The Heaving Speech of Air

Otto Steinert Die Bäume vor meinem Fenster II, 1956. [The Trees in Front of my Window II, 1956]

Otto Steinert
Die Bäume vor meinem Fenster II, 1956.
[The Trees in Front of my Window II, 1956]

This caught my eye in an otherwise mildly disappointing room devoted to Otto Steinert at the Tate Modern, part of the ‘Structure & Clarity’ display.  It’s not just that he was interested in movement: plenty of photographers have shared that.  It’s not even that he managed to make something so evocative in such an ordinary environment.  What really grabs me is that each cluster of branches moves in a direction of its own.  This to my mind exactly mimics what painters do when they want to indicate branches in motion.  Because if the movement were all the same way the poor trees would look as though they were being uprooted in a Force 10 or worse. I had thought it was painters’ licence, but Steinert shows it to be fact.  No doubt the explanation is pretty straightforward: I imagine something along the lines of the movement of each cluster being caused not simply by the wind, but by sympathetic and harmonic vibrations set up in the branches with different resulting aggregate forces.  Or turbulence from one cluster of leaves deflecting the wind before it strikes the next cluster.  Or bendier twigs moving differently to more resistant ones.  Or any combination of those.  The physics are no doubt not very exciting.  The picture is.

Steinert is a very interesting figure, and I’m glad the Tate has devoted even a sketchy effort to bringing him to attention in London.  I find that I’m still surprised by the provincialism of photographic rolls of honour.  In one or two areas, like fashion or contemporary art, the great photographic names of the upper tiers seem more or less international.  You could get very weary travelling around the world seeing exactly the same star works at art fairs and auctions.  But in the history of photography and in its various applied areas of specialism, the separations of the nation state are still very much the rule.  So, for example, the daguerreotypist partners Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes are major lights in the American pantheon barely mentioned in Europe. Mid-twentieth century Germany has more reason than most periods to have been awkward for outsiders to become interested in, and we can understand that.  Yet a photographer like Otto Steinert is not some provincial drudge made visible by local jingoism or chauvinism alone.  It remains surprising to me that photography — which seems so naturally able to cross cultural boundaries and even to erase them — should in fact be so limited by the language of publication, the market of the publisher, and the funding background of the institutions involved in the promotion of any one name or group.

These things are not easy to break down, and a small display of Steinert in London is a good thing: there have been too few by far.  But I do note sourly that if anyone were interested in finding out more about this pioneering photographer, the Tate’s online offering is discouraging.

Search results for the pictures in the Steinert display at Tate. This search was made while the display was open to the public.

Search results for the pictures in the Steinert display at Tate. This search was made while the display was open to the public.

One can understand that there are issues of intellectual property which might well prevent the pictures being shown.  But it is feeble of the Tate to leave it simply at that.  A licence to display them for the relevant period could easily have been obtained.  Failing that, good reference should have been made to other places where reproductions of the pictures might be seen.  For you can easily imagine a visitor intrigued enough by the Steinert room to seek to find out more, rapidly becoming discouraged or distracted by the blank result of the most obvious first step in the search.  And that adds one little element in the continued restricted availability of Otto Steinert to new audiences, in direct contradiction of what the Tate itself is clearly trying to do by showing original prints in the galleries.

There is a perfectly decent reproduction (with a virtual magnifier) of the trees outside Steinert’s window HERE courtesy of the German auction house Lempertz.

[My title, by the way, comes from a poem by Wallace Stevens called The Idea of Order at Key West which I rashly pinned to the board by my desk and which I re-read too many times a day.]


This is a non-review of a show which may be good or bad, but which contains some things I like very much and which Londoners don’t get to see all that often.

It’s not a review partly because so very much photography, for a hundred years and more, has been about marginal spaces and marginal experiences.

Eugène Atget. People of La Zone, Near the Porte de Choisy, 1912

Eugène Atget.
People of La Zone, Near the Porte de Choisy, 1912

Atget was working in La Zone – the area cleared in front of the fortifications of Paris originally to give an open field of fire, in which a mixed and poor population lived at the end of nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth – at least a hundred years ago. Photography has loved the margins of society, and still does.

Still.  I don’t have to review something to enjoy it.


Catherine Opie Untitled, from Freeways, 1994

Catherine Opie
Untitled, from Freeways, 1994

A couple of platinum prints from Catherine Opie’s Freeways (1994). Beautiful little exercises in a very traditional kind of modernism, surprising for the artist. The fact that they are small pictures is important. So, too, the way they look like pictures of monuments which have lost their function. Photographed like this, you can’t see how to get up to these things, nor any cars, nor any real purpose. They’re like Stonehenge, obviously for something, but it’s not clear what. If form needs perfectly to follow function, then motorway flyovers do that to a T.

I saw recently another collection of pictures of bunkers of the war of 1939 (by Marc Wilson, from his series The Last Stand); almost indestructible concrete structures, but built in a hurry on cheap foundations. By now, still intact, they’re toppling quietly over. There are lots of photographs on this general theme, of the relationship between the structures we make and the lives we lead. Catherine Opie’s flyovers are still in use, but it’s never too early to ask what on earth we were thinking of. Look at that little gable, in the middle at the bottom. That little bit is the only bit at human scale.

Keith Arnatt From the series AONB (Area of Outstanding Beauty), 1982-1985

Keith Arnatt
From the series AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), 1982-1985

Five pictures from Keith Arnatt’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. These were brilliant things, made in the early 1980s, much influenced by US photography, itself much influenced by a certain kind of environmental thinking. Arnatt was a conceptual artist at the time: but he wasn’t simply ironizing in the Wye Valley near where he lived. It’s not just that we dump garbage in beautiful places, or build wire mesh fences. It’s not even that we make a mockery of the whole history of the sublime, of the ‘green and pleasant land. Arnatt was making the point that sometimes it takes a photograph to see stuff. Just as photography showed years ago that it could expand vision by enlarging greatly or by slowing time, so more recently it has been shown to expand the consciousness that lies within vision. Arnatt saw a lost little tree – isolated from the bigger trees beyond like a sad animal in a zoo –  in the corner of a tarmac car-park, hemmed in by cheap kerbstones. He saw the doorway coarsely breeze-blocked closed, in overt insult to the subtler material of the old vernacular wall around. And he saw that black bird (I daren’t write blackbird, because I don’t think it is) high on the wall, as symbolic as Masahisa Fukase’s terrifying crows from another place and another time. We don’t see any of this stuff until a photographer freezes it for us, on the microscope slide of light sensitive paper.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard LucyBelle Crater and Photo Friend from the Rural Provinces, 1970-1972

Ralph Eugene Meatyard
LucyBelle Crater and Photo Friend from the Rural Provinces, 1970-1972

Five various pictures (of about 1970) by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, late-flowering American Surrealist, an optician from Lexington, Kentucky. What to make of Meatyard’s saga of LucyBelle Crater whose gaudy horror mask contrasts so strongly with the friendly all-American life she leads? It’s standard to talk of Meatyard almost as an outsider artist, self-taught, unconnected, uninfluenced by the currents of art history. I happen to think that doesn’t hold water, for a specific reason: Meatyard’s photo buddy at the Lexington camera club was Van Deren Coke, a hugely influential historian and teacher of photography, director of the San Francisco Museum’s department of photographs from 1979 to 1987, and before that head of the school of photography at the University of New Mexico, at Albuquerque. Whatever else Meatyard was, with a friend like that, he was not a naïve photographer. LucyBelle is a Diane Arbus heroine if you like. She’s connected to all sorts of work with dolls and masks, from Hans Bellmer to Cindy Sherman. There’s plenty of writing on Meatyard’s influences, to him and from him. But maybe LucyBelle is just like all of us: there’s stuff in her expression which she doesn’t control, and stuff behind it that we don’t see.

Helen Levitt New York, c.1940.

Helen Levitt
New York, c.1940.

Two prints by Helen Levitt, from New York in 1940. Three children dance in a circle in winter. The giant staircase they’re on was not built for human strides: they have to fly to get off it, and they can. There’s a human-scale staircase attached, though, and a little line of laundry high in the corner of the picture reminds us that people keep on getting by, even when they can’t fly. This gorgeous composition matches all the great instances of movement in photography. If Cartier Bresson’s Aquila Degli Abruzzi is a stately minuet, then Levitt made a Ring of Roses. I keep having to blink to stop seeing it as a time-lapse, in which it would be the same child seen three times whirling around. Every other picture here I’d seen before. But this one I think not. I find it hard to imagine I could forget it. Grubby urban dust and brick and rubble, obvious poverty and hardship, not merely cheered but enlivened to a perfect symbolic demonstration of hope and promise. There are other such pictures. I offer you Roger Mayne’s great series of goalkeepers leaping about in the streets of North Kensington. It’s not a contest. There are no points. But this little Helen Levitt is a miracle by any standards.

All of these things come from just one section of an exhibition, called Edgelands, curated by Ben Rivers at the Camden Arts Centre and on show until 29th November 2015. The show contains much else, notably Rivers’ own films. It is good or bad. But it contains some little photographs which you’d be mad not to take the chance to see.

The Cloud of Unknowing – The Momentum Series of Alejandro Guijarro

Stanford II , 2012 Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Stanford II , 2012
Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

The Cloud of Unknowing is a well-known fourteenth century anonymous mystical text in Middle English.   (As pretentious first sentences go, in a blog on photography, that’s not at all bad, but let it pass). I read it years ago (in a Penguin edition) and not much of it stuck — I hadn’t spared it a moment’s thought since, and would struggle to tell you much about it beyond the title. But it’s such a great title that I’ve carried that around with me. Now I feel I have a use for it.

I have kept a few of these pictures by Alejandro Guijarro on a bad slide-show on my computer for some weeks and they stick most wonderfully in my head. They’re from a series called Momentum, and they’re simply pictures of blackboards. When he exhibits them, the photographer carefully reproduces them precisely to scale: he shows them at the size of the original boards.

Cambridge I, 2011 Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Cambridge I, 2011
Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Cambridge II , 2011 Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Cambridge II , 2011
Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

MIT III 2013, Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

MIT III 2013,
Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Some of the originals are in lecture theatres, others in the studies of researchers.

But they’re not just any blackboards: they are in some of the most famous physics and maths teaching institutions in the world. They are blackboards used either to help explain quantum mechanics or to resolve quantum problems. That is relevant.

Quantum physics represents a black hole of mystery to most of us. If we know a rudimentary minimum — say that adding energy to certain systems can cause them to jump from one state to another rather than progressing smoothly in proportion to the increased energy; or that certain phenomena take the form of both waves and particles at the same time — we are likely to be well satisfied with that. Richard Feynman was a great populariser of physics and believed in being comprehensible whenever possible, and he wasn’t only joking when he said “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Since he had a Nobel prize (1965) for his contribution to the advance of quantum electrodynamics, he knew what he was talking about.

Even rudimentary awareness of quantum thinking is terrifying simply by the nature of the people who do it. Max Planck. Erwin Schrödinger. Feynman himself. Louis de Broglie. Einstein, of course. Nils Bohr laid the foundations for some of it. These are not brains to trifle with. Remember the story of Schrödinger’s (famous) cat, which is itself utterly incomprehensible to ordinary non-physicists, since it asks for a cat to be alive and dead at the same time, was a simplifying parable dreamed up as an explanation of something even more dreadfully obscure.

Yet quantum thinking is no longer in question. We’re assured that quantum reasoning is central to the modern world, to progress, and to prosperity. The areas where quantum theories are applied are perfectly non-terrifying. Light-emitting diodes. Lasers … These might once have been the stuff of Flash Gordon but they’re hardly unfamiliar now.

The erasures mark the transfer from one state to another.   Each one, in fact, since it’s actually quite difficult to wipe a blackboard completely clean, represents a number of previous states piled on top of each other, the shadows of each both informing the next and obscuring them. These palimpsests are of course completely appropriate to the subject matter. Quantum is lots of things, but some notion of the palimpsest is certainly part of it. (Palimpsest is the term for writing that is barely discernible on manuscript that was erased and re-used: the all-but vanished layer being sometimes historically more interesting or more important than the legible one on top).

Separately, these are also pictures of the functioning of a priesthood. The strange incantatory marks are in a language known only to the inducted. If you were an English graduate or a musician (or a writer on photography) you could stare at these with as much patience and as a good a lens as you liked and still not have any chance of understanding what the marks actually say or said. It is important that they meant something: these are not abstract marks, at all. Yet the pictures tend towards abstraction. Or if not towards abstraction itself, then towards a kind of metaphor so oblique as to be all-but abstract. They are certainly not only pictures about blackboards. They hover exquisitely between direct reference and allusion.

Wang Qingsong Follow Me , 2003 (part)

Wang Qingsong
Follow Me , 2003 (part)

Wang Qingsong’s Follow Me (2003) is itself a subtle picture, being at least as much about the business of not learning and difficulty communicating as their opposites.  But Follow Me is like a commercial poster compared to the Momentum series: effective enough, but bluntly so.

As well as being neat reflections on quantum, the blackboards also represent something else about the way science itself works. It was Newton who described his own contribution to progress by saying that he was merely a pygmy standing on the shoulders of giants. You advance a theory, check it, it maybe computes perfectly with data known at that time, but then other facts come to light, and someone has to revise your theory. Rubbing out the parts which don’t work any more is exactly how science advances.

These blackboards are beginning to show themselves capable of carrying quite a metaphorical load.

There’s more: in the history of modern art, few notions are more loaded than the blank. John Cage’s famous 4:33 was far more than the pretentious absurdity it’s sometimes caricatured as. By inviting a player to sit at the piano but hold back from playing any notes, Cage filled the silence with the ambient noise, and with all sorts of echoes, too. It’s impossible to hear (is that the right word?) 4:33, still now, without one’s head reverberating with music and thoughts about music. You can trace this idea quite a long way back: Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings are the source that Cage himself acknowledged, but Rauschenberg himself was taught by Josef Albers, and so on. There’s a strong link here through the Black Mountain College, but I don’t think this notion of the pregnant blank is unique to any group or place. Malevich had painted White on White in 1918.

Kazimir Malevich Suprematist Composition - White on White, 1918

Kazimir Malevich
Suprematist Composition – White on White, 1918

Erased de Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg 1953

Erased de Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg 1953

It was Rauschenberg who made a famous work called Erased de Kooning (it dates from 1953). That wasn’t just vandalism or iconoclasm, either. It was made with de Kooning’s permission and help, for a start, and it was a complicated and subtle reflection on the act of painting itself, on reaching grand status as a painter, and on the process of questioning artworks.

Guijarro’s blackboards are not blanks. Neither 4:33 nor the Erased de Kooning were really blanks. They were simply blank enough to invite us to populate them ourselves.   We’re not far from Mark Rothko’s soulful invitations to meditation, but nor — a bit more fancifully — are we far from the late Turner’s swirling contemplation of light itself. Light, by the way, is best described in quantum terms. It still helps to think of it in terms of waves; but it can also be seen to act in terms of packets of tiny subatomic particles called photons. That’s part of Guijarro’s thought, too.

Alejandro Guijarro described somewhere how one of the more patterned blackboards was actually created by a caretaker or janitor, rubbing the board after the lecturer and audience had gone. I like the unconscious creation of that (or why not imagine the caretaker deliberately took pleasure in the measured coverage of the eraser?).  I like even more that the photographer has to be credited entirely. These are not just records of something noteworthy or important that the photographer loyally transcribed from the real world to the two-dimensional one. These are pictures full of weight and meaning, but there was neither weight nor meaning until the photographer put them there. In other words, photography here is not a dependent business, but a fully generative one. There were only marked blackboards until they became photographs. The labour of criss-crossing the world to these august institutions, seeking permissions (and, I guess, seeking blackboards themselves, for they can’t be all that common any more), shooting pictures at odd moments when the lecture theatres were not in use – all of that is the common currency of successful photographic formulae. It’s logistically demanding, and needs to be got right. But the results that you see here are far beyond simply resolving problems of access and display.

I’m fascinated that this simple gesture of rubbing out a blackboard can come to stand so well for so much. I also want to use about them a word that has almost wholly disappeared from contemporary photographic criticism: they are extraordinarily beautiful things. Photography rewrote the rule book about beauty long ago, and continues to do so. But the word still stands. How else can we describe pictures which are so attractive in their airy clouds of chalk dust, and which at the same time so perfectly marry what they’re of to what they’re about?

I regard these seemingly simple photographs as rich invitations to think. As a profoundly ignorant non-scientist, I regard them as pictures of my own cloud of unknowing.

Oxford I, 2011, Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Oxford I, 2011,
Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Who Says it’s Good?

Frank Brangwyn,  Preparatory study for the Skinners' Hall Murals, c.1905.

Frank Brangwyn, Preparatory study for the Skinners’ Hall Murals, c.1905.

In photography we have no or few shared standards. The camera club virtues (perfection in the craft skills of photography at the expense of any or every notion of expressiveness) are not by any means to be mapped to the virtues aimed at by the members of World Press Photo, artists working in photography, or professional wedding photographers.

It is not, in general, a very controversial thing to say that “we have standards”. It is not awkward to expect that some jobs are better finished than others.

Try to get a little more specific than that, though, and standards are fiercely difficult to apply. In photography, as in many art forms, we resort to the crude ways of keeping the score of the hedge-fund or the investment bank: numbers and particularly currency numbers. Platinum records, best-seller lists, highest-grossing film releases… The great auction houses routinely spew out press releases announcing the breaking of this or that ‘record’. Their diligence must have contributed a lot to the fashionable notion of art as an investment area. Do note that they never send out releases announcing unsold works in a sale or a price well below that expected. To get those figures calls for investigative reporting, and that, for complicated reasons, barely exists anymore.

Photography — although not immune to that kind of lowest-common-denominator boosting system (see for example the self-promotion of the Australian landscape photographer Peter Lik, who claims on his website as at September 2015 “to now hold four spots out of the top twenty most expensive photographs ever sold” ) — has not so far succumbed wholly to it. We can still see that lots of good or excellent pictures have not sold many times or for high digits, and also that lots of money continues to be made by pictures plainly junk.

Drifiting Shadows by Peter Lik.  My spellchecker unkindly offered YUK as a suggestion for the name of the photographer.

Drifiting Shadows by Peter Lik. My spellchecker unkindly offered YUK as a suggestion for the name of the photographer.

To rank any artworks higher or lower by more subtle gauges than those of the stock exchange ticker is to invite contradiction or dispute. People quite naturally disagree with rankings, propose alternatives, scoff at comparing what they consider non-equivalents… If it seems probable to me, say, that Pat Barker is a “better” novelist of the Great War than Sebastian Faulks, (which it does), am I immediately looking for a punch in the mush from some outraged fan of the opposite persuasion? I could make arguments to back up my claim – starting with the coarse circumstantial one that Faulks, former books editor, male, and fully paid up member of the London literocracy, has had a number of advantages in generating favourable attention that Pat Barker has not had. I could add a few more of these broad contextual strokes, and then dance into the texts, and so make my case.   But why would I? What does it mean to invite comparison between one artwork and another? How does the unexceptional thought that there are standards become transformed into bellicose or at least provocative dispute as to what exactly they might be or where they might precisely be found?

I don’t exactly know. But I do know that the weaselly pretence that all art in any domain must be equally good is just a flight from a difficult series of questions. Without shared standards – which some artworks must almost by definition fail to achieve – we can only be subjective. Aside from the question of all those photographs with good pretensions to excellence but no pretensions whatsoever to art, you might well feel that in the criticism of photography we’ve had quite enough of that. Subjective judgment is the rule not the exception, and no attempt to systematize that seems ever to have got much traction. My feeling is that this is not a flaw but a natural consequence of some of the central elements of the medium.

Several modes of criticism quite routinely cohabit. Which is the same as saying that a number of separate standards are in operation. There is what we might call the style of the late Sir David Frost – in which everything is “Super, Super”. By that standard, the work under consideration is always excellent. Good things that went before – and most especially better things that went before – have no place at the table. This is the standard of the press release, and the press release is a form of writing which has grown exponentially during the ‘information age’ of fast digital communication, and whose influence, I think, has grown much more in the art world than is easily realized.

I can’t say I have lived through the invention of the press release. US sources routinely credit Ivy Lee with that, for the controlled way he managed news of an Atlantic City railway crash in 1906. (Upton Sinclair, in his novel The Brass Cheque – in which Sinclair gave an account of Lee’s corrupt handling of the press on what became called the Ludlow Massacre, a mining strike in 1914 which escalated into violent reprisal ­– scathingly dubbed Ivy Lee “Poison Ivy”.)   I suppose there have been people detailed to claim the attention of the press from the art world as long as there have been mass media. But the role has grown and spread and drawn little comment in doing so. Now we’ve reached a point where even the tiniest arts organization has a PR person – or an account with a PR firm. Individual artists have PR people, all furiously spinning away. Public cultural institutions spend tax-payer’s money on PR, wads of it. There has grown up and flourished a kind of art-writing which is no more than reheating the press-releases that these people pack up and pump out, and it sometimes is pretty disgraceful.

In photography, notably, where there are very few specialist critics, one can trace press releases right through into general acceptance. As a person in the business I receive a lot of press releases and I can often see large chunks of them appear in finished articles over the name of a supposed ‘reviewer’ or ‘previewer’. Even when that isn’t quite so, even when the words are altered, I can see the point of view of the release unquestioningly reproduced with no more than a shift of expression. In an era when deadlines are tight, and when ‘content’ is so often no more than space-filling, when pay for arts journalism has barely increased since the 1980s and journalists are under more pressure to produce stuff than to make it interesting (or right), one can have a certain sympathy. What is a writer to do, asked to produce three hundred (or seventy-five!) words on an artist they’ve barely heard of in a field whose very Peles and Maradonas are all-but unknown? That’s what the press release is for. But perhaps what comes out of that system shouldn’t be called criticism. It’s something else: puffery if you’re feeling nasty, background information if you’re feeling generous. Reheating a press release may let a reader or a listener know what’s going on; but it will hardly inform her or him.

I can’t prove it, but I think one could say that there’s more writing in the information age, and less reading. People read fast, they are satisfied with the surface reading, they don’t use much detail. Whereas the production of texts rises and rises. Many of them are produced to sell something, only it doesn’t necessarily appear so in the final context.

That’s the world of press releases. It cannot be discounted in seeking to understand what standards apply. Photography is the area I know, but I doubt it’s very different elsewhere. Culture is made to fit into the system we operate, and is divided up to be sold as product. A great deal of what purports to be criticism is too close to marketing for comfort.

But not all. Some still argue that technical perfection is the only standard worth achieving. A ‘good’ photograph then becomes a well-executed exercise in doing what cameras and computers can do[1]. A lot of people sneer at that: it brings to mind camera-club contests in which producing even curves in Photoshop is more important by far than having anything to say. I’m the first to say that I’m not specially interested in ‘perfect’ pictures of ‘perfect’ drops of water falling off the very end of ‘perfect’ rose leaves. But sneering is no good. A great deal of the photography that we are most influenced by is made along precisely those lines. Much more commercial photography is made like that than perhaps we notice. Car pictures – ever so shiny. Travel pictures – no politics. Fashion – has to show the clothes. Portraiture, lifestyle, below-the-line, art, sport… The rules by which serious and experienced professional people judge photographs in their particular neck of the photographic woods are often particular, sometimes absurd, and not always tenable in the abstract.

A Weasel Rides on a  Woodpecker, by Martin Le-May, 2015.  This picture 'went viral' and one can see why.  Nobody who saw it had ever seen such a thing before.

A Weasel Rides on a Woodpecker, by Martin Le-May, 2015. This picture ‘went viral’ and one can see why. Nobody who saw it had ever seen such a thing before.

Even news photography, which you would have thought has to confirm most of all to the grim hurly-burly of the real world, is often made according to a series of arcane rules about what it is or is not acceptable to do to a photograph between capturing it and letting audiences see it. The recent and ongoing kerfuffle at the World Press Photo about manipulation is revealing[2]. I attended one of the meetings and was shocked by the almost religious inflexibility of a certain kind of working photojournalist, who really believes that his or her pictures somehow tell pure truth, and not only that, but that he can recognize such a thing when he sees it. There are still news photographers – plenty of them –who are convinced that truth is to be measured in pixels unaltered in a file, but not — say — in the editorial stance which chooses which horrors are newsworthy and which to be ignored[3]. The very notion that the in-camera and in-computer algorithms without which their pictures don’t exist might themselves build-in certain distortions away from Truth is unthinkable. Not to mention the ‘human algorithms’ of media owners and editors and marketing people…

Photography can and does deal in certain moderated versions of truth; but the virtues which aim at that are hard to reconcile with those that aim at winning hearts and minds to a sale or a belief, or making persuasive autobiography, or inviting viewers to share subtle or otherwise nearly-unattainable emotion. Historical evidence would tend to show that photographs have been asked to do many things, and that ways have been found to do all of them exceptionally well. There is not much evidence that we all recognize the same virtues when we call a picture ‘good.’

We can sneer at camera club rules by all means : the prissy precision, the lack of tolerance for doubt or ambiguity, the rejection of metaphor and wit, the preaching only to the like-minded… but if we do, we have by the same token to sneer at lots and lots of photographic activity which is usually deemed more important, more interesting, or more influential than that.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander ( The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ), photographed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino.  Famous, famous photographer.  shall we be charitable, and say simply that everybody is allowed an off day?

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander ( The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ), photographed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino. Famous, famous photographer, but the picture?  Shall we be charitable, and say simply that everybody is allowed an off day?

I continue to believe that we are less confident in arriving at shared standards (however modifiable or temporary) in photography than in any other cultural activity I know of. I don’t hear people hesitating to rank pop songs or movies or books. Yet we commonly really hesitate to say “this is a better photograph than that”. Or when we do, we fall back on absurd mechanisms to justify it. One is the one I mentioned further back: if we leave a space in applying standards because we don’t quite know which standards to apply, the whole press release industry will be quick to step in to the void.

The other is related, but slightly different. It’s the grim culture of name-checking. Annie Leibovitz worked for years for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair and so on. She has had books published by such eminent publishers as Jonathan Cape and Random House.   Good galleries have sold her prints. Does any of that make any particular picture by Leibovitz any good?   It does not. Do people cite these things as though it did? They do. This speaks to me of a lack of confidence in those making judgment.   We are too far along the many roads of photography ever again to think pictures good merely because they are sold at White Cube or Gagosian, shown at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, or written about in the Journal of Visual Culture.

From Be Bold With Bananas, published by Fruit Distributors Ltd, Banana Importers of Wellington, New Zealand .  Undated but 1970s. I seem to have come to this amazing book later than many others.  I was pointed to it by Rudi Thoemmes.

From Be Bold With Bananas, published by Fruit Distributors Ltd, Banana Importers of Wellington, New Zealand . Undated but 1970s. I seem to have come to this amazing book later than many others. I was pointed to it by Rudi Thoemmes.

Photographs are often given their importance by someone other than the photographer. I am beginning to think that a fine ‘receiver’ of photographs can make any photograph ‘good’, whatever its previous status. More than that: I find myself wondering whether I have ever known a photograph to matter at all until it has been granted the extra heft of somebody somehow receiving it and giving it its position in the world. Receiver of photographs? Well, a number of roles centre around receiving photographs carefully: picture editor, internet harvester, lawyer, curator, creative director, collector, art director, critic, historian, designer … I’d like to add photographers; but their inclusion confuses the issue.

Fundamental among them, however, are what used to be called laymen, who are sometimes now called the general public (the contempt for their not being specialists is barely concealed). It is among those who don’t make the pictures but who read them or use them with care and culture that I think the standards are set. Many of those people are not ‘image-professionals’ in any real sense. A trivial family snapshot, recovered a generation later by strangers, is not much without the simple accolade of a plain caption of place and date. But much can easily be made of it. Think of the novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs[4]. This odd best-seller was apparently written in part around the vintage photographs which dot its pages like milestones. The pictures are anonymous, salvaged. They were nothing. Now they are something. Riggs treated them as material for his book, in the same way that he treated his own memories, odd facts about places (like Wales) and so on. That doesn’t necessarily give them excellence. But it does take them straight from their pre-Riggs indifference to something which only a very small proportion of the floods of photographs ever acquire: once they’ve been in the novel, they are interesting. You could look at them in detail. You could write about them. You could start to work out stuff about their puncta and their studia.

I think this counter-intuitive idea of pictures acquiring whatever importance they have later in their existence is important. We are used to thinking the opposite: that pictures conform to a pre-photographic pattern whereby they are either pregnant with importance or not from the outset.   You are commissioned to paint the walls of one of the Scuole in Venice. The job will be important; you can depend on it that future members of the guild will ascribe to the pictures the importance that they have from the outset. Art historians and curators and others could add to the lustre, but probably not create it outright. That was the usual pattern in the days when pictures were rare, and the pattern which we thought would not change as they grew more common. But everybody is a picture editor, now. My 12 year-old son pointed out the absurdity of an advertisement on TV in which a computer-generated time-lapse medieval town growing at speed was shown on a landscape which anachronistically contained an unmistakably twenty-first century wind farm. The CGI needed a base, he said, with neither any great sense of showing off, nor any great wonder, and the base hasn’t been properly cleaned. The customer is an experienced editor, now, even when he’s twelve.

This corresponds to a wider shift. All over the intellectual landscape, mandarinate and professional specialism are having to share space with broader and unmediated access to knowledge and opinion. Interest in history has been shifted from professional historians to a wider group coming at it from angles in ‘heritage’, genealogy, town-planning, tourism, and so on.

So in photography, all sorts of people are now routinely in a position to grant to pictures a status they did not have before. We can no longer assume that pictures are important just by virtue of being pictures. Grant them a modicum of thought, of emotion, of context, however, from whichever angle, and they can be given that importance at any stage in their trajectory. Find a way to tell the story of pictures and they become more than they were. I even wonder whether the great shift towards multiple readings and alternative but equally valid positions which is such a mark of the intellectual colour of our time, at least in the more-or-less liberal West, did not in fact originate in photography .

A number of the better histories of photography consider ‘alternative’ pictures (those which had no place in the previous formal history) and give them leave to elbow themselves into contention. A fine example of this is Ian Jeffrey’s ReVisions – the magisterial catalogue of the first exhibition at the (former) National Museum of Photography Film and Television in Bradford after a major rebuild and rehang in 1999. Jeffery talks about ‘homeless’ pictures – those which don’t fit comfortably into whichever plodding conventional value system dominated at their time. But it is hard to ignore that it is his own attention granted to them — often a hundred or more years after they were made — which in fact finds them a home. The minute they found a way into the show and the book they weren’t ‘homeless’ any more. Photography seems to be cumulative in a paradoxical way: as soon as sustained attention is granted to a photograph, it becomes capable of bearing sustained attention.

A magazine sub-editor writes a caption about a topical sports picture; and the picture which was one of twenty or a hundred under consideration to occupy that particular space on a page, has suddenly acquired a context. It’s gone from being graphic ‘noise’ – we might almost call it a potential picture – to being a whole picture, with a modicum of meaning, history, value and so on. A lot of photography is recovered through the internet, edited into modern versions (or parodies) of the old cabinets of curiosities. Just as it wasn’t obvious that the stuff in the Wunderkammern was interesting until it was just there, with just those other objects to left and right, just that owner, and just that audience, so it seems that pictures are often nothing until they are given a place in the world and in our thinking. That place may be granted formally or informally, but the granting seems always to have to take place. A hard drive full of images is neither a work of art nor a research database nor a ‘collection’ until somebody says why they’re there, or why she thinks they’re there, or suggests something one can take from their being there. A single picture held to a refrigerator by a magnet may well be a more telling piece of communication; it very likely is. At the very least, somebody has chosen it over others to occupy that place where it is to be seen. The Dutch curator Eric Kessels recycles old, often anonymous pictures from flea-markets into something that matters much more than it ever did when the pictures were still part of the life-baggage of the original owners. Who then is the real source of the meaning and mattering in the pictures – anonymous and unconscious photographer, or active and deliberate curator-creator?

From In almost Every Picture No. 9, collected and edited by Erik Kessels.  A brilliant book about a family's inability to photogpraph their black dog.

From In almost Every Picture No. 9, collected and edited by Erik Kessels. A brilliant book about a family’s inability to photograph their black dog.

I look around and I see the same phenomenon everywhere. Crap pictures from stock libraries enormously enlivened by a smart context in advertising. In many books by W.G. Sebald, the pictures are a ‘source’ for the text, but even as they inform the writing, they are granted by it a status they didn’t have before. I once spent a considerable amount of time researching a carte-de visite of an unnamed young man. It remains probable (but I was never able to prove) that it was the earliest known photograph of Vincent van Gogh. The photographer didn’t particularly care: a client. The various owners whose hands it had passed through didn’t particularly care: a picture. If I had been able to join up the dots, though, it would have been a historical document and no doubt quickly a well-known one. A nothing photograph becomes a something photograph at an unpredictable point in its continued existence, and the transition from nothing to something is by no means always along predictable lines. That is the lesson we learn. The root sense of the word curate is to take care of something, and by extension, to care about it. Taking care of photographs seems to be in a very real sense the crowning element in creating them. Only occasionally is the extra mattering granted to the pictures by the same person who made them.

That throws a rather different light on criticism, of course. Because if I’m right, and pictures are more usually dead until somebody’s act of caring breathes life into them, then criticism ( in the widest sense ) makes the pictures. They may never have said or contained what the critic claims they say or contain until after he or she has written. But nothing can take that content out of them afterwards.  Seen in that light, well-known pictures are in some way the accumulation of the various intellectual and emotional positions that have been held about them; less well-known ones have less of that heap of ancillary content, but if they’re under discussion at all, they have the beginnings of it.

I understand that all this might sound like special pleading on my own behalf.  I have never been a photographer, after all, and have certainly been a receiver of photographs in one role or another for many years.  What could be more natural than that I should argue for the primacy of my role and for understating of the role I have never had?  All I can say is that I think the argument has validity notwithstanding my own position and in spite of it. Put simply, I think we all finish photographs in our own ways;  I just happen to represent that more specialised type who has tried to make a living at it.  That’s only a question of degree.

How does this get us to the question of standards in photography?  It seems that photographs are hardly finished until they are ‘cared for’ – which may be as simple as pinning them to refrigerators, as it may include writing scholarly catalogues of them. The caring does not require any special language, does not presuppose any particular purpose, and nor does it have to address an audience self-identified as having any special aptitude.   I have described this elsewhere as finding or granting to photographs whatever ‘mattering’ they might be said to bear.   It may well be that this extraordinary attribute, of being incomplete until under interpretation, lies at the heart of our historical difficulty in finding shared standards in photography. It may be mildly depressing to have to admit that there is no such thing as a good or great photograph – only a good or great response to it. But it is also an extraordinary confirmation of many of the central strengths of photography.

Photography is portable, transmissible, transcultural, available to almost everybody to make and receive. It has an intimate proximity to reality and yet is separate to it. It has always been vernacular. It is a kind of time-machine. It is capable of triviality beyond endurance and yet is the main visual literacy of all of us and many of the various truths we know we know through photographs.   If no photograph is fully made until someone confronted with it finds that it moves him or her to a reaction, then photography is even more pliable and supple a thing than we knew.   It has no standards of its own. It merely challenges us to refine our own standards in the face of it. To receive photographs well then becomes to keep one’s own relevant standards in mind, to keep them ready for revision or refinement, and to hold the photographs up to them so that the light of each shines on the other.

I cannot tell you what particular intellectual equipment must be brought to bear on any photograph. Any one of them may need historical, moral, scientific, visual, social, sexual, verbal, mythical sensitivities or others, in combination or together. But they do need some of those things to be engaged if they are to be more than dumb slices of reality on a page or a screen. No engagement (I’ve called it no ‘caring’) means no mattering. Under the system I’m describing, photographs not only remain capable of analysis – which they must do if they are to be treated as plain ordinary cultural objects like any other – they actively need it. However rudimentary or vernacular that analysis — it may be no more than the choice of a place — it is that which makes a photograph complete.

We can conclude that pictures are not made just to be seen. They are made to be thought about. The question then shifts. It is not mysterious that different people judge photographs by different standards. The question is no longer how good is the picture, but who says so, and how good are the standards that they apply?

[1] Few of us realize how far the technology is ahead of any real control, however. For just a flavor of this, cf. Stephen Mayes, The Next Revolution in Photography is Coming, Time, Aug 25, 2015.

[2] The Integrity of the Image, World Press Photo Report by David Campbell, November 2014, available online at

[3] I wrote the first draft of this in the days immediately after a number of Western tourists were killed in an Islamist attack at a hotel in Sousse, Tunisia. In the UK coverage (a number of the victims were British) no mention was made of how very odd – I almost use the word provocative – it is to remove almost all of one’s clothing in public in a Moslem country. Yet that is what many of those who were killed had done. The truth is not limited to their corpses in the sand. It would have been difficult (but I insist it would have been possible – if only because so many ‘impossible’ pictures have been published before) to make pictures which addressed this question of the colonialism of mores. Selective distortion of this kind is the norm in photojournalism; don’t let any photojournalist tell you that her truth is The Truth.

[4] I am grateful for this reference to my fellow-critic Colin Pantall, who I think liked the book better than I did. But he had read it when I had not yet heard of it, and kindly passed it on.

An Unexpected Pleasure: Vintage photographs by Mari Mahr

Mari Mahr – A Day by the River

Private view: 19th May 2015. 18:00 – 20:00

All welcome

6 Dorset Place

Brighton BN2 1ST


The show will certainly run until the end of May;  actual final date yet to be decided.

This announcement only appears here because the opportunity to put on this show came very late. I have been given the chance to use a small university space in a building on the edge of Kemp Town in Brighton, and the chance is too good to pass up.

Mari Mahr, Introduction 9, From A Day by the River (1980)

Mari Mahr, Introduction 9, From A Day by the River (1980)

If you’re in Brighton for the Fringe, add a really remarkable exhibition to your plans. The public opening is on 19th, and I’d like as many people as possible to be there. I’m frank to say I want to show that there is appetite for really good photography in Brighton, a place with surprisingly few galleries.   Spread the word, and come on 19th May.

My little show is of vintage pictures by Mari Mahr from the 1980s. It is centred around an amazing series called A Day by the River. These have never been exhibited before, a survival of a set of vintage C-types from 1980 itself, when Mari Mahr was just beginning to get confidence in her techniques and her way of seeing.

Improbably based on a London Transport leaflet on the river-side pleasures to be found to the west of London, these little prints are a lot of things at the same time.

Mari Mahr, Richmond 3, From A Day by the River (1980)

Mari Mahr, Richmond 3, From A Day by the River (1980)

Mari Mahr, Teddington 2, From A Day by the River (1980)

Mari Mahr, Teddington 2, From A Day by the River (1980)

Mari Mahr, Kingston 4, From A Day by the River (1980)

Mari Mahr, Kingston 4, From A Day by the River (1980)

They are dreamy meditations on walking.   My impression is that Mahr did not know London well in 1980 — she’d arrived only a few years before, after all. She had taken a course at the Polytechnic of Central London to widen her vocabulary from the photojournalism she had practised previously, and presumably needed processing time to digest a new city, new worlds, new habits. So she walked. Many artists walk, and not just the Francis Alys ones or the Richard Long ones who turn it into a ‘formal’ part of their practice. Mahr is not an impetuous artist; her concerns have always been about how emotion and memory and reactions to things combine in a person to make the character and the culture that they have. Walking is the natural way to let those complex ingredients mix. Many years later, at a time of great personal sadness, she made series which are more formally identified as ‘walking series’, but A Day by the River is not. It’s full of paths and has the lovely shifting focus from tiny details seized en passant to the bigger milder washes of sky and water. It may have been slightly melancholic — Mahr deals in melancholy like a country and western singer, as an inescapable part of the human condition — but it was lyrical, too. I imagine her swinging slowly along the towpath, dangling a camera on a strap and allowing a bucolic or georgic mood to wipe away the more urban one she had left behind for the day.

It’s also a series of considerable technical invention. Full of complex overlays of work on both print and negative, these are pictures which would in another time have been described as objects of ‘vertu’, the word from which we get ‘virtuosity’. They are tiny little pieces of marvellous skill. It sounds odd to call a row of faded C-types jewel-like; but that’s what they are. Mahr reclaimed the photograph as an object of craftsmanship. She layered her pictures with scratching and hand colouring and bits of collage. It was experimental, but one glance at the series will tell you that it was already the finished mastery of a great communicator. I first saw these pictures before I’d met the artist; I knew right away that she was more interested in the poetic aspects of life, the unspoken and perhaps unconscious than she was in fact. And so it proved.

If you can make it to the show, you will see that the numbering of the series is not quite consecutive. It seems likely that this near-complete series is all that survives. Twenty little prints in all. Twenty fascinating insights into the developing mind of an artist already then well set on her way.

The show also includes one single picture from the Georgia O’Keeffe series, which I wrote about in the Financial Times some time ago.

Mari Mahr, Canyon 1916, From the Georgia O'Keeffe series (1982)

Mari Mahr, Canyon 1916, From the Georgia O’Keeffe series (1982)

This is what I said:

” Mari Mahr is a brilliant artist of Hungarian origin who divides her time between London and Berlin. Too gentle a person ever really to push herself forward, Mahr has had the kind of career which is faultless, but not really very visible. No longer a young woman, she remains insufficiently appreciated by a large factor. She works in relatively small series, often about her family, occasionally about figures of more public standing. In series after series, she has produced works of astute elegance seeking to situate her own affective existence among the objects of affection or culture around her. Her hallmarks are exquisite delicacy of psychological enquiry, matched and made visible in exquisite delicacy in the photographic object. By quality of work, she is one of the very great artists of recent years; by the amount of limelight shone upon her, almost invisible.

In 1982, as something of a feminist looking for strong women models, Mahr came upon the figure of Georgia O’Keeffe. This is how she herself described it:

“In the very last scene of a documentary movie, an old woman climbs a ladder all the way to the top of her house. I was impressed by the strength and charisma of such an old woman and decided to find out more about her. I learnt she was partly Hungarian, but what is more important I absolutely loved how her career came about, the way she made her choices, how she chose her men, how she made situations awkward for herself, painting away when it wasn’t a womanly thing to do.

I’d read her diary where she writes so eloquently about Taos, Black Place and so on — I saw it all in colour. This was before I’d been to America, so all the knowledge of the country came from Technicolor movies. I did the series in 1982, about her travels in the 1920s, using a black car like the one Stieglitz (the photographer, her husband) had given her.”

It sounds simple, and so perhaps it is, once you’ve done it. By making the stagey elements of her pictures completely apparent, Mahr let us know immediately that we weren’t looking at fact. Every standard picture element is up for revision: scale, perspective, narrative… this is a complete taking of control by the artist of those things which more normally constrain photographers. The obvious edges and folds, the block colours, the ultra-plain symbolic elements (skyscraper, cow, adobe, car, flag…) give the clues to a reading of O’Keeffe’s story which is both heroic and curiously domestic in scale. What results is a tribute and a separate work in its own right. Mahr has admiration and respect for O’Keeffe, and a point of humour about her, too.

These are variants of collage, set design, maybe diorama. A few recurring themes make them understandable as music. They’re lovely as little post-cards, and sensational as the chapters in an episodic biography. They’re anything you like except flat photographs. No matter that it is little known; this is one of my great series. ”

Mari Mahr, New Mexico 1931, From the Georgia O'Keeffe series (1982)

Mari Mahr, New Mexico 1931, From the Georgia O’Keeffe series (1982)

Mari Mahr, In Search of Ghost Ranch 1934, From the Georgia O'Keeffe series (1982)

Mari Mahr, In Search of Ghost Ranch 1934, From the Georgia O’Keeffe series (1982)

Mari Mahr, New York 1925, From the Georgia O'Keeffe series (1982)

Mari Mahr, New York 1925, From the Georgia O’Keeffe series (1982)

It will be apparent by now that I am a fan as well as a critic and curator of these pictures. They are fantastic, and it is a shame that they are so little known.

To put it quite plainly, I am proud to find even a little space to show them, and hope that as many of you as possible will crowd the place on 19th May in the evening.

It’s terribly short notice.  Never mind, spread the word by the miracles of Web2.0, and the effort won’t be wasted.

Another One Bites the Dust

Library of Birmingham photography collections under urgent and pressing threat.

Veronica Bailey, Lectures on Art by Henry Weekes, 1880, from the Hours of Devotion series, (2006)

Veronica Bailey, Lectures on Art by Henry Weekes, 1880, from the Hours of Devotion series, (2006)

If you look at the date of today’s post (22 December 2014), you will see that I’d rather be with my family, winding down and gearing up for Christmas. But I can’t. On this occasion, I don’t think it possible to stay silent.

I am not an articulately Political person (cap P). I’m intrigued by photography, and have been for years. I believe in the importance of photography and the genius of some of the people who have made it important. I don’t want to make judgments between two essentials when there’s only enough money for one. I’m not a triage nurse on a battlefield. Other people do that stuff. And they’re about to get it horribly, disgracefully, and damagingly wrong.


‘They’ are threatening to close down the whole of the photographic service at the Library of Birmingham, in the name of ‘cuts’.


It’s by no means the only library service under threat, but it may be the one with the greatest claim to international standing, leave alone its vital importance nationally and locally.


We can argue about where the centre of British photography lies. At one time you could make a plausible argument that if you waited in one of the great commercial darkrooms – Downtown Darkroom or Metro or Joe’s Basement (or, years before that, Bert Hardy’s place) – in London, everybody that mattered in British photography would sooner or later pass you. Commercial photography isn’t exciting any more, a new country of the blind. Vogue was incredible for years, a place where photography not only mattered but was the mainspring of a large industry which simply made no sense without images. The Sunday Times, Picture Post, Side Gallery in Newcastle, a degree course at Farnham or at Newport, the RAF or the Army, Guildford School of Art…even Flat 4, Porchester Court, Porchester Gardens…. All of these could at one time have justified a serious claim to being the home of something vibrant and vital to the national culture, either the cutting edge of photography, or the place where that edge was honed and whetted the better to cut a few years later.

Some years ago, it began to be clear that the great libraries were moving up as major repositories of the national collections in photography. The V&A has been a photographic hub for years; it was so in the nineteenth century. The Science Museum has struggled to make sense of its offshoot in Bradford, the National Media Museum, but its contribution has been important. The Museum of London, the National Monuments Record, the Imperial War Museum, even the National Trust which is constitutionally apart… these are huge public repositories that we knew about and that we expected to serve the national provision of ‘coverage’ in photography.

With hindsight, it’s obvious that the great libraries were among them. Photography was gathered and held as much in books as it was in prints. But it took incredibly arduous work (underfunded from the beginning, that goes without saying) by a very small group of curators and their tiny staff teams, to bring the libraries into position. It happened first elsewhere: the New York Public Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and numbers of others have been doing sterling work for years. The early problem was simple. Great photographs were not filed under Photography. They were filed under Industry or Local History or Biography or Science or Anthropology or Military Records or wherever they were. Photography was not a subject until very recently. It was a meta-subject, if you like, a tool or a method which could be (and had been) applied equally to every single thing in the catalogues of major libraries.

Men like John Falconer, of the British Library, or Richard Ovenden, of the Bodleian, have had to work wonders to persuade their funders that photography was a field in its own right. To put funds into photography was a huge risk. It meant opening the library to non-academics. More than that: photography being what it is, it even meant opening the library (in theory at least) to non-readers, or people not good at reading. Photography is transcultural and transnational and has no priesthood. It can be understood by anybody with eyes to see. It fits into our public library system better than anything. If libraries were to be inclusive and accessible and open to those with less favoured backgrounds or less good English – and make no mistake, those for thirty years have been the very things we have asked that our libraries should be, far more than that they should have complete sets of H.C. Robbins-Landon on Haydn or illustrated copies of the Idylls of the King by Tennyson – then photography was the great key which would open all those doors.

The person who for twenty years or more believed in that, and proved it and has worked tirelessly to shift it from a marginal proposition about incremental gains (in bums on seats, in marketing messages, in modulations of political arguments…) into a key central component of the best public library systems in the country, is Peter James of the Birmingham Central Library, now the Library of Birmingham.

For years, James was not even the curator of photographs at his library. He was nominally engaged – you can hear the hypocrisy, the weaselly civil-servant-speak, even if you were never there ­– in a long research project to see if perhaps one day appointing a curator of photography might conceivably be justified. In plain terms, he was working his nuts off without tenure. James, like Falconer at the British Library, had to make sure every year that the money to fund his own position was in place before there was any money to do the things he needed to do. Those not used to such rhythms can have no idea of the precarity, the fragility, that they impose. Those who wait nervously only to find quite how much bonus they will get at year end have never sweated like those who have to pay for their own post, year after year.

In spite of all that, Peter James built a department that grew from local importance to national to international. The collections of the Library of Birmingham are not only world-class in their holdings (and nobody had any idea they were anything like so important until Peter James showed them to be so), but they are world-class in the way they are handled. Photography has become the best loved and perhaps the most important of all the outreach elements of the Library. James works on the history of his archive, on contemporary displays, on regional ‘boosting’ and tirelessly on the practical daily grind of access and availability. His department links locally and nationally and internationally, too. Universities connect with the programme there, and so do schoolchildren. It is quite arguable that the Library of Birmingham is in fact now the very centre of British photography.

The work it took for that to be so is about to be smashed, and it’s wrong.

It seems only moments ago that the opening of the fancy new Library building was being touted as a symbol of Birmingham’s commitment to culture. It was a moment ago: the new building, all £189m of it, was opened late in 2013 by Malala Yousafszai, totem of belief in education (particularly for women) after she was shot in the head by the Taliban for championing women’s rights and brought back to health in Birmingham hospitals.

That great new public library has had all sorts of flags waved about it; photography has been one of them. The Museums, Libraries, and Archives Council (itself, not coincidentally, cut to death) awarded the photography collections at Birmingham the rare and special status of ‘designated’ collections. I’m not sure, but I don’t think any designated collection has ever been threatened with 100% cuts before. A host of funders, years before the new library opened, have raised money on the assumption (and, I suspect, on the contractual guarantee) that works purchased would be available to be seen by the public. How are they to react to the news that those pictures will now be locked into drawers, hidden, inaccessible, and neither circulating as they were intended to circulate nor preserved as they were intended to be preserved?

It is one shameful thing to say a wealth of professional expertise is going to be thrown away. It is quite another to say that if the photography department of the Library of Birmingham is mothballed, then a number of fancy donors will in effect have been lied to. The donors should know that, and react to it.

What will happen to the conservation of old and fragile photographic documents? It won’t take long before those are damaged beyond repair.

Who will organise careful exhibitions of photography from earlier periods in the West Midlands, scrupulously attuned to the understanding and the needs of the public of today? It won’t be long before that becomes a whole forgotten swathe of our past, and access to it denied to those who might most use it in their own work going forward.

Not many weeks ago, I was at the Library attending a meeting chaired by Peter James. He had been unwell, yet he was working extra for a cause that went far beyond his own institution and might (if seen through) benefit a loose notion of ‘British photography as a whole’. James has brought into being a really effective library department in Birmingham. But he’s done more than that, too. His library is now a veritable hub, a meeting-point in the very centre of the country, where all photographic tendencies and all photographic habits have a chance of interacting and of being honoured.

While I was there, somebody said that £189m was the same as the cost of the latest release of Call of Duty. I haven’t looked it up, but it seems plausible. Which would you rather have?

Culture is cheap. The Department of Culture Media and Sport has been a useless department of state since it was headed by Chris Smith, who (at the very least) cared deeply about cultural activity and was himself formed by it. Has the DCMS ever fought hard for anything? Now is the time. If it’s perfectly all right for photography effectively to cease being a care of the Library of Birmingham, then we go back forty, fifty years without a blink. It’s a disaster. It’s also entirely avoidable. Culture costs relatively nothing, and its contribution is relatively huge. Take that equation out of the hands of accountants and put it in the hands even of the spinners who need to fight the next election and it becomes a very powerful argument.

It’s routinely said that Conservatives actively dislike public libraries because they don’t use them. I used to disparage such remarks: the idea that Conservatives retreated to Daddy’s panelled rooms where bound editions of the classics gently suffused the air in front of the log fire with odour of Morocco binding and Clarendon ink seemed grotesque, a caricature. It isn’t. It’s true, after all.

This attack on the Library of Birmingham is an attack on the very idea of self-improvement. The classically Tory possibility that anyone can better herself ­– with a minimum of help from the state – itself is attacked by it. I said earlier, I’m no politician. But if that’s Tory policy, then the barbarians’ time is up. Restore sensible funding, or be thrown out. You don’t burn books, even photographic books, and still claim to be civil.

Peter James cannot orchestrate the response to these proposed cuts. To do so might imperil his own contractual position in the case of redundancy. And that, it seems to me, is an obscenity of its own.



What follows is the text of a message to ‘stakeholders’ from Brian Gambles, Assistant Director ­– ­Culture, Birmingham Library and Archive Services, who was the head of the Library of Birmingham project. He should have sent it you, and you, and you. We’re all ‘stakeholders’ in our major photographic institutions.   Note the expression: “ Archive services … will cease. “ It’s not a partial message or a hint or a negotiating ploy. It’s everything.

The closing date for representations is 12th January 2015. You haven’t got time to do nothing. Take up the invitations below, where a number of contact addresses are given. React by whichever channel you choose, but react.


Library of Birmingham Budget Consultation

In line with other City Council services, the Library of Birmingham has to find significant budget savings for 2015/16.

Our proposals to achieve these savings are part of the City Council’s budget consultation, and are set out below.


  • Opening hours at the Library of Birmingham will be reduced from 73 per week to 40, with effect from 1st April 2015.
  • Events and exhibitions will stop unless they can be externally funded.
  • Business support, learning, children’s, reading, music and archive services other than counter transactions will cease, except where external funding can be identified.
  • Outreach and community engagement work will cease, except where external funding can be identified.
  • The budget to buy new books will be further reduced.

Have your say

The City Council wants to know what you think about these proposals.

The best way to have your say is by completing the online survey.

You could also: