If a museum needs to campaign against the cuts, or a change is mooted in the curriculum for ‘A’ Level study, or a failure in intellectual property law cries out for lobbying in Parliament – who speaks for photography?
At the ceremony on 18 September 2012 to mark the start of construction by which the former Commonwealth Institute in High Street Kensington will become a new Design Museum, Sir Terence Conran used the opportunity to once again “persuade government of the importance of design in this country”. Ed Vaizey, the Minister of Culture, replied by saying “Government has taken note of Terence’s comments, and I’ll take back what he said and see what we can do.” Sir Terence is the founder of the museum, and a generous patron. But he is also the owner of a number of businesses whose profitability might well be affected by the government’s response.
Lord Rogers of Riverside, whose 1997 book Cities for a Small Planet (based on his Reith Lectures of 1995) established his credentials as an advocate for sustainable and liveable cities, has advised both Prime Minister Tony Blair and London Mayor Boris Johnson on urbanism. Lord Rogers has designed a number of very private buildings in London whose contribution to the liveable city is to say the least open to question. It is not plain, for example, that the great corporate monuments which are 122 Leadenhall Street (known as the Cheesegrater) or the Lloyds Building do anything very much for ordinary citizens, for permeability, or for the small planet, come to that. Lord Rogers got himself into a mildly embarrassing pickle earlier this year when he drew attention to the large number of empty homes in the most expensive sectors of the London residential market, only for it to be pointed out that he himself was the architect of the luxury apartments at One Hyde Park, which were easily predicted to become, as they almost all have, second homes owned by non-residents and most of which are used only a few weeks per year.
Even Sir Paul Smith – a man who once reacted to Prime Minister David Cameron’s horribly self-promoting down-with-the-guys public dithering on whether or when to wear a tie with the terse fly-swat “the political arena is not the place to make fashion statements” – has been known to appear at industry gets-together with Business Secretary Vince Cable promoting UK textile mills or that more nebulous something called ‘creativity’.
Creative industries in the UK have a number of leading figures who can routinely be called on to provide a headline or shape a point of view. Sir Martin Sorell, CEO of WPP, the largest advertising agency in the world, has been a frequent voice for years. He gave a famous speech at the D&AD in 1996 which made broad claims on behalf of the industry: “What we sell are pearls. Whether we are designers or planners or writers or art directors or corporate strategists, our raw material is knowledge. We turn that knowledge into ideas, insights, and objects that have a material, quantifiable value to our clients”.
Another such voice has been that of Sir Nicholas Hytner, outgoing director of the National Theatre. (“Sir Nicholas Hytner: Arts are Economic Gold for Britain – The Daily Telegraph, April 2013).
Some of these figures carry a more or less official appointment (Lord Rogers, for example, as well as setting up the Urban Task Force at the request of government, held for a number of years a role as Chair of the Greater London Authority Panel on Architecture); many others do not. Some speak ex-officio: the Director-General of the BBC, Director of the Tate, and so on. But most do not. In a very British way, speaking up on behalf of a whole cultural industry is part of a position among ‘the Great and the Good’ ; that may well carry fringe benefits, but these voices are not really being heard for the money, or at least never directly. Crucially, too, these spokesknights and spokeslords are not by any means specifically limited to pronouncing on their own particular area. Across a broad swathe of the cultural industries and the creative industries, these voices form a ready-made and fairly establishment lobby.
Nobody really cares about possible conflicts of interest in these circumstances. A sound-bite, a photo-opportunity, are not to be seen as audits. Just an opportunity to scatter a little business, promote a few of the good guys.
Most of the people I’ve listed here are in design fields. Design has become a shorthand way of referring to a supposed way of thinking, and claims are routinely made for design that it lies at the heart of the creative industries. I’m rather sceptical about all of this. I think design in its contemporary incarnation is often largely an advertising word, a weasel-word. Design at its worst is a pseudo-culture that can be painted onto almost any activity the easier to sell it. Quite often, ‘design’ has been the camouflage for a very Thatcherite agenda whereby the shareholding has been kept in one set of hands, based or at least serviced in the UK, while the labour of making things has been exported to cheaper markets elsewhere. Dyson, for example, the design-branded electrical-appliance company, has steadily moved production from its base in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, to Malaysia while keeping research and development mainly in the UK. It is naturally no coincidence that the production was mainly done by people who were members of trade unions; the R&D is done mainly by people who are not.
Similarly, while a wide range of businesses thrive in the UK for whom some part of their assets are creative thinking and creative practices, a lot of blather about the ‘creative industries’ refers to a sector in which many of the participants would not recognise those with whom they are supposed to share the label, let alone acknowledge any common ground. We may be world leaders in computer aided graphics effects for films, for example, but I doubt that the people who work doing that have ever felt close cousinhood with those who run market research companies for advertising. Sometimes it would be better to think of the creative industries as just one sector of the new European reality that says we are better at services than we are at goods.
There is a huge culture of design, of course, and very important and serious it is, too. But it is not that which is under discussion when a Marc Newson Lockheed Lounge chair sells for £1 million at auction, nor when the word ‘designer’ is used as a kitemark for aspirational and safe and expensive. Designer handbag. Designer restaurant. Design in fact is very like photography: long history, wide spread, deep range from vernacular or applied to wholly self-conscious. But somehow design has been actively marketed and lobbied-for in the last half-generation, with predictable increases all around. Design is booming. Auction houses now have glamorous sales of design quite separate to the sales of furniture or print or clothing (or other designed stuff) they used to have. University courses in design areas are multiplying by the year. And at the upper end of all of that, lots of designers are quite regularly asked to speak on behalf of the whole pack of cards. So are TV people, people in theatre, music, publishing, architecture…Universities of course relentlessly lobby government and bend the ears of the upper reaches of the press corps. It works. It makes a difference.
Design makes the interesting contrast to photography. Who has the equivalent role for photography? If a museum needs to campaign against the cuts, or a change is mooted in the curriculum for ‘A’ Level study, or a failure in intellectual property law cries out for lobbying in Parliament – who speaks for photography?
Silence. Resounding, echoing silence.
There are plausible systemic reasons for this, or at least one could argue so.
The first is the sheer breadth of photography. It is naturally very hard to find a strategic or policy stance which might sensibly apply to photography as a main driver of contemporary fine art, photography in advertising, photography as a tool of memory (or group memory), journalism, scientific photography, photography in education, photography as just another of the many ways a modern person has of expressing herself …. Some of the members of each of those sectors actively despise the members of the others, and few of them know enough about each other to feel any shared social connection simply by their shared ownership of an extraordinarily diverse practice which is hardly recognizably the same for all of them.
For a long time I have been writing that the fact that we all own cameras and can use them at the drop of a hat not only to take pictures but to disseminate them, too, does not make us all photographers. We need a new vocabulary. The estate agent who routinely makes and disseminates photographs as part of his work is not a photographer. I’ve suggested that we use the expression camera-operator for all those uses, and reserve photographer for those who self-consciously expect some appreciation of what they do as connected to previous photographs.
That’s problematic enough. Who can speak for photography as a whole if we’re already hiving off great chunks of photographic activity as being non-photographic?
There’s another way of looking at it. With only a small shift of mindset, photography is not a sector or a sub-sector of the creative businesses. Photography dates from a long time before bicycling, but it helps to think of it in the same way. Both are tremendous Victorian technologies which triggered social change far beyond the expectations of the pioneers who launched into them. It is a romantic thought but hardly an exaggeration to say that the bicycle was the single most important factor in the liberation of women, in particular. The stifling conventions of British industrial towns were broken down partly by the two genders sharing long cycle tours – the first affordable individual transport for ordinary waged people. And if it should so happen that a lady and a gentleman should be delayed by a puncture, well, that happened, and the rest of the club would wait for them at the chosen campsite or Cycle Touring Club hostel further on. Courting would never be the same.
This simple machine, readily affordable, mendable, adaptable, light in the resources needed to make it and slow to decay helped to defeat the trillion-dollar US army in Vietnam and powered the Chinese social uplift in its early phases. In countries which have embraced it – in the Netherlands, say – you no more call yourself a cyclist than you call yourself a trainist because you use a train to get from one city to another. Everybody uses a bike, granny or schoolchild, to go about business. She does it in normal clothes, without feeling the need to adhere to a sect of activists to do it. The government sees that cycling is a universal good, and facilitates it, by policy and by funding and by administration in its favour. There are certainly racers and mountain-bikers and long-distance people, too. But they choose to identify themselves: they are cyclists. Everyone else is just a citizen, who will be, many times a week, upon a bike.
Precisely the same can be said about photography. Photography has been for years a universal tool. It too is a wonderful Victorian technology that has spread far beyond its origins. The successive democratisations of photography have had their effect. Of course there are some enthusiasts who want to think about photography and photographs. I’m one of them. But the vast majority are just citizens, who many times a week want to communicate or be communicated to through photographs and their derivatives. We’re mostly not photographers. We’re consumers of photography on a huge scale, and some of us are camera operators.
So another parallel seems to fit. Photography is like gardening. It’s something which tends to the common good, but only a tiny proportion of those who do it would regard themselves as ‘serious’ and an even smaller number earn their living from it. Yet that is enough to make a large interlinked group of professions depend on gardening. No doubt gardening between all its aspects represents a share of the balance of trade. Huge numbers of people are passionately literate in gardens without for a moment considering it even among their specialist activities. But people speak for gardening all the time. Gardening permeates our culture. Design is beginning to. More specific cultural activities like cinema and literary fiction and opera have disproportionately huge broadsheet coverage, funding and numberless hordes of spokespeople. Yet photography, which is really the shared culture of all of us, has none of that. There are few photography writers and fewer photography sections in the papers. There is no administration to facilitate it, no policy.
Photography is not really defined as an industry in quite the same way as the (pop) music business or advertising or television or even architecture (with its direct connections to construction). In contrast to other creative industries, photography as an industry is actually rather diminished, now. Where fashion can still be more or less be quantified by pounds spent, even if they are now spent online, photography no longer has huge factories churning out film or cameras. The former manufacturing base has been disseminated through a wide range of digital hardware and software manufacturers few of whom now think of themselves as mainly in photography . Much of the online practice of photography is free. Getty Images in March of this year made the final price reduction – to £0.00, free to use – on thirty-five million pictures. Photography departments in museums are tiny groups of four or five people. The truth is that photography remains, in spite of one or two massive attempts to aggregate it into corporate blocks, essentially a group of interlinked cottage industries. One of the salient facts about photography is that nobody controls it in the way that the music business or the film business or even the big-bucks sectors of publishing are controlled by corporate entities. That militates against one voice speaking on behalf of the whole of it.
Photography tends to show a remarkably wide range of business models corresponding in some way to a wide range of forms of expression. The guy who rents out his drone-helicopter with a number of rotors to act as a stable platform for aerial photography may not feel that he has much in common with Miss Cara Delevingne. One can see that it might be hard to find representative voices for both of them, and then to multiply that out by hundreds of sectors. It would be fun to map the readerships of the various magazines which are based upon photography. Is there any single person with a subscription both to Esquire and to Railway Modeller? Yet both are in a real sense photo-magazines.
There are Getty Images, of course, and Corbis. But I have never been made aware of any public pronouncement from either which had any claim to broad general application. They are companies, and when they speak they speak in the interests of the shareholders or owner. Maybe they are too young still to feel any public responsibility for ‘the field’ or the business’. Or maybe they just stick to their onions.
There has only ever been one holder of the position of Photography Officer at the Arts Council. Barry Lane held that job from 1973, and oversaw a specialist photography sub-committee which carried on throughout the 1980s allocating grants and also purchases into the Arts Council collection by acquisition. But, as David Mellor’s 2008 touring show No Such Thing as Society so vividly demonstrated, there are enormous gaps in the Arts Council collection, notably after Barry Lane left. Photography was then subsumed in the wider visual arts as far as the Arts Council was concerned, there to sink or swim as it might. Lane was anyway more concerned with documentary than with other practices, and the Arts Council never really even glanced at the wider photography world. With tiny budgets, incomprehension if not downright hostility from those who might have helped, an impossible task in a dozen different ways, Lane tried to speak for the whole and within reason made a good job of it. Could one envisage his post being re-created? I think so, although Lane’s own struggles go a long way to showing that it can’t be done without structure, strategy, and support.
There is no national ‘home’ for photography. The museum in Bradford deliberately (and disastrously) abjured the role when it changed its policy from being the museum anchored to collections in photography, film and television, to being a museum anchored in something weaselly defined as media, in which it still holds no serious collection and likely never will. There has never been a BBC strand devoted to photography — and I continue to be amazed that there has not. Given that photography stretches from high art to high vernacular, it would be hugely popular. The BBC should at the very least have a photography correspondent, to be wheeled out across their various platforms when photography comes to be at issue. That might be for the release of a new set of Abu Ghraib pictures or potentially trumped-up phone photos from the ISIS insurgency in Iraq or it might be for the latest papped picture of documents carefully-carelessly exposed by ministers rushing in to Cabinet or to analyse satellite pictures of pollution in the Western Approaches. The UK is actually falling back in photography. We’re falling back in the museology of the thing, in commerce, everywhere. We have had (although at the moment the UK lags far behind other countries in this area) absolutely world-leading creative directors and art-directors, but they don’t act in concert. We have lost a number of photographic festivals, and although there are new ones in the pipeline, the catch-up to the Rencontres at Arles or Paris-Photo is dauntingly far. We are especially bad at promoting our own: in the UK excellent photographers routinely fall into obscurity for lack of that proud national conviction that they should be honoured, whose equivalent is so visible in other countries with a comparable photographic culture.
The great national museums do what they can, but not one of them has at the moment a charismatic leader in the photographic field. Excellent departmental curators, certainly. But national figures? Probably not. We have museum practitioners, itching and twitching to do more than they can. Yet who in the wider public has ever heard a word pronounced by John Falconer, devoted and long-term head of photographs at the British Library? The British Library is headed by Roly Keating, who grew up in the cultural reaches of the BBC. You can bet your bottom dollar that he has been heard arguing for books, literacy, culture in general. He is the head of one of the great photographic collections in the world. Has he ever said a word in public even about his own holdings, leave alone photography in the wild?
There are really no voices on the model even of the people I opened with above. The day when a government minister can say with a straight face that ‘Government has taken note..’ of a spokesman for photography will be the day that the tide will have turned. We have in photography our share of time-servers and officials in the Ministry of Circumlocution, of course. No doubt even as you read this, somebody is including photography in a seven-point plan or a ‘downwardly reassigned budgetary solution’. But that’s not speaking for photography. That’s merely trying to manage it.
When there were more physical photographic products to be advertised than there are now, there was no natural place in the mainstream media to advertise them. The Sunday supplements, photographic papers in the very fibre of their bones, never made any attempt to seduce the industry. My own specialist corner reveals the same picture. I review exhibitions and sometimes books for a broadsheet audience. But I have suggested for years that I be allowed to review advertising campaigns, news photographs, scientific pictures… I want to write obituaries of great picture editors, write about how estate agents use photography. Zilch. Zip. No interest. Photography, which could be as widely discussed (I was tempted to write ‘is as important’) as food, is still kept in its little marginal corners.
We used not to have a culture ministry, deeming it a rather threatening, European, slightly rum sort of thing. We had a Reithian BBC and an Arts Council which was once run on the principles laid down by Jennie Lee. We had heroic short-cutters of museum directors like Kenneth Clark or Roy Strong. But in 1992, the day after the election, we got a ministry, (perhaps partly because some civil servants had looked with envy at the centralised, almost imperial, cultural regime run – with a gap – by Jack Lang in France from 1981 to 1992). It was originally called the Department for National Heritage, and entrusted with a weird magpie’s collection of bits and pieces from elsewhere. The jewels in the crown – mishandled without exception – were the granting of licenses to exploit mobile communications, the development of broadband, the reform of the horse racing industry, a number of Olympic bids, and an untried form of voluntary taxation in the shape of a new National Lottery whose winnings would in some mysterious way be devoted to the celebration of the Millennium. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has stayed one of the smaller departments, and with the exception of Chris Smith, one which has always been headed by people who were manifestly less than thrilled to be placed there and whose collective contribution to national cultural prosperity has been nugatory. David Lammy, anyone? Maria Miller?
Periodically, the DCMS has conducted a weird exercise in Blairite social control, which has been the attempt to map the creative industries. Modern management – and a fortiori government – can’t do things without obsessive collation of measurables, and unfortunately in the cultural sphere more than in any other (except perhaps religion) measuring is the last thing you can do with any precision. ‘Creative industries’, after all, is not only an unsatisfactory catch-all term that doesn’t hold water, but is also obviously a domain where it’s harder than usual to match outputs from specific inputs in order to measure them. In the Blairite vision (shared, by the way between Labour and Conservatives quite indifferently – I only use Blair’s label because his people articulated it most clearly) culture has to pay its way. Ask anybody who has run a publicly-funded gallery or a ballet company or even a library in recent years and they will sigh as they tell you about the struggle to do things in the hallowed names of diversity, and access, and fitting in with the national curriculum… In other fields, notably in that of finance, practitioners have been allowed to do whatever they liked in the name of excellence; the massive public bail-outs in the banking industry, the constant vast subsidy of the nominally self-financing railway companies, any number of examples show that it wasn’t always necessarily such a good idea. But in culture, where the risks and costs were much lower, practitioners have been forced to toe the line. Culture has had to have social utility or face being cut off from the money. Excellence has come a long way behind.
So the DCMS conducts this absurd exercise every so often in mapping the cultural industries. So does the Arts Council, and, guess what? Neither of them has ever been able to find room for photography. Because, you see, nobody speaks for photography in their meeting rooms any more than they do in the broadsheets or on the radio. Terra Incognita. Here be Monsters.
The greatest recent public contribution to photography has arguably been the Artist Rooms, the touring shows of individual artists from the enormous donation of the art dealer Anthony d’Offay, which happened to be weighted quite markedly towards photography. The ethos of the gift – touring shows, works not separated from each other – was set by the donor. That the donor happened to be interested in — more than interested in: passionate about — photography to some extent set the agenda. The Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland, which together administer the gift, simply had to hold out their hands. The d’Offay donation has willy-nilly accelerated the interest those institutions took in photography. It is even arguable that it changed the national agenda quite specifically. His donation, called “the most important thing that has happened in the art world in this country in my lifetime” by Richard Dorment, art critic of the Daily Telegraph, was announced in spring of 2009. By the autumn of that year, the Tate had appointed Simon Baker as its first ever curator of photographs. Is it wrong to see that the two were intimately connected? Is it possible to think that Baker might not have been appointed and the Tate would have carried on serenely mistreating photography as it had for generations, had d’Offay’s pressure not been brought most specifically to bear? One can have reservations about how it has been done without denying that photography has been a success at the Tate. It beggars belief that it might not have been an act of policy at all, however much the bland corporate announcements and press releases suggested that it had been. It might have been a purely pragmatic response to one very powerful donor speaking for photography.
It is impolite to recall that less than a generation earlier, the Circulation Department of the Victoria & Albert Museum, responsible for a permanent succession of tours (some of which had also been of photography) which represented similar brilliant value for money, had been axed. No one spoke for photography then.
The sad detail is that photography really does tick every one of the social-utility boxes. It is transnational and transcultural. It traverses (nearly) seamlessly from one kind of support to another, being notably successfully transplanted to the internet and to digital screens. It can be used and understood by children and by professors: no-one, however disadvantaged, need be excluded from photography, and everyone can find some benefit from it. It can tell truths or stories, be useful or be exalting. It is the communication tool of the age, and still we treat it as a marginal offshoot of the visual arts. If it’s commercial, we condescend to it; if it’s personal we overlook it.
There still exists (or until recently there still existed – it is hard to tell the precise moment of death of something moribund) a nearly unknown entity called the Committee of National Photographic Collections. The curators of a dozen or more great national collections of photography meet every so often, to discuss matters of shared import. Over many years, these discussions have been more a professional exchange than a strategic one: setting sensible standards for the number of lumens appropriate to fall on older photographs, knowledge exchange about digital files, that kind of thing. As things stand, the committee struggles because it has no independent financing. To attend a meeting, curators need to find a train fare and maybe a couple of nights in a hotel, and (absurdly) that simple and necessary strategic expenditure is often beyond their reach. Every so often we read of the discontinuation of the Committee, and indeed, we are in a period now again when it is talked about as under threat or actually disbanded.
The core of the national interest in photography is represented in the national collections. There are certainly dozens of photographic activities which are not intimately tied to collecting or the old institutional framework which kept collecting at its heart. But all could benefit from a vigorous, informed, flexible, contemporary, brave collecting culture. It is through the collections that analysis can be disseminated; and it is shared analysis of photographs that we lack. Scholarship in all its forms (far beyond the scholarship merely of learned men; I mean the scholarship which gives a new producer the chance to see the things done in his field before himself, which allows children to see that old wars were not so different to new wars…) is anchored in collections. There are plenty of great art directors and photographers who would no more set foot in the V&A or the Birmingham Central Library than they would set foot in the Opera House. But make the collections more relevant to them and they will be there. You have to start somewhere.
But the committee that could bind these great collections is toothless. Give it a director, a secretariat, a small budget, and some legislative teeth, and it could do wonders. Let us give it a try. Let us have a Director of the National Photography Collections, or let’s broaden it and say a Director of Photography Policy, to shout from the rooftops on behalf of photography. That person naturally won’t represent all the many constituencies of photography evenly, but without him or her, the gradual silencing of photography as a cultural asset will continue.
It is amazing, but true, that there are no conservators of photography employed full-time by the state in Britain. There used to be one - a brilliant one – named Liz Martin, who worked at the V&A in London. She died sadly early (in 2003) and her post has been ‘frozen’ ever since. Other institutions have conservators who work sometimes on photographs, but they are trained experts in glass or paper, not necessarily specialists in photography. Yet photography was invented in Britain, and boomed here early. We have an incredible stockpile of fragile early material in the national holdings that already needs attention. Appoint someone to oversee strategy in photography, and major long-term problems like that should begin to be addressed. That the problems have been allowed to grow so urgent has been partly because no-one speaks for photography.
So I envisage a director of the national collections, looking not to oversee the individual choices of the collecting departments, but to lobby on their behalf, to draw together workable strategic plans and to work toward their implementation. Such a person would naturally have been answerable to the Museums, Libraries and Archives council, but that no longer exists. So the role will have to answer to the Arts Council or perhaps directly to the ministry. Gradually, that role, one person and a small office, will touch others, and suddenly there will be people – concertedly and with purpose – speaking for photography. High time, too.
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Thank you for this passionate and articulate essay. It should be mandatory reading for the DCMS, though I doubt that there is anyone there capable of understanding it. As a practitioner in one very small corner of the world of photography it talks directly to me. Again thank you.
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