Francis Hodgson is an interviewee in a long and wide-ranging conversation on matters photographic which appeared on Vikas Shah’s Thought Economics in April 2015. http://bit.ly/1JjAcUO .
Library of Birmingham photography collections under urgent and pressing threat.
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:
- Email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Text ‘Budget’ followed by a space and your message to 07786 200 403
- Write to Budget Views, Room 221, Council House, Victoria Square, Birmingham B1 1BB
- Post your comment on the Birmingham Speaks forum: –
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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’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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m working on an exhibition of the work of Bernard Plossu and have been thinking about him and his work recently. He is a Frenchman, but thoroughly international in his outlook, his experience and his references. He is very well known in France, pretty well known in the US and Spain and Italy and Mexico but completely unknown in the UK.
How is it that photography, which is in theory transnational and transcultural and can make sense to anyone with curious eyes to see, is still divided into these odd (and oddly spurious) categories? Why would an Englishman interested in the kinds of things that interest Plossu not have been made aware of his pictures?
National groupings are the most obvious, but there are others. Who counts as a “journalist” and who doesn’t, who counts as an “artist-using-photography” and who doesn’t…? There are ferocious battles about what is and isn’t street photography, landscape and so on. In my new role as an academic, I’m still falling about laughing at the gymnastics those photographers go through to kid themselves their work is ’research’. That one will take some getting used to.
Claiming or refuting these memberships is sometimes a self-serving manoeuvre, sometimes an accident, sometimes a label stuck on a photographer and sometimes a label a photographer greedily sticks on herself or himself. But labels are (by definition) shorthand for much more complicated descriptions. They’re not swipe cards, to let you through certain gates but keep you out of others. It’s odd, in the age of the internet, and in photography above all, which travels so smoothly from generation to generation, and from screen to wall, and from public to private, that these absurd divisions should persist.
Here is a page by Bernard Plossu which seems to be driving in that same direction. The question this time is who should or should not be considered an ‘autobiographical’ photographer, but the sentiment is transferable with ease all over photography and its unjustifiable borders. It was published in Gilles Mora and Claude Nori’s Les Cahiers de la Photographie (of which Plossu was then listed as the sole US correspondent, with a PO Box in Santa Fe, New Mexico), volume 13, 1st trimestrial issue of 1984, an issue specifically devoted to the autobiographical in photography, and I don’t find that it has ever been translated into English. It’s a beautiful page, and the thought of Ansel Adams in Les Krims’ bath makes me laugh.
This is Plossu’s text from the page above:
“To be for or against autobiography is a non-problem: no-one can deny that a photograph, by the very fact of having been taken, is a realization, a sort of mental self-portrait, pure and simple. Ansel Adams’ pictures of Yosemite are autobiographical, and how! Les Krims’ pictures of naval battles in his bathtub are autobiographical; the assemblages of Fleig[i] are autobiographical; Nori flirting is autobiographical, and taking sides for or against is a nonsense. Further, let’s imagine Ansel Adams making lunatic photographs in his bath: unthinkable. Or let’s picture Les Krims making grandiose landscapes in the face of the mountains of Yosemite: unthinkable. And in any case, those ‘for’ autobiography and those ‘against’ it both like the same photographer, Robert Frank. Why? Because he’s good, that’s why. And what about Diane Arbus? She it was who said the most important thing about photography: “ it’s important to take bad pictures.” When it comes down to it, he was absolutely right, that kid in Egypt, to stick his hand in front of my lens.”
This translation is mine. The sentiment is still true, although it comes from another time and another place. But you know what? If pictures should be able to cross all those borders more easily and with less fuss, then writing about pictures should do the same.
[i] Alain Fleig, another of the founders of the Cahiers de la Photographie, also too little known outside the little borders of France. He was a photographer, but he was also and perhaps mainly a fine academic enquirer into photography. His dates are 1942 -2012.
A little while ago I published here a little musing about the elegant human-scale double-ting that Paris buses make when in proximity with pedestrians. Today, the letter that I print below arrived, and I think it’s a delight. I’m grateful to Song Phanekam for taking the trouble to write, and to write so well. I like the way the blog has actually done what the internet js supposed to do, which is put people in touch who might otherwise not have any connection.
I must admit, I’m also amused that such a little thing as a double-ting is just as worthy of thinking about as weightier design.
So much so, that I propose, if somebody will sponsor it properly, to start a prize. It will be in honour of Mr. Kaminagai, and it will be awarded to designers or engineers who make or have made big improvements to life with very small inexpensive but thoughtful adjustments. Because you know what? A bus that modestly tings pedestrians out of its way is a civilizing influence on the city, and we need more of those.
Enjoy the letter; the author has kindly given me the go-ahead to reprint.
I just ran into your website after doing some research on Google about sound design… and I read your post <http://francishodgson.com/2013/11/18/small-noises-designing-for-people/>
Actually, I am in charge of the sound design of the automated audio passenger information systems at RATP. Reading posts like yours encourages me to keep RATP on that track!
I do agree with you, the small details in design can make the difference, as long as they have a purpose! Often, people would think that my job is to add sounds everywhere! Actually I screen every request in order to put the most appropriate sounds at the most relevant moments. And the most important thing: giving a sense of storytelling!
In many transport agencies, the audio announcements are way too numerous. For instance, I do love the London Tube, but the constant announcements is somewhat annoying and irritating… Based on many observations throughout the world, we came up with a very simple solution that you described very well in your post.
We have also banned unnecessary announcements such as ‘the next station is…’ (of course it is the next station, it will not be the one after that) or even any interchange information! We have quickly realised that most passengers have planned ahead their route: they know at which station to get off (to exit or to change). Therefore, the station name was considered as the most valuable information: hearing its name is enough to remind someone to alight.
And next time you will visit the Paris metro, you will notice that the voice you can hear on board is not the same depending of the line you use. As each line is color coded, we found that it would be adequate to have a different voice for each line. A way of creating a strong sound identity for each line, helping the visually impaired (and finally everyone) to recognise their favourite routes.
Regarding the bell designed for the bus, I have nothing more to say, you perfectly captured the meaning of that specific design!
Again, thank you for your article! I have added in cc. Mr Yo Kaminagai, who had first the idea of the station announcements with two inflections and the bus warning signal when he was in charge of design management at RATP. You have now the answer to your final question of your article!
Corporate visual identity | Corporate sound design
[The RATP is the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, the Paris transport authority]
All people know the same truth. Our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.
Woody Allen, Deconstructing Harry
It may be eccentric to draw attention to a show that has been open some time; all I can say is that the show Making It Up: Photographic Fictions has got remarkably little coverage and deserves plenty.
Making It Up is apparently no more than a pleasant little show in the old photography display space at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It brings together images from the museum’s own holdings of every period of photography which – as its title indicates – either aim at something other than the ‘truth’ or use non-‘true’ methods to make their points. So we have a number of beautiful mainstream pictures: a classic Gregory Crewdson, for example, called Temple Street (2006) in which a woman pauses chopping wood in the snowy dusk of a suburban clapboard community. The lighting (electric light just beginning to hold its own against the darkening night), the snow, the slightly menacing stare of the woman who looks at the camera as at an intruder; all these add up to a suggestion of a story. More than that: the very fact of the photograph suggests there was a story worth telling. Crewdson’s trick is to invite us to dive headlong into a picture on the assumption that there must be a story where there may be no more than our own desire to see one.
In Victorian times, both the methods and the purposes could be very different. Artful posing, liberal use of the dressing-up box, and leadingly significant captions were the standard tools of such ‘allegorical’ photographers as Clementina Hawarden or Julia Margaret Cameron. Collage in its various forms is largely present in this exhibition, as one might expect. Beyond the simple fiction of an untrue caption, it makes the plainest kind of non-true photograph. The sumptuous moralizing multiple-negative confection of Oscar Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life is here, in a later (1876) copy by Robert Crawshay, complete with its ponderously virtuous caption. When (in 1986) Andy Weiner collaged his own face onto a number of mildly comedic scenes, he made his own Rake’s Progress from pub to bed. Weiner made no pretence at seamlessness: we are asked to share the joke, not to be taken in by it. To that extent, Weiner had then much in common with such non-photographic artists as Graham Rawle or Glen Baxter. They, too, put themselves alongside their viewers, to laugh at the absurdity of the world together. In photography, it is the very habit of realism which makes anything unrealistic so seductive.
So the great photographic storyteller Duane Michals is represented here by a little 1972 narrative in six parts. Two men cross in an alley. Each looks back at the other as they pass, but they do so at different times and no meeting takes place. We think we are seeing a report; it even looks (in modern terms) as though it could have been made by the regular rhythmic discharge of a security camera. But it’s a fiction, as neatly made as a Borges short story, and just as tantalizing at the end.
So the exhibition goes on, piling non-truth upon untruth in profusion. There is a moderate suburban corner which looks just not quite right. It’s a (2000) paper model by Oliver Boberg of a very non-space kind of space, Notown, Nowhere, photographed to look like a real place. The connections with that other great model-maker, Thomas Demand, are obvious; but the connections with a whole register of pop music or film may be more important. Contrast it to a photograph of a developer’s model of some new flats by Xing Danwen (2005).
The artist has digitally inserted herself on the balcony nearest us, hurrying her nude male visitor away over a wall as a gentleman who might be the husband appears in the dark street below. Here’s a changing room by Bridget Smith (1999) with a couple of squash rackets on the wall, a different kind of neutral space. You have to read the museum caption to discover that it is in fact a set from a pornographic film.
False readings, false suppositions, false extrapolations; sometimes people simply make false photographs, too. A few of those are here, including a famous set of salt prints made by advertising photographer Howard Grey in response to a commission from The Connoisseur magazine in 1981, purportedly to ‘test’ the connoisseurship in early photography. The V&A’s own Mark Haworth-Booth was taken in by those, at least at first. Howard Grey worked closely with the painter Graham Ovenden, and the Hetling fakes which they concocted together are closely allied to the group of Howard Grey images here. Roger Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death certainly wasn’t a fake; a famous picture from the Crimean war (1854-5) showing just how absurd it would have been to try to ride horses through a rain of cannonballs; but like the American Civil War photographers of the same period, Fenton was not above moving the elements of the picture to make his point the stronger. In this case, there are known variants of the picture with the cannonballs and without.
There is wonderful variety in this exhibition, of intention as well as of technique. There’s a photographic Chinese scroll by Wang Qingsong, complete with red signature-stamp in the corner. Jan Wenzel makes lightning rearrangements in a photo-booth and then builds the strips up to a coherent whole.
Vik Muniz’ 1997 action shot of Jackson Pollock (after Hans Namuth) is made in chocolate sauce, and his sheer virtuoso confidence in that most unusual of media is itself staggering. Tom Hunter’s use of heavily romantic imagery taken from art history to portray a marginalized group of Londoners is a complex play of allusion and reference far, far from simple reportorial fact.
Jeff Wall is more like a theatre director, Hannah Starkey perhaps closer to a balladeer. Cindy Sherman’s strange mixture of self-portraiture, social anthropology and sheer good humour is as compelling as ever.
These artists and photographers don’t necessarily have all that much in common. And that’s the point. There has for nearly a hundred years been an insistence that a certain kind of objectivity is the proper stance for the camera. A modernistic look, stripped back, emphasizing by isolation and by composition, and adhering purportedly to a version of the truth. It was a political stance at first, a reaction against the failed mannerisms and mawkish sentimentalism of Pictorialism, and it was intimately tied to a view of the world in which the documentary was properly a tool of the Left. But here’s a splendidly vigorous exhibition which reminds us that it was never the whole picture.
Photography can be and has often been as mannered and as Rococo as any other art form, and that on its own is no reason to reject it. I saw in a recent paper that the great and sometimes austerely modernist composer George Benjamin had just got another rave review for his opera Written on Skin; nothing inherently modernist about opera, you would have thought. There are good, even great Rococo photographs just as there are wholly meretricious modernist ones. Photography certainly can deal in fact and science and truth. But it can also deal admirably in opinion and allegory and metaphor. It’s that side of photography that we saw so much of at the latest edition of Frieze, for it’s back in the ascendant again. Was it this year or last year that I became so enthused by Marcus Coates’ wonderful British Moths? They’re factual, sure enough. But also so much more than that. Come to think of it, there seems to be something in the wind. Just now, we have Hannah Höch showing at the Whitechapel, Mari Mahr and William Burroughs at the Photographers’ Gallery. Bits of their pictures come from bits of the real, no doubt. But not one of them would deign to limit themselves to that. Great photographers don’t, and why should they?
We’ve had the rise and rise of John Stezaker, Maurizio Anzeri, Julie Cockburn… Capital fiddlers, all of them. The most successful photographers in Britain at the moment are probably Gilbert and George, for whom the plain photographic fact has never been more than a jumping off point for the stories they want to tell.
It has always been possible to fiddle about with photographs; more than that, NOT fiddling about has in the past always been a self-conscious and political gesture. Hence the (often spurious) claims to objectivity of such as the f64 tendency. But something has changed. Because millions or billions of unvarnished pictures are made and uploaded every day, their selective and expressive content very much limited to when to fire the camera and in what basic direction, it has become imperative for photographers to reclaim the act of photographing. It comes down again to a distinction I have mentioned here before. Simply to go to a party with an iPhone and take pictures and post them on the internet does not make you a photographer. Nor does using a camera every day to record people parked on yellow lines. We need another word for that, and I’ve been using the expression ‘camera operator’. Photographers are different. They want to use photography to say whatever it is they have to say. It’s not always the truth that photographers tell; it’s their truth. Increasingly, the camera operators are the ones who are content for the picture to say “it was so”.
The photographers have reclaimed the territory that was always more fertile, of reference and argument and persuasion and imagination and narrative, not to mention poetry and allusion. “Maybe it wasn’t so, but this is what I want to say about it.” That’s a wholly proper photographic sentiment, just as it has always been perfectly proper in every other medium. It is because it tracks that sentiment so well and so far back that this unassuming little show in a back gallery at the V&A is so important. Marta Weiss, the curator, may just have pointed out that a tide has changed without our noticing. It may just be that merely to tell the truth in a photograph has finally become as worthy and as ultimately dull as merely to tell it in any other way. Every truth has been told. The truth is no longer enough.
A lot of art students over the years have unearthed Diderot’s message to the artist (not least because it was quoted to telling effect by Walter Friedlander, in a book so famous that even some art students still read it, David to Delacroix): “First move me, astonish me, break my heart, let me tremble, weep stare, be enraged – only then regale my eyes”. You could reshape it now for the generation who want to be photographers beyond merely posting stuff online as it comes out of some image capturing system: “First move me, astonish me, break my heart, let me tremble, weep, stare, be enraged – only then tell me the truth”.