Art Photography is Free from Rules – Photographs by various artists | Interview by Joanna L. Cresswell

British Journal of Photography is the world’s oldest photography magazine, its first issue having appeared all the way back in 1854—that’s less than 30 years after the medium itself was invented, which makes its archive quite an incredible time capsule. Looking back on issues from decades past is a fascinating journey not only into the history of the medium, but into the social and technological shifts that have shaped and reshaped the ways we see the world too.

So how does a magazine like this choose what themes and trends to build their issues around? How does it stay timely and responsive? And most importantly, what are the team looking for when seeking out new work?

In this interview for LensCulture, Joanna L. Cresswell spoke to the BJP’s editor, Izabela Radwanska Zhang, about her path into photography, her mission to balance tradition with the contemporary, and her advice for those who want to get published.

Abhishek Khedekar, spread from British Journal of Photography: Ones to Watch 2022

Joanna L. Cresswell: Tell us about your education and career journey to get to this point. How did you become interested in photography specifically?

Izabela Radwanska Zhang: My journey up to this point has been far from linear. I went down the academic path for my undergraduate degree, and studied Spanish and Italian with European Studies. Even though I’ve always been a creative person, I was steered away from an arts degree to get a ‘solid educational foundation’. But going for languages allowed me to travel in my third year, so that’s no bad thing. After I finished uni I bounced around writing for a few nightlife magazines in London, and that year taught me two things: that I needed to be less naive when it comes to working for ‘experience’, and that I loved magazines.

I then did an MA in Magazine Journalism at City University London, where I really honed my writing and production skills. I then interned at British Journal of Photography, and that was where my interest and understanding of the power and beauty of photography really began to develop. Working under the then-editor Simon Bainbridge was how I learned—through interviewing and writing about artists’ work. Putting words to images and distilling the stories they were telling, I slowly began to understand the bigger picture.

JC: And what keeps you drawn to the medium?

IRZ: I stay drawn to the medium out of curiosity. I am inspired and I learn every day.

Carolee Schneemann, spread from British Journal of Photography: Tradition and Identity

JC: Does the BJP have a signature style or ethos that runs through the photography you choose? And has it changed since you took the reins?

IRZ: Actually, I try to make it not so. I’m always interested in varying styles and approaches in photography, and I like to reflect that diversity in each issue. There will always be some documentary-led projects in the issue, and normally something a bit more conceptual too. With a magazine like the BJP, which will celebrate its 169th birthday in January next year, it’s important to have a balance of tradition and the contemporary.

I think the BJP has changed in many ways since I became editor. It looks and feels different, but I believe the work we commission is more inclusive and representative. Perhaps my training in journalism means that I’m always looking for an interesting story behind the images, as well as strong images themselves. I am not trained in photography, so for me it’s an image’s ability to connect that is more important than one that is technically excellent. We have also hugely expanded our writing team, and writers from all over the world and from different backgrounds and professions, contribute to the magazine now.

For me, that means [Art photography] is free of all the ‘rules’ that are applied to those genres, even if it borrows similar themes. Art photography transcends other genres of photography, using the medium to engage with deeper visual questions.

JC: With so many genres and subgenres, how do you define ‘art photography’ specifically? What makes a striking example of it, for you?

IRZ: That’s a good question. Rather than defining what it is, perhaps it’s interesting to think about what it isn’t. It isn’t, or doesn’t have to be, documentary. Nor photojournalism, nor fashion, nor landscape, nor wildlife, nor studio. For me, that means it is free of all the ‘rules’ that are applied to those genres, even if it borrows similar themes. Art photography transcends other genres of photography, using the medium to engage with deeper visual questions.

Wendy Red Star, spread from British Journal of Photography: Tradition and Identity

JC: Keeping the subject of art photography in mind, can you tell us about one or two stand-out issues from your roster so far and why they were so powerful and successful for you?

IRZ: I was very proud of our Tradition & Identity issue, published in August 2022. The theme is something I am very interested in personally, and I loved finding out our featured photographers’ stories and connections to it. We published a fascinating interview with Wendy Red Star, an Apsáalooke photographer who is working with collage, fabric, photography and archive to weave a new and authentic archive around her Crow tribe. Her work represented many of the questions we were asking in the issue—whether tradition was still relevant, what it represented and how important it was to remember today.

Of course, I must also mention Tyler Mitchell, whose image graced our October 2022 issue cover, themed Time & Community. Though he has already seen great success with his work, Tyler is still ultimately a young photographer exploring his craft. His photography journey is taking him into a more spiritual, artistic sphere, which is reflected in his new series Chrysalis.

Tyler Mitchell, spread from British Journal of Photography: Time and Community

JC: That leads me to another question—one about thematic editing, because every issue of the BJP has a theme like the ones you just mentioned. How do you and the team decide on these themes? And what outside factors are you responding to?

IRZ: It varies. We decide the themes at least six months in advance, and ideas come from everyone and everywhere. We certainly take into consideration the themes that we see our photography community addressing in their work. A theme can be triggered by a powerful body of work, a conversation, or even a single image. Sometimes, we are responding to important social issues too.

For example, the Power & Empowerment issue of March 2021 was framed within the context of the power of the voice, the self and mental health. We were creating it at the time that a young woman named Sarah Everard was murdered in London while walking home alone, and pro-choice protests were gaining momentum in Poland. We tried to address micro-themes and topics that emerged from these difficult conversations in the issue. Similarly, we started 2022 by producing the Love issue. But then, within a few weeks, Russia started a war in Ukraine and we felt we needed to respond to this with our editorial. We pivoted, and for the first time ever made an issue of two sides, with two covers: Love/Ukraine.

We are still a magazine, so being able to respond to the things around us with timely content is important. We hope that our readers will hold on to the magazines, which provide a snapshot of that moment in time.

Lee-Ann Olwage, spread from British Journal of Photography: Tradition and Identity

JC: The pace and process of photography has changed radically in recent years. What excites you about the way art photography is developing? What catches your eye among the flood of images that are on offer? And what keeps it relevant?

IRZ: I think what keeps it relevant is that it is a way that artists can express themselves. It helps them and us, as viewers, to process complex and difficult subjects and ideas. When words fail, this is how we can communicate. But I also think that because of the increasing pace of the photography world, artists feel the pressure to keep up and be continuously prolific.

JC: An idea can often gain strength across multiple images, can’t it? How would you describe the advantages of working in series, as opposed to single images, as an art photographer?

IRZ: You can really develop a concept with a series, creating a dialogue between the images that can give it depth and nuance.

Tyler Mitchell, spread from British Journal of Photography: Time and Community

JC: Could you give some advice for art photographers about what you will be looking for as a juror?

IRZ: I am looking for a strong concept that is really interrogated by the medium. I want to be able to connect to the idea, and understand how and why you have made the images in this way. I will also be looking for a dialogue between the images in the series, and how the project reads as one.

JC: And finally, on the flip side, is there anything you think art photographers can easily forget when applying to awards or preparing their work to be seen? It would be great if you could dispel a myth or two for us!

IRZ: Take some time writing a strong introduction/description paragraph for your series. It doesn’t need to be very long, but it should capture the essence of your idea and vision clearly. If it’s relevant, caption your images properly too. Also, think about your edit and sequencing. All these supporting materials are very important when it comes to understanding and connecting to your project.

Take this opportunity to get your work in front of Izabela Radwanska Zhang and other influential jurors by entering your work in the LensCulture Art Photography Awards 2023. Deadline closing soon!

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