The Quizzical Chamois – Irving Penn’s Cranium Architecture

Chamois, Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Chamois, Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

A number of weeks ago I was asked by Hamiltons Gallery in London to write a catalogue text on a group of pictures by Irving Penn which are less known than many, but seemed to have interesting characteristics of their own.  I was glad to write it, as I find that the scholarship of Penn seems a little unchanging.  I hoped that by treating these pictures exactly as though they were made today, and reacting to them as if they were a recent offering by an artist at his peak, I might bring a little freshness as well as appreciation. The catalogue is beautifully produced and is now out as the show has opened.  It runs at Hamiltons throughout the summer, until 13 September 2013. This means that a large number of visitors to London have the opportunity to visit these less known but high-quality pictures, and to purchase them as may be. The catalogue is a very limited edition, and – as bloggers do – I wanted to reach as large a number of people as possible, so I have asked for permission for the catalogue text to be reprinted here.  I do not often reprint texts published elsewhere: I’ve enjoyed writing it: that’s why it reappears here. The text is as published (without the notes).  The illustrations are fewer by far.

I owe thanks to a number of people: to Tim Jefferies and David Peckman of Hamilton’s Gallery, to Vasilios Zatse and Matthew Krejcarek and their colleagues at the Irving Penn Foundation, and to Sandra Klimt, who produced the book. All of these people made it possible to work at breakneck speed and yet to high standards.  My thanks to each one.

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Critics and historians of the work of Irving Penn often note that he was attracted to the memento mori genre, otherwise known as vanitas. A number of the conventional markers are there: broken jugs or the frequent appearance of all-too-human bits of debris in otherwise idealized still life pictures and portraits. There is even an elegant intimation of mortality in the subtle way that the frozen block of beans in Frozen Foods with String Beans (1977) is just beginning to thaw.

This connection to vanitas can be seen in examples of Penn’s work over a period of many years. Colin Westerbeck noted that Penn’s groups of non-commercial still lifes are all intimately connected to the theme of vanitas: the Cigarettes, the Street Material, and specifically the series of memento mori studies that was published as Irving Penn: Archaeology. A 1941 image, Funeral Home, published in Passage: A Work Record, Penn’s major retrospective book, depicts the shop front of W. S. Watkins & Son, Embalmer. Even in Venice in 1945, the young Penn was making studies of the scummy surface of the canal in deliberate opposition to the Ruskinian glories just above. Those images of foul water describe grassy stalks directly reminiscent of some of the Street Material from thirty years later, and of the fibrous shards that poke out of the Cigarettes.

For an artist with such an enduring interest to go on to make this astounding series of studies of the skulls of animals, Cranium Architecture, might seem quite natural. Penn was interested in death, goes the argument, perhaps as a counterpoint to his professional career working (both at Vogue and for his commercial clients) with people obsessed with youth.

Mouth (for L’Oréal), New York, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Mouth (for L’Oréal), New York, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

In Passage, a book made very much under Penn’s detailed control, the first of the cranial studies, Black Rhino (1986), is presented on a spread opposite Mouth (for L’Oréal) (1986). This is not a coincidence. Mouth (for L’Oréal) is a powerful picture, not least because it is one of the most violent in the whole of Penn’s canon. The lipstick in eight clashing colours is smeared in purposeful affront to the anatomy of the mouth. It has a thick, lardy impasto a million miles from the smooth refinement that Penn knew (better than anybody) that lipstick was “supposed” to convey. Several of the colours have metallic flecks in them, and if that reminds you even for an instant of car paint, you are suddenly in a world close to the horrors of J. G. Ballard’s 1973 novel, Crash. Penn was the master of a beautifully understated sexuality, in which respect and admiration fully control desire and, by controlling it, flavour it. But by 1986, at least some of the vanity of the commercial beauty business had turned very sour for Irving Penn. Mouth (for L’Oréal) is harrowing.

The rhinoceros skull image on that spread is in striking contrast, a calm tribute to the serene way that evolution proceeds about its business, contrasted to the futile panic against ageing, against rejection, of our daily hunt for esteem. The surfaces of the girl are, for once, far from lovely. The patinated bone of the animal, very old, but tenderly preserved, not only shows its own elegance but proves by its very existence the love that curators have spent upon it. Being stripped of flesh, it comes close to revealing its own essence.

Photography has a long (and now mainly forgotten) relation with phrenology and physiognomy, those pre-Victorian branches of science which promised to identify specific characteristics in a patient or subject from the detailed shape of the head. Physiognomy is discredited as having uncomfortable connections with eugenics, but in its day it was considered a science and not a parlour game. Its high point came precisely in the decades preceding the boom in photography.

I argue that physiognomy survived “underground” within photography. We still “read” character from photographic portraits in a way that has no relation to logic at all: her eyes are “too close” together, so we don’t entirely trust her; his “fleshy lips” make him look a libertine; her square jaw tells us she’s determined and reliable. We still expect, in other words, the surface to reveal quite impossible information about the interior. We do so a little in real life, but almost constantly in photographs.

Irving Penn knew about this. He is quoted as having said: “Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world. Very often what lies behind the façade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows and dares to believe.”This is a rich thought to underpin his various photographs of skulls. For if the skull is simply a head stripped of its façade, then to photograph it is less to enquire into aspects of death than to look at the fundamentals of expression and character. To photograph a skull might then be to get to the bare bones—quite literally—of character.

Penn photographed a number of skulls before the concentrated energy of the Cranium Architecture series, and it is far from clear that their primary reference in his mind was to death. Two of them are of particular interest.

The Poor Lovers, New York, 1979 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

The Poor Lovers, New York, 1979
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

The Poor Lovers (1979) is a peculiar picture of two skulls, one balanced on top of the other. One is twisted mildly to the right, the other mildly to the left. The bone of the upper one has darkened appreciably more than that of the lower, leaving a sensation that the two skulls descend from different races. It bears a mild, almost dilute memory of Man Ray’s classic study Noire et Blanche (1926), in which both the mask and the living sitter are depicted with eyes closed. The Poor Lovers is not legible as a study of any aspect of death. There is Penn’s characteristic detritus on the surface below, and the skulls are noticeably battered, but they are not in any real sense a study of decay or of mortality.

A few pages on in Irving Penn: Archaeology, we find A Cry (1980), a study this time of a single skull. Here Penn has deliberately imparted a twist to the expression by arranging the upper points of the lower jaw in asymmetry, the jaw “hinged” before the cheekbone on one side and behind on the other. So this is formally quite clear: here is a search for expression. That twist—impossible to miss—is viewed from directly in front. Reading the expression is more difficult, but we can see that whatever else it is, this is most certainly not a scientific picture. Neither is The Poor Lovers. Nor is either of them wholly or solely about death.

In reference to Rag Face (1975), part of Penn’s Street Material series, Colin Eisler writes: “The photographer’s progress on his pilgrimage of counter-vanity is made clearest in his least-known works . . . works conceived beyond purchase or fashion. . . . This new outlook, this liberation, allowed Penn to express his sense of fun as well as morality, his sense of adventure, of spontaneity. It even allowed Penn to get ugly.” Eisler had emphasized the connections to the vanitas traditions, making the point that grisaille, that nocturnal painting in black, white, and grey, frequently seen along with the vanitas in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, prefigures the tonalities of black and white.

But these studies are not only vanitas studies; they can be read just as sculpture. That may be what Eisler had in mind in talking about Penn’s sense of fun. Penn was a private man, not much given to the modern conception of “sharing” his inner thoughts about his work. His sense of fun—it has to be said—is pretty much unrecorded anywhere. Alexander Liberman once put it in the plainest English: “Penn is not easy to work with. . . . Penn seldom squanders his intensity.”

The timing is important. The 1970s had perhaps been a difficult period for Irving Penn. For the first time in a long career, he no longer had the studio supplied by Vogue and all the help that went with it—not merely in assistants and budgets, but in the roster of art directors and editors who had protected him from the coarser rigours of the magazine market and had encouraged him to try many of the ideas that became his most successful series. While Penn never fell out of favour, he certainly had a quieter commercial period in the 1970s. And that is what propelled him to his great affair with platinum printing, which ushered in exhibitions of his work at the Marlborough Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. In the 1970s, Penn had perhaps little choice but to put his artistic proclivities in the foreground.

Among those proclivities was sculpture. Penn had always been interested in the history of art; he drew, painted. But in the late 1970s he was experimenting in photography with shapes that were interesting in their own right and not merely as the most recent descendants of the venerable traditions of the vanitas. There is an immediate parallel with Alexander Liberman, Penn’s close associate and perhaps the only colleague approaching an artistic confidant.

By the late 1970s, Liberman had been a sculptor for a long time, and he was notably proud of his monumental constructions. A piece called There (1973), of enormous steel cylinders welded together, is a rendition of the fallen columns of a giant temple. It looks the blood brother of some of Penn’s photographs of piles of bones, or ingots, or machine parts. It is impossible not to believe that they evolved together, in constant conversations as well as in meetings with the artists all around. Vogue, as Liberman himself underlined, was a very serious art magazine in his time, even if he did once have to get Cecil Beaton to photograph fashion in front of a Jackson Pollock in order to get the painting included in the magazine.

So it begins to be possible to draw a picture of Penn, evolving his artistic practice in the late 1970s, turning his mind, in the wake of his great friend, to sculpture. Years before, in the introduction to Penn’s Moments Preserved, Liberman had written: “In a time when the unclear is too often used to cover up the absence of meaning, Penn’s steadfast adherence to definite statement has given his work a ‘visibility’ that few have been able to match.”

Other elements are discernible, too. As Irving Penn himself put it: “Sometime in 1964 I realized that I was victim of a printmaking obsession, a condition that persists today. . . . Over the years, I must have spent thousands of hours brushing on the liquid coatings, preparing each sheet of paper in anticipation of reaching the perfect print.” Penn was a supreme printmaker, and the print itself is an essential part of the astonishing tango between perception and representation that all the great Penn
images add up to.

Again in Penn’s own words, we are shown another element: “In 1979, I acquired an early twelve-by-twenty-inch banquet camera and had it altered. A five-foot track was made and a long bellows substituted for the original short one. I found a number of excellent long lenses. My intention was to make a platinum printing negative twelve-by-twenty inches right in the camera.”

Penn used the banquet camera for the Archaeology series and an 8 x 10 view camera for his Cranium Architecture. American art critic Rosalind Krauss noted that use of the banquet camera gave Penn the same format as the double-page commercial spreads of which he was a master. Krauss observed that “for the last several years [Penn] has produced a series of still lifes . . . that in format, disposition of objects, frontality of composition, and shallowness of space is identical to the memento mori images of his own aesthetically tagged platinum prints. The work Penn has done for Clinique cosmetics, . . . elegant, shallow, luminous still lifes of bottles and jars, . . . is the visual twin of its conceptual counterpart, the platinum work that speaks not of perpetual youth, but of death.”

It is important to note here that the Cranium Architecture prints are not made in platinum — that is to say, they are not in the medium at which Penn had made himself supreme, although it is possible he intended them to become so later. Instead, they are the most subtle, most sensitive, selenium toned silver prints that one could ever ask to see.

Westerbeck observed that Penn was more than a little taken aback at the reception his Street Material series received when the photographs were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in 1977. It seems that a number of critics were offended at the idea of expensive materials (platinum, essentially, palladium and a little iridium) being used in the depiction of squalid junk. Although those critics missed the point, that reception set Penn back a little. After that date, all the major shows until the first exhibition of the Cranium Architecture at the Pace/MacGill Gallery in 1989 were retrospectives, including one at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984. That cannot be a coincidence. He did publish the Flowers as a book in the period, but that, too, is a retrospective, the images dating for the most part from the late 1960s and early 1970s. It adds up to a caesura, a lessening of forward progress.

So now, perhaps, we have a number of elements in place to see the Cranium Architecture a little better.

Tapir, Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Tapir, Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Roe Deer, Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Roe Deer, Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

The negatives of these incredible pictures were made in a matter of a very few days, in the National Museum in Prague, between June 16 and 20, 1986. Photographs of the work in progress by Lennart Durehed, a former studio assistant who acted as Penn’s principal assistant in Prague, indicate that the conditions were very simple. The skulls were moved and handled by the photographic team, the support was an ordinary desk, the camera an 8 x 10 view camera. Twenty-one skull images, made in an exquisite matt-finish silver print, were chosen for the show at Pace/MacGill. Penn had hardly worked with silver printing since he first started experimenting seriously with platinum in 1964. Yet he came back to it as a virtuoso. He used all that he had learnt in platinum to make prints of a subtlety that rivals what he achieved in platinum itself. The majority of them are in the landscape format, not quite in the proportions of a double-page spread, but the orientation is significant for a photographer whose previous work had been mostly square or in the portrait orientation.

 Boar (Domestic), Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Boar (Domestic), Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Camel, Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Camel, Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

One part of me says that these skulls are pure modernist masterpieces, delayed only by Penn’s commercial career. When that paused, he made these studies with a clarity of vision and a directness of purpose that is the precise equivalent of that shown by Edward Weston making the Peppers or the Nautiluses.

I see, in addition, the contribution of the vanitas picture, and I do believe that there is an element of truth in the idea that Penn had found horror in the constant demands of the beauty industry that he had served so well and so long. But there are two further readings of these great pictures that are perhaps a more personal view.

I see the Cranium Architecture as a collection of super-portraits or para-portraits. They are the direct descendants of the physiognomic tradition, and the direct successors of Penn’s many years spent trying to make legible truths appear from the lineaments of a face. They seem to search for real truths of character in the act of peeling away the skin. By that I do not mean that Penn crudely expected to find a mandrill charming or a lion sardonic. And yet—when you look at the chamois, do you not see the same combination of quizzical embarrassment that I see? Does the tapir not say, “ Oh, well, what the heck,” to every viewer? These are caricatures of human expression, found in the skulls of dead animals, by an artist who had perhaps come steadily to disbelieve the confident legibility of his own great portraits.

He was making a gift to his viewers. There is none of Penn’s debris here, none of the stage-setting and scene-building that would help us come to any “right” reading of these expressions, and which he himself had developed as such a sophisticated technique. I see in these pictures an invitation for us to look with rigorous attention, to see how much of what we think about character is in fact gleaned from the false promises of phrenology and physiognomy, still buried deep in our photographic habits.

Then finally, I see them as sculptures. There is something so compelling and seductive about the cavities and declivities of the skulls, so brilliantly described. That comes not from photography’s habit of flattening the world but as a counter to it. The magisterial controlled gleam of the silver printing is as pleasing to the eye as bronze or wood have always been to touch.

They are great things, these skulls made in a few days in Prague. Like so much of Penn’s work, they encapsulate the thinking of years. They stand by the sheer perfection of their making: they are so carefully seen, printed with such virtuosity. They have none of the tense social meaning of the Street Material images that precede them, none of the commentary on consumer culture perhaps seen in the Cigarettes series. These Cranium Architecture pictures make no comment: they are as nearly universal as any photograph can be. Their genesis is intimately tied—as I have suggested here—to the artist’s development and his changing concerns. As two-dimensional sculptures, they are to be read almost as abstractions, for the pleasure of the surfaces so minutely detailed. I like to think that’s why Penn thought of them as “Architecture”: a reference to the kind of thinking he wished his viewers to pursue.

I keep being reminded of Penn’s great portrait of Miles Davis—The Hand of Miles Davis (1986). The skulls, exactly like that, invite reading far beyond what they themselves depict. They are perfectly solid things, known beasts preserved. But they are also the start of limitless chains of metaphor and allusion.

30 and Out? The National Media Museum Under Threat

Work in Progress at the Media Space in London.  The Media Space was planned to improve the visibility of one of the great photographic collections in the world.  Photographed by Kate Elliott

Work in Progress at the Media Space in London. The Media Space was planned to improve the visibility of one of the great photographic collections in the world.
Photographed by Kate Elliott

There is now no effective state policy for the provision of the culture of photography to the nation. There is today no specialist photography officer at the Department for Culture Media and Sport. There has only ever been one Photography Officer at the Arts Council, Barry Lane, and his tenure finished many years ago. The Arts Council is itself on its knees. Its homologue, the Museums Libraries and Archives Council, which was supposed to deal specifically with those institutions that held collections, has recently been abolished. The only serious national touring programme of photographic exhibitions now takes place under the umbrella of the Artist Rooms programme, administered by the Tate from the donation of one man, the art dealer Anthony d’Offay.

No need to go on. Photography exists as the most popular and most important sector of the visual arts in an administrative and institutional framework which has badly let it down over many years. It suffers from serial widespread long-term institutional failure of strategy and of personnel. Small wonder that we have now reached the point where the National Media Museum – which, in spite of its inadequacies, remains the home of a world-class collection of historically important photography – is facing imminent closure.

There should now be a considerable palaver in the UK about the future of the dependent museums of the Science Museum. These include the former National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Bradford, whose shift of emphasis away from its collections was clearly signalled when it was restructured and renamed the National Media Museum, a change endorsed by (the then) Culture Minister David Lammy and former BBC director-general Greg Dyke, who said:

“Twenty-first century Britain needs a media museum reflecting the importance in all our lives of TV, radio, film, photography and of course the internet, new media. There’s only one place to have it – and that’s Bradford.”

That was then.

Among many others The Guardian reported the situation on 5th June 2013 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.””

Beyond the laughably poor grammar coming out of the ministry of culture, a number of things are pretty clear. There is obviously going to be a huge shortfall in centrally provided income to the Science Museum Group. It is also obvious that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is not in a position to defend its dependent institutions. The weakest ministry of culture in Europe seems quite happy to stand by and let the various funding axes fall. Culture is a major industry in the UK, but its lobbyists are assumed to be feeble luvvies and are brushed aside by competing claims on government funds. Cultural policy in Britain is made on the hoof and unmade on a whim.

In that context, photography suffers, yet it should not.

Photography, which touches everything and everyone, easily meets all those criteria of social utility which were the Blairite vision of how culture should pay its way in society (and which the present government has inherited faute de mieux). Photography is our literacy and our art. Photography in any institution appeals to the full diverse range of population. It is accessible to all (from junior Key Stages in the curriculum to adults, and from every profession or walk of life). Photography is transnational and transcultural and doesn’t necessarily take place in any one language. It carries information and opinion equally, and represents the shared vocabulary of all of us. Photography includes high art and low commerce, and to be intrigued by photographs means potentially to be interested by anything at all. Photography is the only medium whose history is a history of continuous boom: photography has moved into every field, and convulsed each. It is also a remarkably cheap medium to treat, being relatively unaffected by transfer to digital formats in which everybody can store and send its products.

Photography, in other words, is the one cultural activity that presses all the buttons. Let alone its fundamental cultural importance, as the forerunner of cinema and digital imaging and everything visual in between. Many of the governing ideas of our society were first articulated in photography. Photography is demotic and vernacular and at the same time high-art and high tech.

Photography showed you things but didn’t always explain them: it was in photography that it first became possible to be exposed to any kind of argument without analysis. A thousand things developed from that. Take the sound bite, for example, so standard a part of our media-habituated world – what is the sound bite? A photograph in which visual is translated into verbal. We learnt to accept such things and work with them in photographs. Same for a hundred tics and tropes in half a dozen other fields. Photography is fundamental to a host of large industries which have developed around it: fashion, pop music, video gaming, even the tourist industry and sport… Photography is one of the engines that have pulled us out of the age of manufacture into the service age. It’s as important as that.

Photography is the fundamental core of contemporary art, too: you could put it in a nutshell and say that those artists who haven’t run to it, have run from it.

So the already weak provision to the nation of institutional coverage of this most vital – and most popular – field is threatened.

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the foundation of the Bradford Museum. When it opened, many people questioned its location because culture was then even more concentrated in London than now. But they also questioned whether there should be any such museum at all: photography was shown much less than it is now, and many wondered whether there was either demand or reason for such a museum. And photography was from the beginning the core of the museum. Its first Head was Colin Ford, perhaps the only UK curator of photographs who one could have imagined at the Harry Ransom Center or MOMA or the Bibliothèque Nationale or any of the other really proper photographic collections. As somebody (not from photography circles) said to me the other day: “The thing about Colin Ford is that we all knew who he was. I haven’t a clue about any of them that followed.” When Ford opened Bradford, it had something like eight galleries, showing everything from emerging photographers to the most established. It was in an odd place as far as London culture-vultures were concerned, but it really was the national museum of photography. After his departure, a lot of that concentration was diluted.

Let us recall that the absorption of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) collections by the Bradford Museum in 2003, after a relatively rapid negotiation, was the moment at which the Bradford collections in photography became truly world class. But it was also the moment at which the policy division between the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum was most visibly and publicly flouted. Officially still today, the V&A holds the national collections of the art of photography, and the National Media Museum the national collection of photography, which also includes art photography. Photography not being a discipline that lends itself particularly to tight categorisations of this kind, it has long been obvious that there are large and problematic areas of overlap. Still, once the RPS collection went to Bradford, it was then abundantly clear that (in photography, at least) the great museum fiefdoms were fighting each for itself and that no overarching policy existed to control them.

One of the main players in the transfer of the collections from the RPS to Bradford was Amanda Nevill, who became Head of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (as it then was), after being head of the Royal Photographic Society. Many other names are involved in this story, but let us just hold on to that one.

It might be a good time to ask some very old-fashioned questions: Cui bono? Who benefits if the National Media Museum should close down?

As Doris Day put it:

Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours, to see
Que Sera, Sera.

Still, let me draw out a plausible map of what might happen, and then let us ask the people in charge of our cultural institutions to explain the position.

The National Media Museum has been for a certain time in trouble. You could argue that it has done a miraculous job for the city of Bradford, acting as the main cultural focus in a city that badly needed something of the sort. But it has done a less good job for photography nationally, even if that is for reasons which are partly not the Museum’s own responsibility: chronic underfunding; lack of a resounding mission; lousy train services from elsewhere in the country (making it hard to get to); diminished curatorial staff and diminished spend on the collections, with a correspondingly high proportionate spend on fund-raising and marketing and all the ancillary functions of a museum. The position has grown so bad that the Museum has advanced a long way in its plan to open an out-station devoted to showcasing the photography collection in the Science Museum in London; a peculiar plan whereby the daughter-house will implant a branch within the mother-house. This, as I have written elsewhere, [ Photomonitor : Media Space at the Science Museum, by Francis Hodgson ] is a very public admission of the failure of one major part of its remit. The great collections of photography in Bradford’s care are not being properly shown to the nation.

But consider what might plausibly now happen.

The National Railway Museum in York and the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester both serve cities with a far heavier lobbying punch than Bradford. Manchester is arguably the founding city of the industrial revolution, and York has built up a huge tourist industry in the business of heritage and history. Neither will give up their museums easily. It will look possible to concoct an argument by which Bradford loses its own simply because one of the three has to go under the cuts.

If that should happen, it will become necessary to rehouse the collections. Manchester is the city to which large parts of the BBC has been moved over recent years. Granada was always the best commercial franchise; add the BBC and it becomes plausible to think of Manchester as a specialist television town. What could be easier than to make the argument that the television collections from Bradford should go there, and even perhaps to the Museum of Science and Industry?

Similarly for film. The BFI (British Film Institute) already exists, is in London, and would perhaps happily stake a claim to accommodate the relevant Bradford collections. Although the BFI has been rationalising its technical collections.  It set a line in the sand when it closed the Museum of the Moving Image in 1999 and might be unwilling to reverse that decision. But the Director of the BFI is that same Amanda Nevill, mentioned above, who might welcome with open arms a chunk of the collection she better than almost anyone knows the value of.

There remain the great historic photographs collections. The Media Museum has been inching towards London anyway, in the proposed ‘Media Space at the Science Museum’. How convenient would it be for the whole collection to have to move back to London, where the Media Space is already earmarked for its display?

No more talk of the supposedly vast cultural importance of archiving websites and social media and so on. But the British Library is quietly making great strides on that score anyway, as it quite properly should.

Get rid of the Bradford Museum, to the great detriment of the city of Bradford, but to large savings, and suddenly the national collections under its control fall into convenient slots, separated by medium.

You know what? It could all have been planned that way.

As a matter of fact, it is impossible to see UK arts administrators competent enough to have engineered such a complicated dance towards an outcome. It is more likely the standard UK fare of botched job and muddling along and yielding to pressure. This much is clear: the UK national photographic institutions are in a mess which is likely to get a whole lot worse. Whatever happens, it shouldn’t happen without proper debate and without proper planning.

Robert Brownjohn’s Street Level Series

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

One of the pleasing things about being interested in photographs is that it is really perfectly OK to admit to not knowing even important groups of pictures. In a narrower specialism, say in craft pottery or in modern literary fiction or in contemporary dance, it’s embarrassing to miss first-rate stuff.  In photography you can even turn the whole argument around:  far from being embarrassing to have missed something, it may be that to live only with those pictures that have good kudos in your particular neck of the photographic woods is to be limited, to lack curiosity and openness.

The new and the new-to-me is a powerful stimulant. It’s by checking one’s reactions against the new that one improves one’s antennae.  It’s the fear of the new which makes so much commercial photography stultifying.  Don’t forget that the word cliché is French for a snapshot. Clichés are merely the standard thoughts of those frightened by the new. I think there’s a lot of fear of the new in specialist areas, too, like sports photography, although there the problems of access and delivery are so great that perhaps there are some excuses.

It is good periodically to meet the new-to-me face to face.

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

In the latest re-hang of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s photography gallery, there is a group of pictures of lettering found in situ on London’s streets.  I admit, I did not know these pictures, and while I certainly knew of their author, I did not think of him as a photographer.  They date from 1961, are by Robert Brownjohn, and, like so very much interesting photography, they were not originally made with any interest in what they might be as photographs.

Brownjohn was a designer, a good one. Born in America as the son of an originally British bus-driver, he had studied with Lászlό Moholy-Nagy at the Institute of Design in Chicago, then with Moholy-Nagy’s successor, the architect Serge Chermayeff, before coming to England in 1960.  He was a member of that New York crowd of the 1950s centred on such luminaries of the cool jazz as Miles Davis and Stan Getz.  Later, he became a key figure in the Swinging Sixties in London.   A pioneer in several fields of design, he was also an addict, who died before he was fifty.

There was an exhibition devoted to Brownjohn’s work at the Design Museum in London in 2005. The Museum of Modern Art in New York is still showing (for a few days – until March 18th 2013) a little study of the famous and influential title sequence he designed for the James Bond film Goldfinger.  The exhibition organizers Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor tell us [http://bit.ly/XWVkXg] it was “the first film title sequence to enter MoMA’s collection as a design work in its own right… As memorable as the film itself, the title sequence of Goldfinger (1964) captures the sexual suggestiveness and wry humor of the James Bond mythos.”

Anne Morra, an associate curator of film at MoMA, writes of the same show “In order to illustrate his concept to the producers of From Russia with Love, Brownjohn lifted his shirt and, with a projector flashing images on his stomach, began to dance. Once Brownjohn assured the producers that a pretty girl would be used instead, he was given free rein to explore. The success of the From Russia with Love title sequence earned him the largesse to be even more radical in designing the Goldfinger titles. Celebrating the way the titles were visually distorted when projected on the human body, Brownjohn hired a model named Margaret Nolan and dressed her in a gold leather bikini, effectively using her as a three-dimensional screen.”

Robert Brownjohn. Preparatory study for Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

Robert Brownjohn. Preparatory study for Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

Robert Brownjohn. Preparatory study for Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

Robert Brownjohn. Preparatory study for Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

Two views of Robert Brownjohn’s preparatory studies for the Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

Two views of Robert Brownjohn’s preparatory studies for the Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

The Bond films have the status of national treasure now, but Brownjohn was a working designer.  Like most working practitioners (among them not least photographers) his theories evolved on the hoof.  He moved typography along in several commissions by inventing a more fluid way of dealing with it than had been seen before. Projecting words onto curved surfaces and particularly onto surfaces in motion, or drawing words direct onto models, was deliberately to blur the lines between three-dimensional and two-dimensional messaging.  That’s not so far from the photographs of lettering at the V&A. He was hip, daring, and quick to find better ways of getting his point across.  Just a quick browse through the Museum of Modern Art’s holdings of his work  [ http://bit.ly/WfNy0g ] reveals an elegant use of space that reminds me of no-one so much as Alexey Brodovitch, far better known in photography circles than Brownjohn because of his twenty-five year association with Harper’s Bazaar.

But Brownjohn had other styles, too. Some of his work reminds me strongly of the only-barely controlled late-1960s graphic work that the photographer Bob Whitaker did for Oz magazine, (although Brownjohn seems to have been a more amenable corporate servant). I exhibited some of that in the mid-1990s at a little gallery I used to run (called Zwemmer Fine Photographs, in London) and I remember the streams of young designers from St. Martin’s – which was then nearby – amazed at the radical courage of that work.  Brownjohn could do that, too, but he did it under that very formal Moholy-Nagy legacy.  Technically proficient, daring, and formally tight.  Brownjohn made a pretty compelling package of all-round design wizardry.

Brownjohn was associated with Herbert Spencer, who was as much a drum-beater for clear thinking on design as a designer himself.  Spencer designed and edited his journal Typographica through the whole of the 1950s and most of the 1960s, a fundamental source then for those in Britain anxious to keep up with European modernism in design (and a coveted collectable now).  Several of Brownjohn’s series of photographs appeared there.  The pictures now at the V&A appeared in Typographica in October 1961, in a 32-page essay called Street Level. Another smaller set of 13 of Brownjohn’s pictures (on Wrapper Design) appeared in the same issue.

Herbert Spencer was an accomplished photographer himself, although no more of a ‘professional’ than Brownjohn.  “By virtue of one’s training or experience,” he recalled in an interview, “one simply looked at things in a different way and selected details and viewpoints which a professional photographer wouldn’t have chosen.”

That is exactly how Brownjohn would have felt. It is in that context that the group of pictures in the V&A needs to be understood. It overlaps with what I wrote about in a recent post on this site [ Photography Changes Everything. ]These pictures were not made to be distributed through any photographic context. That does not make them unworthy of contemplation as photographs.   As far as I am aware, only the specialist writer on design, Rick Poynor, has paid any special notice to the Brownjohn pictures at the V&A, in an excellent detailed piece in Design Observer which goes into solid research. Poynor has already published the whole sequence in his study of Typographica (Laurence King, 2001). Poynor it was, too, who wrote the text for Herbert Spencer’s late volume of photographs Without Words (1999).  I am indebted to him: it is his work that effectively introduces me to the great interest in Brownjohn’s Street Level pictures.

You could say these pictures are not much: just a working collection of photographs made because nothing else could do the job as well.  But they are also very fine photographs.  There is obviously a crafted delight in Brownjohn’s composition: he didn’t require teaching in that domain.  The pictures are wider than many would have made them: they deliberately include a significant element of the grimy London world that they record.  They have a sly wit, too.  No Parking in Space Today, says one, a stoner’s hip joke for the beginning of the space age.  SMOKE EXTRACT says another, on a close-up of a brick wall, as though the bricks above their cement horizon line might magically be transformed into something altogether more vaporous.  The lettering on a shop front which says Rolls-Royce is next to a projecting sign for the Rock Building Society; impossible not to see a sublimated Rock’n’Roll there.

There are pleasantries here, but there is also something more serious.  I’m reminded of that famous opening scene of Great Expectations in which Pip tries to make out the character of the parents he never knew from the very different letters on their headstone:  “ The shape of the letters on my father’s gave me an odd impression that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly hair.  From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,’ I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly….” Brownjohn was convinced that the character of the city was complex, but also transmissible.  Passers-by who saw these various signs would have a mood imparted to them as well as literal information.  The pictures do a good job of suggesting how that works, and to that extent, they are substantially more than ‘just’ factual photographs.  The nominal subject matter in each frame is relatively small (only a couple of pictures — an effaced street name high on a wall, the Rolls-Royce shop — could really pass for a ‘view’.  Yet there is a conscious respect for the subject.  These are not just graphics, collected by an investor in graphics for re-use later.  They are a deliberate collection of London letterings, with honour paid to their particular belonging there in time and place.  That is enough to make them non-neutral, committed. They don’t look like Brassaï, but these are street pictures with as much right for consideration as his.  Brassaï’s wonderful graffiti (I’ve always suspected ­– with not a shred of evidence – that he drew them himself, specifically in order to photograph them) are formally much tighter than Brownjohn’s letters.  In the one you get a mark.  In the other, a lettered environment.

Brownjohn is not normally included in lists of photographers, and certainly not outside a specialist design fraternity.  These pictures have not been for years in the V&A’s collections.  Their acquisition numbers include the figures 2012: these are recent additions, early fruits of the V&A’s new acquisitions committee in photography, and entirely welcome.  The V&A is a museum of applied design and decorative arts even more important than a museum of photography.  It is right that its curators should gently and without any great song and dance acquire and display works whose very existence is an argument against those who would pigeon-hole photography in a medium-specific ghetto of its own.  Photography gets everywhere and affects everything.  A tight group of pictures at the far end of a long gallery of pictures does a little bit to show that the custodians of our photographic heritage are not, in this case at least, cowed by that.  It is absolutely good to meet these pictures.  Do we need to expand the canon of  ‘known photographers’ to make room for Robert Brownjohn?  Not in the slightest: we simply need to acknowledge that good photographs are not necessarily made  to be good photographs, and that there is plenty of room in our collections and in our appreciation for them wherever they might come from.