The Sunday Times Magazine – 50 Years

The Sunday Times Magazine is 50 this week, and it has a lot to boast about.  The first colour supplement in a country which has become addicted to them, it consistently set standards for readability and viewability which others have struggled to meet.  British culture now sometimes seems only to exist through the prism of magazines, and The Sunday Times Magazine can fairly take its share of the blame for that.  Its staff and contributors make a galaxy of journalism. But the point about the Magazine was that it was a magazine.  A celebratory – not to say self-aggrandizing – exhibition at the Saatchi gallery misses this almost completely, and in doing so begs the question of whether the show itself has any point beyond puffery for the Sunday Times and an increase in footfall (because there will always be people who want to see famous photographs) for the gallery.  

If the idea of colour reproduction was very new when the magazine started, it is not that which kept it going.  It employed some very good people who thought it normal to make pages tell their tales as elegantly and as eloquently as possible.  But you would not be able to find any attempt to apportion credit or to seek to understand how those people worked together from this exhibition, which is more of a branding exercise than an attempt at fairly telling the story of an interesting and occasionally even important publication.

There is a pleasant wall of old covers, which acts as a reminder of how often the Magazine used visual techniques other than the tough documentary photography we associate most closely with it.  Covers could be drawn or collaged, cartoons were used, even three-dimensional models. They wore typefaces made into words, too, and that was always important.

The fundamental point is that the Magazine was made by delicate balances between writers, photographers, draughtsmen, designers, printers…Even the fact that the advertisements punctuated the journalism was an essential part of the experience of reading it, since the Sunday Times Magazine cultivated a strange and pioneering marriage between luxury (or luxury-ish) ads and gritty stories.  The show has none of that.  For some reason (or maybe for none) the organizers have chosen to mount the pictures very large (larger than many of them can really stand) on lightboxes with a thick black surround.  This one choice wrecks the show, because the experience of seeing these pictures on lightboxes is a completely false one for any reader of the magazine.  Only the picture desk saw pictures like that, through magnifiers and backlit. It is not how the pictures were received in public at all.  The heavy black is incongruously portentous, and the big transparencies claim too much for the pictures. It was a working magazine, and although it certainly published wonderful pictures, it is as page spreads that we need to understand them, doing their work in a fair partnership with the words they accompanied, and strewn about on pages carefully designed to give them air and space when they needed it.

There are, in fairness, a few spreads to be seen, here and there.  A handful of vitrines have some bound copies of the magazine, and these, although the pages they show are sometimes ill chosen, are worth seeing.  David Beckham in a routine story we could have done without, but Peter Gillman’s HOAX  (on Truman Capote) is very fine. Bruce Chatwin’s One Million Years of Art, from June 1973, is interesting as a forerunner of the History of the World in 100 Objects, recently put together to loud acclaim by the BBC and the British Museum. I hadn’t realized how closely their scheme was lifted from the magazine until seeing Chatwin’s work here. A very small number of the lightboxes contain page spreads reproduced in their entirety, too, including a fine one of Arnold Newman’s series on British actors, and another of Gene Richard’s Crack City. But there are too few of them to get any idea of how the pages worked all their elements together, and instead we get too many pictures blown up far too big, out of context, and frankly not very well selected.  

Who would have thought that a banal portrait of the actor Daniel Craig by Sam Taylor-Wood could possibly find its way into such a ‘greatest hits’ show as this?  But here it is, and it has a hole in it, too, right in the middle of the ring on the actor’s finger, at the central point of the whole picture.  To have included the picture was very odd selection, but to have allowed it to be exhibited in that condition is indicative of the depressingly lazy processes of mind that lie behind this very insubstantial exhibition.  Poor selection, poor presentation, lack of pride in the product… These are not the qualities that made the Sunday Times.  It’s a painfully unhistorical exhibition, ironically for a 50-year celebration.   It contains rather too much unedifying self-congratulation, in the form of dubious accolades self-bestowed (‘iconic’ is a recurring one, a word which should always be treated with keen suspicion in a photographic context) and rather too little interest in seeking out the truth and then telling it.  It’s a missed opportunity.

For those who read this before 5th February 2012, there is an amusing bonus in that the organizers have put the entire anniversary issue on iPads in the exhibition space, so you can know in advance, if you care to, that there is a pleasant (but not very illuminating) piece in the nature of a memoir by Michael Rand, the former art director of the magazine, and a good story with pictures by John Bulmer, one of the many fine photographers the magazine used over the years.  Bulmer had rather fallen out of view when cast aside by the Sunday Times when it went after the lifestyle market from about the mid-1980s, until a recent run of exhibitions brought him back before the public, and it is good to see his mini-revival including pride of place in the anniversary issue of a once-great magazine. Predictably, the biggest story is by Lynn  Barber and it’s on sex.  Once a lifestyle mag, always a lifestyle mag, apparently, even when looking backwards to some prelapsarian time when such a thing hardly existed.

(Illustrations are merely iPhone reproductions of covers)

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