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:





Making a Mark

Caroline Fellowes. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 8. 2014

Caroline Fellowes.
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 8. 2014

Caroline Fellowes. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 1. 2014

Caroline Fellowes.
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 1. 2014

These extraordinary pictures are by Caroline Fellowes, an artist who lives in France but is represented by a gallery in Derry, in Northern Ireland.   They are wonderful things, and I post them today because they happen to sit right in the middle of a number of conversations I seem to be having with increasingly frequency of late. Fellowes’ series here is made to face a perennial challenge in photography — one which I have approached from different angles on this blog several times in the past. Fellowes’ pictures (they’re called Animal Vegetable Mineral) record the marks made on her windows by a number of different agencies: heat, plants brushing against the glass, cold, limescale, water, the tracks of various kinds of animals, fingers… Naturally, they are visible only in certain lights, at the right angles, and for a particular time. They come and go, too: smear marks in condensation today will re-appear in tomorrow’s condensation, even though they seemed to have gone when the pane was dry. Not only are they photographs in fact — beautiful fancy digital prints on water-colour paper, since you ask — but that temporary quality makes them wholly photographic in conception, too. So much photography is about seizing what will not otherwise stay, or seeing what cannot otherwise be seen.

Yet the pictures in Animal Vegetable Mineral are in one other important sense antithetical to core photographic values, too. These take great store by the business of mark making which is normally absent in conventional photography. To that extent, they have more to do with painting, and indeed Fellowes is a distinguished painter as well as a photographer and knows very well what she’s about in that regard.

In Fellowes’ AVM series, the marks are made by outside forces. I believe some of the footprints are of frogs. In other work the artist often makes them. My colleague at the University of Brighton, Johanna Love, gave a brilliant seminar presentation on these kinds of ideas the other day. Love is a print-maker in various different kinds of process (including photography). She’s interested in the variety of marks that can intervene even in a carefully controlled sequence: she has photographed pencil markings at huge magnifications to see the landscape of pits and peaks which make hand-made marks so attractive. She draws on photographs and likes the way that when the light strikes the greasy pencil markings you can’t see the print beneath. She grew interested in the dust that interposed itself between scanner and subject if the subject was raised a little from the scanner bed — until that dust could itself be a legitimate subject. She had tracked the antecedents of some of this thinking in close detail: I’d not come across an interesting book of Xerox ‘drawings’ she mentioned by Ian Burn, for example, in which the marks are the marks of the process itself. When she referred back to Duchamp and Man Ray in regard to dust, I was on familiar ground. She made a lot of reference to Helen Chadwick, whose combination of machine-made and hand-made was absolutely pioneering.

Ian McKeever. Shade and Darkness-Evening 1983. From the series Traditional Landscapes.

Ian McKeever.
Shade and Darkness – Evening 1983.
From the series Traditional Landscapes.

Not long before that I took part in a round-table discussion at Somerset House, one of a series leading up to the PhotoLondon fair in May 2015. It was led by the artist Ian McKeever. His title? Against Photography. He meant it in both senses: against meaning leaning against or next to, as well as counter to or opposing.

McKeever with impressive articulacy laid out some of his own trajectories to and from photography. McKeever is a wonderful painter, taking as much pleasure in the physical acts of painting as he does in any communication that results from it. The discussion was driven mainly by a very fine publication (half-way between catalogue and monograph, the first of a new series called Imprint) produced by McKeever’s gallery, HackelBury, in West London. McKeever was outspoken in some of what he had to say.   He has no doubt about the intrinsic primacy of paint over photography as a vehicle for thought. Given that he is a long-time and highly skilled practitioner of photography (and one who has written on it very well) I was surprised by how categorical he was. But he was, and mainly because of the fundamental importance to him of making marks. He had other arguments: he stressed that painting takes time and that time allows the painter to distill thought into the artefact, something that cannot be done at the 125th of a second at which photography operates.

“A photograph”, said Ian McKeever that day, “is at its maximum position at the very moment it is made. [Afterwards] it can only ever be less than that…so a photographer is left with a dilemma: how to extend the language. The painter has a year or two in which to inflect meaning into what he’s doing. The question becomes how does the photographer bring that to the photograph?” And McKeever’s answer, clearly felt, although never in fact stated outright, was that he can’t.

It was a terrific performance, and compelling.

I remain unconvinced, I must say, by this notion of painters ‘inflecting’ meaning into what they do. They’re supposed to, sure enough. But many inflect only their own interest, their enthusiasm or their patience. If the formal instant of making ( or taking ) a photograph is too short to allow for much of that, the ancillary processes, of editing and arranging and printing in different ways allow for just as much. At one point McKeever contrasted painters trying to slow the world down against photographers trying to speed it up. The surfaces of photography are – I have written it before ­– skiddy, slippery. The eye tends to bounce off a photograph, having seized what quick meaning it can on the way. I’m not sure conventional photographers try to speed the world up – but they certainly make objects which are consumed at lightning speed. Photography is very good at making posters. One message: get it, and go. Contemplation, a combination of multiple meanings or the enjoyment of multiple – maybe even contradictory – sensations are not readily included in that.

Gerhard Richter.  Firenze 2000

Gerhard Richter.
Firenze 2000

John Stezaker. Mask XLVI, 2007

John Stezaker.
Mask XLVI, 2007

My own take on it is not quite so simple as a direct contrast between the marklessness of photography and the richer textures of paint or other systems which reveal the hand of the maker.   Gerhard Richter worked all around this question: he did blob paint on the surface of photographs, with wonderful effects on each, but it was not his only solution. Lots of photographers have found ways to build illusions of depth or surface texture without any physical lilt to the surface at all. It has been one of the challenges that photography has faced best and longest. Montage, double-exposure, collage: all of those can do it. Part of the problem is that photographs are so often reproduced and that somehow we don’t think that makes any difference. See a Monet reproduced and you know that you’re seeing a shorthand version of the thing. A re-photographed John Stezaker will have an unbroken surface throughout. The ‘originals’ of such things as his have physical shifts to the surface: jumps and cuts and bumps and ruts where one surface meets another or overlays it. Such pieces are very often re-photographed. Sometimes they lose a lot, sometimes they don’t.

Sohei Nishino. Jerusalem,

Sohei Nishino.
Jerusalem, 2013.

The dioramas of Sohei Nishino definitely lose something in their re-photographed editions. The whole point is that they were not made by a single glance. Seen as hundreds of little views, they compete to tell their little stories, but also add up to more than the sum of their parts. They’re like a mediaeval map, slipping from one perspective to another, jumping from middle-distance to near and from scale to scale. Seen as a single slick carpet, they lose a lot of that jostling energy: they become more like a page of results from a Google image search, flat, with less connection from one picture to another.

Jorma Puranen. From Shadows, Reflections and all that Sort of Thing, 2010

Jorma Puranen.
From Shadows, Reflections and all that Sort of Thing, 2010

Santeri Tuori.  Sky #7, 2011–2012

Santeri Tuori.
Sky #7, 2011–2012

I’ve written before about Jorma Puranen’s wonderful series of old masters – Shadows, Reflections and all that Sort of Thing – in which the slicks of light that get in the way of seeing the whole picture all at once become themselves a subject. Puranen reflects on reflection. His fellow Finn Santeri Tuori does something parallel when he builds up his skies of dozens, maybe hundreds of layers piled up electronically, in imitation of the hundreds of thousands of separate condensation events that go up to make each cloud. Puranen’s series works all right in reproduction, and therefore on screen, too. Tuori’s makes almost no sense unless you can see the print itself.

Elsewhere, but still on this blog, I wrote about the marking James Newton found on the backs of Ford Transit vans (and – credit where credit’s due, it was pointed out that Adam O’Meara had done something pretty similar before).

Calum Colvin, Cupid and Psyche 1986

Calum Colvin, Cupid and Psyche 1986

Miles wears T-shirt and Sweater by Galliano. From Dazed and Confused, 2011. By Maurizio Anzeri. In point of fact, and lest we forget how absurd the fashion industry often is, here are just some of the credits we are asked to acknowledge in connection with this photograph: Photography Richard Burbridge Styling Robbie Spencer Artwork Maurizio Anzeri Hair Duffy at Tim Howard Management Make-up Francelle at Art + Commerce using NARS Cosmetics Model Miles at Root, Photographic Assistants Jeff Henrikson, Kim Reenberg Styling Assistants Elizabeth Fraser-Bell, Daniel Edley Hair Assistants Peter Matteliano, Yoko Sato Make-up Assistants Hiroko Takada Casting Edward Kim at House Casting It's a picture whose entire appeal comes from Anzeri's work.  He's done it many times to just as good effect upon pictures picked up more or less as junk.  All those other  people are hitching a free ride on that one person's work.

Miles wears T-shirt and Sweater by Galliano. From Dazed and Confused, 2011.
By Maurizio Anzeri. In point of fact, and lest we forget how absurd the fashion industry often is, here are just some of the credits we are asked to acknowledge in connection with this photograph: Photography Richard Burbridge
Styling Robbie Spencer
Artwork Maurizio Anzeri
Hair Duffy at Tim Howard Management
Make-up Francelle at Art + Commerce using NARS Cosmetics
Model Miles at Root, Photographic Assistants Jeff Henrikson, Kim Reenberg
Styling Assistants Elizabeth Fraser-Bell, Daniel Edley
Hair Assistants Peter Matteliano, Yoko Sato
Make-up Assistants Hiroko Takada
Casting Edward Kim at House Casting
It’s a picture whose entire appeal comes from Anzeri’s work. He’s done it many times to just as good effect upon pictures picked up more or less as junk.
All those other people are hitching a free ride on that one person’s work.

Julie Cockburn.  An Inkling.

Julie Cockburn.
An Inkling.

Calum Colvin has been working his whole life at a lovely waltz between two dimensions and three. Much later Maurizio Anzeri and Julie Cockburn are doing something connected to that.

I’ve argued that the whole Pictorialist tendency contained at root a kind of campaign for viewers to be held longer on the surface of photographs than has been the norm in news, or advertising or topography or any of the one of the dominant zones of photography. Maybe it was not always mark making, but certainly mark-imitating. Interesting surfaces will do, if you can’t have marks upon them or seemingly upon them. Anything which counters the tendency in viewers to see a photograph as a single rectangular frameful of information can help to slow the viewer’s mind within a photograph. Come to think of it, I suppose that’s what’s at play with a really fine print, too, even if it has the most traditional surface, acting merely as a window does. A great print has depths. It gives to the view it contains a quality which I can describe only as ocular weight. That’ll hold you there a while. We all know the feeling of finding a really great print more interesting than the scene within it. Reproduce it, in print or online, and that is destroyed.

Tacita Dean. The Wrecking of the Ngahere,  2001  From The Russian Ending

Tacita Dean. The Wrecking of the Ngahere, 2001
From The Russian Ending

Tacita Dean’s Russian Ending – a series I keep coming back to and which has slowly crept its way up my own internal league tables of photographs – has lots of things about it, but in this context it has both the careful ( and appropriate ) attention to surface (they’re photogravures) and the hand-written notes apparently carved into the surface. They are layered intellectually, seemingly physically, too; they’re even layered as narratives or pseudo-narratives. You may or may not like them as much as I do, but you won’t just glance at them and go.

That is the challenge for photographers. I’m coming around to thinking it a far more central challenge than I had realised. If you’re a jobbing photographer or a craftsman or a ‘professional’ or what I have begun to think of as a camera operator, you want to make crisp clear messages that are simple and linear. Those can be grasped as quickly as you like, and their surfaces can be slick. Christiano Ronaldo scores a goal. The graduating student in a rented gown. No complex messaging needed, or even welcome. But any photographer who wants to send out more complex messages has to find a way to keep the eye of the viewer on the surface of that print for longer. That’s what every single one of the people here is doing. It’s plain. A photograph which offers no solution to the problem of the eye sliding off it will never be capable of transmitting very sophisticated or complex messages, however much its maker tries.

Solve that, in whatever way that you can, and a photograph can bear as much ‘inflected’ meaning as any other medium. But since that eye-retaining or eye-detaining surface is so much at risk in reproduction, it becomes easy for an Ian McKeever to say photography can’t do what other systems, more recognized for mark making, can do.

Michael Wolf. Tokyo Compression Revisited.

Michael Wolf.
Tokyo Compression Revisited.

Richard Learoyd. Harmony White Shirt, 2011

Richard Learoyd.
Harmony White Shirt, 2011

David Hockney.  Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1985

David Hockney.
Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1985

There have been hundreds of solutions. I wrote once about Michael Wolf’s Tokyo Compression series, in the best of which the condensation on glass acts as a surface, which is readable two ways: metaphorically, it looks like the spirit of the crushed commuters, weeping and seeping out. Practically, it reminds us that tropical climates are physically hard to endure. At his best, Richard Learoyd achieves with his hand-built cameras an incredible trick of imitating the act of looking very hard. He seems to make pictures which have peripheral vision built into them, as if he had already committed you to staring at the bits he cared about. Katerina Jebb achieved something similar by a wholly different technique in her show at Arles in 2014 – when she found depth of field enough by using a hand-held scanner to move around her sitters, making a sort of haze of doubt which became a haze of wonder. David Hockney spoke very clearly in his Bradford lecture long ago about how his Joiners imitated the staccato jumping of the eye within the frame that is standard in paint but rare in photography. Indeed, he has gone on exploring that same idea for many years; the gridded-videos moving down the lanes in East Yorkshire do much the same thirty (or whatever it is) years on.

Mining in the Ore Mountains,  by Josef Koudleka. From the Black Triangle, 1992

Mining in the Ore Mountains,
by Josef Koudleka.
From the Black Triangle, 1992

Lee Freidlander. Montana 2008. From America by Car

Lee Freidlander.
Montana 2008.
From America by Car

Even with no such complexities of surface, a photographer can do things with composition itself to hold the eye in place: the classic example would be Josef Koudelka’s panoramas, which seem almost to build a maze or circuit of blocks of darkness that we cannot pass except in an order chosen by Koudelka. But a panorama is peculiar anyway: it is rarely possible to see a whole panorama at once: the shape itself holds the eye there a while. Friedlander’s tour-de-force pictures through (and of) car windows do it in a completely different way.

It may be that one of the reasons we ( or certainly I ) enjoy battered old photographs is wrapped up in this same connection. A picture, which shows upon itself the marks of how it got to be what it now is, has acquired another layer. That layer may be no more than survival: but that’s not nothing. Even a trivial survivor has absorbed a certain amount of time. That’s what we mean by patina, and it’s partly why the myriad examples of re-mining or repurposing old archives going on at the moment are so interesting: old vernacular has depth, just by dint of that battered surface.

Sooner or later photographs will become rare as physical objects. On screens, photographs never have those marks: unless … somebody has put them there on purpose. And that’s where we began. It’s not really about mark-making as such. It’s just making marks or finding ways to imitate them is one of the very best ways to keep the eye of the viewer where you want it. And once you’ve done that, you can begin to say whatever it is you have to say. But you’ve got to find a way to keep the viewer from sliding off your photograph.

Caroline Fellowes. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 7. 2014

Caroline Fellowes.
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 7. 2014

Who Speaks for Photography?

At the ceremony on 18 September 2012 to mark the start of construction by which the former Commonwealth Institute in High Street Kensington will become a new Design Museum, Sir Terence Conran used the opportunity to once again “persuade government of the importance of design in this country”. Ed Vaizey, the Minister of Culture, replied by saying “Government has taken note of Terence’s comments, and I’ll take back what he said and see what we can do.” Sir Terence is the founder of the museum, and a generous patron. But he is also the owner of a number of businesses whose profitability might well be affected by the government’s response.

Lord Rogers of Riverside, whose 1997 book Cities for a Small Planet (based on his Reith Lectures of 1995) established his credentials as an advocate for sustainable and liveable cities, has advised both Prime Minister Tony Blair and London Mayor Boris Johnson on urbanism. Lord Rogers has designed a number of very private buildings in London whose contribution to the liveable city is to say the least open to question. It is not plain, for example, that the great corporate monuments which are 122 Leadenhall Street (known as the Cheesegrater) or the Lloyds Building do anything very much for ordinary citizens, for permeability, or for the small planet, come to that. Lord Rogers got himself into a mildly embarrassing pickle earlier this year when he drew attention to the large number of empty homes in the most expensive sectors of the London residential market, only for it to be pointed out that he himself was the architect of the luxury apartments at One Hyde Park, which were easily predicted to become, as they almost all have, second homes owned by non-residents and most of which are used only a few weeks per year.

Even Sir Paul Smith ­– a man who once reacted to Prime Minister David Cameron’s horribly self-promoting down-with-the-guys public dithering on whether or when to wear a tie with the terse fly-swat “the political arena is not the place to make fashion statements” – has been known to appear at industry gets-together with Business Secretary Vince Cable promoting UK textile mills or that more nebulous something called ‘creativity’.

Creative industries in the UK have a number of leading figures who can routinely be called on to provide a headline or shape a point of view. Sir Martin Sorell, CEO of WPP, the largest advertising agency in the world, has been a frequent voice for years. He gave a famous speech at the D&AD in 1996 which made broad claims on behalf of the industry: “What we sell are pearls. Whether we are designers or planners or writers or art directors or corporate strategists, our raw material is knowledge. We turn that knowledge into ideas, insights, and objects that have a material, quantifiable value to our clients”.

Another such voice has been that of Sir Nicholas Hytner, outgoing director of the National Theatre. (“Sir Nicholas Hytner: Arts are Economic Gold for Britain – The Daily Telegraph, April 2013).

Some of these figures carry a more or less official appointment (Lord Rogers, for example, as well as setting up the Urban Task Force at the request of government, held for a number of years a role as Chair of the Greater London Authority Panel on Architecture); many others do not. Some speak ex-officio: the Director-General of the BBC, Director of the Tate, and so on. But most do not. In a very British way, speaking up on behalf of a whole cultural industry is part of a position among ‘the Great and the Good’ ; that may well carry fringe benefits, but these voices are not really being heard for the money, or at least never directly. Crucially, too, these spokesknights and spokeslords are not by any means specifically limited to pronouncing on their own particular area. Across a broad swathe of the cultural industries and the creative industries, these voices form a ready-made and fairly establishment lobby.

Nobody really cares about possible conflicts of interest in these circumstances. A sound-bite, a photo-opportunity, are not to be seen as audits. Just an opportunity to scatter a little business, promote a few of the good guys.

Most of the people I’ve listed here are in design fields. Design has become a shorthand way of referring to a supposed way of thinking, and claims are routinely made for design that it lies at the heart of the creative industries. I’m rather sceptical about all of this. I think design in its contemporary incarnation is often largely an advertising word, a weasel-word. Design at its worst is a pseudo-culture that can be painted onto almost any activity the easier to sell it. Quite often, ‘design’ has been the camouflage for a very Thatcherite agenda whereby the shareholding has been kept in one set of hands, based or at least serviced in the UK, while the labour of making things has been exported to cheaper markets elsewhere. Dyson, for example, the design-branded electrical-appliance company, has steadily moved production from its base in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, to Malaysia while keeping research and development mainly in the UK. It is naturally no coincidence that the production was mainly done by people who were members of trade unions; the R&D is done mainly by people who are not.

Similarly, while a wide range of businesses thrive in the UK for whom some part of their assets are creative thinking and creative practices, a lot of blather about the ‘creative industries’ refers to a sector in which many of the participants would not recognise those with whom they are supposed to share the label, let alone acknowledge any common ground. We may be world leaders in computer aided graphics effects for films, for example, but I doubt that the people who work doing that have ever felt close cousinhood with those who run market research companies for advertising. Sometimes it would be better to think of the creative industries as just one sector of the new European reality that says we are better at services than we are at goods.

There is a huge culture of design, of course, and very important and serious it is, too. But it is not that which is under discussion when a Marc Newson Lockheed Lounge chair sells for £1 million at auction, nor when the word ‘designer’ is used as a kitemark for aspirational and safe and expensive. Designer handbag. Designer restaurant. Design in fact is very like photography: long history, wide spread, deep range from vernacular or applied to wholly self-conscious. But somehow design has been actively marketed and lobbied-for in the last half-generation, with predictable increases all around. Design is booming. Auction houses now have glamorous sales of design quite separate to the sales of furniture or print or clothing (or other designed stuff) they used to have. University courses in design areas are multiplying by the year. And at the upper end of all of that, lots of designers are quite regularly asked to speak on behalf of the whole pack of cards. So are TV people, people in theatre, music, publishing, architecture…Universities of course relentlessly lobby government and bend the ears of the upper reaches of the press corps. It works. It makes a difference.


Design makes the interesting contrast to photography. Who has the equivalent role for photography?   If a museum needs to campaign against the cuts, or a change is mooted in the curriculum for ‘A’ Level study, or a failure in intellectual property law cries out for lobbying in Parliament – who speaks for photography?

Silence. Resounding, echoing silence.

There are plausible systemic reasons for this, or at least one could argue so.

The first is the sheer breadth of photography. It is naturally very hard to find a strategic or policy stance which might sensibly apply to photography as a main driver of contemporary fine art, photography in advertising, photography as a tool of memory (or group memory), journalism, scientific photography, photography in education, photography as just another of the many ways a modern person has of expressing herself …. Some of the members of each of those sectors actively despise the members of the others, and few of them know enough about each other to feel any shared social connection simply by their shared ownership of an extraordinarily diverse practice which is hardly recognizably the same for all of them.

For a long time I have been writing that the fact that we all own cameras and can use them at the drop of a hat not only to take pictures but to disseminate them, too, does not make us all photographers. We need a new vocabulary. The estate agent who routinely makes and disseminates photographs as part of his work is not a photographer. I’ve suggested that we use the expression camera-operator for all those uses, and reserve photographer for those who self-consciously expect some appreciation of what they do as connected to previous photographs.

That’s problematic enough. Who can speak for photography as a whole if we’re already hiving off great chunks of photographic activity as being non-photographic?

There’s another way of looking at it. With only a small shift of mindset, photography is not a sector or a sub-sector of the creative businesses. Photography dates from a long time before bicycling, but it helps to think of it in the same way. Both are tremendous Victorian technologies which triggered social change far beyond the expectations of the pioneers who launched into them. It is a romantic thought but hardly an exaggeration to say that the bicycle was the single most important factor in the liberation of women, in particular. The stifling conventions of British industrial towns were broken down partly by the two genders sharing long cycle tours – the first affordable individual transport for ordinary waged people. And if it should so happen that a lady and a gentleman should be delayed by a puncture, well, that happened, and the rest of the club would wait for them at the chosen campsite or Cycle Touring Club hostel further on. Courting would never be the same.

This simple machine, readily affordable, mendable, adaptable, light in the resources needed to make it and slow to decay helped to defeat the trillion-dollar US army in Vietnam and powered the Chinese social uplift in its early phases. In countries which have embraced it – in the Netherlands, say – you no more call yourself a cyclist than you call yourself a trainist because you use a train to get from one city to another. Everybody uses a bike, granny or schoolchild, to go about business. She does it in normal clothes, without feeling the need to adhere to a sect of activists to do it. The government sees that cycling is a universal good, and facilitates it, by policy and by funding and by administration in its favour. There are certainly racers and mountain-bikers and long-distance people, too. But they choose to identify themselves: they are cyclists. Everyone else is just a citizen, who will be, many times a week, upon a bike.

Precisely the same can be said about photography. Photography has been for years a universal tool. It too is a wonderful Victorian technology that has spread far beyond its origins. The successive democratisations of photography have had their effect. Of course there are some enthusiasts who want to think about photography and photographs. I’m one of them. But the vast majority are just citizens, who many times a week want to communicate or be communicated to through photographs and their derivatives. We’re mostly not photographers. We’re consumers of photography on a huge scale, and some of us are camera operators.

So another parallel seems to fit. Photography is like gardening. It’s something which tends to the common good, but only a tiny proportion of those who do it would regard themselves as ‘serious’ and an even smaller number earn their living from it. Yet that is enough to make a large interlinked group of professions depend on gardening. No doubt gardening between all its aspects represents a share of the balance of trade. Huge numbers of people are passionately literate in gardens without for a moment considering it even among their specialist activities. But people speak for gardening all the time. Gardening permeates our culture. Design is beginning to. More specific cultural activities like cinema and literary fiction and opera have disproportionately huge broadsheet coverage, funding and numberless hordes of spokespeople. Yet photography, which is really the shared culture of all of us, has none of that. There are few photography writers and fewer photography sections in the papers. There is no administration to facilitate it, no policy.

Photography is not really defined as an industry in quite the same way as the (pop) music business or advertising or television or even architecture (with its direct connections to construction). In contrast to other creative industries, photography as an industry is actually rather diminished, now. Where fashion can still be more or less be quantified by pounds spent, even if they are now spent online, photography no longer has huge factories churning out film or cameras. The former manufacturing base has been disseminated through a wide range of digital hardware and software manufacturers few of whom now think of themselves as mainly in photography . Much of the online practice of photography is free. Getty Images in March of this year made the final price reduction – to £0.00, free to use ­ – on thirty-five million pictures. Photography departments in museums are tiny groups of four or five people.   The truth is that photography remains, in spite of one or two massive attempts to aggregate it into corporate blocks, essentially a group of interlinked cottage industries. One of the salient facts about photography is that nobody controls it in the way that the music business or the film business or even the big-bucks sectors of publishing are controlled by corporate entities. That militates against one voice speaking on behalf of the whole of it.

Photography tends to show a remarkably wide range of business models corresponding in some way to a wide range of forms of expression. The guy who rents out his drone-helicopter with a number of rotors to act as a stable platform for aerial photography may not feel that he has much in common with Miss Cara Delevingne. One can see that it might be hard to find representative voices for both of them, and then to multiply that out by hundreds of sectors. It would be fun to map the readerships of the various magazines which are based upon photography. Is there any single person with a subscription both to Esquire and to Railway Modeller? Yet both are in a real sense photo-magazines.

There are Getty Images, of course, and Corbis. But I have never been made aware of any public pronouncement from either which had any claim to broad general application. They are companies, and when they speak they speak in the interests of the shareholders or owner. Maybe they are too young still to feel any public responsibility for ‘the field’ or the business’. Or maybe they just stick to their onions.



There has only ever been one holder of the position of Photography Officer at the Arts Council. Barry Lane held that job from 1973, and oversaw a specialist photography sub-committee which carried on throughout the 1980s allocating grants and also purchases into the Arts Council collection by acquisition. But, as David Mellor’s 2008 touring show No Such Thing as Society so vividly demonstrated, there are enormous gaps in the Arts Council collection, notably after Barry Lane left. Photography was then subsumed in the wider visual arts as far as the Arts Council was concerned, there to sink or swim as it might. Lane was anyway more concerned with documentary than with other practices, and the Arts Council never really even glanced at the wider photography world. With tiny budgets, incomprehension if not downright hostility from those who might have helped, an impossible task in a dozen different ways, Lane tried to speak for the whole and within reason made a good job of it. Could one envisage his post being re-created? I think so, although Lane’s own struggles go a long way to showing that it can’t be done without structure, strategy, and support.

There is no national ‘home’ for photography. The museum in Bradford deliberately (and disastrously) abjured the role when it changed its policy from being the museum anchored to collections in photography, film and television, to being a museum anchored in something weaselly defined as media, in which it still holds no serious collection and likely never will. There has never been a BBC strand devoted to photography — and I continue to be amazed that there has not. Given that photography stretches from high art to high vernacular, it would be hugely popular. The BBC should at the very least have a photography correspondent, to be wheeled out across their various platforms when photography comes to be at issue. That might be for the release of a new set of Abu Ghraib pictures or potentially trumped-up phone photos from the ISIS insurgency in Iraq or it might be for the latest papped picture of documents carefully-carelessly exposed by ministers rushing in to Cabinet or to analyse satellite pictures of pollution in the Western Approaches.   The UK is actually falling back in photography. We’re falling back in the museology of the thing, in commerce, everywhere. We have had (although at the moment the UK lags far behind other countries in this area) absolutely world-leading creative directors and art-directors, but they don’t act in concert. We have lost a number of photographic festivals, and although there are new ones in the pipeline, the catch-up to the Rencontres at Arles or Paris-Photo is dauntingly far. We are especially bad at promoting our own: in the UK excellent photographers routinely fall into obscurity for lack of that proud national conviction that they should be honoured, whose equivalent is so visible in other countries with a comparable photographic culture.

The great national museums do what they can, but not one of them has at the moment a charismatic leader in the photographic field. Excellent departmental curators, certainly. But national figures? Probably not. We have museum practitioners, itching and twitching to do more than they can. Yet who in the wider public has ever heard a word pronounced by John Falconer, devoted and long-term head of photographs at the British Library? The British Library is headed by Roly Keating, who grew up in the cultural reaches of the BBC. You can bet your bottom dollar that he has been heard arguing for books, literacy, culture in general. He is the head of one of the great photographic collections in the world. Has he ever said a word in public even about his own holdings, leave alone photography in the wild?

There are really no voices on the model even of the people I opened with above. The day when a government minister can say with a straight face that ‘Government has taken note..’ of a spokesman for photography will be the day that the tide will have turned. We have in photography our share of time-servers and officials in the Ministry of Circumlocution, of course. No doubt even as you read this, somebody is including photography in a seven-point plan or a ‘downwardly reassigned budgetary solution’. But that’s not speaking for photography. That’s merely trying to manage it.

When there were more physical photographic products to be advertised than there are now, there was no natural place in the mainstream media to advertise them. The Sunday supplements, photographic papers in the very fibre of their bones, never made any attempt to seduce the industry. My own specialist corner reveals the same picture. I review exhibitions and sometimes books for a broadsheet audience. But I have suggested for years that I be allowed to review advertising campaigns, news photographs, scientific pictures… I want to write obituaries of great picture editors, write about how estate agents use photography. Zilch. Zip. No interest. Photography, which could be as widely discussed (I was tempted to write ‘is as important’) as food, is still kept in its little marginal corners.

We used not to have a culture ministry, deeming it a rather threatening, European, slightly rum sort of thing. We had a Reithian BBC and an Arts Council which was once run on the principles laid down by Jennie Lee. We had heroic short-cutters of museum directors like Kenneth Clark or Roy Strong. But in 1992, the day after the election, we got a ministry, (perhaps partly because some civil servants had looked with envy at the centralised, almost imperial, cultural regime run – with a gap – by Jack Lang in France from 1981 to 1992). It was originally called the Department for National Heritage, and entrusted with a weird magpie’s collection of bits and pieces from elsewhere. The jewels in the crown – mishandled without exception – were the granting of licenses to exploit mobile communications, the development of broadband, the reform of the horse racing industry, a number of Olympic bids, and an untried form of voluntary taxation in the shape of a new National Lottery whose winnings would in some mysterious way be devoted to the celebration of the Millennium. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has stayed one of the smaller departments, and with the exception of Chris Smith, one which has always been headed by people who were manifestly less than thrilled to be placed there and whose collective contribution to national cultural prosperity has been nugatory. David Lammy, anyone? Maria Miller?

Periodically, the DCMS has conducted a weird exercise in Blairite social control, which has been the attempt to map the creative industries. Modern management – and a fortiori government – can’t do things without obsessive collation of measurables, and unfortunately in the cultural sphere more than in any other (except perhaps religion) measuring is the last thing you can do with any precision. ‘Creative industries’, after all, is not only an unsatisfactory catch-all term that doesn’t hold water, but is also obviously a domain where it’s harder than usual to match outputs from specific inputs in order to measure them. In the Blairite vision (shared, by the way between Labour and Conservatives quite indifferently – I only use Blair’s label because his people articulated it most clearly) culture has to pay its way. Ask anybody who has run a publicly-funded gallery or a ballet company or even a library in recent years and they will sigh as they tell you about the struggle to do things in the hallowed names of diversity, and access, and fitting in with the national curriculum… In other fields, notably in that of finance, practitioners have been allowed to do whatever they liked in the name of excellence; the massive public bail-outs in the banking industry, the constant vast subsidy of the nominally self-financing railway companies, any number of examples show that it wasn’t always necessarily such a good idea. But in culture, where the risks and costs were much lower, practitioners have been forced to toe the line. Culture has had to have social utility or face being cut off from the money. Excellence has come a long way behind.

So the DCMS conducts this absurd exercise every so often in mapping the cultural industries. So does the Arts Council, and, guess what? Neither of them has ever been able to find room for photography. Because, you see, nobody speaks for photography in their meeting rooms any more than they do in the broadsheets or on the radio. Terra Incognita. Here be Monsters.

The greatest recent public contribution to photography has arguably been the Artist Rooms, the touring shows of individual artists from the enormous donation of the art dealer Anthony d’Offay, which happened to be weighted quite markedly towards photography. The ethos of the gift – touring shows, works not separated from each other – was set by the donor. That the donor happened to be interested in — more than interested in: passionate about — photography to some extent set the agenda. The Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland, which together administer the gift, simply had to hold out their hands. The d’Offay donation has willy-nilly accelerated the interest those institutions took in photography. It is even arguable that it changed the national agenda quite specifically. His donation, called “the most important thing that has happened in the art world in this country in my lifetime” by Richard Dorment, art critic of the Daily Telegraph, was announced in spring of 2009. By the autumn of that year, the Tate had appointed Simon Baker as its first ever curator of photographs.   Is it wrong to see that the two were intimately connected? Is it possible to think that Baker might not have been appointed and the Tate would have carried on serenely mistreating photography as it had for generations, had d’Offay’s pressure not been brought most specifically to bear? One can have reservations about how it has been done without denying that photography has been a success at the Tate. It beggars belief that it might not have been an act of policy at all, however much the bland corporate announcements and press releases suggested that it had been. It might have been a purely pragmatic response to one very powerful donor speaking for photography.

It is impolite to recall that less than a generation earlier, the Circulation Department of the Victoria & Albert Museum, responsible for a permanent succession of tours (some of which had also been of photography) which represented similar brilliant value for money, had been axed. No one spoke for photography then.

The sad detail is that photography really does tick every one of the social-utility boxes. It is transnational and transcultural.   It traverses (nearly) seamlessly from one kind of support to another, being notably successfully transplanted to the internet and to digital screens. It can be used and understood by children and by professors: no-one, however disadvantaged, need be excluded from photography, and everyone can find some benefit from it. It can tell truths or stories, be useful or be exalting. It is the communication tool of the age, and still we treat it as a marginal offshoot of the visual arts. If it’s commercial, we condescend to it; if it’s personal we overlook it.



There still exists (or until recently there still existed – it is hard to tell the precise moment of death of something moribund) a nearly unknown entity called the Committee of National Photographic Collections. The curators of a dozen or more great national collections of photography meet every so often, to discuss matters of shared import. Over many years, these discussions have been more a professional exchange than a strategic one: setting sensible standards for the number of lumens appropriate to fall on older photographs, knowledge exchange about digital files, that kind of thing. As things stand, the committee struggles because it has no independent financing. To attend a meeting, curators need to find a train fare and maybe a couple of nights in a hotel, and (absurdly) that simple and necessary strategic expenditure is often beyond their reach. Every so often we read of the discontinuation of the Committee, and indeed, we are in a period now again when it is talked about as under threat or actually disbanded.

The core of the national interest in photography is represented in the national collections. There are certainly dozens of photographic activities which are not intimately tied to collecting or the old institutional framework which kept collecting at its heart. But all could benefit from a vigorous, informed, flexible, contemporary, brave collecting culture. It is through the collections that analysis can be disseminated; and it is shared analysis of photographs that we lack. Scholarship in all its forms (far beyond the scholarship merely of learned men; I mean the scholarship which gives a new producer the chance to see the things done in his field before himself, which allows children to see that old wars were not so different to new wars…) is anchored in collections. There are plenty of great art directors and photographers who would no more set foot in the V&A or the Birmingham Central Library than they would set foot in the Opera House. But make the collections more relevant to them and they will be there.   You have to start somewhere.

But the committee that could bind these great collections is toothless. Give it a director, a secretariat, a small budget, and some legislative teeth, and it could do wonders. Let us give it a try. Let us have a Director of the National Photography Collections, or let’s broaden it and say a Director of Photography Policy, to shout from the rooftops on behalf of photography. That person naturally won’t represent all the many constituencies of photography evenly, but without him or her, the gradual silencing of photography as a cultural asset will continue.

It is amazing, but true, that there are no conservators of photography employed full-time by the state in Britain. There used to be one ­- a brilliant one – named Liz Martin, who worked at the V&A in London. She died sadly early (in 2003) and her post has been ‘frozen’ ever since. Other institutions have conservators who work sometimes on photographs, but they are trained experts in glass or paper, not necessarily specialists in photography. Yet photography was invented in Britain, and boomed here early. We have an incredible stockpile of fragile early material in the national holdings that already needs attention. Appoint someone to oversee strategy in photography, and major long-term problems like that should begin to be addressed. That the problems have been allowed to grow so urgent has been partly because no-one speaks for photography.

So I envisage a director of the national collections, looking not to oversee the individual choices of the collecting departments, but to lobby on their behalf, to draw together workable strategic plans and to work toward their implementation. Such a person would naturally have been answerable to the Museums, Libraries and Archives council, but that no longer exists. So the role will have to answer to the Arts Council or perhaps directly to the ministry. Gradually, that role, one person and a small office, will touch others, and suddenly there will be people – concertedly and with purpose – speaking for photography. High time, too.