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.

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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.

 

Pinch & Swipe

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From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

A number of themes absolutely central to photography meet in this wonderful series of pictures by the artist Jos Jansen. He calls them Battlefields. As often enough, I come to them late. They were published in an award-winning book in September 2015. Jansen is interested in technology and specifically in the question of whether technology now controls us or whether we still manage to control it. That seems a pretty central question right off the bat, to photography as to so much else. It touches environmental issues, policy, corporate business. ‘Big’ external things like those. But it also touches ‘little’ internal things, like how we bring up our children, what we believe and what we believe in. You know, little things.

It’s patently a good question to investigate in photographs, because photography is one of the technologies that changed the way we reach the world and the world reaches us. One can make arguments for the importance of all sorts of technologies, from the hand-axe to the jacquard loom, and from the rifle to the pulley. It’s not a competition; all I need say is that photography has had a completely revolutionary effect on the way we interact. And advances in photography are always to a greater or lesser extent based upon advances in technology.

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From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

 

Jos Jansen, from the Battlefields series

From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

 

 

Jos Jansen, from the Battlefields series

From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

 

Jos Jansen, from the Battlefields series

From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

Not everybody recognizes what they see in these pictures. They are clever views of the surfaces of phones, with traces on them of all those swiping, pinching gestures that have so quickly become second nature.

It is one of many nicely layered ironies that the blind, blank screens we’re looking at are normally alive with light and bursting with jostling, urgent images.

They weren’t easy to photograph. Jansen had to get his own camera out of the reflection, had to make oblique light that picked up grease furrows no more than a tenth or a hundredth of a millimetre high. It was worth the trouble.

Photography has always been a tool for expanding vision as much as freezing it. The very stillness of photographs is in fact an expansion if you consider that by taking as much time as you need to examine a scene or a view, you always find things in it that you could have never have seen at natural speed. From the very earliest days, photographers were attaching cameras to microscopes and telescopes to look at things too small or too vast for the eye and the brain to process without help. Fox Talbot was doing that kind of thing within months of having a workable process. Time-lapse and other sequences, comparative photography of various kinds, photography as a tool of memory more accurate than memory itself…in all these ways and many more, photography has been a tool of expanded awareness. Photography bends perception. You only really notice that when you look at extreme versions. The photo-finish camera, for example, a wonderfully absurd thing that distorts the very things it purports to see, sacrificing straight vision itself to the difference between the winner and the loser, the only thing that betters care about.

Transmutation XV Clasp by David Hiscock

Transmutation XV (Clasp) by David Hiscock. Hiscock first started working with photo-finish cameras ( sometimes adapted by him ) at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 where he was an official artist. He has pushed photo- finish photography in a number of unlikely directions, notably making advertisements. But the core of what he does with it is to find an edge where legible indexical photography gives way to abstraction.

Photography has been a tool of expanded identity, too. The selfie attracts a lot of attention today, but photography has always given people the chance to identify themselves as they want to be or propose to become rather than as they are. Selfies do that, but so did the Victorian photography studio in which you could borrow the accoutrements of a class that you did not (yet) belong to, to pose for a second as what you wanted one day to become. The self-portrait has become a plaintively existentialist revision of Descartes. I am in a photograph, therefore I am. What I have been and what I will be are unknown, but at least right now, I’m in a photograph.

Cabinet Card from Wisconsin

Cabinet Card from Wisconsin

Cabinet Card from Oregon

Cabinet Card from Oregon. The studio provided the expensive-looking balustrade. The implication, that this gentleman was a man of substantial property, did not need to be stated. Portraiture is usually as much about what people want to be as about what they are, whatever technology it is made with.

We’re a long way from the tracks left by questing fingers on smartphone glass, but not too far. Jansen’s technology is maybe doing no more than was already hinted at in the earlier versions that prefigured it.

Photography has always been used to seize traces, too. The idea that what was evanescent is captured or taken in a picture is central. The fleeting, the beneath notice, the so ordinary it isn’t seen, all these things are the territory of photography. Here’s another layer. Jansen photographs actual, physical traces. They’re made by sweaty fingers, urgently running down the information superhighway. We talk about the indexicality of photography (or at least we do if we like a certain kind of jargon). It comes from the Latin for a finger: it means that photography points at things. Jansen takes that back from theoretical talk: these are quite literally index marks, fingerprints. We think of fingerprints as specifically static, where the policewoman forcibly holds your finger down on the pad to make a still image, a print. That’s nineteenth century technology, like photography itself. Jos Jansen shows that it isn’t always so. His fingerprints dance like the marks a pianist might make or a typist. Some of them actually are the marks of typing, the new grandchild of the hunt-and-peck we used to do on giant manual personal typewriters.

The very literal object he’s found allows him to make a metaphor for a subject so huge it couldn’t be photographed. Our dependence on these little phones is the big subject, as big as the Horse-Head Nebula. But Jansen finds it by looking at sweaty marks. Truly, the universe in a grain of sand. Are we somehow infected through those marks, damaged? Or are they more like footprints, showing where we’ve been in case somebody has to come along behind to rescue us later?

Jansen’s marks are wonderfully brusque. They do look a little like galaxies. Or maps or huge enlargements of we know not what. Clearly, they have some kind of order, but none that we can read. They’re certainly painterly, but they were formed by the most robotic of automatic writing. Twitch, twitch, next screen, next impression, next existence. They look panic-stricken, these marks. Look at the intensity of your fellow commuters next time you’re on a train or a bus. Commuters are pacified, numbed to the harsh rigours of urban life. We think of the ‘digital revolution’ as allowing for vast change, targeted advertising at car fanciers, that kind of thing. But it also means people don’t complain when their Tube runs seven minutes late. Dead time, swipe, pinch. It may only be a gossip feed or a game, but there’s a grimness about the haste with which we all dismiss the last message to get to the next. It’s always the next message that will change our lives, quick, swipe – out of my way !

How clever of Jansen to have put the light (the energy, that is to say, the heat and drive) into the gestures and to have taken it away from the things being gestured over. Daguerreotypes used to be called the ‘mirror with a memory’. They had a shiny surface, you see, but the picture was frozen within it. Phones really do have memory built into them, masses of it nowadays; but they don’t have a memory for all that we swipe off them. Twitch, swipe ! out of my way.

There’s an irony there, too. Can we call them the mirror with no memory?   We used to deal with bits of information. We still refer to an individual news article as a ‘piece’. That’s gone. We’re all in ‘flows’ of data now, and the Pre-Socratics knew what to make of that. In a flow, you can never catch the same piece again. It has moved on, and so have you.   Ordinary pictures of digital screens almost always have them lit, blazing with the beams of purportedly life-enhancing energy going through them. But Jansen’s right. It’s we who blaze, with panic at what we might miss if we don’t get to the next screen fast enough. The screens themselves are dark.

 

 

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From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

 

I’m aware that these pictures continue a sort of theme that has attracted me for some time. I wrote about the marks in the dirt on the back of van doors, in clever photographs by James Newton ( http://bit.ly/1sSCZSI ). I wrote more recently about Alejandro Guijarro’s quantum blackboards ( http://bit.ly/1OR4wYT ). I’ve written about mark-making more generally ( http://bit.ly/1OR4mAH ). It isn’t the only theme, that’s for sure. But one thing leads to another, and I make no apology for finding I’m still interested in these things as I become aware of each next one. There’s something rather wonderful about photography – so literal a medium in its more common guises – being pushed to the very edge of abstraction only for us to find that it carries even more rich meanings and even more complex readings there.

 

Battlefields, by Jos Jansen,was published in 2015 by The Eriskay Connection. ISBN: 978–94–92051–14–1

 

 

The Sort of Thing They Like

 

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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review

“For those who like that sort of thing,” said Miss Brodie in her best Edinburgh voice, “That is the sort of thing they like.”
― Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

 

I have recently been writing quite a lot about how we could possibly set standards by which to judge photographs. It is not just a recent preoccupation; it’s one I’ve been gnawing away at for a long time. Put very simply, I recognize the absurdity of applying any one family of criteria to all photographs (and the arrogance of any one person setting themselves up to do that). But do we really have so little common ground in judging them, torn between all the hundreds of different criteria that could apply, that we have to make a profound revelation of ourselves as users of pictures before we can make even a moderate assessment of the pictures themselves ?

I strongly feel that photography should be capable of analysis and should not simply be offered and received as a mere system of visual construction, incapable of bearing profound meanings beyond its surface connection to ‘reality’. Or worse : incapable of bearing profound meanings except as the visualization of something which takes its proper, finished form elsewhere, usually in a text. If it is to be capable of analysis, then some more meaningful scale of value must apply than the old one of mere badging. “Great” and “crap” can only get us so far in sharing ideas about photographs.

Photography loses much of its point if it is treated as free-for-all, unmoored in the broader culture. A picture out of context is often not much of a picture at all – until a curator or editor or somebody acting as one of those things comes along to give a new context. Although context is not everything, I do note how difficult it is ever to treat a photograph as ‘nothing’ or ‘nothing much’ after reading detailed analysis of what it is and where it comes from. On the other hand, I am more and more dismayed by that form of photography (being practised specially by that odd subsection of photographers who are academic researchers) in which the utter neutrality of the pictures, in a style derived from late post-modern post-documentary, amounts to an admission of defeat. Those pictures convey nothing at all without the words.   Much academic photography is in fact merely the prop or scaffold for academic writing. It gives up on all the rich forms of expression in photography and falls back to its humble function of … illustration.

I suppose in my role as a critic of photographs, I spend my time trudging between the more nearly closed image (made by the photographer, distributed by publishers of various kinds, sold, copied and Instagrammed … ) and the more nearly open one seen by viewers. By the first, I mean those pictures which are doing the work expected of them, functionally. By the second, I mean that viewers come always (in theory) to every single new picture in a state of hot tension in case that picture might be the one which might bring wonderment or some kind of truth or any one of the dozens of strong emotions photographs can carry. I have argued for years that there is an imbalance between the lazy garbage that many photographers and their distributors are happy to release over their names, and the heightened alertness viewers bring to photographs for the fraction of a second it takes to see if they deserve that concentration. We receive photographs like cricketers in the slips, muscles tensed in advance, ready to move high or low. More often than not, we might as well have relaxed.

Photography is almost always an applied art first. Pictures have traditionally moved from the world of work to the gallery, where they have rested. If a small (recently, an increasing) minority has been destined direct to the esoteric (and in many regards incredibly old-fashioned) world of the collector and the dealer, that minority is still just that. The analysis of art provides many clues as to ways of making sense of photographs; but photography is bigger than art as it is bigger than journalism or advertising or police evidence files.

Pictures commonly do have jobs to do. The connotations are mildly snobbish, still today. Think of the words traditionally tied to photography: socially disparaging like craft or trade, technically disparaging, like smudger or snapper, or simply mildly contemptuous, like hobby or pastime. Don McCullin rebuked one of the journalistic colleagues he once travelled with (I think it was James Cameron) who introduced him as my photographer. It is not remarkable that McCullin had to correct him. But that Cameron could say such a thing would be incredible if it didn’t happen every day.   The disparagement exists because users of photography still, after it being so vital and so dominant for so long, have not settled on meaningful standards by which it can be judged. Or they have — but only within the tiny subsets in which they each operate. Good gardening picture. Bad wedding picture. Good picture to show how rich I am. Bad picture to illustrate the massacre that took place last night. Good picture of our logo. Bad picture for.…

We need to learn to be sensitive to disparagement of photography, maybe in the same process as we need to learn to be sensitive to photographs themselves. Because photography, whether you like it or not, is not confined to those subsets. Photography is the literacy of all those of us who are no longer ‘well-read’.

My friend and erstwhile colleague Stephen Mayes talks with fervour about how stock photography – disparaged, despised stock – can drive societal change in ways that we haven’t yet begun to codify. If the stock industry begins to show same sex couples raising children – and it does because customers are there to pay for those pictures – then that becomes the social norm whether there is a hinterland of disapprovers or not. Stock is an incredibly powerful influencing system; yet we think of it as a lowly trade practice, far beneath analysis. Popular music and film act as the literacy of those who are no longer well read, too. There are occasional outbursts of contempt for those things, yet it is rare for the industrial consumption of tunes or movies to be treated with the disdain so customarily reserved for our industrial consumption of imagery. Pictures do good or bad work, all over the place, all the time. And as a society we have simply not equipped ourselves to work out how they do what they do.

So I keep worrying away at this question of standards. One argument goes like this: If it’s an applied art, maybe the standards of the application override or overrule the standards of the art. How would that work? Is a crap photograph capable of being a good fashion photograph? Maybe it is. Indeed, I do believe that is a very fair assessment of how it can work. If – as I, following many others – have written in the past, photography changes status very fluidly as the individual image moves from context to context, then maybe the standards by which to assess it have to be fluid, too. And maybe they do. I am gravitating to (and have published in various forms) a notion that a good user of pictures, acting as an editor or curator or collector or just a kid pinning an eclectic group of pictures to a bedroom wall, can give sense and context to pictures which had none at all before her intervention.   The logical consequence of that is inescapable: that it is the user and the use to whom and to which standards of quality apply, and not the photographic raw material. The very same picture would then have different standards applied to it in the varying contexts in which it falls. That is our experience of pictures; it feels right.

 

I want to keep gnawing.

It is a truth (if not universally, then widely) acknowledged that whatever Nigel Shafran does is very good. As a matter of fact, I’m among those who acknowledge it, or very largely so. He makes sequences of compelling emotional order. A very great majority of what he chooses to release really is very well seen, very well expressed, of interest and so on. A smaller proportion is even better than that: choose your word. Shafran is certainly capable of making great images – leave aside for a moment whether that actually means anything at all in the context of the paragraph above – and has proved so many times in my view. I have long been a fan. I also know him a bit and like him very well as a person. In fact we shared a pint of beer and half a dozen oysters only the other day. I need to state all of that unequivocally here, at the outset. Because I want to take Shafran to some extent as my guinea pig. I want to enquire here into how we get our certainties about what makes or unmakes a good photograph; I want to pick away at easy words like good and great as they are applied to pictures.

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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review

 

Shafran last summer (2015) had a few pictures included in an exhibition at Somerset House which had been curated by Martin Barnes, of the V&A. Called Beneath the Surface, and drawn from the V&A’s own holdings, the exhibition (among other things) mounted a clever and convincing argument that to read pictures only for what they show is often to miss the point; that every picture in the V&A is there for reasons, and those reasons add up to a rich extra narrative intimately connected to the pictures but also stretching far beyond them. You could, if you liked jargon, refer to the metadata behind the pictures, or more plainly to the backstory of how they came to be where they are and what they are. You could talk in terms of material culture in this context, too.

A few years earlier, Barnes had commissioned Shafran to make some pictures for the V&A’s annual review, and his group of pictures in Beneath the Surface came from that commission. Shafran published those as Visitor Figures: Out-takes from the V&A Museum Annual Review 2012-13. (It’s an odd subtitle. They are not, properly speaking, out-takes. Of the nine pictures chosen to illustrate the V&A Annual Review, six reappear in the book. )

Notice that the inclusion of Shafran’s group in the Somerset House show is not neutral. It is (or it could be taken as) a vindication by the curator of his earlier decision as commissioner.

There is at first glance nothing particularly odd in the V&A commissioning Shafran – commissioning any photographer – to illustrate its own internal documents. The V&A is the national treasury of the art of photography; its collections are second-to-none and its curatorial concern has been high-level and constant for many years. Of course it should commission photographers to do stuff, every year.

Lots of organizations think they are vaguely daring in asking a photographer to work on their annual review who might not be quite limited to the awful standard annual-report vocabulary of process-and-people; suits-and-high vis; discipline-and-creative freedom — all presented in totally spurious cahoots. Not everybody who reads this will have seen an annual report. Take it from me, the majority of them are as miserably unimaginative and cheap in their photography as they are in their prose, leaden porridge of commercial cliché and caution and convention. Collectively, they add to the wholly justifiable despair one can have about the management function and the functionaries who perform it.

But consider. Shafran is not apparently a corporate photographer. It is obvious that it took some courage for Martin Barnes to commission him. Shafran is a notably independent minded photographer; one of the tribe who think of themselves as artists and not as craftsmen. He might have been disinclined to toe whatever management line was laid out for him to toe. Even worse, in corporate terms, he might have been … unmanageable. Also – much more surprisingly – the other way. It took a great deal of courage for Shafran to accept the commission. Imagine if by the mere mischance of having been mistaken for the kind of artist who could put artistry aside for the length of a corporate brochure, he had happened to sour relations with the major museum in his discipline for ever. That can happen. It has happened.

But this was not, as it happens, Shafran’s first commission from the V&A. A number of other pictures were commissioned from him in 1999 to celebrate Lord Armstrong’s completion of his tenure as Chairman of the Board of Trustees.

Nigel Shafran, After Gillian Varley's leaving party, 1999

Nigel Shafran, After Gillian Varley’s leaving party, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1999

So maybe there was considerably less risk involved than appears. Maybe Shafran — who was a high-flying commercial photographer in the youthful fashion-lifestyle end of the business before he was ever an independent artist, and who now judiciously manages the commercially-driven aspects of his work to take advantage of the energy and reputation that flows from those of his personal projects which have no very heavy commercial outcome — is a “safe pair of hands” (how uniquely British that phrase is, deriving as it does from cricket, the mysterious game which now makes its second appearance in these lines). If that’s so, we may need to rethink the pictures. Maybe getting Shafran to do your annual review pictures is precisely the corporate norm as geared to the V&A rather than a widget maker, profit taker or corporate shaker. And if that is so, in turn, then maybe we need to look again.

What does the V&A need to show? A number of its values are set. Since the Blairite formulation of culture – that it had to pay its way in societal terms – which has been wholly accepted by the Conservatives-with-Blairite-DNA who run Britain now, the agenda for national museums has been completely clear. Budgets are going to be cut every year (because the people who rule don’t really believe in culture in spite of ample demonstrations that it actually brings real benefits), but they will be cut harder if the mission statement cannot be shown to be met. Culture needs to be accessible and inclusive, to be devoted to (and a successful partner in) education. It needs to show value for the national pound spent on it, and to demonstrate herculean efforts at raising money commercially so as not to look like it might be scrounging. It needs to show high-level scholarship on the international level and leadership in as many as possible of the fields in which it operates. It needs to host blockbuster manifestations, if only to keep a profile next to others in creative industries for whom blockbusting is the only aim they own. It needs to be a considerate employer, devoted to the principles of equal opportunities, health and safety, and so on. Everybody who has ever tried to earn a living in the cultural fields will recognize that these employment ends stop short of actually paying decent wages, of course. Culture is supposed to be a great gift for the people who consume it, and the people who work at it are supposed to enjoy it so much that they can routinely be exploited for unfair or uncompetitive rates of pay.   But that is a separate question. Its political masters judge the V&A by the way in which it meets this agenda. Culture needs for ever to prove that it is paying its way, and a great museum never loses sight of that.

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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Selected for the V&A’s Annual Review

So Nigel Shafran’s pictures for the annual review had a lot riding on them. That his style is notably informal (I mean that he does not tend to use any set-up by which he has total control over his subject matter, in the matters of lighting or excluding accidental elements) should not obscure that. Informal pictures can still perform a very formal role, as advertisers, for example, know very well.   Take the Shafran pictures included in the final edit of the V&A report: we have specific views of the conservation process, of scholarship in action, of education, of the wide visitor profile, of the appeal of the blockbuster exhibitions… We even have, in the last picture used, a view of the Madejski garden crowded with visitors on a winter’s evening for some performance or event, a picture of the impact (it’s a jargon term for the number of people you reach and how you affect them) you can achieve through private funding.   This is a remarkably on-message selection of pictures for a radical photographer. They’re good or bad in other terms, and that can be discussed. But in corporate terms, which after all, are the terms under which they were commissioned, made and selected, they are very good. Or — to put in the terms I suggested above — these pictures were applied to the V&A’s purposes, and in the terms of that application, they were good.

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Pages 54 & 55 of the Annual Review of the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2012/13. The little tiny not-very-inspiring corporate portrait in the upper left (of some executives executing something or other) is, rather surprisingly, by Nigel Shafran. Are there any standards other than those of the job in hand by which this is a ‘good’ picture ?

Shafran has had, as any successful photographer must have had, a succession of relations with picture editors and editors, with gallerists and curators, with publishers and critics and commercial clients. Maybe the manner in which he has run those relations is more important than the actual content of the pictures. That is a quite shocking thing to say to people who believe that the pictures are very fine and do their work irrespective of other considerations. But it is true in every business that what one might call the ancillary skills are vitally important. You need to be on time, to be personable, to be on budget and on message, to be civil, to be flexible to the needs of the customer, to be discreet, to be prepared to put up with a certain amount of executive bullshit and so on. These are skills which we try and persuade our sons and daughters to develop and maintain, whatever business they intend to pursue.

In something like photography, where very, very few people trust their own taste in the primary activity itself — where few can really confidently tell a good picture from a bad — it may well be that the ancillary skills hold more weight in the judgment of quality than in a business where more widely shared standards apply. The crudest standard is simply money. I forget which titan of the Thatcher era said “money is the way we keep the score”, and the barbarism is quite plain. Yet there is an element of truth there, too. A photographer who earns good money must be a good photographer, no? It rather depends what you mean by good.

If coming to a judgment on the primary activity is difficult, then the same few half-judgments will be carried much further. That is certainly true in photography, where the absurd replacement of individual judgment by the crudest reliance on name checking is very common. White Cube represents him: must be good. Michael Mack publishes her: must be good. He is in the collection at MOMA: must be good.   She went to the Royal College of Art; must be good… These (although they exist everywhere) are not the kinds of judgments you hear so much in creative businesses which have a functioning shared vocabulary of standards. A properly weighty CV for a film-maker might impress you; but if the last documentary she made is crap, you have every confidence in identifying that, and if you are in a position to hire such people, you might well hire another.

In photography, where there is so much choice of practitioners, and where an acute compiler could use such a vast range of forms of expression, timidity and conservatism are the rule rather than the exception. There are adventurous and confident editors and curators and publishers and art directors; but they are outnumbered in the thousands to one by those with little knowledge of the antecedents, narrow ambition for any set of photographs, and zero confidence in their own eye. They are the ones who will keep coming back to the ancillary skills since they admit they can make nothing of the primary ones. Being able to do business with a photographer comes to be not a complement to finding the pictures strong or moving or original or well expressed, but something that stands in place of those things.

I said loud and clear: I admire Nigel Shafran and think him a fine photographer. He has (deftly understated) technical mastery, great reflexes, a powerfully original sense of what is worth noticing in photographs. He has an old-fashioned sense of beauty coupled with a post-modern feel that beauty will be found in whatever you look at beautifully. He has acute moral antennae, becoming modesty, humanity, wide-ranging curiosity and culture. But I don’t think that the judgments which brought a group of his prints to the lower floor of Somerset House in London in the summer of 2015 are really derived from any of that.

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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review

 

It doesn’t in the end matter to the V&A whether the pictures they publish in their annual report are in any profound sense good pictures. Those pictures had work to do in their original guise. Then they reappear ten or a hundred times bigger, as fine prints in a major exhibition, and it begins to look as though somebody is asking us to take them seriously in contexts beyond their original one. But that somebody is the same as the person who commissioned them in the first place, who inevitably has something invested in how we regard them. Shafran then republishes them in a self-published book, and it looks as though he is making the same transition: the pictures are moving from ‘job’ to ‘work’.   Some time in the future, somebody will start to hold those pictures up to others, to compare what they are and what they do, and will come to conclusions about their cultural weight and worth. But long before that has happened, they will have been described as good or even great pictures, and I don’t think we know that they are yet.

We don’t have the habit of assessing photographs in the round. We don’t tend to share a vocabulary by which we can agree in describing their route from ‘a good job well done’ to anything more general than that. It may be impossible to arrive at such a vocabulary. But it surely is worth trying to keep an eye for one. And maybe it starts by asking what the job they were doing was and what it is.  It’s no good being snobbish about ‘applied art’.  It’s no good being snobbish, like Miss Jean Brodie, about the sort of things people like. It’s photography : it’s working at something or it isn’t worth a damn.

 

 

Post Scriptum:

I reviewed Beneath the Surface at the time for Photomonitor:

http://bit.ly/1BQpF48

You will see that the thoughts I develop here were not quite developed there: but it does no harm to admit to thinking about the same pictures for more than the immediate purpose at hand. One of the things we don’t do, I think, is give pictures the chance for the second and third and nth reading.

Luke 16:1 – 16:2

There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods.

And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward.

Luke 16:1 – 16-2

 

I published last month a short article in The Conversation [ http://bit.ly/1RdmhpD ] on the breaking up of the holdings of the National Media Museum. Here, with the kind permission of the editors of The Conversation, is the longer version of that article.

 

 

Once again, the national provision in the matter of the heritage in photography is in uproar in the United Kingdom. Once again, public moneys are wasted through a failure of joined-up thinking or a coherent forward strategy. The absence of any person or body devoted to lobbying or planning on behalf of the national collection of photographs as a whole is once again felt as a critically damaging lack, and the access to the great collections for the public and for scholars is curtailed as a result.

 

The particular manifestation of the story this time is the deaccessioning of a number of collections from the National Media Museum in Bradford, Yorkshire, which has proved unable to do them justice. The flagship collection in question is that of the Royal Photographic Society and that is the name that has caught the eye in recent press discussions. The RPS holdings at the National Media Museum are immense: some 270,000 images on every kind of support, going right back to the dawn of photography . There are also 26,000 books and periodicals, 6000 pieces of camera equipment, and much archival material to throw light on all of those. This is by any standards one of the great historical collections of photography worldwide. It shares its likely future — deaccession — with a number of other collections held at the NMeM. These include a number of photographers’ own collections, including those of Lewis Morley, Tony Ray-Jones, Nick Hedges, Zoltan Glass and Walter Nurnberg. These vary in importance, but none of them are trivial holdings. Beyond those, there are also the collection of the immensely distinguished collector Howard Ricketts (who in the 1970s first proposed and held sales of photographic material at Sotheby’s), a collection of some 20,000 prints relating to advertising between the 1920s and 1950s, and the National Media Museum’s own collection of a similar volume. The collections that once were held in the Fox Talbot Museum of material by and relating to the founder of photography himself are also in line for deaccession. This is a radical clear-out for a museum that’s supposed to be interested in photography.

 

The National Media Museum is (officially) changing its focus to a more educational role concentrating (following an American pattern) upon the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics). It is felt that too few students engage with these subjects, leading to a skills deficit in the UK which the government has made it a priority to address. Unofficially, the NMeM is patently in some peril of closure.

 

The situation has been cooking for some time. The National Media Museum is a daughter house of the Science Museum in London. The Science Museum has to find large savings in its budgets.

 

As long ago as 5th June 2013, The Guardian reported on the situation in these terms:

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

The recent announcement that a decision had been made and that deaccession of the collections was planned to the Victoria & Albert Museum predictably caused much anguish. A letter of protest sent to the national papers was signed by some 80 established photography professionals (including the present writer).

 

The outrage has centred on the impoverishment of Bradford and the North of England in favour of a metropolitan cultural holding already rich in photography. The creation of a super-collection at the V&A (which the acquisition of the RPS and its sister collections from the NMeM would most assuredly amount to) is felt prejudicial to the government’s stated interest in devolving culture and economic power to the regions. As long ago as the year 2000, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council developed the policy of Renaissance in the Regions to answer government demands for exactly that. As a national museum and not a regional one, the NMeM fell outside the Renaissance programme. But it was always clear that the policies Renaissance stood for applied a fortiori to the non-metropolitan national museums. The MLA no longer exists, itself a victim of economic cuts. Its responsibilities are included in the portfolio of the overwhelmed and uninspiring Arts Council that operates under near-impossible conditions of finance today.

 

Indeed, well might shifting great sacks of treasure from the NMeM be seen as a betrayal of the North of England. The more so since the present government has been much given to a rhetorical trope about ‘the northern powerhouse’ it wishes to see develop. But the truth is that the NMeM has been moving away from its original remit as a collections-based museum for many years. It was 2006 when it changed its name from National Museum of Photography Film and Television, and many felt already then that the more nebulous term ‘Media’ was a move away from the collections. The reorganization which accompanied the name change was notable for the redundancy of curatorial experts in the collections. No collection in any new medium has been established since the change, although there was much talk of archiving radio shows, websites and so on.

 

Another strand of expressed dismay was about the way in which the decision to deaccession had been reached. If the Department for Culture Media and Sport had hoped that it was ‘an operational matter’ for the Science Museum, large interest groups outside did not agree. The present writer has seen a number of papers obtained under Freedom of Information rules which make it plain that although the Trustees of the Science Museum and of the NMeM had been planning the deaccession in detail for some 18 months, they at no stage thought to offer them to any museums other than the Tate and the V&A. A paper by Judith McNicol (Director of People & Culture at the Science Museum Group, and previously director of Change Management) and ascribed to the responsibility of Jo Quinton-Tulloch (Director of the NMeM), prepared for the meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Science Museum Group of 2nd December 2015 is quite explicit. “The art & cultural photography collections no longer fit with the aspirations of the Museum”, it says in its Introduction. “The two leading museums in this field, the Tate and the V&A, were given the opportunity to express interest in the collections. Both responded enthusiastically…”, it says at paragraph 2.0.  We can be sure that they did. Gift horses and mouths come to mind.

 

The management speak is bland enough. But consider what is being said there:

What kind of museum has no aspiration to hold one of the great international collections in its field?   What is the message that sends to the various stakeholders of the museum, including future donors, scholars, local people, partner institutions and many others?

 

There were other possible solutions to be explored. The City of Bradford has already invested a great deal in the NMeM and might have been able to put together a plan for keeping the collections under its control. The Science Museum’s other daughter house in Manchester, the Museum of Science and Industry, could have taken over the running of the Bradford Museum and savings could have been achieved that way. Not to consider these or any other solutions was a mistake. The public dismay made that plain. The Department of Culture Media and Sport, so silent on the issue for so long, reluctantly got involved at the last moment. It was only on 13th March of this year, long after the announcement of the divestment of the collections had been made, that the Guardian was able to report the culture minister, Ed Vaizey, had agreed to meet Bradford MPs and representatives of the Science Museum to discuss the ‘secret backroom deal’ by which the transfer had been agreed. By then 27,000 people had signed an online petition against the deaccessions.

 

One of the factors which seems to have gone very little mentioned is that the RPS collection was bought for the National Museum of Photography Film and Television with public funds. The Yorkshire Post was able to report with considerable glee on 7th June 2002 (‘City snaps up world’s best photo collection’ was the headline) that the largest ever Heritage Lottery Fund award for photography of £3.75million had been made, following the award of £342,000 from the National Art Collections Fund, and ‘significant funds’ from the development agency Yorkshire Forward. This funding, the paper was able to say ‘ establishes the medium as a vital part of Britain’s national heritage’. The RPS collections, in other words were purchased. They were purchased at a heavily discounted rate, but they were purchased. Is it not odd for a national museum under the tightest of financial constraints to dispose of substantial assets with no attempt even to affect to acquire value for them?

The V&A is not paying for the deaccessioned material. It is a gift from one museum to another which has been its direct competitor (although also a frequent partner and ally) in the provision of collections in photography to the nation. The National Media Museum is not old – thirty years give or take. It is sad that the vast work of lobbying for it and setting it up and building the holdings and the audience and should so quickly turn into a yard sale. Not even a sale. Just bin bags full of photographic treasures, shipped off to the national attic in the V&A.

 

It may in the end well be that the V&A will turn out to be the best possible home for the RPS collections and other collections from Bradford. It has promised to make a new gallery available to display that material. But a lot more than a new gallery is going to be required. There is massive task of digitization, of making sure that the Bradford catalogue entries are digitally compatible with the systems used at the V&A. There is conservation work to be done, too. You don’t simply transfer a great collection as you might move an ornament from one shelf to another. Meanwhile, there has been no attempt to transfer the only people who really know these collections thoroughly, the curatorial staff at Bradford, from the donor institution to the recipient. Individual staff negotiations are naturally confidential, but I have heard no suggestion that any single member of staff will move with the collection. This, beyond the personal hardship of redundancy for the people involved, also inevitably implies potentially grave losses of valuable knowledge in the transition.

The V&A may yet — with a great deal of work, from fundraising to rethinking the collections to conservation — absorb this vast extra holding in photography. We can all hope so. It is quite possible that — the betrayal of the North notwithstanding — the outcome will be positive. But there is no very sure guarantee of that.   Certain it is at the very least that the collections will enter into store in London for a very long time, probably at Blythe House, the peculiar outpost of the V&A in West Kensington. It is a mild irony that Blythe House is used to store material belonging to the Science Museum as well as that belonging to the V&A. But the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement of 2015 declared that Blythe House was itself due to be sold in the interests of cost-cutting. So it is far from clear how that absorption can be made in practice. Simply to have offloaded the stuff and with it the problem may have seemed sensible from within the boards of the Science Museum and the National Media Museum, but from the wider point of view of the entire national collections in photography, it seems less clear. It may be that there are two betrayals involved, not one. The betrayal of the North and the promises for culture in the regions is one. But there is also involved something very close to a betrayal of photography itself.

It is depressing that this saga comes so soon after the closure of the archive services at Birmingham Library, already a very grave blow to the national collections in photography. And with the ministry all-but washing its hands of the problems, so long as the cuts it needs to find are found, there seems little likelihood of a careful photographic strategy emerging in time to prevent the next bruising shock, or the one after that. The pressing absence now is of a strategy; and of the visionary people to supply one. It is time that voices in the UK were raised in honour of photography and in its defence. That may be the root of the problem. It is difficult to imagine for comparison a similarly casual and ill-conceived deaccession from the collections of the Tate on Sir Nick Serota’s watch. Senior people at the Science Museum and the DCMS entrusted among other things to care for a good share of the national holdings in photography have fallen short of their responsibilities. They are under huge pressure, mainly financial. We can understand that. But they in turn must understand that the deaccessions add up to another spectacular failure in the management of the national holdings as a whole. Nobody has much spoken yet in terms of resignations in this connection. Yet how else can public acknowledgement be made of the way the whole affair has been handled? And I don’t think it is too late to rethink the deaccessions more steadily and more publicly.

Not by any means all of the nation’s photography takes place in the ambit of the great collections, and nobody would argue that it should. But when one of the truly rare and important accumulations of photography in the world is so casually shunted from one institution to another without proper process, without plan, and without the relevant people to care for it, we can be absolutely certain that the right voices have not been heard to speak on photography’s behalf and that our stewards have not done their work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Heaving Speech of Air

Otto Steinert Die Bäume vor meinem Fenster II, 1956. [The Trees in Front of my Window II, 1956]

Otto Steinert
Die Bäume vor meinem Fenster II, 1956.
[The Trees in Front of my Window II, 1956]

This caught my eye in an otherwise mildly disappointing room devoted to Otto Steinert at the Tate Modern, part of the ‘Structure & Clarity’ display.  It’s not just that he was interested in movement: plenty of photographers have shared that.  It’s not even that he managed to make something so evocative in such an ordinary environment.  What really grabs me is that each cluster of branches moves in a direction of its own.  This to my mind exactly mimics what painters do when they want to indicate branches in motion.  Because if the movement were all the same way the poor trees would look as though they were being uprooted in a Force 10 or worse. I had thought it was painters’ licence, but Steinert shows it to be fact.  No doubt the explanation is pretty straightforward: I imagine something along the lines of the movement of each cluster being caused not simply by the wind, but by sympathetic and harmonic vibrations set up in the branches with different resulting aggregate forces.  Or turbulence from one cluster of leaves deflecting the wind before it strikes the next cluster.  Or bendier twigs moving differently to more resistant ones.  Or any combination of those.  The physics are no doubt not very exciting.  The picture is.

Steinert is a very interesting figure, and I’m glad the Tate has devoted even a sketchy effort to bringing him to attention in London.  I find that I’m still surprised by the provincialism of photographic rolls of honour.  In one or two areas, like fashion or contemporary art, the great photographic names of the upper tiers seem more or less international.  You could get very weary travelling around the world seeing exactly the same star works at art fairs and auctions.  But in the history of photography and in its various applied areas of specialism, the separations of the nation state are still very much the rule.  So, for example, the daguerreotypist partners Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes are major lights in the American pantheon barely mentioned in Europe. Mid-twentieth century Germany has more reason than most periods to have been awkward for outsiders to become interested in, and we can understand that.  Yet a photographer like Otto Steinert is not some provincial drudge made visible by local jingoism or chauvinism alone.  It remains surprising to me that photography — which seems so naturally able to cross cultural boundaries and even to erase them — should in fact be so limited by the language of publication, the market of the publisher, and the funding background of the institutions involved in the promotion of any one name or group.

These things are not easy to break down, and a small display of Steinert in London is a good thing: there have been too few by far.  But I do note sourly that if anyone were interested in finding out more about this pioneering photographer, the Tate’s online offering is discouraging.

Search results for the pictures in the Steinert display at Tate. This search was made while the display was open to the public.

Search results for the pictures in the Steinert display at Tate. This search was made while the display was open to the public.

One can understand that there are issues of intellectual property which might well prevent the pictures being shown.  But it is feeble of the Tate to leave it simply at that.  A licence to display them for the relevant period could easily have been obtained.  Failing that, good reference should have been made to other places where reproductions of the pictures might be seen.  For you can easily imagine a visitor intrigued enough by the Steinert room to seek to find out more, rapidly becoming discouraged or distracted by the blank result of the most obvious first step in the search.  And that adds one little element in the continued restricted availability of Otto Steinert to new audiences, in direct contradiction of what the Tate itself is clearly trying to do by showing original prints in the galleries.

There is a perfectly decent reproduction (with a virtual magnifier) of the trees outside Steinert’s window HERE courtesy of the German auction house Lempertz.

[My title, by the way, comes from a poem by Wallace Stevens called The Idea of Order at Key West which I rashly pinned to the board by my desk and which I re-read too many times a day.]

Edgelands

This is a non-review of a show which may be good or bad, but which contains some things I like very much and which Londoners don’t get to see all that often.

It’s not a review partly because so very much photography, for a hundred years and more, has been about marginal spaces and marginal experiences.

Eugène Atget. People of La Zone, Near the Porte de Choisy, 1912

Eugène Atget.
People of La Zone, Near the Porte de Choisy, 1912

Atget was working in La Zone – the area cleared in front of the fortifications of Paris originally to give an open field of fire, in which a mixed and poor population lived at the end of nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth – at least a hundred years ago. Photography has loved the margins of society, and still does.

Still.  I don’t have to review something to enjoy it.

So:

Catherine Opie Untitled, from Freeways, 1994

Catherine Opie
Untitled, from Freeways, 1994

A couple of platinum prints from Catherine Opie’s Freeways (1994). Beautiful little exercises in a very traditional kind of modernism, surprising for the artist. The fact that they are small pictures is important. So, too, the way they look like pictures of monuments which have lost their function. Photographed like this, you can’t see how to get up to these things, nor any cars, nor any real purpose. They’re like Stonehenge, obviously for something, but it’s not clear what. If form needs perfectly to follow function, then motorway flyovers do that to a T.

I saw recently another collection of pictures of bunkers of the war of 1939 (by Marc Wilson, from his series The Last Stand); almost indestructible concrete structures, but built in a hurry on cheap foundations. By now, still intact, they’re toppling quietly over. There are lots of photographs on this general theme, of the relationship between the structures we make and the lives we lead. Catherine Opie’s flyovers are still in use, but it’s never too early to ask what on earth we were thinking of. Look at that little gable, in the middle at the bottom. That little bit is the only bit at human scale.

Keith Arnatt From the series AONB (Area of Outstanding Beauty), 1982-1985

Keith Arnatt
From the series AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), 1982-1985

Five pictures from Keith Arnatt’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. These were brilliant things, made in the early 1980s, much influenced by US photography, itself much influenced by a certain kind of environmental thinking. Arnatt was a conceptual artist at the time: but he wasn’t simply ironizing in the Wye Valley near where he lived. It’s not just that we dump garbage in beautiful places, or build wire mesh fences. It’s not even that we make a mockery of the whole history of the sublime, of the ‘green and pleasant land. Arnatt was making the point that sometimes it takes a photograph to see stuff. Just as photography showed years ago that it could expand vision by enlarging greatly or by slowing time, so more recently it has been shown to expand the consciousness that lies within vision. Arnatt saw a lost little tree – isolated from the bigger trees beyond like a sad animal in a zoo –  in the corner of a tarmac car-park, hemmed in by cheap kerbstones. He saw the doorway coarsely breeze-blocked closed, in overt insult to the subtler material of the old vernacular wall around. And he saw that black bird (I daren’t write blackbird, because I don’t think it is) high on the wall, as symbolic as Masahisa Fukase’s terrifying crows from another place and another time. We don’t see any of this stuff until a photographer freezes it for us, on the microscope slide of light sensitive paper.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard LucyBelle Crater and Photo Friend from the Rural Provinces, 1970-1972

Ralph Eugene Meatyard
LucyBelle Crater and Photo Friend from the Rural Provinces, 1970-1972

Five various pictures (of about 1970) by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, late-flowering American Surrealist, an optician from Lexington, Kentucky. What to make of Meatyard’s saga of LucyBelle Crater whose gaudy horror mask contrasts so strongly with the friendly all-American life she leads? It’s standard to talk of Meatyard almost as an outsider artist, self-taught, unconnected, uninfluenced by the currents of art history. I happen to think that doesn’t hold water, for a specific reason: Meatyard’s photo buddy at the Lexington camera club was Van Deren Coke, a hugely influential historian and teacher of photography, director of the San Francisco Museum’s department of photographs from 1979 to 1987, and before that head of the school of photography at the University of New Mexico, at Albuquerque. Whatever else Meatyard was, with a friend like that, he was not a naïve photographer. LucyBelle is a Diane Arbus heroine if you like. She’s connected to all sorts of work with dolls and masks, from Hans Bellmer to Cindy Sherman. There’s plenty of writing on Meatyard’s influences, to him and from him. But maybe LucyBelle is just like all of us: there’s stuff in her expression which she doesn’t control, and stuff behind it that we don’t see.

Helen Levitt New York, c.1940.

Helen Levitt
New York, c.1940.

Two prints by Helen Levitt, from New York in 1940. Three children dance in a circle in winter. The giant staircase they’re on was not built for human strides: they have to fly to get off it, and they can. There’s a human-scale staircase attached, though, and a little line of laundry high in the corner of the picture reminds us that people keep on getting by, even when they can’t fly. This gorgeous composition matches all the great instances of movement in photography. If Cartier Bresson’s Aquila Degli Abruzzi is a stately minuet, then Levitt made a Ring of Roses. I keep having to blink to stop seeing it as a time-lapse, in which it would be the same child seen three times whirling around. Every other picture here I’d seen before. But this one I think not. I find it hard to imagine I could forget it. Grubby urban dust and brick and rubble, obvious poverty and hardship, not merely cheered but enlivened to a perfect symbolic demonstration of hope and promise. There are other such pictures. I offer you Roger Mayne’s great series of goalkeepers leaping about in the streets of North Kensington. It’s not a contest. There are no points. But this little Helen Levitt is a miracle by any standards.

All of these things come from just one section of an exhibition, called Edgelands, curated by Ben Rivers at the Camden Arts Centre and on show until 29th November 2015. The show contains much else, notably Rivers’ own films. It is good or bad. But it contains some little photographs which you’d be mad not to take the chance to see.