Own Art: Democratic Camera

Feature by Kate Andrews | 12 Mar 2014

As all eyes turn to Glasgow in a bumper year for culture, Street Level Photoworks will be celebrating its 25th year with a dedicated retail space and online shop that will enable savvy customers to invest in high-quality photography through the Own Art scheme – making collecting of this young, reasonably priced and ever-expanding medium accessible to most budgets.

Situated at the heart of the Trongate 103 complex, Street Level is a key player in the area's redevelopment. Occupying a unique position in Glasgow’s creative community as its only dedicated photography gallery, Street Level has a focus on inclusive programming, providing artists and the public with a range of opportunities and facilities to both make and engage with the medium.

The new, more coherent design for sales will be closely integrated into the programme and supported by a complete revamp of Street Level’s online presence. Work will be available via an online shop for the first time, with everything from traditional black and white street and music photography to the burgeoning field of ‘old processes’ tempting diverse budgets and tastes. Director Malcolm Dickson feels that the synergy between the digital and the analogue (the ‘past’ and the present/future) presents a particularly interesting development for the medium. “A lot of younger artists are technically marching back in time and revisiting earlier photographic processes – Wet Collodion, Platinum prints and suchlike – a fascinating process in terms of the regeneration of interest in the histories of photography, but from the vantage point of current practice the convergence of those earlier processes with the digital creates something of a dynamic, [which] adds a bit of buzz to the choice of what you might want to buy and put on your wall.”

The launch in April will coincide with the programme for Glasgow International where new projects by Latvian photographer Arnis Balcus and Dutch artist Johan Nieuwenhuize will premiere at Street Level. Transgressing the broad genres of landscape, interior, still life and reportage, Balcus weaves a narrative of 21st century Latvia into a ‘fairytale’ referencing the hot topics of politics, gender and identity. The widely-collected photographer, artist and curator Nieuwenhuize’s new project, IMG_ is an associative ‘active visual archive’ referencing the mechanism of memory through an abstract approach to documentary and street photography.

Dickson has seen the market grow and change (as much as the medium) since he became director in 1995. He feels that the push for galleries to sell shouldn’t be seen as a cynical flogging of commodities; that there’s something more to the experience of buying art, which extends the resonance far beyond a brief encounter in a gallery: “Selling prints is for me part of audience development and it’s about deepening the experience of the encounter that people have with art. The innovative thing about Own Art is that it democratises the buying experience. It allows people who may not otherwise be of ‘the moneyed classes’ to buy artwork which in other circumstances may not have been possible… As such, the buyer becomes empowered as a tastemaker, artists get more of a level playing field and the sector as a whole sees [greater equality] in terms of what’s represented within the visual arts.”

For an organisation with inclusion, social justice and equality central to its ethos, the democratisation of the medium is key. By empowering the incidental buyer as much as the established collector everyone in the chain of production and dissemination will benefit: “For the artist [the empowerment of the buyer is] really important because anything that somebody puts on a wall their friends or visitors to their home see. You could say that it’s an extension of the exhibition form – it gets people talking. If people buy, everyone’s a winner.”