Another One Bites the Dust

Library of Birmingham photography collections under urgent and pressing threat.

Veronica Bailey, Lectures on Art by Henry Weekes, 1880, from the Hours of Devotion series, (2006)

Veronica Bailey, Lectures on Art by Henry Weekes, 1880, from the Hours of Devotion series, (2006)

If you look at the date of today’s post (22 December 2014), you will see that I’d rather be with my family, winding down and gearing up for Christmas. But I can’t. On this occasion, I don’t think it possible to stay silent.

I am not an articulately Political person (cap P). I’m intrigued by photography, and have been for years. I believe in the importance of photography and the genius of some of the people who have made it important. I don’t want to make judgments between two essentials when there’s only enough money for one. I’m not a triage nurse on a battlefield. Other people do that stuff. And they’re about to get it horribly, disgracefully, and damagingly wrong.

 

‘They’ are threatening to close down the whole of the photographic service at the Library of Birmingham, in the name of ‘cuts’.

 

It’s by no means the only library service under threat, but it may be the one with the greatest claim to international standing, leave alone its vital importance nationally and locally.

 

We can argue about where the centre of British photography lies. At one time you could make a plausible argument that if you waited in one of the great commercial darkrooms – Downtown Darkroom or Metro or Joe’s Basement (or, years before that, Bert Hardy’s place) – in London, everybody that mattered in British photography would sooner or later pass you. Commercial photography isn’t exciting any more, a new country of the blind. Vogue was incredible for years, a place where photography not only mattered but was the mainspring of a large industry which simply made no sense without images. The Sunday Times, Picture Post, Side Gallery in Newcastle, a degree course at Farnham or at Newport, the RAF or the Army, Guildford School of Art…even Flat 4, Porchester Court, Porchester Gardens…. All of these could at one time have justified a serious claim to being the home of something vibrant and vital to the national culture, either the cutting edge of photography, or the place where that edge was honed and whetted the better to cut a few years later.

Some years ago, it began to be clear that the great libraries were moving up as major repositories of the national collections in photography. The V&A has been a photographic hub for years; it was so in the nineteenth century. The Science Museum has struggled to make sense of its offshoot in Bradford, the National Media Museum, but its contribution has been important. The Museum of London, the National Monuments Record, the Imperial War Museum, even the National Trust which is constitutionally apart… these are huge public repositories that we knew about and that we expected to serve the national provision of ‘coverage’ in photography.

With hindsight, it’s obvious that the great libraries were among them. Photography was gathered and held as much in books as it was in prints. But it took incredibly arduous work (underfunded from the beginning, that goes without saying) by a very small group of curators and their tiny staff teams, to bring the libraries into position. It happened first elsewhere: the New York Public Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and numbers of others have been doing sterling work for years. The early problem was simple. Great photographs were not filed under Photography. They were filed under Industry or Local History or Biography or Science or Anthropology or Military Records or wherever they were. Photography was not a subject until very recently. It was a meta-subject, if you like, a tool or a method which could be (and had been) applied equally to every single thing in the catalogues of major libraries.

Men like John Falconer, of the British Library, or Richard Ovenden, of the Bodleian, have had to work wonders to persuade their funders that photography was a field in its own right. To put funds into photography was a huge risk. It meant opening the library to non-academics. More than that: photography being what it is, it even meant opening the library (in theory at least) to non-readers, or people not good at reading. Photography is transcultural and transnational and has no priesthood. It can be understood by anybody with eyes to see. It fits into our public library system better than anything. If libraries were to be inclusive and accessible and open to those with less favoured backgrounds or less good English – and make no mistake, those for thirty years have been the very things we have asked that our libraries should be, far more than that they should have complete sets of H.C. Robbins-Landon on Haydn or illustrated copies of the Idylls of the King by Tennyson – then photography was the great key which would open all those doors.

The person who for twenty years or more believed in that, and proved it and has worked tirelessly to shift it from a marginal proposition about incremental gains (in bums on seats, in marketing messages, in modulations of political arguments…) into a key central component of the best public library systems in the country, is Peter James of the Birmingham Central Library, now the Library of Birmingham.

For years, James was not even the curator of photographs at his library. He was nominally engaged – you can hear the hypocrisy, the weaselly civil-servant-speak, even if you were never there ­– in a long research project to see if perhaps one day appointing a curator of photography might conceivably be justified. In plain terms, he was working his nuts off without tenure. James, like Falconer at the British Library, had to make sure every year that the money to fund his own position was in place before there was any money to do the things he needed to do. Those not used to such rhythms can have no idea of the precarity, the fragility, that they impose. Those who wait nervously only to find quite how much bonus they will get at year end have never sweated like those who have to pay for their own post, year after year.

In spite of all that, Peter James built a department that grew from local importance to national to international. The collections of the Library of Birmingham are not only world-class in their holdings (and nobody had any idea they were anything like so important until Peter James showed them to be so), but they are world-class in the way they are handled. Photography has become the best loved and perhaps the most important of all the outreach elements of the Library. James works on the history of his archive, on contemporary displays, on regional ‘boosting’ and tirelessly on the practical daily grind of access and availability. His department links locally and nationally and internationally, too. Universities connect with the programme there, and so do schoolchildren. It is quite arguable that the Library of Birmingham is in fact now the very centre of British photography.

The work it took for that to be so is about to be smashed, and it’s wrong.

It seems only moments ago that the opening of the fancy new Library building was being touted as a symbol of Birmingham’s commitment to culture. It was a moment ago: the new building, all £189m of it, was opened late in 2013 by Malala Yousafszai, totem of belief in education (particularly for women) after she was shot in the head by the Taliban for championing women’s rights and brought back to health in Birmingham hospitals.

That great new public library has had all sorts of flags waved about it; photography has been one of them. The Museums, Libraries, and Archives Council (itself, not coincidentally, cut to death) awarded the photography collections at Birmingham the rare and special status of ‘designated’ collections. I’m not sure, but I don’t think any designated collection has ever been threatened with 100% cuts before. A host of funders, years before the new library opened, have raised money on the assumption (and, I suspect, on the contractual guarantee) that works purchased would be available to be seen by the public. How are they to react to the news that those pictures will now be locked into drawers, hidden, inaccessible, and neither circulating as they were intended to circulate nor preserved as they were intended to be preserved?

It is one shameful thing to say a wealth of professional expertise is going to be thrown away. It is quite another to say that if the photography department of the Library of Birmingham is mothballed, then a number of fancy donors will in effect have been lied to. The donors should know that, and react to it.

What will happen to the conservation of old and fragile photographic documents? It won’t take long before those are damaged beyond repair.

Who will organise careful exhibitions of photography from earlier periods in the West Midlands, scrupulously attuned to the understanding and the needs of the public of today? It won’t be long before that becomes a whole forgotten swathe of our past, and access to it denied to those who might most use it in their own work going forward.

Not many weeks ago, I was at the Library attending a meeting chaired by Peter James. He had been unwell, yet he was working extra for a cause that went far beyond his own institution and might (if seen through) benefit a loose notion of ‘British photography as a whole’. James has brought into being a really effective library department in Birmingham. But he’s done more than that, too. His library is now a veritable hub, a meeting-point in the very centre of the country, where all photographic tendencies and all photographic habits have a chance of interacting and of being honoured.

While I was there, somebody said that £189m was the same as the cost of the latest release of Call of Duty. I haven’t looked it up, but it seems plausible. Which would you rather have?

Culture is cheap. The Department of Culture Media and Sport has been a useless department of state since it was headed by Chris Smith, who (at the very least) cared deeply about cultural activity and was himself formed by it. Has the DCMS ever fought hard for anything? Now is the time. If it’s perfectly all right for photography effectively to cease being a care of the Library of Birmingham, then we go back forty, fifty years without a blink. It’s a disaster. It’s also entirely avoidable. Culture costs relatively nothing, and its contribution is relatively huge. Take that equation out of the hands of accountants and put it in the hands even of the spinners who need to fight the next election and it becomes a very powerful argument.

It’s routinely said that Conservatives actively dislike public libraries because they don’t use them. I used to disparage such remarks: the idea that Conservatives retreated to Daddy’s panelled rooms where bound editions of the classics gently suffused the air in front of the log fire with odour of Morocco binding and Clarendon ink seemed grotesque, a caricature. It isn’t. It’s true, after all.

This attack on the Library of Birmingham is an attack on the very idea of self-improvement. The classically Tory possibility that anyone can better herself ­– with a minimum of help from the state – itself is attacked by it. I said earlier, I’m no politician. But if that’s Tory policy, then the barbarians’ time is up. Restore sensible funding, or be thrown out. You don’t burn books, even photographic books, and still claim to be civil.

Peter James cannot orchestrate the response to these proposed cuts. To do so might imperil his own contractual position in the case of redundancy. And that, it seems to me, is an obscenity of its own.

 

 

What follows is the text of a message to ‘stakeholders’ from Brian Gambles, Assistant Director ­– ­Culture, Birmingham Library and Archive Services, who was the head of the Library of Birmingham project. He should have sent it you, and you, and you. We’re all ‘stakeholders’ in our major photographic institutions.   Note the expression: “ Archive services … will cease. “ It’s not a partial message or a hint or a negotiating ploy. It’s everything.

The closing date for representations is 12th January 2015. You haven’t got time to do nothing. Take up the invitations below, where a number of contact addresses are given. React by whichever channel you choose, but react.

 

Library of Birmingham Budget Consultation

In line with other City Council services, the Library of Birmingham has to find significant budget savings for 2015/16.

Our proposals to achieve these savings are part of the City Council’s budget consultation, and are set out below.

Proposals

  • Opening hours at the Library of Birmingham will be reduced from 73 per week to 40, with effect from 1st April 2015.
  • Events and exhibitions will stop unless they can be externally funded.
  • Business support, learning, children’s, reading, music and archive services other than counter transactions will cease, except where external funding can be identified.
  • Outreach and community engagement work will cease, except where external funding can be identified.
  • The budget to buy new books will be further reduced.

Have your say

The City Council wants to know what you think about these proposals.

The best way to have your say is by completing the online survey.

https://www.birminghambeheard.org.uk/budget/2015

You could also:

 

 

 

 

Paola De Pietri and the Effort of Memory

Fay Godwin, Markerstone on the old road from London to Harlech, 1976

Fay Godwin, Markerstone on the old road from London to Harlech, 1976

Years ago I formulated a serviceable description of the great British landscape photographer Fay Godwin as being largely interested in places that had once been more important to people than they now were.  It didn’t apply to everything she did, but it was a start.  Fay was never interested solely in what the land looked like.  She was interested, if one can put it this way, in what the land meant.  She read landscapes for their old palimpsests: the layers and layers of stories each of which had left a trace to be unearthed by an eye as sensitive as hers undoubtedly was.  It was archaeology without spades.  She photographed drovers’ roads knowing that half the population today aren’t quite sure what droving is, let alone where its roads had to go.  She photographed the great stone circles at places like Callanish, knowing that there is nobody alive who knows quite how they worked, whether as giant calendars, or as cathedrals or what.  See those things well enough, Fay felt, through her photographs, and you had a chance of reading stories there you never knew before.

There are several British photographers who have inherited some of Fay Godwin’s passion for the traces of the past on the land.  Photography always has a smell of history about it: you photograph that which you know will change faster than the picture.  That’s why, in a world where absolutely everything seems to be photographable and photographed, the odd things that escape are those which are just so familiar that it seems inconceivable that they might change.  We photograph our holidays, and have done for many generations.  But how many of us find once we move house that we have never photographed our neighbours, the nice guy who runs the corner store, the commute to work, even our own front door?  The corollary is true, too: that pictures which are stumbled upon which have a particular redolence of a past we thought had gone have a hard emotional effect like a blow.

As a small child, I used to share with my brother something we called the Whirlybird.  No idea if that was what it was really called, but it was a kind of pushme-pullyou, self-propelled roundabout or carousel.  Pull the handle, push with your feet, and it span.  We lived in Washington DC then; I assume the thing was American. I live in England now.  I’ve described this thing to many English people and they shrug. The other day, I found a picture.

Two Small Boys on Their Whirlybird, Washington DC, 1963

Two Small Boys on Their Whirlybird, Washington DC, 1963

There is the machine itself, a fact proven to be rightly remembered. But it’s a photograph, not just a datum.  I can’t resist that date-stamp on the picture margin, as much a part of my childhood as the Whirlybird itself.  And of course, any self-respecting childhood memory should have that dappled sunlight, the suggestion of great heat in the minimal clothing and soaking children.  Photographs are intimate historical things.  It’s not just that they preserve; they suggest or assert, they correct where memory was fogged or wrong. We react to them each according to the complex of our own cultural baggage.  That was not a Whirlybird; it was my Whirlybird.  You need the understanding of the past and the picture to work in tandem: the picture does not simply supply that understanding ready-made.

Fay Godwin understood that with deep conviction.  A moor, a bridge, even a peat bog were things that meant something hugely different to a person who had walked them than to one who had not. You read the landscape, at least in crowded little Britain, where every mile bears traces of man’s activity, with your feet as much as with your eye.  Fay was President of the Ramblers’ Association for a period – she started walking because a doctor had told her that her health might benefit from it, and she became a monster pedestrian, always laden with cameras, frail but indomitable.

I see the same combination of drives in the fantastic pictures from Paola de Pietri’s To Face.  These are not new: The project won the Renger Patzsch award of the Folkwang Museum in Essen in 2009. Some of them were in the (brilliant) multi-artist show Topographies de la Guerre, at Le Bal in Paris in late 2011. Steidl published them last year and the book has, I believe, already sold out. But they are being shown at Milan’s Museo di Fotografia Contemporanea from 1st March 2013, as part of the Milan Triennial, and anyway, there’s no season for good photographs.

Paola de Pietri - Piccolo Colbricon, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Piccolo Colbricon, 2009 – 2012

Paola de Pietri - Cason D'Ardosa Monte Grappa, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Cason D’Ardosa Monte Grappa, 2009 – 2012

Paola de Pietri - Forcella Fontanegra, 2009 -2012

Paola de Pietri – Forcella Fontanegra, 2009 – 2012

I called these pictures fantastic not in the teenage sense of unmitigated approval, although I like them very much, but in the older sense of having to do with phantasms.  There is a haunted quality about these pictures which is what strikes me first about them.  Some of them have fog, sure enough, or at least strange effects of dense air which blot out the farther slopes to leave the nearer isolated and as if suspended.  De Pietri has rightly judged that wreaths of semi-substantial fog are the right material to describe a haunting: a thousand movies have seen to that, and plenty of books before them.

Haunting is the point.  For these are pictures of the terrain of one of the maddest wars ever fought, the trench warfare between Austria and Italy that took place in the First World War at 2000 metres in the Alps and the Prealpi and in the Carso. These are places where it is hard enough to walk a few miles, leave alone kill people in large numbers.  Even when de Pietri’s light is deep and crisp and even, like the snow in the carol, there is a haunting in the visible traces of the structures of warfare.  Here a trench, there a cavernous opening to a bunker.  The core reaction to these pictures is the same for everybody: what were they thinking of?  What madness was this? The effort of shifting rock at that altitude, to make warfare more like what people expected in the plain, may be incomprehensible to anyone who is not a ranking officer graduated from strategic school.  These pastures and escarpments, beautiful by all the standards of aesthetics since the eighteenth century, were killing fields.  Thousands and thousands of young men perished here.

No doubt a different kind of photographer would have found a different kind of evidence.  I can imagine – indeed a very moving text (published in the Steidl volume) from 1967 about these places, by the fine Italian writer Mario Rigoni Stern confirms – that one could find smaller bits of evidence by lowering one’s eye to the ground.  Bullets, preserved bits of metal from uniforms or equipment, even bits of bone.  All the routine jigsaw pieces that archaeology uncovers when it is done with a spade.  I have in mind for example, the Forbidden Forest, the terrifying series made by Jonathan Olley on the theme of unexploded ordnance still cluttering the area around Verdun, another horrific First World War battlefield in another country.  Olley wandered around with his head down, finding amid foliage the bright orange painted warnings on rusty bombs that are still so numerous that they will take dozens of years to find and make safe.  The Great War is nearly a hundred years ago.  But its ghosts are still pretty active.

The only really close parallel that I know is the series of pictures of the Angolan border by Jo Ractliffe, about the territory of a much more recent war, and much more obviously personal.  If I remember, friends and acquaintances of Ractliffe’s had gone to that war as conscripts in the South African army, and part of her motivation was to understand what had damaged them so badly but that they spoke about so little. It isn’t a neutral kind of imagery, even though the gore and the horror have been removed.

Roger Fenton - The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855

Roger Fenton – The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855

Think back many years to the birth of war photography and to Roger Fenton’s (still) incredible Valley of the Shadow of Death, from Crimea.  I have seen it suggested somewhere that he may have had assistants move the cannonballs to be closer to the camera.  He may:  there are certainly suspiciously few of them at the farther reaches of focus.  But still, nobody can contemplate the density of those things on the ground without seeing that it must have been impossible to live while they were falling. It’s a picture of a hail storm of red-hot, very heavy cannonballs, each not only deadly, but deadly in peculiarly cruel and dreadful ways.  It’s as horrific as anything James Nachtwey or Susan Meiselas or Dmitri Baltermants or George Rodger or Don McCullin would produce. Yet in the whole of Fenton’s valley, there is not a corpse or a bloodstain, no writhing figures (à la Beato in the Indian Mutiny or the Opium War). It’s one of the great metaphorical photographs.  We can’t help but think of the horror, without having it thrust in our eyes.

And that is another point.  Paola de Pietri’s series is not merely a neutral chronicle of a historically disturbed patch of ground.  It is a series that will have deep personal echoes to all sorts of people, starting with herself.  For whatever reason, she must have walked those steep slopes with heavy equipment.  I don’t believe that you can do it any other way.  And in doing that, the photographer was echoing the weary trudging of the soldiers who built these crazy fortifications.  The soldiers may have had mules: de Pietri maybe had colleagues, for all I know.  Still…

Paola de Pietri - Cason D'Ardosa, Monte Grappa, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Cason D’Ardosa, Monte Grappa, 2009 – 2012

It reminds me of those pictures one sees of Machu Picchu, always from slightly above to get a bit of valley in as well as the ruins.  As though the very act of constructing in the mountains were mad.  Do Italians feel about De Pietri’s pictures as Scotsmen feel about the valley of Glencoe?  Do these still, high places carry a burden of loathing and of guilt which we outsiders cannot grasp, looking maybe at a computer screen or a nicely produced art publication?  They do.  I’m sure they do.  But like Fay Godwin’s pictures, they are good enough that by seeing, we have a chance to understand at least some of it.

Paola de Pietri - Forcella del Col Del Bos, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Forcella del Col Del Bos, 2009 – 2012

‘Traditional’ mountaineering photographs go long on two things.  They emphasize the sublime grandeur and wilderness of the mountains.  And they concentrate on the athleticism and daring of the climbers.  Other things – including the increasing negative effect that climbing has on the environment, not least in the appalling litter climbers think nothing of leaving behind on the very mountains they wax so eloquent about – are not part of the canon.  Here, Paola de Pietri has made a vocabulary peculiarly well suited to her very different tale of the mountains.  It’s in part of vocabulary based on looking for clarity and finding it not so easy to grasp. No long views anywhere, even though we are 2000 metres up.  Absolutely no wilderness, if wilderness means untouched by man. Odd patches of snow sit in dips like the temporary cloths men put on new graves or even like the marble of grave stones.  Physically quite small alterations to the landscape carry large suggestions: an embrasure big enough to poke a machine gun through is not a very big hole. I find myself asking: does every soldier digging a foxhole know that he is digging his grave? Always she shows that haunting, by shrouding vegetation or by the closing in of the clouds.

Paola de Pietri - Col Formiga, Monte Grappa, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Col Formiga, Monte Grappa, 2009 – 2012

In some of them, I admit that I don’t know exactly what I’m looking at.  Some of the little constructions could be the work of shepherds, sheep cotes or shelter.  Some could be natural, the result of frost and water, normal erosion. Are those rocks shattered by shellfire?  Is that more level platform a former camp? I don’t need to know every detail to get the message.  You could imagine a film maker putting a classical Agnus Dei – maybe the great distressing one from Haydn’s Mass in Time of War – over these pictures.  They reek of the cruel idiocy of man to man, and nearly a hundred years later, they speak gently of the long, slow recovery as memory fades imperceptibly into history.

Paola de Pietri - Monte Ermada, @009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Monte Ermada, 2009 – 2012

Paola de Pietri - Forte Verle, 2009 -2012

Paola de Pietri – Forte Verle, 2009 -2012

An English king’s body was identified the other day, Richard III’s, lying under a car park in Leicester.  There was a certain amount of civic pride, a little talk of how wonderful archaeology was, with its high-tech comparisons of mitochondrial DNA and its super accurate carbon dating.  A few, a very few voices were raised in the media shouting “Hold on, stop !  This man very probably murdered two young potential threats to his power, and he died a hideous death in battle. ”  He died in 1485, shortly before Columbus sailed to America.  Many of Fay Godwin’s scratches and markings on the land are as old as we can reasonably go back, Neolithic things, among the earliest traces on our country of all. Those traces, high in Paola de Pietri’s mountains will slowly become even fainter.  But we have the pictures, and they are great monuments.  We have the invitation to understand.  We don’t necessarily have understanding itself.

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