very surprised that people still believed these things today. My own idea of Appalachians is very different: I rather associate the people of the region as being honest, hard working, loyal to a fault, and – admittedly – distrustful, for good reason. We’re not all poor and dirty, with a tendency to shoot one another! Back home, I started to take lots of photographs and had many talks with my grandmother, who revealed that our family had already been living in the region for eight generations.” Given that many of Aaron Blum’s ancestors happened to be keen on photography, he could actually put faces to the names his granny talked about, 95% of who had Scottish or Irish roots (even though his surname is German). “Through the photos, I started to imagine who they were and wanted to learn to know them. I also developed a strong desire to get rid of the stereotypes and to present my region in a different setting, my setting.”
Blum started to photograph the landscape and the people he loves: his family and friends. “They got pretty used to me being around with my camera. Still, they were sometimes surprised by the result, since I always made them play slightly exaggerated roles of themselves within sets I’d constructed using their homes, furniture, and objects”, says Blum, who does not consider himself a documentary photographer: “What I basically show is my vision of Appalachia. I offer the viewer a fictionalised narrative based on reality. My pictures are sculptures of real events, and the people you see in them are characters.” The Foam prize brought Blum extra recognition in both Europe and the USA. “The New Yorker picked up my work, grad-school professors phoned to congratulate me on the good job I had done, and now I’m putting a book together”, he says, summing up the positive attention he has received lately. This is definitely not just a small, temporary project for the photographer: “What does it truly mean to be an Appalachian? I want to try to understand this in the best possible way and that requires a lot of research – it’s such a vast place, with lots of people, ideas, and histories”, he says. After having worked with his family and friends, Blum is currently focusing on folklore, which brings him to places he had never been before and connects him with people he never knew until now. Clearly, this is merely the beginning of a beautiful, lifetime adventure.
MANON WERTENBROEK When the graduating jury didn’t seem to understand her work, Dutch-Swiss photographer Manon Wertenbroek (º1991) started to ask herself if photography was the right medium for her. “I thought that perhaps they didn’t understand my work because it was rather an artistic project, and this experience made me feel like an artist for the first time.” When later on Foam issued her with a prize, she had a clear answer to her question, and she was even more excited when she heard that her picture would be on the cover of Foam magazine.
The image in question is a very personal one: Wertenbroek depicted the brother with whom she wanted to reconnect because they had grown apart after childhood. “For me, this picture is the result of a process through which I tried reaching out to him, to make up for all of the time lost. The result is a very personal portrait, my interpretation really, with my feelings projected onto it.”
Wertenbroek, who first embarked on studying industrial design, always makes a 3D composition before she starts photographing. “It enables me to touch, to feel. The sculptures I create are very fragile, though, so taking a picture of them is the only way to present them in public. I always transform 3D into 2D in several layers. At first it was a kind of complicated process I had to go through, since it was the only way I could work, but now I see my signature approach as an opportunity to further develop this playing with 3D and 2D. I express all my feelings when making a sculpture. In taking the photo, I close this expressionist process. It’s a very intimate and personal act.” And the result leaves nobody feeling indifferent. The recognition from Foam not only boosted Wertenbroek’s self-confidence as an artist, it also pushed her career forward: “It opened up the world of artistic photography.”
DOMINIC HAWGOOD Even though he studied photography at the Royal College of Art in London, Dominic Hawgood (b. 1988), one of the 21 Foam Talent award winners last year, doesn’t wish to call himself a photographer. Which says as much about this versatile visual artist as it does about the contest, about contemporary photography, and about Foam itself.
“After graduating, I received a lot of good exposure in the UK, and Foam played a part in getting my work out to new audiences within Europe”, says Dominic Hawgood. Foam exhibited his work in different European cities and promoted it in its magazine. Hawgood combines various techniques, from photography and computer-generated imagery (CGI) to lighting design to installation. “I have a photography background and I’m interested in reconfiguring my skills in new ways, such as creating a lighting installation for example. With 3d I’m finding my lighting and technical knowledge surrounding photography is extremely beneficial in building stronger work.” It was certainly never his plan to become a traditional photographer: “I always kept on the art side of things”. In Hawgood’s opinion, “Photography is going through another massive change, which for me is a good thing. It's offering completely new possibilities, combining different mediums, and if you look at the Arts more generally you’ll see this trend happening too”
The Foam prize was for Under the Influence, a series of images on the merchandising of faith, in which he uses the whole toolbox of advertising photography, including lighting, digital image manipulation, and CGI. “It has to do with my interest in exorcisms and healings, and the work itself conveys my experience to the viewers.” The images are of scenes he witnessed in churches in London, however the process of creating the imagery is extremely ambiguous and he never divulges how it was made. “I was simply recreating for the viewer, the feeling I had when watching deliverance, one of confusion as I could never tell what was real. So I reproduced this idea of ambiguity within the work, and it’s up to the viewer to make up their minds how it was produced.” Hawgood claims that the main force behind his work is an overall inquisitiveness. “I seem to be drawn to question things, which is rooted in my curiosity about the world….. I’m looking for ways to communicate ideas simply”
Hawgood’s newest project, Casting out the self, looks at the psychedelic drug DMT (dimenthyltryptamine). Inspired by the experience of taking the drug before slipping into a digital world, he informs, “I’ve been looking at shamanic activity within the UK, and also examining trends in the use of ayahuasca (a special brew of plants intended as a spiritual medicine –Ed.). Using ceremonial objects, I’ve started to tell a story about this strange digital world, and what you’ll see is a play between CGI and the real world, a transition. The transition from real world (analogue) to digital (DMT) is suggested through the use of such techniques as 3D scanning (photogrammetry) and digital image data capture. I’m currently making renders and animations, and am also collaborating with a 3D visualiser and a music producer”, concludes the artist, emphasising that he’s still working hard on this but that “it’s really pushing things forward”, which is indeed evident if you visit his website.
Foam Talent at De Markten in Brussels is a group exhibition bringing together 21 innovative image makers under the age of 35: Aaron Blum (US), Alessandro Calabrese (Italy), Tom Callemin (Belgium), Sara Cwynar (Canada), David Favrod (Switzerland), Dominic Hawgood (UK), Guo Peng (China), Heikki Kaski (Finland), Matthew Leifheit (US) & Cynthia Talmadge (US), Mariam Medvedeva (France), Abel Minnée (The Netherlands), Marton Perlaki (Hungary), Constantin Schlachter (France), Sjoerd Knibbeler (The Netherlands), Justin James Reed (US), Johan Rosenmunthe (Denmark), Jean-Vincent Simonet (France), Danila Tkachenko (Russia), Naohiro Utagawa (Japan), Christian Vium (Denmark) and Manon Wertenbroek (Switzerland).