Investigating a camera, by Eduardo Masferre. Butbut, Tinglayan, Kalinga. 1948. COURTESY OF ART FAIR PHILIPPINES
BY FIEL ESTRELLA

“I learned photography in the darkroom,” says Rachel Rillo, photographer and co-founder of Silverlens Galleries. “A long time ago,” she continues, “when creating an image entailed a lot of planning, process and time. It was much more about a craft rather than something instant.”

Today, however, she says, “technology has given photography a whole new and vast vocabulary for artists to use to convey their art.” It’s become a medium of contemporary art in its own right, which Rillo finds exciting as an artist, photographer, and gallerist.  

When fellow photographer Isa Lorenzo started Silverlens in 2004, its conception was driven by a lack of representation for photography, including public interest, appreciation, and a general venue for showing the work of photographers. Two years later saw the opening of their first standalone gallery.

“We showcased photography,” Rillo recalls. “But slowly, other artists who were not necessarily ‘photographers’ wanted to show interesting work that used photography as their medium.”

By 2008, they had opened another space for other forms of contemporary art. Rillo calls it an “inclusive move,” one that, by placing photography alongside other mediums, became a catalyst. “[It] led both artists and the local art audience to the concept that contemporary art is less about media and more about ideas.”

“Most of the artists we represent or show use photography in their practice, whether as their main medium, as part of a mixed-media work, or as a tool they use to help create their art,” she adds.

According to Rillo, people no longer separate photography from other art forms. “They are ready to experience and collect photography outside the idea of a ‘pretty picture,’” she says. “The value of a photograph is no less than a painting or sculpture, as value is dependent on the artist and not the medium.”

One such artist is photographer Jake Verzosa, who started in the early 2000s as a freelance photographer and has since become one of the most recognizable names in his field. “I did a little bit of everything,” he says of his beginnings. “Fashion, weddings, advertising, and reportage.The process was simply to do good commissioned work so I could save up for a place to stay in the city and for travel.” Along the way, he learned and evolved, eventually opting to do personal projects in his spare time.  

At Maculangan, whose initial medium had been visual art, didn’t know anything about photography when he first started out—and he was in his 30s. His editorial work began in 2004, but he has since left it in favor of something more self-reflective.

Over the last three or four years, he says, “I’ve been focusing on art documentation,” with most of his personal work being derived from his “actual” work. “It’s reactionary, in a way.”

According to Rillo, people no longer separate photography from other art forms. “They are ready to experience and collect photography outside the idea of a ‘pretty picture,’” she says. “The value of a photograph is no less than a painting or sculpture, as value is dependent on the artist and not the medium.”

Verzosa recognizes the impact that Silverlens has made on photography by giving the medium a platform. “There was no one doing [what they were doing],” he says. “They have been invaluable in supporting their artists and pushing photography as an art medium.”

The gallery co-produced his art book, a personal and vivid collection of portraits called The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga. The work was brought to Paris Photo in 2014, where it garnered a larger audience.

Rillo stresses that a good art collection is built when it is not based on a medium. “Collecting photography today [as contemporary art] should not be such a conscious decision,” she advises. “If a collector is looking at a photograph, he or she should get to know the artist and his or her career, talk to the gallerists, understand both the work and its achievability.”

“I did this project because I have seen the women in my hometown when I was young,” says Verzosa, who adds that what fascinates him as a photographer are images that show how people live and what drives them. “It invites a universal dialogue about beauty, pain, art, history, and our culture.” It also put his name out in the art market, which he didn’t expect.

Maculangan believes that the 2018 edition of Art Fair Philippines, which launched a new section specifically dedicated to increasing awareness on photography as a collectible form of contemporary art, will have “possibly major effects on the art market [and spark] a general change of perception in photography.”

The section included the exhibit Kin by Asian-American artist Neal Oshima, who has been at the forefront of documenting Filipino culture. It featured new works that highlight Philippine tribes and indigenous traditions. Another exhibit, Provocations, was a collaboration with curator Angel Velasco that showcased a range of documentary photographers both established and emerging.

Verzosa notes that photography can be undermined as an art form because the tangible output—prints—is easily reproduced and there’s a notion that “everyone can do it.” Images are consumed differently today, especially with the advent of social media.

But what makes it unique for him is that it’s based on our preconception of reality. “There are images that speak to the viewer and provoke a reaction in them that is no different to the reactions evoked by art,” says Verzosa. He adds: “What drives me to make images more than the visual aspect is the curiosity and the promise of seeing new perspectives.” The process of photography, for him, means constantly learning and unlearning.

Rillo stresses that a good art collection is built when it is not based on a medium. “Collecting photography today [as contemporary art] should not be such a conscious decision,” she advises. “If a collector is looking at a photograph, he or she should get to know the artist and his or her career, talk to the gallerists, understand both the work and its achievability.”

“In the last decade,” she observes, “the advancement in digital printing has made the medium very accessible. Printing large scale or in different substrates, as well as different mounting techniques, is possible, which equates to absolutely exciting contemporary art.”

“The most fascinating thing about photography,” Maculangan says, “is that it’s part of everyone’s daily life, and more intensely now.”

What sets truly talented photographers apart, however, is not fancy equipment, but the ability to resonate. “It’s the eye behind the camera,” he declares. “It still boils down to the [creator]. It’s about being conscious and really observing what’s around you.”

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