Making It Up Is So Very Hard To Do

 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.

Gregory Crewdson, (Temple Street); Beneath the Roses, 2006.

Gregory Crewdson, (Temple Street); Beneath the Roses, 2006.

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.

Graham Rawle, Lost Consonants #876, 2004

Graham Rawle, Lost Consonants #876, 2004

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.

Duane Michals, Chance Meeting 1972

Duane Michals, Chance Meeting 1972

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).

Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction #23, 2005

Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction #23, 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.

Bridget Smith, Glamour Studio (Locker Room), 1999

Bridget Smith, Glamour Studio (Locker Room), 1999

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, Action Photo I (After Hans Namuth) - Pictures of Chocolate, 1997

Vik Muniz, Action Photo I (After Hans Namuth) – Pictures of Chocolate, 1997

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.

Tom Hunter, The Vale of Rest (2000), from Life and  Death in Hackney.

Tom Hunter, The Vale of Rest (2000), from Life and Death in Hackney.

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.

H Starkey, Untitled, May 1997

H Starkey, Untitled, May 1997

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?

Mari Mahr, From Presents for Susana, 1985

Mari Mahr, From Presents for Susana, 1985

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”.

30 and Out? The National Media Museum Under Threat

Work in Progress at the Media Space in London.  The Media Space was planned to improve the visibility of one of the great photographic collections in the world.  Photographed by Kate Elliott

Work in Progress at the Media Space in London. The Media Space was planned to improve the visibility of one of the great photographic collections in the world.
Photographed by Kate Elliott

There is now no effective state policy for the provision of the culture of photography to the nation. There is today no specialist photography officer at the Department for Culture Media and Sport. There has only ever been one Photography Officer at the Arts Council, Barry Lane, and his tenure finished many years ago. The Arts Council is itself on its knees. Its homologue, the Museums Libraries and Archives Council, which was supposed to deal specifically with those institutions that held collections, has recently been abolished. The only serious national touring programme of photographic exhibitions now takes place under the umbrella of the Artist Rooms programme, administered by the Tate from the donation of one man, the art dealer Anthony d’Offay.

No need to go on. Photography exists as the most popular and most important sector of the visual arts in an administrative and institutional framework which has badly let it down over many years. It suffers from serial widespread long-term institutional failure of strategy and of personnel. Small wonder that we have now reached the point where the National Media Museum – which, in spite of its inadequacies, remains the home of a world-class collection of historically important photography – is facing imminent closure.

There should now be a considerable palaver in the UK about the future of the dependent museums of the Science Museum. These include the former National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Bradford, whose shift of emphasis away from its collections was clearly signalled when it was restructured and renamed the National Media Museum, a change endorsed by (the then) Culture Minister David Lammy and former BBC director-general Greg Dyke, who said:

“Twenty-first century Britain needs a media museum reflecting the importance in all our lives of TV, radio, film, photography and of course the internet, new media. There’s only one place to have it – and that’s Bradford.”

That was then.

Among many others The Guardian reported the situation on 5th June 2013 in these terms:

“The Science Museum Group may be forced to shut one of its regional museums as a result of the government’s squeeze on budgets, its director has claimed. In addition to major cuts in funding for the Science Museum in London, Ian Blatchford said one of the group’s outposts may have to close its doors.”

The group runs the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, the National Railway Museum in York and Bradford’s National Media Museum. Blatchford said the prospect of a further 10% cut in funding meant that one of these would almost certainly have to go.”

Mr. Blatchford made his comments in an interview with the BBC’s Radio 4’s World at One. Various BBC News channels on that same day carried this further thought:

“A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said it would be inappropriate to speculate on the outcome of the Spending Review which will be announced later this month.

He said: “This is an operational matter for the Science Museum Group who has [sic] to address a large projected operating deficit from 2014 onwards and is [sic] assessing a range of options to address this situation.””

Beyond the laughably poor grammar coming out of the ministry of culture, a number of things are pretty clear. There is obviously going to be a huge shortfall in centrally provided income to the Science Museum Group. It is also obvious that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is not in a position to defend its dependent institutions. The weakest ministry of culture in Europe seems quite happy to stand by and let the various funding axes fall. Culture is a major industry in the UK, but its lobbyists are assumed to be feeble luvvies and are brushed aside by competing claims on government funds. Cultural policy in Britain is made on the hoof and unmade on a whim.

In that context, photography suffers, yet it should not.

Photography, which touches everything and everyone, easily meets all those criteria of social utility which were the Blairite vision of how culture should pay its way in society (and which the present government has inherited faute de mieux). Photography is our literacy and our art. Photography in any institution appeals to the full diverse range of population. It is accessible to all (from junior Key Stages in the curriculum to adults, and from every profession or walk of life). Photography is transnational and transcultural and doesn’t necessarily take place in any one language. It carries information and opinion equally, and represents the shared vocabulary of all of us. Photography includes high art and low commerce, and to be intrigued by photographs means potentially to be interested by anything at all. Photography is the only medium whose history is a history of continuous boom: photography has moved into every field, and convulsed each. It is also a remarkably cheap medium to treat, being relatively unaffected by transfer to digital formats in which everybody can store and send its products.

Photography, in other words, is the one cultural activity that presses all the buttons. Let alone its fundamental cultural importance, as the forerunner of cinema and digital imaging and everything visual in between. Many of the governing ideas of our society were first articulated in photography. Photography is demotic and vernacular and at the same time high-art and high tech.

Photography showed you things but didn’t always explain them: it was in photography that it first became possible to be exposed to any kind of argument without analysis. A thousand things developed from that. Take the sound bite, for example, so standard a part of our media-habituated world – what is the sound bite? A photograph in which visual is translated into verbal. We learnt to accept such things and work with them in photographs. Same for a hundred tics and tropes in half a dozen other fields. Photography is fundamental to a host of large industries which have developed around it: fashion, pop music, video gaming, even the tourist industry and sport… Photography is one of the engines that have pulled us out of the age of manufacture into the service age. It’s as important as that.

Photography is the fundamental core of contemporary art, too: you could put it in a nutshell and say that those artists who haven’t run to it, have run from it.

So the already weak provision to the nation of institutional coverage of this most vital – and most popular – field is threatened.

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the foundation of the Bradford Museum. When it opened, many people questioned its location because culture was then even more concentrated in London than now. But they also questioned whether there should be any such museum at all: photography was shown much less than it is now, and many wondered whether there was either demand or reason for such a museum. And photography was from the beginning the core of the museum. Its first Head was Colin Ford, perhaps the only UK curator of photographs who one could have imagined at the Harry Ransom Center or MOMA or the Bibliothèque Nationale or any of the other really proper photographic collections. As somebody (not from photography circles) said to me the other day: “The thing about Colin Ford is that we all knew who he was. I haven’t a clue about any of them that followed.” When Ford opened Bradford, it had something like eight galleries, showing everything from emerging photographers to the most established. It was in an odd place as far as London culture-vultures were concerned, but it really was the national museum of photography. After his departure, a lot of that concentration was diluted.

Let us recall that the absorption of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) collections by the Bradford Museum in 2003, after a relatively rapid negotiation, was the moment at which the Bradford collections in photography became truly world class. But it was also the moment at which the policy division between the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum was most visibly and publicly flouted. Officially still today, the V&A holds the national collections of the art of photography, and the National Media Museum the national collection of photography, which also includes art photography. Photography not being a discipline that lends itself particularly to tight categorisations of this kind, it has long been obvious that there are large and problematic areas of overlap. Still, once the RPS collection went to Bradford, it was then abundantly clear that (in photography, at least) the great museum fiefdoms were fighting each for itself and that no overarching policy existed to control them.

One of the main players in the transfer of the collections from the RPS to Bradford was Amanda Nevill, who became Head of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (as it then was), after being head of the Royal Photographic Society. Many other names are involved in this story, but let us just hold on to that one.

It might be a good time to ask some very old-fashioned questions: Cui bono? Who benefits if the National Media Museum should close down?

As Doris Day put it:

Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours, to see
Que Sera, Sera.

Still, let me draw out a plausible map of what might happen, and then let us ask the people in charge of our cultural institutions to explain the position.

The National Media Museum has been for a certain time in trouble. You could argue that it has done a miraculous job for the city of Bradford, acting as the main cultural focus in a city that badly needed something of the sort. But it has done a less good job for photography nationally, even if that is for reasons which are partly not the Museum’s own responsibility: chronic underfunding; lack of a resounding mission; lousy train services from elsewhere in the country (making it hard to get to); diminished curatorial staff and diminished spend on the collections, with a correspondingly high proportionate spend on fund-raising and marketing and all the ancillary functions of a museum. The position has grown so bad that the Museum has advanced a long way in its plan to open an out-station devoted to showcasing the photography collection in the Science Museum in London; a peculiar plan whereby the daughter-house will implant a branch within the mother-house. This, as I have written elsewhere, [ Photomonitor : Media Space at the Science Museum, by Francis Hodgson ] is a very public admission of the failure of one major part of its remit. The great collections of photography in Bradford’s care are not being properly shown to the nation.

But consider what might plausibly now happen.

The National Railway Museum in York and the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester both serve cities with a far heavier lobbying punch than Bradford. Manchester is arguably the founding city of the industrial revolution, and York has built up a huge tourist industry in the business of heritage and history. Neither will give up their museums easily. It will look possible to concoct an argument by which Bradford loses its own simply because one of the three has to go under the cuts.

If that should happen, it will become necessary to rehouse the collections. Manchester is the city to which large parts of the BBC has been moved over recent years. Granada was always the best commercial franchise; add the BBC and it becomes plausible to think of Manchester as a specialist television town. What could be easier than to make the argument that the television collections from Bradford should go there, and even perhaps to the Museum of Science and Industry?

Similarly for film. The BFI (British Film Institute) already exists, is in London, and would perhaps happily stake a claim to accommodate the relevant Bradford collections. Although the BFI has been rationalising its technical collections.  It set a line in the sand when it closed the Museum of the Moving Image in 1999 and might be unwilling to reverse that decision. But the Director of the BFI is that same Amanda Nevill, mentioned above, who might welcome with open arms a chunk of the collection she better than almost anyone knows the value of.

There remain the great historic photographs collections. The Media Museum has been inching towards London anyway, in the proposed ‘Media Space at the Science Museum’. How convenient would it be for the whole collection to have to move back to London, where the Media Space is already earmarked for its display?

No more talk of the supposedly vast cultural importance of archiving websites and social media and so on. But the British Library is quietly making great strides on that score anyway, as it quite properly should.

Get rid of the Bradford Museum, to the great detriment of the city of Bradford, but to large savings, and suddenly the national collections under its control fall into convenient slots, separated by medium.

You know what? It could all have been planned that way.

As a matter of fact, it is impossible to see UK arts administrators competent enough to have engineered such a complicated dance towards an outcome. It is more likely the standard UK fare of botched job and muddling along and yielding to pressure. This much is clear: the UK national photographic institutions are in a mess which is likely to get a whole lot worse. Whatever happens, it shouldn’t happen without proper debate and without proper planning.

Robert Brownjohn’s Street Level Series

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

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.

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

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.”

Robert Brownjohn. Preparatory study for Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

Robert Brownjohn. Preparatory study for Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

Robert Brownjohn. Preparatory study for Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

Robert Brownjohn. Preparatory study for Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

Two views of Robert Brownjohn’s preparatory studies for the Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

Two views of Robert Brownjohn’s preparatory studies for the Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

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.

Media Space at The Science Museum

I don’t normally simply cross-post here from material I have written elsewhere.But here is a piece which might well have appeared first on these pages.
I apologise to those who are subscribed to both this blog and to Photomonitor, but I hope that referring from here to there will increase the debate on an important development in UK photographic institutions. With my thanks to the editor of Photomonitor.

http://bit.ly/XqLgWi

 

Fox Talbot – Buy Now While Stocks Last

On 11 December the National Heritage Memorial Fund Trustees meet to discuss the possible acquisition by the Bodleian Library in Oxford of one of the last major archives of material by the British pioneer of photography William Henry Fox Talbot still to remain in private hands. Public money is short and there are many strong demands upon it.  But this may well be a case in which it is right to jump the queue.

William Henry Fox TalbotAdiantum Capillus-Veneris (Maidenhair Fern)<br /><p class=Photogenic Drawing Negative, probably from 1839.
From Hans P. Kraus, Sun Pictures Catalogue 21, Item 1. New York 2012.” src=”http://francishodgson.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/fox-talbot-maidenhair-fern2.jpg?w=242″ width=”242″ height=”300″ />
William Henry Fox Talbot
Adiantum Capillus-Veneris (Maidenhair Fern)
Photogenic Drawing Negative, probably from 1839.
From Hans P. Kraus, Sun Pictures Catalogue 21, Item 1. New York 2012.

The United Kingdom has lagged badly behind other states in its attention to its photographic heritage. In the United States, in other European countries provision for early photography in national collections and collections of national standing has been an established priority for far longer than in the UK. A number of deplorable outcomes should over the years have been avoided and the UK still displays a culpable lack of informed strategic thinking in regard to photographic heritage. The failure many years ago to secure the Gernsheim collection for the nation, for example, still ranks as a major blemish on the conduct of the national holdings in photography, and there have been smaller failures to secure estates or possible collections with disturbing regularity.Neither the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, nor the (now defunct) Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (only finally abolished in May of this year) has ever put together any kind of coherent strategy for the maintenance and exploitation of the national photographic collections, and the Arts Council has over many years been tentative at best. There has only ever been one person, Barry Lane, to hold the post of Photography Officer at the Arts Council. Photographic policy has largely been left to individual curators and directors of institutions, and the lack of joined up thinking, of shared ambition and agreed targets, has long been damaging for the national holdings in photography. National strategic plans for culture have come and gone with no mention of photography or only the most cursory.  In recent years, the tone has been set by the seemingly constant thinning of the ranks of curators in a number of institutions.

In regard to the single issue of conservation, for example, the national collections are now deplorably behind. There are (quite simply) in Britain too few photographic conservators engaged by the nation working upon the national holdings.  When, in 2003, Liz Martin, the admired conservator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, died unexpectedly, her position was “frozen” and no successor has to date been appointed.  This is a scandal; no other word will do.  The Victoria & Albert holds the national collection of the art of photography;  that it should be thought acceptable that this world-class collection should survive without the attentions of a single full-time specialist conservator is an absurdity. Britain, by virtue of its pioneering position in photography, holds a large volume of early material of importance.  That material is deteriorating through time and the backlog merely of maintenance work that needs to be done will be too large to recover.

There should be set up a national institute of photographic conservation, and it should act upon the entire national collection irrespective of where individual items are housed.  The institute should promote world-class research, and should be expected to be of the standard of the best in the world.

This is a glaring lacuna, and there are others.

Yet, in the absence of a shared strategy and coherent public leadership, a number of individual institutions have made a creditable effort to catch up.  Very noticeable, for example, is the emergence of two great libraries as photographic centres of excellence.  Both the Birmingham City Library and the British Library in London have grasped that incredible photographic riches have been held and filed under categorizations other than primarily photographic.  Both are making large efforts to make that material available.  Birmingham is working on a strategy of positioning itself as a ‘hub’ among photographic institutions, and will have world-class facilities for study and display of photographs when its new building is completed.  Photography, that is to say, is already at the heart of Birmingham’s plans for cultural provision over the next generation.

That is so plainly the right direction that it should be emulated elsewhere: photography provides all of those cultural benefits that the arts have so long been asked to prove.  Photography is accessible to all, promotes diversity, has a tremendous role in education and life-long learning.  And photographs have the advantage of transmissibility: they are less changed by reproduction (including reproduction on screen) than many media.

The new provisions for research, whereby senior curators in museums can in the right circumstances now have the right to supervise doctoral research within their departments, add up to a great inducement which has not yet been exploited to the maximum.  Since photography lacks to a remarkable extent the underpinning of sustained scholarship which is taken for granted in other art forms, this will be a useful tool.

The Tate is making great strides in integrating photography into its own collections, after years of deliberate neglect.  And less-known but fundamental photographic collections – including the National Monuments, the Imperial War Museum, and a number of others are making improvements, too.

There is, in other words, a tide moving in the right direction.  That the Bodleian should want to show itself, too, capable of holding and handling photographs at the national level is a good thing.  There may be – I am sure there are –  long-term strategic questions as to why the Bodleian should acquire a major holding in Fox Talbot when there are already other good ones at the British Library and the National Media Museum.  But it is surely essential to grasp the opportunity and acquire the archive now.  It will be relatively easy later to institute sharing arrangements or loan agreements or even exchanges of Fox Talbot material designed to rationalise the great holdings.  Easy, that is, assuming that the material has been acquired for the nation in the first place.  Given the good work that is belatedly now being done in the field, it would be crazy in 2012 to repeat the errors of earlier by adding an egregious miss to the catalogue.

No figures have yet been announced, but photography is still (relatively) cheap, too. There is indeed huge pressure on public funds.  But a great holding of historically critical material related to the very earliest days of photography has a call on those funds.

Sir Cecil Beaton – Earning a Royalty

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The Victoria and Albert Museum has put on a show of Sir Cecil Beaton’s royal portraits as a contribution to the diamond jubilee celebration of HM the Queen, and it has been met with predictable enthusiasm.  Lots of crowns!  Lots of gowns!

It’s actually a disappointment. Although he was almost crippled by snobbery, Beaton was capable of technical skill and imagination.  He was a charming (if slight) draughtsman, a fine designer (notably of stage sets) and his writing is shrewd as well as waspish, and often gracefully put together, too. He was a sufficiently versatile photographer. Fashion, of course, he took to as the natural milieu of the visually oriented queen, but his best portraits of artists drip with a kind of jealous scrutiny and his war photographs were by no means negligible.  One can see how the jubilee demanded a certain kind of treatment, but this is a fawning exhibition which does no favours at all to a photographer who might be more interesting than the one-dimensional view of him presented here.

Beaton was born in 1904, in the same year as Bill Brandt, and it is not absurd to compare them. Peter Conrad did just that (The Observer, Sunday 25th January 2004) at the time of their mutual centenary, when two shows allowed him to think of them side by side.  Conrad picked up on Beaton’s ‘lofty responsibility’. His job, as he put it, was ‘to stage an apotheosis’. With its ‘silvery magic’, the camera bestowed ‘a glorious halo’ on the people it portrayed.  Never mind that some of that halo, when its address was Buckingham Palace, conveniently reflected on the photographer.  It is too easy to think of Brandt as a dark European intellectual to Beaton’s childish British vampery – too easy but not inaccurate.

Brandt was born to considerable privilege, secretive and shy, interested in the poor and the dispossessed (a socialist in his photographs, even if his politics in life were less plain than that), not much appreciated in his lifetime.  Beaton came from a modest background of which he was embarrassed, was a moth, attracted to Hollywood and country house parties and all that glistered – including, it goes without saying, the royal family.  He was certainly a Tory in his photographs although he, too, was more complicated than that. He was absolutely obsessed with being appreciated.  Beaton’s natural tone was absurd: think Kenneth Williams from the Carry On films.  In a little snippet of a documentary David Bailey made on him which is screened in the V&A show, he is asked what he says to people while photographing them: “I coo like a bloody dove,” he says, camp as a row of tents.

This exhibition is designed to make a serious point, that Beaton’s pictures were one element in the campaign to modernize and stabilize the monarchy in the Windsor mould: a family business, hard at work in the service of the nation, certainly not swanning around ankle-deep in privilege.  Fair enough.  The present Queen has overseen a steadying of the monarchy at a time when it is much easier to make a name twitchily demanding change of any kind than working for stability in the long term.  Part of that steadying was to supply a steady image. Beaton contributed to that, and was happy to do so.  “ Today”, he wrote in 1953, “ members of the Royal Family realise that, the demands from the public and the Press becoming ever more voracious, being photographed is one of the serious obligations to which they must submit at increasingly frequent intervals.” It is on record that Beaton was not pleased when Anthony Armstrong-Jones became what Beaton felt he had the right to be, the senior photographer-courtier, and was ennobled in the process.

Every regime puts out official pictures, and we in Britain are luckier than some in that we don’t feel obliged to have them over every official desk in the land. Pumping out a number of reassuring pictures of Windsors at work and if necessary at home has hardly been a shocking abuse of power, and we could easily have left it at that.  The show reveals a large number of prosperous people leaning on heavy furniture in interiors with very high ceilings.  It is feeble to try to illustrate a story of the monarchy being modernised with such very conventional photography.  But still… No surprise, no  great insight, no problem.

Too much is made of Beaton’s inventiveness.  He once put the Queen in an Admiral’s cloak, for statuesque simplicity. It looks rather coarsely borrowed from Rodin’s Balzac, as though he’d found it in a book the day before the shoot. He made some ‘contemporary’ and ‘relaxed’ portraits from time to time, notably of the royal children.  There are some small signs of a photographer tying to do his best, including a charming seized moment of Princess Anne walking on ermine during a pause in the Coronation sittings, and one or two attempts to strip out background.  But this is ‘contemporary’ in the same way that any routine wedding photography business can offer you Contemporary as opposed to Traditional, just another set of rules to apply for a predictable outcome.

Many of the best pictures are a small selection of portraits of Beaton by others – patently added to flesh out a show in sore need of a lift.  Curtis Moffat, Paul Tanqueray, Erich Salomon, Irving Penn and a hilariously stagey rendition by David Bailey: this is quite a nice show within a show.  There are also some interesting mounted series of pictures approved by the Palace.  It is thin gruel, though, for a major exhibition at the V&A, far too thin.  The V&A holds some 18,000 royal pictures by Beaton. There are about a hundred in the exhibition.  If these really are the strongest we could have seen, then the holdings are a disaster.

There floats in the background a question. Beaton’s archive is somewhat messy, and there is lack of clarity about who owns exactly what copyright. Beaton worked a great deal for Vogue, and many of his pictures have a Condé Nast copyright. Condé Nast pushes out a steady stream of books on Beaton to exploit that fact. Sotheby’s also commercializes a holding of Beaton material, not very effectively, sometimes in co-production with Condé Nast and sometimes independently.  But the royal archive was a specific gift to the V&A, and the V&A benefits materially from the reproduction of every royal Beaton, although not of Beaton’s images on other subjects. Is it possible that one of the motives for this really quite poor exhibition was simply that the increased circulation of royal Beaton imagery could make a windfall for a museum which (like every other) struggles to finance its operations?

Halls of Fame

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Two portraits of G.F.Watts by Julia Margaret Cameron

I recently had occasion (as they say in police reports) to visit the Watts Gallery, in Surrey, outside London.  The Watts Gallery is dedicated to the work of George Frederic Watts, a superstar painter of the Victorian period. Watts had something of a Dickensian social conscience and also a shameless energy at what would today be called networking. I had a nice time and came away thinking that galleries which revolve around the work of a single artist are often more interesting to a non-specialist than one might expect, provided the artist was good enough to give the curators even a little toehold for imaginative thinking.  A small but amazing temporary display at the Watts Gallery, for example, is devoted to his fierce opposition (in Victorian England) to the unnecessary cruelty of killing birds for plumage to use in fashion, particularly as decoration on hats.  Who knew that he cared?  Hooray for the Watts Gallery, and hooray for smaller galleries and museums in general.

That reminded me of something I noticed a long time ago, which might best be expressed as a question:

Where do these names (below), which include that of Watts, appear in this order?

 

Chas. Barry
W. Chambers
Chrisr Wren
Inigo Jones
John Thorpe
Wykeham

J.E. Millais
Ld. Leighton
G.F.Watts
J. Constable
J. M. W. Turner

R.Cosway
C.Romney
T.Gainsborough
 J.Reynolds
W.Hogarth

Alfred Stevens
John H.Foley
F.L.Chantrey
John Flaxman
John Bacon
Grinl. Gibbons

William Morris
Roger Payne
J. Wedgwood
T. Chippendale
Thos. Tompion

Huntingn. Shaw
George Heriot
William Caxton
William Torel
St. Dunstan

They appear on the first floor of the two street facades of the Victoria and Albert Museum, titling the seven-foot (or so) sculptures which together add up to a three-dimensional National Portrait Gallery of artists.  We think of celebrity as a modern obsession, but it is one that dates from the Victorian period at least.  Watts worked for years on his Hall of Fame (much of which ended up in the National Portrait Gallery, itself a uniquely British expression of the cult of celebrity) and he encouraged Julia Margaret Cameron to do something very similar.  By the 1890s a popular magazine like the Strand Magazine was publishing Portraits of Celebrities as a regular feature, plying a line half-way between prurience and high-minded example.

The names down to Grinling Gibbons line the Cromwell Road façade, in groups respectively of architects, painters (two groups of six) and sculptors. The two lower groups of five are of craftsmen, and they line the Exhibition Road façade.  Interesting that Gibbons makes it into the high art crowd.  You could just as well call him a great craftsman.  But where should art and high craft meet and mix if not on the façade of the V&A, a museum devoted almost by definition to blurring precisely that boundary?

It is always easy (and never very profitable) to pick holes in other people’s Best Of… lists. 

Still, various sorts of points can be made about this list.  Here are just a few, for starters:

St. Dunstan was a tenth century goldsmith, silversmith and also a blacksmith (as well as being Archbishop of Canterbury and in effect the principal minister of several English kings). Dunstan is credited as a musician and a fine draughtsman and letterer of manuscripts. Although no doubt obscure today, he could hardly deserve a place on the façade more. William of Wykeham’s place is more open to question.  His contribution to architecture is as a patron and client.  He was (in the fourteenth century) a great administrator who served twice as Lord Chancellor, and his inclusion here may best be explained by the fact that what was for many years the standard biography (by George Herbert Moberley) was published in 1887, only a couple of years before Aston Webb won the competition to design the Cromwell Road façade in 1891. (It was not to be completed until 1909).

The main door — with sculptures of Victoria and Albert positioned centrally above the arch, and others of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra to each side, as well as the allegorical figures of Knowledge and Inspiration —­­ falls in the list above between Turner and Cosway.  This has the odd effect of giving the place of honour, to the right hand of the monarch, to Richard Cosway, who is always described as a notorious libertine. Cosway had caused himself to be appointed Painter to the Prince of Wales (the future George IV), a title held by nobody either before or after.  He was a libertine, and also a fop, but he was also an extraordinarily successful self-promoter, a social climber of prodigious ambition, so perhaps it is not so surprising to find him elbowing his figurative way to the middle of the façade.  Cosway’s speciality is unfashionable now, because he was miniaturist, but he was a wonderful painter. 

William Torel was commissioned by Edward I to make the effigy of Henry III in Westminster Abbey, which is still there (a copy is in the V&A). There’s not much surviving work by Torel.  What is recorded, in the words of the Dictionary of National Biography (itself another extraordinary Victorian institution devoted to the cult of celebrity), is that he was a receiver of stolen goods: “His documented career ends on a picaresque note. In 1303, after the burglary in that year of the king’s treasury at Westminster Abbey, William Torel aurifaber is noted as having bought two gold rings from one of the principal suspects in the case.”  Again, an odd record for high-minded Victorian and Edwardian committee-men to ignore when agreeing to give him a place on the façade.  But he was then more highly considered than now:  he is also listed on the Albert Memorial among the sculptors in the Frieze of Parnassus.

While nobody doubts the eminence of Roger Payne, eighteenth century bookbinder, it is worth noting that he made a habit, as few bookbinders have, of signing his work, so that he, too, contributed deliberately to a renown which his works alone might not have guaranteed.  Again, his habits so tended to strong liquor that he died penniless; another example where the quality of the work must have appealed to the Office of Works (in charge of commissioning the sculptures) more than the example given by the life.

I’m not – in spite of their prestigious positioning on the outside of the V&A – quite sure of the quality of all of the Cromwell Road sculptures.  Several of them were made by students of Professor Edouard Lanteri at the Royal College of Art under a peculiar agency agreement whereby he took a commission for getting his pupils the work. But several of them are very fine.  It’s a good museum that starts its work in the street outside. 

Thomas Tompion was a clockmaker, by the way. I just looked him up on Wikipedia.