[This is a wrap-up post on the first Reciprocity Stream event. The event has continued to grow in size and number of swaps since 2012; we’re doing it again in November 2017 – join in with us!]
Reciprocity Stream Open Photo Show: Wrap-up
November 21, 2012
I spent last weekend tending Reciprocity Stream, an open photo show where anyone who brought a print could take any other print on the wall home with them, for free.
I’d wanted to do a show like this ever since collector/artist Timothy Prus did it at the Kuhn Gallery in Calgary. Prus called his, simply, “Photo Swap,” a deceptively simple name for a participatory exhibit in which the usual barriers to entry were removed both for anyone wishing to exhibit photography and anyone wishing to collect it – as long as they were willing to do both.
Since I had both a venue and an audience during Brickbottom Open Studios, I decided to do the participatory photo show idea on a very small scale, seeding it with 27 photos (almost all my own) and inviting people (photographers, non-photographers, anyone) to come armed with a photo of their own to put up in exchange for one already on the wall.
Going into it, I liked the idea of this show for the questions it asked — mainly questions around narrative, value, and participant motivations. What follows are some details about how it ultimately went down, and some findings, both anticipated and otherwise.
Here’s where the story ends:
On the narrative front, as expected, the show devolved from patchy-at-best to utterly chaotic. I knew it would be nearly impossible to keep any cohesive narrative across the whole thing once images started getting swapped, so I didn’t try to create one with the initial group of seed photos. Instead, I put up several smaller groupings of images that worked together thematically or visually, and hoped for the best. I wasn’t really surprised to find that even this wasn’t sustainable after the first few swaps; even rearranging images occasionally, which I did for most of the two days, maintaining even the slimmest of visual threads was difficult. No one seemed to care but me, so this wasn’t too big a deal, but it does challenge the criticism I often hear of contemporary photo projects, that the only thing tying the photos together is a high-concept statement. As I knew going in, it just isn’t that easy to layer narrative or cohesion over a bunch of unrelated images.
Giveitaway, giveitaway, giveitaway now:
Surprisingly, questions of value or giving work away never came up at the show itself. I heard plenty of that before the show, to the extent that I started to wonder whether someone who makes money as a photographer can ever truly experience or participate in photography in the ways the rest of the world now does. I had a few conversations prior to the show that went like this:
Me: (after describing show)… want to bring a photo to swap?
Aspiring or Already-Pro Artist/Photog: Why would I ever want to do that? I don’t give my work away.
Me: Well, don’t bring your work. Take a photo of the inside of your freezer, print it, bring it.
APP: I don’t want anyone to see that and think it represents my work!
What a conundrum. It’s easy to think, “eesh, lighten up already,” but I can see these folks’ points (even though I did make it clear that signing the photos was optional). But I guess everyone for whom this was an issue steered clear of the event entirely, because no participant or visitor to the show expressed any such opposition to participating.
All that said, I think a show like this would present a host of different interesting questions if at least some of the photographers participating were people whose work is typically seen in galleries and/or bears a significant price tag. I may put some energy toward trying to make that happen…
How do you like me now?
I don’t want to take all the joy out of it by over-analyzing everything, but anecdotal evidence suggests that more people were excited about the chance to be collected than by the chance to have their photo seen by a few thousand people over two days. Some participants came back for a second visit after swapping, and those who found their photos gone when they returned were all thrilled, while all who found their photos still on the wall were disappointed. Again, this is very anecdotal, but it left me with the sense that while putting an image in the show was fun for most people, what really gave them a thrill was knowing someone liked their image enough to take it home.
One gust and we will probably crumble:
I was touched that several people left actual memories on the wall. A travel snapshot, a Polaroid of a friend being goofy… if you’re an adult now, the first photos you encountered in your life were likely photos that functioned as family memory or document (this probably isn’t true of people born in the age of internet photo sharing… but that’s a whole post in and of itself); and as interested/invested as I am in photography on this level (I’m that person trawling flea markets and antique shops for the forsaken photo albums of strangers…), it never would have occurred to me to put a personal memory — mine or anyone else’s — into the Reciprocity Stream. Until the moment when someone did, I hadn’t realized in quite so pointed a way that over time I’ve come to think of photography as primarily something fundamentally different from that. I think of most photos I make or view as any of several other things before I think of them as memory or personal document. I have no idea whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s something I’ll be thinking and writing more about.
[Gallery will be restored soon]