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Jon Levy, Founder of FOTO8

April, 2010

by Adriana Teresa

Jon Levy

Jon Levy is the founder and director of Foto8, a British-based photography company responsible for the publication of 8 Magazine, the Biannual of Photography, as well as its sister website Foto8.com and the HOST gallery in London. (foto8.com/subscribe)

Adriana Teresa: What is contemporary photography within your forum?

JL: It doesn’t mean anything to me, though, no doubt, I am guilty of using the term too much myself. I think I rather use the term contemporary photographers more than photography. All photography is kind of contemporary no doubt due to its short life span in the grand scheme of things. There are a lot of terms bandied about to dress up new works by exciting photographers. It is born, I believe, out of a need to define things as somehow different today than say even 10 or twenty years ago. It’s also a survival term for photographers to use about themselves to offset the complacency that has crept in to the appreciation of photographers and their craft.

As “contemporary” they are allowed once again to be creative, break the rules and forge new ways of doing things. To command attention and respect and even to ask questions that may have otherwise seemed impertinent before. Are the new contemporaries really re-inventing the wheel? Or is it just enough that they may be good at what they do? Does the term contemporary photography, once it becomes so mainstream a definition for practice in the digital age, then necessitate the use of new terminology in order to stay ahead and seem progressive… like for example the use of post-documentary and post-ironic and even post-photographic. 

Who knows? I just know that there is lot to discover from the generations that preceded me that I find quite invigorating and is new to me today, and a lot of so called contemporary photography that is old hat and unimaginative.

I guess you can tell that I steer clear of labels for fear of being caught out either by my ignorance or by being distracted from what I am actually looking at. And that’s what ultimately matters to me, the photography I’m looking at.

AT: What do you look for in a photographic series or a photographer today that you didn’t look for three years ago?

JL: Well let’s be clear its probably me that has changed in those three years and I cannot lay my ever changing needs at the feet of every photographer. But having said that I look to be excited, to be seduced and for the photographer to appreciate that the ultimate attraction and decision will be made by the photography itself and not by me. Today I look for things I have not seen before or seen done better. I look for things that photographers have done themselves and that are really well done. Most of all I look at the photography and try to judge the intentions of the photographer, not just to tell the story but also to tell me what they believe and feel about the subject.

AT: What is the goal of your online Forum in regards to Photography? Why is this your focus?

JL: To communicate with photographs and words—sometimes one, other times the other and hopefully where possible both together. The online forum on Foto8.com is a crossroads for our viewers and myself to drop things off and others to pick up as they pass through. It serves the Foto8 team and myself as a way to put up sign posts, like a billboard, ever changing but always reflecting the current state of who has last been. It’s also where we pick up things people drop off for us on their passage through: comments, suggestions, ideas and camaraderie. The work we publish online is intended to be raw and revealing, not over produced.

The online “forum” as you call it is not meant to be the end of a road but just a junction. 

The work we publish in 8 Magazine is more of a production, a commitment obviously because of the permanency of the print medium but also because it is sent to people physically and they do not have to be the same travelers who stop by our online intersection. They expect, as we do of ourselves, a more defined experience that they can spend time with. That’s what magazines are: a vessel, a holder like the same magazines that hold bullets in a gun. And by their nature they are to store things and have a dated history that one can follow looking back on in years to come. The web simply hasn’t proved it can do that or indeed that it is meant to be that.

HOST Gallery lies somewhere in between the two media for us because we have built it as a home, like the crossroad it is for people to pass through, but also to feel welcome and stop a bit longer, most importantly in person, to make real connections to each other. The work we show there has the same purpose of message and communication as all the other formats we print but it has grandeur to it, as it should do. After all, an Englishman’s home is his castle and we can’t let it be shabby otherwise who will visit us?

AT: What would you say is the most significant progression in photography today?

JL: The solidity of the will of photographers is to engage in the only honorable genre of photography, photojournalism. It’s a progression to me because photographers have been given all the reasons, suffered the slings and arrows of the nay-sayers— photojournalism never changed the world etc—yet they do it and, you know what, the others who have thrown in the towel to redefine themselves as “contemporary artists” have a big hole in their hearts that they have cut out and sacrificed on the alter of ego and desire for wealth over meaning. 

Its also a form of progress because you can see photojournalism—in the widest sense I mean issue based documentary story telling—is continuing to influencing so many aspects of the world around us.

The fine artists can’t help themselves claim that their work is “rooted in the real” and the commentators can’t help but use “gritty real-life story telling” to convey their narratives. The use of photojournalism has been co-opted no doubt but that’s a compliment and a challenge. Perhaps the new contemporaries of photojournalism and documentary photography are really the ones who are compelled and embrace the challenge to push further so that these other “users” of the works and that means everyone, who create many popular derivatives commercially or simply privately in their own memories of stories will continue to have fresh perspectives to guide them in the future.

AT: How important is having an online presence for photographers today as a resource to share their work.

JL: For me its a glorified and very helpful calling card, an important contact point, I often look people up that I should know how to get in touch with and am happy they list their mobile numbers and email addresses. I also like to see a broad—but manageable and simple—presentation of their work broken into the practical and the personal sides to who they are as a photographer and what interests them as a person. I do not think they should have to provide full final cut presentations of new media, unless it is a genuine show-real of who they are and what they actually do. Instead, I believe they can and should collaborate with broadcasters and other like-minded organizations and individuals to make those and produce stories for different audiences in different locations, not on their own sites primarily.

On the blogging side, its the same as anything, a good social worker for example who can write an interesting blog on their experiences is certainly engaging but that doesn’t allow me to judge all social workers for not having the same. They do social work, if they have other talents or interests then fine but they could have a pseudonym for that and it would still be a good read, its not a precondition of being good at one thing that you must be good at the other and have a website to prove it for me.

AT: What parameters would you like to transcend?

JL: The financial ones, so I can give it all back or direct it purposefully for good and wield some terrifying power where I think it would count, or at least be felt without having to ever listen again to the god awful nonsense of the people who seem to set the financial parameters in the first place.

The creative ones—so I can, perhaps, achieve something truly original or, maybe less naively, truly useful.

The parameters of my mind that make me obstinately pursue my goals and an ever fanciful array of dreamlike ideas that appear to be profound but mainly at worst turn out to be follies or at best actually are great but I never manage to complete. 

Given time I think we can transcend anything… maybe that’s why I like photography so much!

Originally published on the New York Photo Festival blog

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