Tropes in Mind

Goalie, Brindley Road, off Harrow Road, 1956

Roger Mayne, Goalie, Brindley Road, off Harrow Road, 1956

Every so often, I publish a piece here that was published originally elsewhere.  This is a case in point, republished to coincide with the opening of David Campany’s exhibition A Handful of Dust at the Whitechapel Gallery in London ( June 2017).  It was originally published on Various Small Fires and is republished here with the permission of the editor of that site, Thierry Bal.

It’s called Tropes in Mind in echo of Trouble in Mind, the old blues song, best sung by Big Bill Broonzy, in accordance with a thought I have that tropes stay in one’s mind like music, there even when not actually playing.


 

A long time ago I wrote a book about goalkeeping. I tried to persuade the publisher to put on the cover one of the number of Roger Mayne’s street pictures which so eloquently describes the business of keeping goal in games of street football. The publisher refused, saying that something more like the commercial experience of watching sport in a stadium would sell more copies, but still allowed me to put one of Mayne’s on the back cover of the hardback issue[i].

Mayne’s pictures would fall comfortably into a number of the categorizations of photography. They are street photographs, documentary photographs, sports photographs, photographs of childhood… They have historical interest, social interest, a certain ethnographic or anthropological quality. If one were keywording for a picture library, they would also be filed by the superficial descriptions of the people within them, street names and the wider district, the date, perhaps the type of camera or film used. These overlapping descriptions would place them in a context of other pictures, more or less similar, more or less connected. We are used to this kind of external classification of photographs and use versions of it all the time. That’s how we search on Google, order our hard drives, label archives. It’s completely standard and while individual classifiers don’t always agree, the system itself is beyond question, like the Dewey decimal system for libraries or the SI units.

People write of ‘tropes’ in photography and that seems an extension of the same filing system. The tropes are external categorizations of pictures, even where they are expected (or analyzed) to have an internal, emotional effect. So, for a single example from something I was reading recently in another context, Marta Zarzycka discusses the functioning of visual tropes in regard to a particular picture by Samuel Aranda which won the World Press Photo Picture of the Year award in 2011 [ii]. The picture conforms to a Pietà-like pattern of a grieving or mourning mother holding a son and Zarzycka follows the general usage of the phrase when she writes that “Aranda’s image thus exemplifies the fact that photographic tropes, circulated as evidence of a common perspective or ideal shared by many, may force certain associations and prohibit others, neutralizing the local and the particular into the global.”

Since the trope is sometimes used to describe very broad patterns and sometimes very small ones, I often wonder whether it isn’t a word that might better be replaced by different ones according to the context. Trope sometimes means no more than a shared subject of a number of pictures, sometimes a ‘type’ of picture and sometimes a manner of photographing. It is even sometimes used interchangeably with the word ‘cliché.’ But a word which can be used equally in phrases like “the visual trope of the white UN Land Rover” [iii], and “She [Dorothea Lange] photographed African Americans with the same visual tropes she used with whites, representing them as equally hardy salt-of-the-earth farmers—part of the American yeomanry [iv]” is maybe not isolating a specific phenomenon with any great clarity.

But even if we can arrive at clear language to use, I find myself thinking that this isn’t the way we store photographs in memory and access them for use.

I believe that in addition to a substantial vocabulary of remembered photographs, filed somehow and accessible by their relevant file-tags, most of us also hold within our minds an architecture of access to those photographs which is the reverse of that familiar external system of classification.

There is no difficulty in the more usual system. If I need to recall a picture, say, of great achievement against long odds, I can effortlessly search my mental filing cabinets and come up with Sherpa Tenzing on top of Everest [v], or one of the versions of Khaldei’s view of the Russian soldier on the Reichstag [vi].

But that’s reducing photography, as it has so often been reduced in the past, to its role as illustrating tool. I think it’s much more. I think we actually think in photographs. At least some of the time, the tropes are not types or patterns of photographs so much as types or patterns of thoughts that we hold in photographs.

I was, in the past, a goalkeeper. That’s why I wanted to write about it. I was not at all good, but I was sufficiently committed to think like one. I still get into trouble at football matches for applauding the ‘other’ goalkeeper when I see a fine stop, even when all those near me are hoping to see a goal. I admire the athleticism and judgment of goalkeepers, their individuality. I have learnt to some extent to live by the negative scoring whereby a goalkeeper who does something of fearsome difficulty and skill has nothing at all to show for it on the score-sheet and can have it instantly wiped out. I acknowledge the whole complex of this peculiar sport within a sport. As a result, there are large numbers of situations which have nothing to do with goalkeeping that I understand in the terms derived from it.   Got to drive a sick child to hospital?   Want to make a ticklish presentation to a difficult audience? You’re briefly a goalkeeper, and anything less than utter success is total failure.   Member of a group, but not conformable to it? Goalkeeper.

Footballer Jumping, Brindley Rd, Harrow Road 1957

Roger Mayne, Footballer Jumping, Brindley Rd., Harrow Road, 1957

Footballer & Shadow 1956

Roger Mayne, Footballer and Shadow, 1956

Football, Addison Pl North Kensingtion 1956

Roger Mayne, Football, Addison Place, North Kensington, 1956

Gerry Cranham - John Hollowbread 1964

Gerry Cranham, John Hollowbread, 1964

But I don’t think of these things in terms of the words I’ve just written. I certainly don’t think of goalkeeping as furnishing a kind of super-metaphor for many circumstances. I think more in terms of a lexicon of pictures which add up to the metaphorical place that goalkeeping holds in my head.   At the centre of that lexicon will be actual pictures of the business itself: Gerry Cranham’s astonishing study of Tottenham goalkeeper John Hollowbread leaping all alone in the murk at White Hart Lane in 1964, Munkacsi’s various studies, the Roger Mayne series. A circle beyond those would be images that help me articulate my view that the world is understandable in goalkeeping terms. These would include studies of movement and grace, but also of despair and disappointment, self-possession, reliability, calculation, membership of a particular subculture, and so on. There is, in another words, not so much a trope of goalkeeping pictures in my head. There is a trope about goalkeeping which governs a certain amount of my thought and can be expressed in pictures.The point is that I don’t think I’m alone in this. The great difference in Barthes’ formulation of the studium and the punctum, after all, is that the studium is really public and the punctum is really private. We see a picture clearly on a subject or depicting a scene. But we react to it sometimes for reasons which the photographer could not have predicted, often encapsulated in a detail which means something to nobody but ourselves. The public subject and manner of the image, and its membership of a public type of similar images, are given meaning by the private framework into which it lands.

I find some version of this in many different places. David Bate, for example, blends to great effect his personal associations with the public ones in a discussion of Fox Talbot’s 1844 picture of the construction of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square and its effects upon him as a viewer[vii]. In effect he’s describing the insertion of the Fox Talbot image into a pre-existing complex of ideas of his own, and that I think is exactly what happens. To take another and much more elaborate example, David Campany’s A Handful of Dust [viii] is both a brilliantly exciting and unexpected collection of pictures which could only possibly be connected by that one individual through his own private resources; and at the same time a pleasing ballade through some of the best-known and most-discussed theoretical positions in twentieth-century photography. It would be grotesque to look for the entire intellectual contents of Campany’s magisterial exhibition and book in a glossary under the index-word Dust. Yet the process that Campany put himself through — of identifying a host of unmatched thoughts and experiences, many of them wholly personal, then ‘fitting’ them to the more public history and ontology of photography — is in effect the indexing of that section of the contents of his mind. The whole rich mess of ideas which I think of as the trope became, under his careful self-scrutiny, catalogued under Dust as its cipher.

Campany chose to open A Handful of Dust with this epigraph from W.G. Sebald: “A photograph is like something lying on the floor and accumulating dust, you know, where these clumps of dust get caught, and it steadily becomes a bigger ball. Eventually you can pull out strings. That’s roughly how it is. ”

So I’m complaining here that the word trope is sufficiently imprecisely used to mean not very much in photography (or at least to demand care in its handling), and yet I am adding in the same few lines still another meaning to the bundle. That’s absurd. As I wrote further up, I think that a trope is in effect the complex architecture of access to thoughts that individuals hold in memory in pictorial form. It is rarely articulated in words precisely because those words tend to make supple and fluid globs of feeling and memory rather more rigid. To thoroughly articulate a trope in words is to make the effort that Campany made in A Handful of Dust, impractical for most conventional references to the pictures in one’s head, even if not beyond the abilities of most. It’s like the phenomenon of the mental caption: when one can reduce a photograph to a single one-liner, a caption in mind, it becomes increasingly hard to remember the detail of the picture, since it is so much easier to file words in one’s head than pictures. Without a caption, we’re forced to keep the picture ‘live’ in memory, subject to re-evaluation and under constant challenge from the other ideas and pictures it comes up against. So the tropes that make up so much of our visual lexicon of the world. They exist. All of us have a number of them. Yet the minute they are indexed into clumsy single words, they lose their lovely flexibility and strength, and become planks or bricks — useful enough, but necessitating accumulation along predictable angles and lines.

 

[i] Hodgson, F., Only the Goalkeeper to Beat, Macmillan, 1998

[ii] Zarzycka, Marta, The World Press Photo contest and visual tropes, Photographies Vol. 6, Issue 1, 2013

[iii] Smirl, L., Building the other, constructing ourselves: spatial dimensions of international humanitarian response. International Political Sociology, 2(3), 2008.

[iv] Gordon, Linda; Dorothea Lange: The Photographer as Agricultural Sociologist. Journal of American History vol. 93, issue 3, 2006;

[v] The picture, by Sir Edmund Hillary, is credited to the Royal Geographic Society

[vi] I discussed this picture a little once for Bonhams magazine: Bonhams Magazine, Issue 41, Winter 2014, Page 38. Many other scholars have discussed it at greater length.

[vii] Bate, David, The Memory of Photography, Photographies, vol. 3, Issue 2, 2010

[viii] Campany, David, A Handful of Dust, MACK/Le Bal, Paris (and London), 2015

 

 

 

 

 

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The Devil is in the Detail

No Man's Land by Larry Towell, signed titled and dated - Version 2

A particularly elegant version of the Signed-Titled-Dated authentication that has become common in photography. This one in fact comes from a book (Larry Towell’s remarkable No Man’s Land) and is used purely illustratively here.

 

It is often quite casually stated that the art market is the last unregulated financial market. The implication is of skullduggery and villainous malpractice, with the suggestion of lamb-like collectors fleeced by unscrupulous wielders of huge shears. There are indeed egregious practices all around the art markets, some of which are complex in relation to ethics, industry practice, or the law. These include such arcana as dealers refusing to sell particular works to individual clients who have the money and want to buy — on the grounds that they don’t represent a ‘good enough home’ for the art. There could be a wide discussion aimed at reform of the whole range of these in the interests of clarity and fairness, but with care taken to preserve the flexibility and fleetness of foot which is one of the strengths of the market.

Here, immediately after PhotoLondon 2017 and in advance of any such broader discussion, are two simple practices which could and should be written out of the lexicon of trading practices in art.

First:

There is no reason why prices should be difficult to see in an art fair. In the nature of a fair, buyers are circulating at relative speed, collecting information under some pressure. Some of them are carefully planning to spend sums likely to be quite high for them. In a fair devoted to photography, in particular, there are wide differences in value between images that may look similar. A recent print manufactured after a photographer’s death by mechanical means in high volume is of less value than an early print, perhaps made by the photographer in her own darkroom using high craft skills. Sometimes the same picture is offered for sale in different incarnations earlier and later, but even where different images are concerned, visible description of the process by which each was made, relevant dates (of the original image, and of the manufacture of the particular one offered for sale) should be instantly accessible to a prospective customer. The indication of value can be a shorthand for those things, or at least a category marker for a customer.

It is quite fair that images of many different sorts should be available to buy. But the lack of clear advertisement fosters confusion between them and potential wrong impressions to buyers. This is one case in which the doctrine of ‘caveat emptor’ needs a mechanism by which that buyer can be enabled to take precisely the care that is required.

In UK law, under the Price Marking Order 2004, it is stated that pricing information on goods must be plainly visible to a person of reasonable sight without that person having to ask for it. (Statutory Instrument 2004 No. 102; 7/1/c.). Certain allowances are made for catalogues and price lists and shop windows and so on, but in essence what this describes is clear labelling on the product itself or on the shelf upon which it sits.

Only a minority of the pictures at the edition of PhotoLondon which closed last week was so marked, and only a minority is so marked at any art fair. It is an industry convention that prices are considered a little vulgar and should be kept in the background. Customers who need price information must ask for it. But a familiar (and desirable) condition of any art fair is that a large number of the public circulates around a small number of gallery staff. Inevitably, staff converse with clients they already know, or with artists they represent or wish to. It can be difficult and slow to get an answer to a simple price enquiry. That delays or hinders the opportunity for the customer to see other pieces on other stands, and limits his potential for getting the very most out of the fair. It’s not vulgar to be clear.

Those are simple mechanical reasons for clear labelling on all artworks offered for sale. Outside the context of a fair, the mechanics are slightly different; but the logic is the same. Although any reputable dealer will be able and happy to explain why one picture may be more expensive than another, there is no reason for a ‘browsing’ customer to be made to engage in that conversation with a dealer if the browser is simply accumulating information.

So in my view, dealers should display prices plainly. Beyond simple transparency and efficiency, that would go a long way to allaying the recurring suspicion that prices in the art markets and in art fairs in particular have a tendency to fluctuate depending on such things as the sales of the day so far, the apparent well-heeledness of the customer, and the sheer brass neck of the dealers.

Artworks made in limited editions are frequently sold on a sliding scale of value, where the early numbers in the edition are sold for less, and the higher numbers, when there are fewer left to buy, for more. The logic is sound, and there is nothing inequitable about the practice if applied correctly. It rewards a daring early buyer, yet maximizes the income to artist and dealer from a successful edition. As the edition runs out, laws of supply and demand operate which make it quite fair that the price should be higher as fewer are for sale and more people want those few. But sliding scales have always been open to a specific abuse, which is that the later-numbered copies in the edition can be sold first, at the higher price, the false implication being that the earlier numbers have already been sold. Once enough of those have been sold, the price is adjusted so the earlier numbers are sold for the same high value, since they are now the rare ones.

Clear pricing is not a panacea; complex practices at the absolute edge of decency will continue to exist, and so, very likely, will outright abuse. But without clear pricing, the fact of inconvenience and the suspicion of bad practice will always be there.

Unfortunately, the Price Marking Order 2004 as it stands does not apply. There is a specific exemption in the case of works of art (Statutory Instrument 2004 No. 102; 3/1/b).   I’m quite sure that exemption was included after vigorous lobbying from the art world. But time passes and things change.

I am not a lawyer, yet I know enough of their workings to realize that nothing quite as straightforward as this ever comes to pass. It should be a simple matter to remove that exemption (and whatever parallel ones exist in other instruments) and insist upon clear description and pricing on art works to be required by law. That will be a benefit and one worth lobbying for in its turn.

Second:

While I was at the fair, I was reminded of another practice which has grown in recent years. It is now quite common for a photographic print in a limited edition to be replaced at the request of the client by another example bearing the same edition number. That is wrong, and should be ruled out of the system.

Many years ago, in the 1970s, the art market sought to reassure potential buyers of photographs-as-art that they could in fact be considered as such. Other mechanisms for buying photographs had existed successfully for many years, including buying them for private uses like weddings, commissioning into magazines or commercial uses, distribution by agencies and so on. There were difficulties with the market in fine prints, though: the markets were nervous. Photographs are machine-made, and how could a machine product be an artistic one? Photographs were infinitely reproducible — by reprinting from the negative as required — and how could something of such limited rarity be valued? Photographs were also exceptionally fragile: not only were the majority of them works on paper, and so susceptible to damage by fire and flood, by creasing and tearing and so on. Much worse, they consisted of chemically unstable compounds. By definition, the surface of a photograph is (or has been at some point in its existence) sensitive to the effects of light.

All of this was off-putting to buyers, and a variety of mechanisms were brought in to allay their fears. Some of these don’t now survive. It used, for example, in the 1970s to be common to cut up negatives when selling prints from them, and to attach a fraction of the negative to the back of each print. The idea was to guarantee that no more of them could be manufactured than advertised. That has disappeared from the fine photographs market. Quite apart from negatives themselves now being old technology, it was also felt that a photographer had every right to make a completely new artwork from the existing negative; it might be printed using different processes, or at a widely different size, or even included in a collage or montage which was clearly not a the same finished work.

But a number of those fear-allaying mechanisms do survive. The limited edition itself is almost universally common (although a handful of photographers refuse on principle to interfere with the complete reproducibility of their medium). Limiting numbers existed in other media before photography; I think of engraving plates wearing down with each impression, or of cast bronze losing a little of the sharpness of edge with every cast. There are plenty of markets in multiple works, and photography is one of them.

There has also grown up a fine mystique of terminology to define precise differences between one photograph and another: vintage, later, and estate prints, for example; or work prints, exhibition prints, press prints. Or photogravure, platinum, orotone and the rest of the names that specify process. The market was soothed; but there was nothing underhand about this language. It represented the growth of a connoisseurship appropriate to the medium; and if there were from time to time suspicions that customers could be blinded in those nuances, it has still been a long time now that high volumes of sales and high prices are achieved in fine photographs worldwide in a market which has justifiably had far more reason to be confident than fearful.

But one fear remains above all. Photographs do still fade when exposed to sunlight. They are not unique in that, of course. It is a problem that affects all sorts of pigments (watercolours and tapestries fade), and all kind of supports, too. The spines of antiquarian books fade, and so do antique textiles and so does the paintwork on valuable vintage cars. Collectors, and especially in the United States, have considered this a special affront in photography, where it seems to be regarded as much more serious than in those other areas. There has grown up over the years a whole industry in promising the impossible. One process after another – both black-&-white and colour – has been promoted as ‘archival’ or ‘stable’. That means no fading. The promise is of eternity. Spend a lot of money, and your picture will be there for ever.

It isn’t so. Keep a picture in the dark, under carefully controlled conditions of heat and humidity, and it might last a bit longer. But you don’t have a picture if you do that. You have a credit note.

It is in response to this that there has grown the particular habit to which I refer. I’m not sure it is reserved only for the fancy high price end of the market; but it is there that it is most visible. Big buyers of high status prints are increasingly demanding that their print be replaced when it shows signs of fading, as though the fading were a failure of manufacture like a pocket not stitched into your new suit or a clutch cable that breaks every hundred miles. And sometimes, to be fair, there may be an element of that. A badly made print is a badly made print. But by no means all prints which fade are badly made. It is in their nature to fade, and it is the nature of many of the processes we use to display them to damage them, too. Halogen lighting is bad for photographs. Daylight is worse. Sunlight even worse. Dry mounting onto Perspex looks lovely when new; but what happens when the Perspex begins to yellow and go brittle, as it inevitably will? And so on in a dizzying spiral of bad to worse.

All of this seems to me part and parcel of the business of collecting light sensitive materials. Specially so if those materials are made available in limited editions, where the decision to demand a replacement affects not just you and your collection, but the other buyers from the same edition, too.

Say there are five prints in an edition of a contemporary fine photograph. It’s fashionable, expensive, well branded, a status piece. It costs maybe £200,000. The one on the wall at Megacorp begins to be less luminous than it was, and the artist agrees to replace with a new one under the same edition number. Convention dictates that the damaged one be destroyed, and it usually is. (If it is not, that is a fraud and existing law should deal with that OK.) But I argue that the value of the other four has been sensibly diminished – unknown to their owners – by the replacement. For not only are they now the owners of an example from an effective lifetime edition of six (that have been made), where they were sold one of five; worse. There is now in existence, and therefore presumably at some point able to come to the market, a print substantially fresher than their own by the simple fact of having been made later and therefore been exposed to fewer air-borne pollutants and less light, having absorbed less moisture and mould spores and so on. If three of the owners can force the hand of the maker in the same way, suddenly we have an edition purportedly of five in which eight prints have been made and released. That doesn’t sound like an edition of five, to me.

Making limited editions is always a business based on trust. Young artists are rightly warned to keep accurate records of the prints they release, lest there should ever be a mistake in editioning which would make them look sharp or worse. No career can recover once it comes with that kind of reputation. But the sharpness now seems built into the system for the advantage not of the sellers but of the most powerful buyers.

Many museums now buy two prints for the price of one when they buy something which might potentially fade over time when exposed. They justify it by arguing that since they are obliged to exhibit at least some of the time, they know in advance that their prints will degrade. The artist and dealer selling have little on which to rely if they don’t like it; they’ll simply miss a museum sale – and a museum is almost always a ‘good home’. Private customers don’t often buy two at the outset; but they now have no compunction in insisting on the replacement.

My view is that the whole practice is plainly wrong. We value fragile art works in all sorts of fields, and sometimes the ones that survive are damaged. That is why we have conservators, and that is why we propagate and seek to improve good conservation practices among collections of every kind. Sometimes the marks of the passage of time upon a work are themselves valuable: marks of previous ownership, of very different regard in which the work was held earlier, of exhibition history or a hundred other such evidences of times changing as the work passed through time. I cannot see on what grounds a buyer can demand a ‘fresh’ version of something he knew from the outset would lose its freshness eventually. On the other hand, I do see that every time it happens, some other buyer is potentially disadvantaged in financial terms. The simple act of writing ‘1/3’ a second time is clear. If you’re writing it a second time, it’s 4/3 and shouldn’t happen.

In this case, it is harder to see how to legislate. There may be certain legislative provisions that cover the circumstance, notably the express warranties elements of New York’s Art & Cultural Affairs Law but by no means every legislation has equivalent provisions. The onus would always be upon the manufacturer of the replacement print to admit to having done so. My own view is that there should nevertheless be a succession of heavy legal actions for replacing prints. A lot of corporations and museums have in effect deliberately falsified market information to their advantage by demanding them. Squads of lawyers will have to determine what to claim for and under what laws, and I don’t much like generating future work for them; but it is plain that it is a practice which goes well beyond proper morality and falls into bad practice. Once a few heavy damages have been paid, the industry will soon settle down to a more proper regard for what is, after all, its own good reputation. You really can’t say, “There are only three of these in the world” and then quietly make the fourth and the fifth.

 

 

 

Curators on Skates

V and A E.1128-1989

View of the V&A by Bolas & Co., c.1909, V&A E.1128-1989

It’s not often, in the cash-starved world of UK photographic institutions, that there is major good news to celebrate. But yesterday the V&A announced ambitious and yet wholly realistic plans to expand its photographic activities in a range of impressive ways.

The catalyst for the advance was the arrival of the collections of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) at the V&A. The transfer last year of the RPS collections from the Bradford outstation of the Science Museum was shockingly badly handled (mainly by the Science Museum Group itself, but a number of other parties including the Arts Council and the ministry responsible, the Department for Culture Media and Sport, showed some pretty craven lack of leadership, too).

No doubt the tale of the former National Museum of Photography, Film and Television may need to be revisited at another time. But for now, the Media Space, the Science Museum’s attempt to get London attendance figures for its Yorkshire collections, will have the daily humiliation as it flounders of seeing its neighbour across the street make giant leaps forward in the business of collection-centred museum activity in photography.

There was a bit of a fuss about the abandonment (in effect) of the museum in Bradford. The V&A was presented with an incomparable opportunity to step up in the rankings of world photography collections, but it would need a certain investment to do that properly, and investment, in the UK cultural world, has often been the stumbling block. I hope and I also suspect — as one of those who fussed — that the to-do actively helped, in allowing the curators and developers of the new plans for photography at the V&A in laying out their claim for a chunk of the necessary money to point to obvious public concern.

Whatever the exact sequence, the arrival of the RPS collections has had a galvanic effect on the photography department at the V&A. And for that, credit must go first of all to Martin Barnes, the Senior Curator, who has quite obviously seen a chance and gone for it, big time. It was not, as he put it to me, up to him to judge the manner in which the RPS collections were allowed to leave the hands of the Science Museum Group. But when offered one of the great photographic collections in the world, he needed no second invitation. Why would he look such a gift horse in the mouth? There have been other important moments in UK museum management in the field of photography; but I have no memory of a department making such a well-judged expansion so very fast. In the terms of the usual shuffling trudge from report to committee to fund-raisers and back again, this has been a lightning strike. Barnes has done wonders, and he must have been supported at the very highest levels in the museum to be able to move so decisively. What a gift it makes for incoming museum Director Tristram Hunt: a major expansion in a field popular with and important to the public, dropped at his feet with nothing for him to do but smile politely and bask in the applause.

The incoming RPS collection of some 270,000 photographs compares to the roughly 500,000 the V&A already holds. For comparison, the website of the Museum of Modern Art in New York gives its photography collection as some 25,000 ‘works’; that of the Bibliothèque Nationale gives its own (supported by legal deposit) as nearly five million ‘items’. These numbers are not necessarily like for like, but they give orders of magnitude. The RPS collection goes far back in the history of photography and includes early material of great significance. It is complemented by many artefacts and documents which are not photographs, including for example, several thousand cameras.

Photographs-gallery

A previous exhibition of photography in the two galleries which will now again be dedicated to its display. Image courtesy V&A.

This is what is going to happen. The upstairs gallery of photography at the V&A is, in a first phase, going to double in size by expanding into the gallery parallel to it. A highly visible (not so say gaudy) piece of architectural branding, in the form of a ‘periscope’ full of cameras, will sign it from the ground floor – with an effect I imagine to be based upon the huge central column of books in the British Library, part storage and part advertising.

The V&A has already (!) equipped a new archive with fancy rolling shelves and climate control, adjacent to the Prints and Drawings Study Room, so the long tradition of open access to photographs will not only continue but be actively enhanced. I’m always amazed at how few Londoners avail themselves of the chance to see original photographs simply by turning up and asking for the box to be brought (you do need an appointment but you do not need to be recommended or in any particular research position); but for those who want to use it, that service is going to be improved.  It can’t be used less than the equivalent Insight space at Bradford, an echoing cavern of research not being done and pictures not being seen.

The first phase will also include a space for screenings and a clever space where the perpetual scanning that any modern museum must do will be on view to the public, so that we can see the increase in access to the collections being facilitated before our very eyes.

All of this will be ready by 2018; that, in the world of museums, is time-travel. You have to imagine your curators getting out of their grey flannel bags and tweed coats, and jumping onto rollerblades.

After that, a further second phase expansion will add a library, a sensible addition given how much of the dissemination of photographs has always been through books. This one will not merely be a collection; it is specifically intended from the outset to facilitate browsing on open stacks, so that pictures can do the work they have always done, of jumping out at us from unexpected angles. Further rooms, including teaching rooms and a darkroom for photographers-in-residence will complete a suite which will when complete add up to the entire first floor of the North-East wing of the V&A and represent in total something like four times the existing space devoted there to photography.  The expansion of activities that will radiate from this space will likely be on a logarithmic scale.

V&A 3294- 1954

View of the 1939 centenary exhibition of photography in gallery 73 of the V&A. V&A 3294- 1954

3346-1954

View of the 1939 centenary exhibition of photography in gallery 73 of the V&A. V&A 3346-1954

This is an incredible achievement. It is being done for £8m. This is obviously a large sum, but not in the context in which it sits. The National Army Museum, for example, announced a few days ago (March 2017) that its re-development had cost £23.75m. The Financial Times cited £83m as the cost of the new Design Museum in the old Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington.

The RPS collections themselves were purchased in 2002 for the National Museum of Photography Film and Television with public funds, including the largest ever Heritage Lottery Fund Award for photography of £3.75m and £342,000 from the National Art Collections Fund. Since the V&A has paid not a single penny for the collection itself, we can see that in the context of a (favourable) 2002 valuation not far short of £5m, a 2017 cost of £8m to make the best possible use of the collection comes to look like very fair value for money. (The figure includes, I understand, some of the costs of digitization, although these are hard to quantify because they come under general costs the V&A already underwrites). In the context of the overall re-jigging of the V&A under the FuturePlan label, it’s a bargain. My memory is that the funding target to enable the London Photographers’ Gallery to move to its new building in 2012 was £8.7m; the cost of the V&A’s expansion compares with that.

All of this presages not only a world-class photographic research and display centre, but it also seems to come hand in hand with a steady rethink of what the museum can do. In particular, the V&A announces on the same day that the immensely distinguished historian of photography Professor Elizabeth Edwards has been appointed Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor at the V&A. At the same time, the Royal College of Art and the V&A join forces from September 2018 to launch a new history of photography course under the umbrella of the History of Design MA program at the RCA. The photography department, in other words, is taking the moment of its physical expansion as the moment of its virtual expansion, too. To seek to act as the focus of scholarship in the disciplines whose artefacts it cares for is precisely one of the things the museum should be doing, and these cascaded announcements suggest hope for a steady stream of scholarly material to come.

There is obviously (there always is, nowadays) talk of an expanded online offering in photography from the museum, reaching people off the site, or interested in things other than those programmed for any particular time. Also off-site, there are ideas of touring shows already in the air, in a reprise of the lamented Circulation Department of the V&A, which fell in a distant round of earlier cuts. The success of the Artists’ Rooms project by which (in England) the Tate manages the huge donation of Anthony D’Offay, has brought the obvious benefits of touring shows back into the forefront of planners’ minds.  There is going to be a boost to the Prints & Drawings Study Room. There will be space for more events across a range of types, from screenings to lectures to demonstrations and so on.

The new library will obviously have to work well with the National Art Library, which is not only in the same building, but actually forms a part of the same department – the Word And Image Department of the museum. But a new browsing library in photography can only serve to increase the numbers using the existing library; the photographs department was in part set up by the re-classification of objects in the National Art Library, so these close ties go back a very long way. In the same way, the rehoming of the collections will go some way to patching up the historical split across Exhibition Road between the scientific and art aspects of photography. Some individual artefacts will actually be reunited in the V&A, having been held together in the South Kensington Museum before it was split into the component parts we know. It is possible to express the hope that the commercial and industrial aspects of photography will not be left behind in the re-shuffle, aspects which have traditionally fared less well in the museum context.

There’s a lot to look forward to. It’s encouraging and welcome. Martin Barnes talks in the press release that announces the new Photography Centre of a “dramatic reimagining of the way photography is presented at the V&A.” He’s moved an elderly and sometimes rheumatic institution at quite remarkable speed in the direction he wants it to go. Just getting this expanded photography department to happen has taken strong leadership; he’ll have a lot of fun with it once it’s running. And as a result, so will we.

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Teenage Kicks

Tillmans Studio 2012

Wolfgang Tillmans, Studio, 2012                                        A pared-down reflection on what studio photography used to be. Black, and white, detailed in texture, and with an amassed heap of transparent greys adding up to all the tones of platinum or photogravure. All made of the simplest elements with total control.

Wolfgang Tillmans is a very lucky man. I happened to revisit his show at the Tate on the day Sotheby’s announced a record price for one of his photographs at the grand Evening Sale of the night before. As reported by the Art Newspaper, this represented more than just good business :

“The contemporary art market has proved itself immune to the perceived threats of Brexit and the election of President Donald Trump, judging by Sotheby’s performance last night. The auction house made £100.7m (£118m with fees), comfortably falling within its pre-sale estimate of £80.9m-£112.6m. The result is 70% up on last year’s sale.

German artists led the way, with more than a quarter of lots by artists hailing from the country. In his first appearance in an evening sale at Sotheby’s, Wolfgang Tillmans smashed his record set by Christie’s only the night before. At least seven bidders propelled the 2005 photographic work, Freischwimmer 119 (free swimmer 119), to £380,000 (£464,750 with fees), tripling its upper estimate.
….

Gordon VeneKlasen, a partner at Michael Werner gallery, … says there is a concerted effort to link artists such as Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Jörg Immendorff and Albert Oehlen. “They are a formidable group of the like not seen since the Abstract Expressionists,” he says.

The strategy is paying off for Sotheby’s. The 15 works on the block by German artists sold for a combined £48.1m (with fees) against a low estimate of £26.7m, accounting for 35% of the overall sale total. Richter’s 1982 Eisberg contributed £15.6m (£17.7m with fees), selling to a phone bidder from Asia.”

German Artists Capture Zeitgeist at Sotheby’s Contemporary Sale

By Anny Shaw for The Art Newspaper, 9 March 2017

 

I sulkily admire this attempt by Sotheby’s press department to make a coherent phenomenon out of the chaotic competition of the various dealers whose products are really in play here. I like the suggestion that art-Germans are collectively leading the way against Brexit and Donald Trump in a European cultured resistance against anti-European economic action. I even like that a dealer can be found to drop the strongly market-magic (and wholly un-German) label of Abstract Expressionist on the goods he’s trying to sell.

This German-branded subsector has been doing very well for quite a while. At Sotheby’s itself, much of the credit for the long harvest from the contemporary art markets has to be ascribed to two formidable Germans (both now both moved elsewhere), Cheyenne Westphal and Tobias Meyer. It’s been obvious for many years that Germany is the leading economy of the European Union. It was only a matter of time before its creative industries were seen to take their share of that lead.

How nice for Tillmans – a photographer – to be included among all this art-gold. How nice that the Tate and Sotheby’s work so conveniently hand in hand promoting each other’s stuff. The sums are big by any reasonable standard – although generating £460,000 of £48m raised by 15 names is not really carrying one’s share of the financial load. It’s more like hitching a ride. It’s been a long time that a record price below £500,000 has not been all that impressive in the scales of the contemporary art market, even at the lower levels available for an artist using photography. As usual, photographers are still the junior partners in these equations.

However the money works, and whether it’s in the background or in the foreground, here we have an artist granted his second large show at the Tate in less than fifteen years. I did notice that the Tate put out this phrase: “This is Wolfgang Tillmans’ first ever exhibition at Tate Modern ..” on its website — which is true enough if one chooses not to count the Turner Prize as an exhibition — but which also veils the fact that he had a “mid-career retrospective” at Tate Britain just a couple of miles up the river in 2003.  Tillmans is Wolfgang Tillmans, RA, too: a Royal Academician. For a combination of reasons, the Tate — like the Royal Academy before it, and a lot of other fancy names in the art world and the magazine world — is banking on Tillmans. He may still just about carry off his vaguely down-with-the-kids camouflage; but Britain is surprisingly good at making apparently unlikely people fully Established and this is membership of the Establishment on the grand scale.

I find The Tate show more than troubling. I think it’s vitiated in some quite serious ways.

Tillmans has made it his badge to be un-precious about what he photographs: he is one of those artists who photograph to understand, not to inform. But that doesn’t work on the huge scale that the Tate has awarded him. For this is a truly enormous show. Fourteen rooms, hung with Tillmans’ habitual elaborate mock-casualness (which ironises the hundreds of thousands of pounds the biggest of the pieces are now worth). As usual with him, some of the prints are simply stuck to the walls; many of the larger are hung unframed from bulldog clips pinned by nails to the wall. Hundreds of artefacts, including vitrine after vitrine crammed with printed stuff, his own and other people’s. High ceilings, and a handful of prints on a truly monumental scale. He shows us – and it is one of the genuine wonders in the show – a little weed in a badly tended garden which must be 12-foot tall at least. A very great deal of careful thought has gone into the arrangement of these things – it’s an installation as much as a traditional ‘exhibition’. The show reverts to many of Tillmans’ long-established enquiries; but he has lost control in the airy vastness of the Tate of the process of addressing a viewer. It’s not at all clear that the installation adds to our experience of the exhibition beyond the very coarse shock-and-awe of number and scale. The installation is in fact, in spite of a good deal of pretension, deeply meh.

Tillmans Weed 2014

Wolfgang Tillmans, Weed, 2014

As is well known, his subject matter is catholic. That previous show at the Tate was called “If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters”, which just about sums it up. He photographs with a kind of disorientating prolixity: people as portraits, people as fashion, people as economic data. Flying in to Port au Prince, he takes a picture. Landscape, still-life. Personal, professional. Finding a bloke in pink robes leaning on a purple car with Saudi number plates, he takes a picture. A hairy arse presents itself to him, straining upwards, the balls crushing down on the lino…he takes a picture and blows it up to 6 feet tall. He looks up; he looks down. The infinite sky; a drain in Buenos Aires. Camera-less photography, abstract prints, pixellated patterns… That enormous photograph of a weed, with drying dead hellebore leaves on the ground next to it, is very appealing. The little corner of a yard in which it has taken root is damp. Yet the thing itself is kissed by an ever-so-gentle London sunlight. What it means is up to you. What any of it means is up to you.

This is my trouble. The generosity of this vision is untroubled by any attempt to digest. We are in, effect, not seeing a show by Wolfgang Tillmans. We’re seeing an almost unmediated collection of sights, as we would do if we made the pictures ourselves, a click every so often, all day, every day. The editing part of the process has not been left out – of course not. But as Tillmans’ viewers, we are given no clue as to what he edits in or cuts. We don’t know what he’s editing for. Everything he sees interests him – and that’s fair enough. Everything I see interests me, I suppose, until I try to order my thoughts.

Tillmans has always been omnivorous; he used to be brilliant at it, too. Years ago, reviewing the 2003 show, the always-interesting photography critic of the Village Voice, Vince Aletti, found that “there’s nothing indiscriminate about this inclusiveness. Tillmans has mastered the tossed-off beauty of the snapshot and married it to a generous, optimistic, and politically engaged we-are-the-world sensibility”. He had, indeed. But this is not that any more. This is incontinence.

Before breaking the auction record for one of his pictures, and before starring in this overblown show, Tillman’s most recent high visibility had been in his campaign for Britain to remain in the EU. By designing and distributing posters and T-shirts, by pressing his friends to get involved, by enlisting urgent active support, Tillmans committed himself once again exactly as Aletti had said : generous, optimistic, politically-engaged. That was only a few weeks ago. But none of it is traceable in the Tate show except as loose threads. If you read the endless vitrines full (among heaps of other stuff) of political screeds, you can indeed track something of his interest in Europe. It’s vague; it’s shapeless. It’s more of a sense of belonging than any sense of understanding. As soon as you read the first line about him, you know as much about his European politics as he really reveals in this rambling, uncritical, vaguely shocked collection of snippets that have caught his eye. He’s a German artist of a certain generation (he was born in 1968, was about 20 when the Wall came down) who’s made his home in England. One can see that he’s concerned; active in defence of the various liberties he prizes. He’s photographed the gay scene in Russia, where that is under frightening threat. He’s vaguely environmentalist (although he seems to take an awful lot of planes). He values the liberties of his friends.

Compare all of that to the evolving but never imprecise enquiries of Paul Graham, say, and you are left scratching your head. The comparison is not at all unfair: Tillmans called a book Neue Welt in obvious expansion of Graham’s New Europe of a few years earlier. Graham has moved closer to the nebulousness of Tillmans in recent years; but in a long sequence before that which included hard accurate work on what it meant it to be poor under Thatcher, on the complex crises of Northern Ireland, and that brilliant scrutiny of the way the weight of history gets in the way of a shared European present, Graham  shifted through the gears: documentary; post-documentary; post-modern….Local, national, international… Just as Tillmans does, he threw the labels in our faces. It was hard to know what to call Graham’s pictures : it still is. Yet each time he committed to his viewers, committed himself to getting difficult messages across, even when those messages were doubtful, non-linear, complex, and sometimes even contradictory. Sure, Graham has – as Tillmans has –taken on the role of ‘a concerned photographer’ (the ancient phrase that used to be reserved for a certain kind of documentary in Britain that had not been commissioned by journals). But Graham has tried to know what he thinks. Tillmans has simply enjoyed wondering what the questions might be.

He is, by the way, absolutely ruthless at purloining the style of photographers he notices to be successful elsewhere: here is the sea à la Roni Horn. Here some abstractions à la Adam Fuss… That refusal to commit to a style of his own has been interesting in the past, a telling element in Tillmans’ view of the democratic equality of images. But on this enormous scale and within the wild visual incontinence of the hang, it becomes something else. It becomes just the artist’s brand. The vitrines within the show have a separate incontinence, a verbal one of the obiter dicta and press cuttings and internet detours he cuts out and keeps.

red headlight

Wolfgang Tillmans, Headlight (f) 2012

Yet none of this incontinence is accidental. Many of the pictures have been seen already. There are many fractions here of more numerous series he has shown in different ways before (a number of them already published as books). The vitrines have appeared in previous of his shows under the ponderous name of the truth study centre. There is, for example, one single example of his very striking series on car headlights, angular hostile little evolutions from the cheerful goggle-eyed round lamps we used to like on earlier cars. When he showed at Arles a few years ago, these things punctuated the show like a sour chorus, a plangent commentary upon the aggression of late capitalism. But to leave a single one in the new show? It’s just another picture (although admittedly a wonderful one). The actual design of the vitrines themselves is a re-make from a show he had at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2012. He revisits, reworks, reconsiders, recombines. In the past he has done all of that with taut vigour. But at the Tate? Excess replaces tautness, and discord vigour.

Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza 2012

Wolfgang Tillmans, Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza 2012

Although he’s a prolific artist, I rather regret that other interesting art has been forced further down the queue at the Tate to make room for this stuff. It’s circumstantial. It’s trivial. It’s completely self-centred, but seemingly with desire neither for self-understanding nor for real self-revelation. Tillmans has been, like lots of other photographers (Juergen Teller; Corinne Day ; Nan Goldin, for example – with all of whom he bears close comparison, by the way) open about his own life for a very long time. His work is often formally autobiographical, and even when it isn’t, he is clear about his own closeness to each picture. His titles often refer to his friends by their first names alone. But if you were known as an autobiographical artist years ago, isn’t it incumbent upon you to have discovered something new about yourself by the time your next huge outing comes around at the Cathedral of Culture?

Tillmans made his name as a prodigious enquirer. He has been an excellent and brave curator himself, promoting art at his Between the Bridges project first in London and then in Berlin, that he thought needed more attention. His watchwords have always been equality and curiosity. Nothing that he turned his camera to had any ‘worthier’ or ‘higher’ interest than anything he might turn it to next. He seemed non-snobbish, driven, voracious, genuinely unchanged from environment to environment. He was against the mistakes of the past, optimistic about the future. He developed, in other words, the art of the teenager in a phenomenally more articulate form than most teenagers can. He worked for magazines, made music, made films.

The Tate show is credited in part to Chris Dercon, the recently departed Director of the Tate Modern. Short of asking Nicholas Serota to curate, there can be no higher accolade. Because Tillmans is a familiar of the Tate, he has been granted the right to turn almost a whole floor of one of the great art institutions in the world into his own pin-board or crazy-board. Truly like a teenager’s, it spills from portentousness to sex to music to good-times-with-friends to travel and back to sex. You could find just such a grouping on many phones of young people who hold no idea of calling themselves ‘artists’. One of the photographs, indeed, is of his own desk, a cluttered mess full of potential but with nothing complete upon it.

I think we are entitled to expect that an artist granted that second huge retrospective should have come to some conclusions, or at least that the curators working with him have identified a progression sufficiently capital to invite their public to consider it. With Tillmans there are still no conclusions. He’s still collecting material, still a giant teenager, still unable or unwilling to commit to anything other than his own enquiries, still convinced that whatever interests him is … interesting. This is the constant flow of pictures of Instagram, scarcely ordered, rarely revisited, with no step in value between deeply moving and shallow swill. Social media has often been compared to a river. Pictures flow past us, never to be thought about again once the next thousand or hundred or even ten of them have gone by. You can never step in the same river twice, if you remember your Heraclitus. I can see why the Tate’s people want to show art of the Instagram generation in this way. I can see that Tillmans is a careful, concerned and still skilful exponent of it. As a talker or a writer, I’m sure he has a lot to say. But he hasn’t marshalled his thoughts for the biggest exhibition of his life so far, and that’s a huge let down to those of us who hoped that he might.

Solipsism is not necessarily a great vice in an artist. But lack of discrimination is, and this is a show absolutely jam-crammed to its elegant rafters with evidence of that.

Tillmans once pronounced orotundly to the Art Newspaper that he found no trouble in being contemporary. I think that the biggest achievement, in a way, is to be of your time, because you cannot program timelessness. I was never afraid of being contemporary.” Which is a teenage sentiment if ever I heard one.

One of the last sections in the show is a series of musings about time. These are of quite mind-bending banality – the sorts of perceptions we all have from time to time, but that stoned kids think are somehow profound. “The end of the Cold War is now as long ago as the end of World War II was in 1970.” Somebody – preferably the artist, but a curator, a friend, an electrician fixing the lights in the gallery before the opening – somebody should have taken Tillmans aside and just checked whether he was sure he wanted all of this stuff in there, whether he didn’t think that the littlest teensiest editing might be a good thing.

There is something about the incontinence of his show at the Tate which diminishes Tillmans. Here he is, completely co-opted into the twin Establishments of the art market and the art museum, jetting all over the world having trivial thoughts, and being taken completely seriously.

It’s a shame, because in all of this eructation of undifferentiated hot air there are a number of really important themes that Tillmans touches upon, and there are also, as there always have been with him, occasional pictures of true brilliance.

CLC-800-dismantled-a_2011

Wolfgang Tillmans, CLC800 dismantled (a) 2011

He has a very rich interest in the production of images. In among his more identifiable studies, he makes blank images of various kinds. He’s interested in light-sensitive paper itself, in blur and movement, in ‘mistakes’ and illegible details. He’s interested in the distribution of pictures, the degradation of imagery through successive reproductions. There is a pleasing picture of a dismantled colour printer, the very one, we learn, that he acquired with the money from his Turner Prize in 2000. This thing doesn’t look like those studies of pots of brushes that painters have always included by their elbows in self-portraits: but it has the same function. It shows how much the business of making images relies on hard practical material effects. It reminds us to think of pictures as made objects, and not just the temporary visions it’s so easy to think they are. Coming from Wolfgang Tillmans, that’s interesting.

At the very beginning of the show, a carpeted downslope in an airport undergoing refurbishment leads to “Rest of the World Passports.” It’s a modernised version of those signs that make us giggle on motorways in Britain, which simply say The North. In these times, of Trump and Brexit, and all the forced movements of people, there’s no doubting Tillmans’ concerns at the effects of globalisation.

lampedusa 2008

Wolfgang Tillmans, Lampedusa, 2008

These are vast and various themes. To have explored either one of them (or others of several like them that he touches) with precision and feeling and detail and skill would have been a great exhibition in the hands of a photographer like Tillmans. But he doesn’t do such a thing. Instead, he’s content to be vague. He invites us to the Tate, in effect, to scroll through his phone. Vaguely interested, vaguely troubled: and that’s disappointingly little substance in this explosion of imagery.

 

 

 

 

 

Any Surface You Like: Unseen Fair, 2016

Christiane Feser, Partition 48, 2016  ( Detail )

Christiane Feser, Partition 48, 2016. Represented by Anita Beckers. This is an angled detailed view of a work that is cut, layered and built well above the plain surface. One of many pieces deliberately shown for the first time as an Unseen Fair Premiere.

It’s a rare thing – for those of us in the business of extrapolating tendencies from the amorphous bulk of any creative activity – to see an unmistakable trend. I’m sure the fashion writer who says “Roman legionary sandals will be in this year” worries that no such sandal will be seen again. For once, at the Unseen Photo Fair in Amsterdam, there was no mistake. It’s not quite a rule, because there are still plenty of exceptions, but it’s all-but a rule: You want to be taken seriously as an artist using photography? Any surface you like so long as it’s not flat.

 

The varieties of finished result that this allows are many. But the essential tendency is definite. Flat pictures are what you get on screens when you make image searches. Flat pictures are what you get when you are asked to view a fact or a purported fact. Sportsman scores. This is what our tulips look like. Mimi has graduated. The managing director shakes hands. I was at the Victoria Falls. Those kinds of pictures are curiously neutral. Nobody who uses them cares very much what the photographer thought about what was photographed. In the jargon of art theory, they are transparent: they act as a time-shifter, to get you to a place where you were not. In the end, it doesn’t much matter who made them; and in most cases the viewers don’t ask and don’t care. Those pictures are viewed fast, and normally not viewed again. Can you remember the lead picture in the newspaper yesterday? You probably didn’t even buy the paper, but you did walk past it. The picture had a function, yesterday.

 

For artists, this is all complete anathema. Artists want you to care what they feel, and are not so much bothered by the facts of what they saw. They want to engage you for long enough that you are in their way of working — and by extension, their way of feeling — for a moment. They want to reach you with a packet of thoughts and prejudices and opinions and emotions. They want you to be persuaded by their argument and moved by their appeal.

 

For me, who have been watching these divisions for a long time, Unseen 2016 was the first time it was completely clear that there is an actual schism here. For me, factual photography is camera operation. It is sometimes made on machines which are incorporated in other machines (mobile phones, usually), sometimes by super-sophisticated systems for getting pictures from the real world they allude to into the distribution channels through which they will be consumed. If you go to a football game today, where camera operators work in public, you can see that the vast bulk of the labour is in captioning, editing, and otherwise equipping pictures with metadata, and then above all, getting them away down the airwaves as quickly as possible. There is very little labour in really getting across the emotion of the scene, the operator’s thoughts about it, or anything else so weak as feeling. The schism has happened: there is no room for any of the imagery which results from this kind of activity at a fair devoted to art photography. Artist-photographers rather despise camera-operators and undervalue the skills they deploy. Camera-operators have a tendency to be dismissive about art, and to overvalue the technical. But audiences like both, use both, and respond to different elements of each. I have not yet met a person who collects art photographs and doesn’t look at Facebook or at sports pictures or at the pack-shots in magazines which make him want to buy stuff.

 

Camera-operation is by nature un-self-conscious. If you’re making pictures for rapid consumption, you can’t much care about the culture of imagery that went before you. Selfie? Low-end commercial job photographing pizzas and kebabs to be stuck on the window of a fast-food place? Hard news from Mosul? However skillful you are, however learned your background, you make those pictures for what’s in them, not for allusion or comment. That stuff has a tremendous vitality.   Exclude it from your entire narrowed conception of photography and you exclude more than the machine way of seeing. After all, a very great deal of the new self-conscious photography of the art world is anchored in re-editing or otherwise re-working precisely this kind of vital, fast, vulgar, energetic photography that went before.

 

Nothing wrong with rethinking things, of course, and nothing wrong with an art that looks to its own roots for the well-springs of its content. But there is something uncomfortable in the way new snobbish self-conscious photography is ferociously consuming old vulgar vigorous photography while at the very same time despising it for its … vulgarity.

 

I felt this more strongly than before at Unseen this year.

 

katrien-de-blauwer-jump-cuts-1-2015

Jump Cuts 1, 2015, by Katrien de Blauwer, represented by Filles Du Calvaire

Some galleries took so literally the new orthodoxies that they showed almost nothing on a plain flat surface at all. Filles Du Calvaire, for example, from Paris, showed an artist who sticks pins in pin-ups, another who embroiders over dismembered nudes, and a third who makes collages. This third is the only one of the three worth a damn: Katrien de Blauwer, who makes rather small collages of salvaged black and white imagery. At first sight they look simply like design work – book covers, say, in which two simple elements make an allusion together. They are not complicated things, but de Blauwer plays them with great virtuosity. Often mounted on thick card of a buff or manila colour, with some pleasure taken in the material seaming and matching of the images, they add up to very much more than the sum of their parts. de Blauwer muses autobiographically in these pieces, which are elegant and light but not trite for all that. She is visibly different to all those artists who find a technique (it may well be as recognizable as hers), but use it to brand themselves in a highly competitive environment, forgetting (or not being able) to have anything to say in that technique or any other. Of course the message needs to be expressed in a medium that suits it; but it does help to have some kind of message in the first place.

 

alma-haser-from-cosmic-surgery

One from the series Cosmic Surgery by Alma Haser. Represented by The Photographers’ Gallery

 

There are ways and ways of making surfaces, of course. Embroidering photographs has been a thing for perhaps too long, now. Maurizio Anzeri made such exciting things a few years ago when his stitching added sharp bite and wit to the reading of character in the (found; vernacular) portraits that he brought so startlingly to life. Today at Unseen the London Photographers’ Gallery showed him succumbing to a tired but doubtless lucrative formula in a series of landscapes overstitched. The technique adds nothing to the pictures. They look like telegraph lines have been allowed to wander over the view. Or just doodles, done in thread rather than in felt-pen, but not more interesting for that. Just down the wall, the Photographers’ Gallery also had the work of Alma Haser, who builds curious origami structures into portrait photographs, challenging our assumptions of how we read a photograph or read a face. This is a career that has been developing interestingly for a while; there is certainly a danger that such an idiosyncratic technique will become formulaic, but it hasn’t yet. The origami shapes obscure the middle of the face, but are clearly made up of folded sheets of the same portrait. There is a cubist quality to the unmaking of anatomy, but also an endearing one. The folded paper must have been very gently stroked into shape for quite a while in each case, and those caresses remain folded in to the finished portrait.

 

The Unseen organisers are good at keeping their functions in view. It’s a show dedicated to new work. Galleries don’t always play the game, though. I came around a corner face to face with one of Araki’s horribly jaunty bondage scenes, for example. Araki is an incontinent artist, and those bondage pictures don’t get more interesting on the hundredth or thousandth viewing. If the special point of Unseen is new work, then showing tired old work (and specially,  bad tired old work) should be considered a definite loss of cool for that gallery. Reflex, Amsterdam, do take note.

 

jonny-briggs-trompe-loeil-2012

Trompe L’Oeil 2012, by Jonny Briggs, represented by mc2.

 

Araki had a show at FOAM (the Amsterdam photo museum which collaborates closely with the Unseen fair) a few years ago. That may be why he was shoe horned into the fair. The British artist Jonny Briggs won a FOAM award for emerging talent a couple of years ago. So in his case it is entirely appropriate that he should be included in a gallery display by the mc2 gallery, from Milan. Briggs is definitely in the no-flat surface camp: he is endlessly and wittily inventive in the kinds of damage he can do to pictures, but endlessly successful in re-thinking them, too. He sometimes cuts framed family snapshots (frame, glass, mount, backboard, picture and all) on a diagonal and shoves the two parts along the fault line until one head is on somebody else’s body. These sound awful described like that, but a thoughtful family-dynamic or family-history scrutiny emerges which is not at all unlike what one finds in a certain kind of literary fiction. I liked a piece in which Briggs had recreated a corner of his grandmother’s sitting room, and spray-painted every detail in the kind of ‘magnolia’ house paint that was the more genteel version of white a few years ago. Briggs left just enough unsprayed (one grape and a little bit of tablecloth, since you ask) to stop the thing being simply a horrible off-white sculpture. There is a sculptural act behind it, but it remains wholly a photographic gesture. Better still, it comments with controlled melancholy on the monochrome tradition of respectful photography that makes up a part of every family’s history.

 

Briggs has also found a way to re-use the little trick the film maker Chris Marker used a number of years ago, of crumpling portrayed faces, re-smoothing them, then re-photographing the sheet (Marker used the name Crush-Art to refer to these pieces). The wrinkles and creases add a layer rich in meaning to the otherwise smooth picture. Marker’s ones came from magazines, and the creasing told of the throw-away culture, of consumerism, of the way your face might not be your fortune in a month or a year once the wrinkles had grown. Marker worked brilliantly around photography (his masterpiece, La Jetée, is a film made of sequenced still photographs) and it is interesting how the ideas he pioneered, including changing surfaces, but including also harvesting and re-working imagery from largely unpretentious sources, are now so central to the language currently in use.

 

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John Hilliard. Lakeland Palette 1, 2016. Represented by Kopeikin Gallery.

Not every treatment of the surface of photographs is a physical change like collage or creasing. John Hilliard’s Palette series (shown at Unseen at the Kopeikin Gallery from Los Angeles) is a self-conscious and formal exercise in testing perception. He samples the colours from a scene, and then includes blocks of those colours in it. The blocks are large enough to prevent us seeing the scene itself. This works much better when he does it to paintings or photographed views than it does when he picks colours from the spines of books in a library. In paintings, he makes us see just how much of the emotional effect comes from specific choices of colour. But with the books, where there is no overall emotional effect in question, nothing much happens.

 

Interestingly, a hipper, updated, but much less rich version of this process was also on show in the fair. Jan Rosseel’s current series on the Aesthetics of Violence does not much more than remind us that if you search on Google images for James Foley, say, you will get a lot of one particular orange, that of the jumpsuit in which prisoners of ISIS are executed. This seems a dead-end, although the series is only just begun and may develop.

 

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Elina Brotherus, Bedsheet, 2014, from the Annunciation series. Brotherus was represented at Unseen by Camara Oscura, from Madrid

Sometimes, the play with surface can be wholly included within an image.  Elina Brotherus’ Annunication series, about her own inability to have a child, is powerful for all sorts of reasons.  But there is one print within it in which she is seen shadowy through a bedsheet hanging on a line. Here the sheet – in addition to its more usual lexicon of references, to domesticity, to conception, to wrapping corpses and so on, also takes the form of a photograph: a creased and not very square photograph showing a ghostly figure.  You could say that as a print, this does simply have a flat traditional photo surface.  But you can’t help but notice that with the figure on the sheet, it has been given another layer within that.  It doesn’t always have to be a miniature sculpture or the record of an installation.

 

Unseen promotes a number of associated activities around the fair. There are talks (often interesting), a photo book market (de rigueur nowadays at photo fairs, and often not interesting), an associated festival. The Dutch photographer and film-maker Anton Corbijn was asked to curate a show in the (wonderful) Het Schip museum, around the corner from the site of the fair. As if to cement his perception of the rift away from camera-operators who make flat prints, Corbijn chose to make a show (Touched, it’s called) on a sample of hand-working processes and techniques. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking pleasure in the creases and stamps on an old picture from an archive, sometimes a self-consciously antiquarian revisiting of archaic processes. Some of the things Corbijn has chosen are marvellously beautiful, others less so. I worry about a banally sexist picture of a girl on all fours licking the wheels of a car, turned into a huge cyanotype by Thomas Mailaender. It is not the less sexist because he’s a well known curator and plainly knows how sexist it is; nor does the fact that it’s made in a (not very well mastered) nineteenth century process make it ironic. That was a bad miss.

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Detail of an untitled pinned xerox by Adam Jeppesen from Anton Corbijn’s Touched show at Het Schip in connection with Unseen.

Adam Jeppesen put long steel seamstresses’ pins in murky Xerox landscapes. The heads of the pins make points of light, exactly similar to the little glittering point of light that one sees in a real landscape – from mica, or moisture, or just shiny surfaces catching the sun. The shadows of the pins in the bright gallery lighting look like rain across the view. So by a simple manipulation, Jeppesen has given mystery and charm and wit and an element of narrative to a view that would without his pins have been rather…flat.

 

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Day 79, from the White Rabbit series, by Maija Tammi. Represented by East Wing.

 

The best single display in the whole fair is a gallery display, though. East Wing, an interesting gallery from the Gulf, has taken a big risk in putting on a real show of loosely connected photographs on environmental themes. Here is where photography overlaps most obviously with sculpture, and therefore where the remove from flat prints is at it most distinct. Caleb Charland makes a variant of that school exercise where you make a battery from a lemon, by lighting a lamp from apples still on the tree. It’s an environmental piece of some seriousness, but it’s also absurd. Maija Tammi has made thoughtful work about the culture of cancerous cells, about death itself, and about our industrial relationship to it, and she has included camera-shaped boxes which you have to hold in your hand to peer and peek. Mandy Barker’s work on plastic has been developing for some time. In its latest advance, she looks at micro-particles of plastic as a species of a lunatic plankton, floating about the sea, and she has included a rather wonderful pastiche book of old-fashioned science as a way of getting us in to her subject. Yann Mingard has made a clever but unpretentious series of paired images comparing the ‘damaged’ light of Turner (it seems Turner’s famous skies were much affected by volcanic activity in his lifetime) with the hazy effects of pollution on skies in China today.

All four of these could easily be research projects in environmental science or in sustainable development. All four artists have the rigour, the search for evidence, the other careful habits of science. But all four thankfully have the wit and confidence to find ways of expressing themselves somewhere on the border between photography and sculpture. They jostle each other across the crowded walls of a gallery booth in an art fair, and no one who sees it leaves unmoved. It will take institutional buyers to buy such things, but it was good of East Wing to try it.

 

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Of course, not all attempts to make new surfaces are interesting. There is plenty of room left for the pretentious, the idiotic, and the meretricious. It wouldn’t be an art fair if were not so. This is one from the series of Paint Rollers, 2016. By PUTPUT, represented at Unseen by Galerie Esther Woerdehoff

 

So there you have it. There’s plenty of room for pretention and foolishness. It wouldn’t be an art fair if there weren’t. But it’s also clear that a new generation of photographic artists are developing who quite knowingly want their messages to be read slowly and with thought, and who will break up that flat skiddy surface of the photograph we know so well to do that.

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Diamond Prox, from the series Teen Spirit Island, by Joscha Steffens. Perhaps the exception that proves the rule. One of a glorious series of portraits of professional (and very successful) gamers, this really is a traditional flat print. It’s lit by the light from the screen only. It is usually shown as part of an installation (so that may be how it qualifies for non-flat, not-fast photography) that reflects on the twilight world of these highly sponsored superstars, who burn out in their early twenties as their reflexes get too slow to play.

 

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Padlock the Pump Handle : Clarence A. Bach and the Habits of Photojournalism

<b>Caption from LIFE.</b> "Three dead Americans on the beach at Buna."

“Three dead Americans on the beach at Buna.” A famous and an important picture by George Strock. Often cited as the first picture to show American dead after Pearl Harbor, it was taken either in late December 1942 or in early January 1943, but not published until September 1943, after LIFE had exercised considerable effort in overcoming censorship. In an editorial accompanying publication, LIFE described the three bodies on the beach (in New Guinea) as “three units of freedom”.

 

I was doing a little research (of the familiar Google-drifting kind) on something else when I came across a remarkable man of whom no British reader of these lines will ever have heard. So allow me to introduce you to Clarence A. Bach, founder and principal teacher of what seems to have been the first vocational course in photography in any American high school, the idiosyncratic — and wildly successful — course at John C. Fremont High School, Los Angeles.

“Clarence Bach was a short asthmatic man who sent his graduates out to photograph the world and everything in it as no group of kids from one high school has ever done before – or since. Almost every newspaper in the West has Bach’s boys. All the big screen and movie magazines of the heyday ’30s and ’40s had them. Now they are in TV and motion pictures. Major magazines throughout the country staff [sic] Fremont graduates – LIFE has had eight staff photographers from Bach.”   Those are the words of Mark Kauffman (himself a photographer for LIFE and then a distinguished picture editor at Sports Illustrated), from a generous tribute to Bach [i].

“When Bach, then a second cameraman at Twentieth Century Fox, first went to the Los Angeles Board of Education with his idea for a photography course, the Board was completely skeptical. “Photography is expensive,” they said, “and there’s no assurance in the world that a single student will learn enough to get a job by it….”

“Finally, after going the rounds of all the high schools, Bach went to see William L. Richer, the principal at Fremont High. In 1925, Bach was allowed to start his course on a part-time basis, with a caution that ‘it hadn’t better cost too much money.’ Bach installed a tiny lab in an old dressing room off the high school auditorium, and his first class began rambling up and down the iron staircase with cameras and exposed negatives. [ii]

It took a while, but the first graduate got a job in 1933: Eddie Stone, hired that year at International News. By the end of the war, there were 146 Bach graduates working either as photographers or as lab men in the various armed forces, and many more working in studios or on papers up and down the West Coast.

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John G. Zimmerman, Christie Brinkley on the cover of Sports Illustrated, 1981. It is something of a professional honour to be asked to do the cover of the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated, and Zimmerman made several. But it is hard to admire this sort of thing, beyond a grudging admission that it is well enough done – for lighting, in particular. It would be very interesting to know what Clarence Bach would have made of pictures like this.

These are striking figures: it’s an astonishing record. That figure : eight photographer-disciples on the staff of LIFE, we’re told. Here are more than eight :

John Dominis;

John Florea;

Mark Kauffman;

Bob Landry;

Dick Pollard;

George Strock;

Harold Trudeau;

Hank Walker;

Jack Wilkes;

John G. Zimmerman

Not all of these are specially well-known today, but many are. They are still a formidably distinguished crew, to say the least. As LIFE Magazine once quite officially put it, “they learnt their trade from Clarence A. Bach, whose photography course is a curricular adornment of Fremont High [iii].

There is not much doubt that Bach’s course was trusted and admired.   As John Morris, himself a picture editor at LIFE, among a host of other distinguished roles in photojournalism, remembered it:

“This Los Angeles public school, whose alumni I took to calling “Group FHS” as an echo of San Francisco’s Group f/64, owed its success to the inspiration of one devoted schoolteacher, Clarence A. Bach. I have no idea how he taught, but his results were impressive. Our association with FHS began when Dick Pollard, needing an extra photographer for a sudden LIFE assignment, remembered a talented Los Angeles Times photographer whom he had seen covering a Pomona College track meet. It was George Strock, a recent Fremont graduate. Not only did Strock begin getting Life assignments he introduced a second Fremonter, Bob Landry, who introduced a third, Johnny Florea, who introduced a fourth, Mark Kauffman, who introduced a fifth, John Dominis, who introduced a sixth, Jack Wilkes, who introduced a seventh. Hank Walker. A few Fremont alumni got away to other magazines, but I have the same high regard for the members of the Fremont High Society that I do for the members of the Royal Photographic Society. [iv]

That networking seems to have been a deliberate part of the Bach recipe. “Our graduates have gone out and done well for themselves, and by their success have bred jobs for countless other kids. It’s not a union…but a lot better than a union. Our boys have mushroomed all over the field of photography by reaching down and helping another guy up. [v]

Another element in Bach’s system was a solid grounding in the physics, mechanics, and chemistry of the camera and the darkroom, including lighting. “Bach considers lab work rightly as important a part of a photographer’s training as correct exposure and focus, and each student must know the basic formulas of every developer that he might encounter on a job before he goes into the advanced class[vi] .”

There was a constant flow of assignments, in which the student-mock seems to have overlapped constantly with the professional. “The most exciting part was a Bach ‘assignment’ to cover a big game. Friday afternoon would find us fanning out in the damnedest assortment of jalopies ­— Essexes, Marmons, Moons, Pierce Arrows — anything with wheels and a couple of gallons of gas. Ah, the sweet glory of seeing our labors on the printed page ! Not only that, but you made five bucks. [vii]

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Ginger Rogers by Bob Landry. Cover of LIFE, March 1942. Is this a portrait of a successful and self-confident woman at ease, or is it sophisticated cheesecake?

The final element seems to have been a constant habit of critique. Bach himself reviewed portfolios, even when much of the teaching was delegated to his assistant Holger Wilkstrom. Students were expected to edit assignments down to a realistic number of usable pictures, and usable they had to be. “While working on a project, Bach gives close attention to each individual photographer’s idea after he or she has chosen his approach to the subject. Clear, well-composed shots are a must. [viii]

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John Dominis. Steve McQueen and his wife Neile take a sulphur bath at Big Sur, 1963. Clear, well-composed shots are a must. But it certainly also helps if you can persuade famous actors to let you follow them into the bathroom.

“Bach was soft on discipline but very hard on idlers. ‘Either get out and take pictures, ‘ he would shout,’ or get in the darkroom and work.’ We used to play tricks on him, like putting flashbulbs in his desklamp. I think he secretly enjoyed the resulting bedlam. Every day, after one hour in photography class, we had three full hours in which to shoot pictures or work in the darkroom. Bach put tremendous emphasis on our shooting on the playing fields. We sharpened our reflexes covering the action and also had to work our imaginations to do still lifes of sporting equipment, outdoor portraits and set up publicity-type pictures. We practiced composition and architectural photography on the buildings. Never has one school been so worked over by the camera.

California Angels Nolan Ryan

Characteristically adventurous technical study by John G. Zimmerman. Nolan Ryan of the California Angels, photographed on the day he threw his fourth career no-hitter during a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Anaheim Stadium in 1975.

The slightest whiff of smoke set us scrambling for our homemade wooden cases containing old Speed Graphic cameras, and created mass exodus. In those days in L.A., we could get the police car radio reports on our own radios. This was our greatest source for news tips. In my junior year at Fremont, Bach’s students had over 500 pictures published in the four major Los Angeles newspapers. There was even a cover on LIFE…. We really loved photography with a passion, and though we had strange ways of showing it, we loved and respected C.A. Bach. There was a feeling that every day would bring something new and exciting and Bach was leading us to greater and greater things in and through photography. [ix]

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Clarence A. Bach, photographed by Bill Bridges. From a retirement tribute in Sports Illustrated, 1959. The stars behind him do not represent the states of the Union. They represent the photographers he had placed at the service of the nation in the course of the war.

 

So there you have some kind of a sketch of a great teacher. It’s no surprise that sport became one of the great fields of American photography, and that Bach students like John G. Zimmerman did so very well at Sports Illustrated, for example. Bach was clearly a man of vast charisma, a believer in solid technical grounding, and fiercely loyal to his network. Much of his system is still the norm in photography courses today. When he retired in 1959, Sports Illustrated ran a column in his honour in which he was called “chatty and ceaselessly curious. [x]

It makes me wonder quite how one can trace the influence of that one man on one of the most famous picture magazines in the world. I haven’t done it, and it may be too late to do it as thoroughly as might have been – because a lot of his pupils no longer survive — but somebody should. Right there is major research project. That he had influence is clear enough from the passages I’ve cited here. But we need to know a great deal more. What sort of taste Bach had, what he thought about photography, his politics, his attitude to women, to abroad, to America, his intended legacy…. Because I expect we would find something quite exciting.

It used to be that people talked and wrote more about the zeitgeist than they do now. Zeitgeist has fallen a bit from fashion, and high time, too. It was always a suspect notion, I felt, replacing the clear tracing of influences from person to person (or person to institution) with a sloppier assumption that ideas just existed in the air. They rarely do. People may not always be scholars, and they may not always accurately track their own ideas back to their sources. Some people, it’s true, hold a lot of the ideas of their time with no thought of critiquing those ideas. But I don’t think professional people in the pursuit of their professions do that. Or at least, they do — and should be called out when they do.

Many years ago the architectural historian Mark Girouard wrote a book[xi] on a group of Elizabethan country houses, Longleat, Wollaton, Hardwick and so on.   Before Girouard, these had been more-or-less presumed to be anonymous, and assumed to demonstrate the ‘spirit of the age’. They shared a number of characteristics such as the relatively vast areas of glass they used, their high compact design around light-wells and courtyards, and the turning of the hall through ninety degrees compared to what had gone before. Girouard in effect rejected the idea that the zeitgeist alone could have designed those wonderful houses: there must be a person involved. And there was. He found that although the term architect was not yet in general use, a particular craftsman, Robert Smythson, was always associated with these houses, although referred to sometimes as mason, sometimes as contractor and so on. Girouard built the case that Smythson had designed the great houses, and actually found the papers relating to Smythson which proved it; not only the surviving designs (called platts at the time) but the account books and so on showing the payments Smythson had received. It’s a fine reminder that sometimes we don’t even recognize our woolly thinking as woolly. It’s just … in the air.

We used to think that the cholera was spread by the miasma until in 1854 a doctor called John Snow, not satisfied by that, carefully mapped the incidence of one outbreak of the disease and put a padlock on a pump handle in Soho [xii].

In photography, for a number of reasons, we have a shortage of really good scholarship and consequently a higher proportion than is justified of airy (or miasmic) assumptions; as well as the persistent survival of numbers of untruths. Research goes on all the time, and some of it scratches away sometimes quite effectively at age-old assumptions. In that context, I admire the single-minded way the critic A.D. Coleman goes after his subjects. He has spent a good deal of energy pursuing the untruths told (and the assumptions made) about Robert Capa’s D-Day pictures [xiii]. One of his targets in that affair has been the same John Morris mentioned earlier.

But an awful lot more goes by unchallenged.

There is a passage in Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty [xiv] in which she discusses the pictures that came out of Abu Ghraib. “It isn’t that this photograph played no role in the unfolding of human events — clearly, it did. But after nearly 200 years of photography, it may be that we are closer than ever to understanding that an image — be it circulated in a newspaper, on You Tube, or in an art gallery — is an exceptionally poor platform on which to place the unending, arduous, multifaceted and circuitous process of ‘changing the world’ “.

I am pretty certain that Henry Luce and his various employees at LIFE would have had grave difficulty understanding that sentiment.

We need continually to padlock some pump handles and actually map the effects of what goes on, rather than simply making assumptions. We need to ‘do a Girouard’ on the photojournalism that became so central to American public discourse. I don’t know that I think that any great deliberate untruths have been told about the kind of imagery that LIFE and the other picture magazines fostered. I just suspect that a number of assumptions about that imagery — and as a result of its central place in the US canon, about photojournalism more generally — can be traced, if only we knew, to the habits, prejudices, abilities, friendships or early reading of Mr. Clarence A. Bach.

 

 

[i] Kauffman quoted at length above the signature of George P. Hunt, Managing Editor, on the opening ‘Editors’ Note’ page of LIFE on January 3rd, 1967

[ii] Photo Teacher. Tribute to Clarence Bach, by Tom Carlile. Popular Photography, March 1947.

[iii] LIFE, vol 22 No. 1, January 6th 1947, p.11

[iv] Morris, John G., Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism. Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 55.

[v] Carlile, Popular Photography, op.cit

[vi] Carlile, Popular Photography, op.cit

[vii] Kauffman tribute, op cit.

[viii] Carlile, Popular Photography, op cit. in a picture caption.

[ix] Kauffman tribute, op cit.

[x] Sports Illustrated, A Pat on the Back, June 15th 1959, p. 88

[xi] Girouard, M., Robert Smythson and the Elizabethan Country House, Yale University Press, revised 1983.

[xii] Cf. for example, Johnson, Steven, The Ghost Map – The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic, Penguin, 2008 A Street, an Epidemic and the Hidden Power of Urban Networks.

[xiii] For the main list of his endeavours in this matter, cf. Coleman’s blog at http://www.nearbycafe.com/artandphoto/photocritic/major-stories/major-series-2014/robert-capa-on-d-day/ ( accessed in September 2016)

[xiv] Nelson, M., The Art of Cruelty, WW. Norton, 2012 ( paperback) p. 40

Full of Mind

“Of Mr.Rejlander’s pictures (for such we may justly call them), we have no hesitation in saying that they are full of beauty and full of mind.”

Anonymous reviewer in the Art Journal for 1868

 

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Oscar Gustav Rejlander

The National Portrait Gallery in London has recently acquired these very different pictures from an album of the mid-1860s (holding both well-known and unknown studies) by Oscar Gustav Rejlander after a successful export block. The watermarks you see on the scans are those of the auctioneer Morphets of Harrogate who sold the album for £70,000 in late 2014. The estimate had been £7000-£10,000. The necessary funds to cancel the proposed sale and make it instead a public purchase were raised with the help of the Art Fund and of National Portrait Gallery supporters.

 

 

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Oscar Gustav Rejlander

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Oscar Gustav Rejlander

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Oscar Gustav Rejlander

This modest little story is presented here as something of a mild inoculation against the fever of museum closures or failures in UK photography. We have seen the absurd mistreatment of the Birmingham Library archives in photography, the grave mishandling of the transfer of a number of collections from the National Media Museum in Bradford to the Victoria & Albert Museum and a number of other failures.   We are told to expect the closure of the expensive Media Space in London almost before its fancy paint has had time to dry. The national collections in photography are, to say the very least, not receiving the very highest level of care and attention in the period we are living through.

In that context, it is salutary to see the ordinary work of national collections proceeding in an orderly way. An important album comes up for sale. Its value to scholarship is patent. The export is halted pending an opportunity to raise the necessary funds, and when those funds are quite properly made available, the album is bought for the nation.

No doubt there is a very disappointed overseas buyer. That buyer may be a private collector, or perhaps more likely, an agent acting on behalf of another institution. Whoever she is or represents, that buyer feels (as buyers always do in these circumstances) that her cup has been unfairly dashed from her lips. That buyer will feel that she had found the thing, had the courage to bid high, and should be allowed to march off with it. We can sympathize.

At the same time, if due process has been observed, we can also feel that the greater right has prevailed, and be very glad that the album is now in a place where schoolchildren can see it from time to time, and where scholars can use it to change once again our perceptions of Victorian art, of photography, of the history of dress and of dressing up, of social mores and much, much more. One of the things about national collections is that no generation can know what will be of interest to future scholars, so you carefully keep things whose value may not be obvious against the time when someone will scrutinize them from a perspective that we cannot predict today. That costs money, and therefore needs to be justified against other claims on the public purse. But when it is done right, it is a civilized process and one that can be applauded.

Phillip Prodger, curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery was quoted (in one of those bland quotes people are asked to produce at such times) as saying the album “transforms the way we think about one of Britain’s great artists”. It remains for Dr. Prodger to show us the early fruits of the scholarship he now has the opportunity to turn to this acquisition. We should look forward fairly promptly to a display of the album, washed in the light of that scholarship. That, on a small scale, is the normal functioning of a properly handled national collection, something British people interested in photography may be forgiven for imagining they no longer had.

 

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Oscar Gustav Rejlander

 

 

I followed the story of the Rejlander Album on the excellent British Photographic History blog, which has covered it from before the auction sale through to the successful incorporation into the collections of the National Portrait Gallery. Persons interested in the subject are well advised to subscribe to this free source of impressively curated information.

The full Rejlander album is still visible thanks to Morphets Auctioneers who took the trouble to scan it and still have it open to view. Again, this seems a normal proceeding at that juncture where the commercial world of art and antiques meets the scholarly world of museum collections and of those who use them.   It even might be good if the Harrogate auction house could be persuaded, in a small further step, to keep the scans permanently available, perhaps if necessary by transferring them to the National Portrait Gallery’s website. That would represent a trivial cost but a non-trivial commitment to scholarship. No doubt their respective information technology systems may have difficulty in corresponding, but the idea seems a good one and one that might become routine with a little bit of tweaking.