Sunday, January 2, 2011

Q & A with Joni Karanka

It's been less than a year since Cardiff's Third Floor Gallery opened last Feb. 12th with a show of Peter Dench photographs. Since then it has quickly matured into one of the UK's strongest photo galleries. I caught up recently with gallery co-founder Joni Karanka to talk about Third Floor and related topics.

B: Can you start with a brief history of Third Floor. How'd it come together?

Joni Karanka: Sure. I think that a lot of the photography I'm interested in is hard to come across, not only in gallery settings, but in almost any place, apart from on the specialized mags and online. At one point over a year ago I wanted to put on some small exhibitions by people whose work I liked, and back then the only access I had to them was online, so you sort of lacked the whole thing of what would a place look like with those photographs in it, or what the photographs themselves could look like.

I managed to find a nice space for it, an old social club, but never got any funding for running the thing, so I ended up angry and bitter and that pushed me to go more formal instead of borrowing some space in an already existing venue, to try to get mates with whom to put up a whole new venue. At one point with Maciej Dakowicz we started to search for space and, well, we saw that there were affordable places in Cardiff at the time.

If you have a gallery that can't make (by donations, sales, sponsorships, etc.) something like £600-800 a month, you just can't go lower. So when we saw that we could go for expenses of around that, we decided on the spot.
Where does funding come from? Do you sell many photos?

Nah, we don't really sell anything. You have more chances selling fridge magnets or asking people to pay for painting your door a different colour (which is more on line with what we actually end up doing!).

Preparing the gallery for exhibitions

So, right now, all our money comes directly from donations. It's very grassroots. I guess that if you have a public service that is worth maintaining and that people value, you're bound to find some support in that sense.
What about staffing? Is someone there every day?

Yeah, there's always somebody there the hours we're open. Lots of people do these things because they believe in them. You can get to be part of a very meaningful thing. Show all these photographers you admire and even have the pride of doing it with such limited means and lots of hard labour.

Sounds like a feel-good story.

Ha, yeah, a feel good story now, but if we get a quarter that we can't pay our bills it's not a feel good story anymore!

How does Third Floor fit into the context of Cardiff's photo tradition?

Love UK by Peter Dench, Third Floor's inaugural exhibition

Cardiff, and South Wales have a very long photographic tradition. Photographers have always hung around here, with the coal fields and all that. Just check for example the Magnum archives. It's also central for lots of big photography courses, and pioneers of the medium have been from around here. Like Fox Talbot, he's related to South Wales from the very beginning of photography.

How would you describe Cardiff's photo community nowadays?

It's surprisingly busy. For a city of 300,000 citizens, Cardiff has quite a few camera clubs, photographers, and lots of enthusiasts and students. It's in part due to all of South Wales being a single belt of cities and towns, so between Swansea (to the West) and Newport (to the East) you have plenty of people. There are several university courses in photography and journalism as well, in five different universities and then a number of colleges and schools.

Then, names that you might know, there are quite a lot, I don't know if I should give you any in case I leave some out and put others in. What the heck. David Hurn's been around for ages, obviously. You have Maciej Dakowicz who's also running the gallery. Then you have people like Ken Grant, Peter Finnemore, Glenn Edwards, Paul Reas, Claire Richardson, etc. That's naming a few and leaving out the many.

Are there other photo galleries besides Third Floor? Meeting spots? Groups?

There are no private commercial galleries in Wales, as far as I know. There are some of those shops that sell posters and mass produced prints, but I don't think they count. However, there's one other photography gallery in South Wales, the Ffotogallery in Penarth. It is a gallery established in the 70s that moved years ago from the city centre of Cardiff to the nearby town of Penarth, which is a lovely seaside resort type of place, a bit more quiet. They also cater a group meeting under their roof and run a number of workshops. They even have darkroom facilities in Cardiff, so it's a great umbrella organisation, looking a bit after all kinds of things.

To find Third Floor Gallery, look for the large red X in Cardiff

In this sense Cardiff is doing very well. We have two proper galleries in a ten mile radius while the bigger city on the English side of the border, Bristol, has none. Bristol, however, gets all the hype in terms of artistic and cultural life. I remember meeting there a BBC camera man and ex-photographer who was surprised that I was involved in a gallery remarking that Wales was a bit of a backwater in terms of arts. So there's some snobbery around between cities, and that's a longer story, of relative richness and media and such.
What sort of people come through Third Floor? Does it have appeal beyond just photographers?

With the photographers we show, I think we have a great relationship with them. Any photographer can relate to what we do. I think that the enthusiasm spreads very quickly, and we don't do stuff just on enthusiasm alone, but we try to do the best possible we can with every show. It's all very professionally run!
Public appeal is interesting actually. I'd imagine that about half of the people who come are related to photography in that sort of direct way; they either snap every now and then or they photograph a bit more seriously. Lots of those are students, or art students or people who get back into photography a bit later on for leisure, or people who have always followed it even if they don't shoot themselves. But a lot of the people who come over have such little relation to photography that at the beginning you're dubious whether they're going to like what they see at all!
I think that if the shows are well put together there's always something for everybody to talk about, even if you hate the stuff!

Maybe that knowledge frees you up to show more explosive stuff.
I think that we're lucky in that sense. We don't put up shows that you can't form an opinion about or just get bored watching them. It's all about engaging the viewer. I always say it's a bit like a cinema. You can't just put stuff that other photographers will understand and nobody else. Photography is very democratic. It's amazing how many projects seem to be shot for being understood by very few.

Third Floor explodes into The Sunday Times, Feb. 7, 2010

What's been the biggest surprise so far?
Well, many surprises in many disguises really, from discovering how bad I am pulling screws from a wall to seeing Jocelyn Bain Hogg's oversized giant prints for the first time. Or even that we have volunteers. We never really thought about people helping us so much... Maciej, Bartek and I, we didn't really know so many people in Cardiff that were interested, but they've flocked to us over time.
If you build it, they will come.

Muse exhibition by Jocelyn Bain Hogg

When we opened we didn't know more than a couple of potential volunteers and definitively none of the people involved in the arts scene but we like messing about, not sticking to a single scene, definitively not the comfortable arts scene. It just seems like a bit of an orgy of familiar faces, I'd get bored of that after a couple of years.

I think that the gallery brings together great photography from around the world with the people who are in this very concrete city, with a little helping of extra features for those who can't make it.
I want to ask specifically about the David Hurn show. What gave you the idea to curate publicly? What do you think of the choices?

Maciej came up with it. I was wondering whether David would like it, but he loved it! We worked from the very simple idea up. It's always like that. You can't really control or predict much what will happen when you put an idea on the net, so you just have to look after it and nurture it, choose what direction you think is best, and let it grow.

The curation seems to tap into something very contemporary. You wouldn't have been able to do a show like that 5 years ago.

Yes, that's true. You could have done it five years ago but it would have been a bit more complicated... slower, maybe more public, maybe having to build a website for it. Now it's very easy. You just wake up with an idea in your head and you can be receiving submissions the same day. People understand you do it in good will so you can finish drawing guidelines for it later on.

The choices are also very interesting. They are like a mash up made by one single giant brain, a very visual one. Many of David's pairs are connected by content, some by their looks, some by the places or people, while the public curation is very very visual, it's sort of like a dictatorship of vision, where things that have nothing to do with each other are paired because they are after all photographs. It ends up with both very telling and very hilarious pairs. I think it's inhumanly good in a way.

Flyer from Passing Time by David Hurn

Interesting too to tackle it with such a well known photographer. Do you have more shows planned with that type of curation?

Well, it's hard to think what exhibitions to apply public curation to. We didn't think of it as something regular or a stunt. It was just a way to solve a specific problem: with such large archives as David Hurn's, how do we find pairs in it without spending weeks and weeks?

I could use something like that to sort through my archives.

Ha, yes, you could ask people to sort your archives, or sequence your book!
Your success so far raises the issue of how relevant galleries are. I think Third Floor proves that they still have a place, but the trend seems to be the other direction. Most photos I see aren't in galleries. They're online.

Yes, I agree that I myself doubt what galleries are for. I'm not really that keen in thinking that you have to go to a concrete, stuffy place to see the work you are interested in. I'd like to see more good photography in my local pub or on the street.

I like Zoe Strauss' idea of showing photos under a freeway in Philly.

But on the other hand, that a gallery exists allows you to base things around it. It brings people and photographers, and a stable venue. Everybody knows where it is after being around once. I would love to see more good work in parks and pubs, but they might not always give you all the sort of space and respect you want for that. You'd have to nudge over some people drinking at a table and stuff. At least beer would be always available, though.

I assume Third Floor has beer on draft?

Haha, we just have some cans for the openings…

Maciej and Joni sharing a beer with Charlie Harper from the UK Subs

Has the gallery taken a lot of time from your own photography?
Well, it definitively is time consuming. I work during the day. Bartek does as well. Maciej is out shooting assignments, etc. We all have to make a living so lots of evenings and weekends go into writing articles, writing grant proposals, trying to convince people to give you money to carry on, prepare exhibitions, do DIY at the gallery like fixing doors or sealing windows or painting, get materials ready, try to come up with a programme, write press releases and design flyers, etc. So yes, there's a lot of time going into that, around twenty hours a week, and that definitively reduces the time I have to shoot, scan, etc. You know, at some point we might manage to establish it enough to not have to spend so much time in it, and just dedicate ourselves to the writing, planning, etc. It still would be a lot of time, but considerably less than doing everything!

I think I try to take it easy. I guess many people with children go through something like that, so I just try to stick to shooting by now, and editing and working on what to do with the shots will come once the gallery can take less time.

I can relate to time demands of children, not to mention blogging. But if I don't shoot fairly often I go crazy.

Yes, it does put me in a mood not to shoot. One week without shooting and I feel like I'm throwing my photographic life in the bin. I try to think that running a gallery is still a photographic life and it is, but when you feel the urge to do your own stuff there's not much you can do

Everything in its time.

Yeah. 2010 and 2011 are written off in terms of my photography unless it's just shooting or the stuff is ready and needs sequencing or such, but it's great for the photography of others here! Maybe if we could convince photographers that this is just a two year phase of your life that you have to go through to be able to call yourself a photographer, that would be something.

How do you pick shows? Do you operate by consensus or take turns choosing, or what?

Well, we work by unanimous consensus! But it's one of those things that you know that at some point you have to nod on what somebody else suggests as it does make sense, even if it's not necessarily your cup of tea... the thing is that you often change mind very quickly when you see the show up.

It's about trying to keep that balance between the interests of Maciej, Bartek and myself...and the balance of the year's program. Now we are maybe a bit overloaded with street photography.

Street Photography Now exhibition

What's in the pipeline?

The next three shows are Laura Pannack, which is a big varied portraiture exhibition, then Rob Hornstra, which is terrific documentary from Russia and then Joseph Rodriguez.
The Billionaire guy? I like his book.

Yeah, Hornstra has great stuff. He seems like a really cool guy as well, very energetic at least by email.

It's insane isn't it? How email does all these things? When people ask us how did we get to show X or Y, our most common and truthfull answer is that we just dropped them an email. What else do you do? Try to tell them by smoke signals to put a show here? In that sense the internet is a great leveler. We don't have to know so many people as we can just contact most photographers directly to explain our case.


Andrew Stark said...

What a good story ... well done Joni & Maciej - hope the Gallery flourishes into the future.

jophilippe said...

Yeah, great endeavor. Kudos to you and best wishes for 2011.

J. Karanka said...

Thanks guys!

I have to put a shameless plug at this point, as our lease is up again. If anybody's up for donating, you have various ways to do so at our website. said...

Interesting interview, thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Not entirely true about Bristol -

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