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Arts

Farewell photography? Contemporary photographers ponder a digital future

The digital realm is radically transforming photography, but is the artistic medium really at death's door? The Biennale for Contemporary Photography examines this question in a show spread across three German cities.

Formerly known as the "Fotofestival Mannheim-Ludwighafen-Heidelberg," the German tri-city photography exhibition is now being called the "Biennale for Contemporary Photography." It attempts to evaluate the state of the photography scene every two years. Six experts are curating this year's show, which starts September 8, together with the heads of seven exhibition halls. The topic this year is "Farewell Photography."

The show exhibits the works of more than 60 international photographers. "'Farewell Photography' can be seen as a collection of current photos," says chief curator Florian Ebner. "It is like a farewell that also productively looks at the past and the future."

Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie (Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie)

The six curators of the Biennale of Contemporary Photography

The curators of the exhibition believe the art of photography is in a digital upheaval. "Interestingly, many artists who are concerned with digital photography think less about manipulation possibilities and more about the circulation of photos," says Ebner, who heads the photography department at the Pompidou Center in Paris.

The circulation of images — the "sharing of images" — has become a primary subject of art in the last five to six years. Digitization and especially social media have greatly expanded the possibilities through which a photograph can exert influence. The Biennale consequently wants to subject photography to critical scrutiny and ultimately redefine the genre.

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Photography in the age of zero and one

"Algorithms and programs organize and influence the appearance, location and distribution of photography," Ebner explains. "The relationship between the photographer and the object, the viewer and society is currently being renegotiated." "Farewell Photography" presents the visual result of these developments.

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The exhibition, which runs through November 5, is divided into eight chapters at different locations. Two exhibitions at Ludwigshafen's Wilhelm-Hack-Museum investigate the alleged departure from classical photography. The Prinzhorn Collection at the Heidelberg University Hospital focuses on the moment when a photograph is taken by incorporating historical patient photographs from its own collection. The Kunstverein in Ludwigshafen is exhibiting pictures from photo albums of former "guest workers," individuals from Turkey, Spain, Italy and other southern European countries who came to Germany after World War II to help rebuild the country. The images document the workers' new environment in the Rhine-Neckar region.

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Sharing private pictures on social media

The Heidelberg Kunstverein portion of the Biennale discusses the political potential of photography. "Resisting Images" is an exhibition on the photograph as a means of resistance - for example, against refugee policy. The show in the Mannheim ZEPHYR photography museum illuminates the attitude of authors behind the camera. Finally, the Mannheim art gallery Port25 focuses on the private sphere and how private pictures are shared and collected on social media.

A girl raises her sweatshirt to show off her body in a online photo as others comment on the image (Amalia Ulman, Courtesy Arcadia Missa, London )

A photographic work by Amalia Ulman called "Excellances and Perfections" examines the role of images online

The photographic inventory at the Kunsthalle in Mannheim is the starting point for a new project by Austrian photographer Arno Gisinger. He will transfer the more than 7,000 historical photographs from the museum's glass-plate archive into the public sphere, making them visible.

"Farewell photography," says curator Ebner in conversation with Deutsche Welle, "is an opportunity." In the eyes of the curator, a new form of digital images now exists. Photography will increasingly coincide with video. "Everything changes in a digital world of images, and we have to adapt ourselves."

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