One of the pleasing things about being interested in photographs is that it is really perfectly OK to admit to not knowing even important groups of pictures. In a narrower specialism, say in craft pottery or in modern literary fiction or in contemporary dance, it’s embarrassing to miss first-rate stuff. In photography you can even turn the whole argument around: far from being embarrassing to have missed something, it may be that to live only with those pictures that have good kudos in your particular neck of the photographic woods is to be limited, to lack curiosity and openness.
The new and the new-to-me is a powerful stimulant. It’s by checking one’s reactions against the new that one improves one’s antennae. It’s the fear of the new which makes so much commercial photography stultifying. Don’t forget that the word cliché is French for a snapshot. Clichés are merely the standard thoughts of those frightened by the new. I think there’s a lot of fear of the new in specialist areas, too, like sports photography, although there the problems of access and delivery are so great that perhaps there are some excuses.
It is good periodically to meet the new-to-me face to face.
In the latest re-hang of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s photography gallery, there is a group of pictures of lettering found in situ on London’s streets. I admit, I did not know these pictures, and while I certainly knew of their author, I did not think of him as a photographer. They date from 1961, are by Robert Brownjohn, and, like so very much interesting photography, they were not originally made with any interest in what they might be as photographs.
Brownjohn was a designer, a good one. Born in America as the son of an originally British bus-driver, he had studied with Lászlό Moholy-Nagy at the Institute of Design in Chicago, then with Moholy-Nagy’s successor, the architect Serge Chermayeff, before coming to England in 1960. He was a member of that New York crowd of the 1950s centred on such luminaries of the cool jazz as Miles Davis and Stan Getz. Later, he became a key figure in the Swinging Sixties in London. A pioneer in several fields of design, he was also an addict, who died before he was fifty.
There was an exhibition devoted to Brownjohn’s work at the Design Museum in London in 2005. The Museum of Modern Art in New York is still showing (for a few days – until March 18th 2013) a little study of the famous and influential title sequence he designed for the James Bond film Goldfinger. The exhibition organizers Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor tell us [http://bit.ly/XWVkXg] it was “the first film title sequence to enter MoMA’s collection as a design work in its own right… As memorable as the film itself, the title sequence of Goldfinger (1964) captures the sexual suggestiveness and wry humor of the James Bond mythos.”
Anne Morra, an associate curator of film at MoMA, writes of the same show “In order to illustrate his concept to the producers of From Russia with Love, Brownjohn lifted his shirt and, with a projector flashing images on his stomach, began to dance. Once Brownjohn assured the producers that a pretty girl would be used instead, he was given free rein to explore. The success of the From Russia with Love title sequence earned him the largesse to be even more radical in designing the Goldfinger titles. Celebrating the way the titles were visually distorted when projected on the human body, Brownjohn hired a model named Margaret Nolan and dressed her in a gold leather bikini, effectively using her as a three-dimensional screen.”
The Bond films have the status of national treasure now, but Brownjohn was a working designer. Like most working practitioners (among them not least photographers) his theories evolved on the hoof. He moved typography along in several commissions by inventing a more fluid way of dealing with it than had been seen before. Projecting words onto curved surfaces and particularly onto surfaces in motion, or drawing words direct onto models, was deliberately to blur the lines between three-dimensional and two-dimensional messaging. That’s not so far from the photographs of lettering at the V&A. He was hip, daring, and quick to find better ways of getting his point across. Just a quick browse through the Museum of Modern Art’s holdings of his work [ http://bit.ly/WfNy0g ] reveals an elegant use of space that reminds me of no-one so much as Alexey Brodovitch, far better known in photography circles than Brownjohn because of his twenty-five year association with Harper’s Bazaar.
But Brownjohn had other styles, too. Some of his work reminds me strongly of the only-barely controlled late-1960s graphic work that the photographer Bob Whitaker did for Oz magazine, (although Brownjohn seems to have been a more amenable corporate servant). I exhibited some of that in the mid-1990s at a little gallery I used to run (called Zwemmer Fine Photographs, in London) and I remember the streams of young designers from St. Martin’s – which was then nearby – amazed at the radical courage of that work. Brownjohn could do that, too, but he did it under that very formal Moholy-Nagy legacy. Technically proficient, daring, and formally tight. Brownjohn made a pretty compelling package of all-round design wizardry.
Brownjohn was associated with Herbert Spencer, who was as much a drum-beater for clear thinking on design as a designer himself. Spencer designed and edited his journal Typographica through the whole of the 1950s and most of the 1960s, a fundamental source then for those in Britain anxious to keep up with European modernism in design (and a coveted collectable now). Several of Brownjohn’s series of photographs appeared there. The pictures now at the V&A appeared in Typographica in October 1961, in a 32-page essay called Street Level. Another smaller set of 13 of Brownjohn’s pictures (on Wrapper Design) appeared in the same issue.
Herbert Spencer was an accomplished photographer himself, although no more of a ‘professional’ than Brownjohn. “By virtue of one’s training or experience,” he recalled in an interview, “one simply looked at things in a different way and selected details and viewpoints which a professional photographer wouldn’t have chosen.”
That is exactly how Brownjohn would have felt. It is in that context that the group of pictures in the V&A needs to be understood. It overlaps with what I wrote about in a recent post on this site [ Photography Changes Everything. ]These pictures were not made to be distributed through any photographic context. That does not make them unworthy of contemplation as photographs. As far as I am aware, only the specialist writer on design, Rick Poynor, has paid any special notice to the Brownjohn pictures at the V&A, in an excellent detailed piece in Design Observer which goes into solid research. Poynor has already published the whole sequence in his study of Typographica (Laurence King, 2001). Poynor it was, too, who wrote the text for Herbert Spencer’s late volume of photographs Without Words (1999). I am indebted to him: it is his work that effectively introduces me to the great interest in Brownjohn’s Street Level pictures.
You could say these pictures are not much: just a working collection of photographs made because nothing else could do the job as well. But they are also very fine photographs. There is obviously a crafted delight in Brownjohn’s composition: he didn’t require teaching in that domain. The pictures are wider than many would have made them: they deliberately include a significant element of the grimy London world that they record. They have a sly wit, too. No Parking in Space Today, says one, a stoner’s hip joke for the beginning of the space age. SMOKE EXTRACT says another, on a close-up of a brick wall, as though the bricks above their cement horizon line might magically be transformed into something altogether more vaporous. The lettering on a shop front which says Rolls-Royce is next to a projecting sign for the Rock Building Society; impossible not to see a sublimated Rock’n’Roll there.
There are pleasantries here, but there is also something more serious. I’m reminded of that famous opening scene of Great Expectations in which Pip tries to make out the character of the parents he never knew from the very different letters on their headstone: “ The shape of the letters on my father’s gave me an odd impression that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,’ I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly….” Brownjohn was convinced that the character of the city was complex, but also transmissible. Passers-by who saw these various signs would have a mood imparted to them as well as literal information. The pictures do a good job of suggesting how that works, and to that extent, they are substantially more than ‘just’ factual photographs. The nominal subject matter in each frame is relatively small (only a couple of pictures — an effaced street name high on a wall, the Rolls-Royce shop — could really pass for a ‘view’. Yet there is a conscious respect for the subject. These are not just graphics, collected by an investor in graphics for re-use later. They are a deliberate collection of London letterings, with honour paid to their particular belonging there in time and place. That is enough to make them non-neutral, committed. They don’t look like Brassaï, but these are street pictures with as much right for consideration as his. Brassaï’s wonderful graffiti (I’ve always suspected – with not a shred of evidence – that he drew them himself, specifically in order to photograph them) are formally much tighter than Brownjohn’s letters. In the one you get a mark. In the other, a lettered environment.
Brownjohn is not normally included in lists of photographers, and certainly not outside a specialist design fraternity. These pictures have not been for years in the V&A’s collections. Their acquisition numbers include the figures 2012: these are recent additions, early fruits of the V&A’s new acquisitions committee in photography, and entirely welcome. The V&A is a museum of applied design and decorative arts even more important than a museum of photography. It is right that its curators should gently and without any great song and dance acquire and display works whose very existence is an argument against those who would pigeon-hole photography in a medium-specific ghetto of its own. Photography gets everywhere and affects everything. A tight group of pictures at the far end of a long gallery of pictures does a little bit to show that the custodians of our photographic heritage are not, in this case at least, cowed by that. It is absolutely good to meet these pictures. Do we need to expand the canon of ‘known photographers’ to make room for Robert Brownjohn? Not in the slightest: we simply need to acknowledge that good photographs are not necessarily made to be good photographs, and that there is plenty of room in our collections and in our appreciation for them wherever they might come from.