The Cult of the Camera: Noel Pemberton Billing and the Compass


Compass Camera. Designed by Noel Pemberton Billing in England Made by LeCoultre &Cie in Switzerland

I have less of the fetishist enthusiasm in photography than many.  I own no dun-coloured waistcoat with thirty pockets, for example, and I find that I cannot concentrate through (let alone contribute to) even the first bars of any conversation about anti-aliasing filters. I’ve never been a photographer; I am disbarred from the whole freemasonry of gear.

Yet that fetishism exists.  Here’s a little gadget which I’d like to hold in my hands.  I’d like it on my mantel.  I might even put it in my pocket and rub it surreptitiously, like a worry stone or a rosary …


Compass Camera


Compass Camera


Compass Camera

I’ve succumbed, you see — most unusually for me — to a photographic object.  I want to own one.  And it comes as the pivot to a whole group of stories.

These pictures, harvested online, are of something called a Compass Camera. The pictures come from many sources, and I’m grateful to all of them, but I want to send you to just one among them. The site not only contains many detailed comparisons of different models of Compass, but also a substantial number of manuals, promotional material and so on, reproduced page by page in their entirety, an invaluable guide to the machine itself and the context in which it was offered.

The Compass is tiny – less than 3 inches square, and barely more than an inch deep when closed. It dates from 1937. It’s so intricate that it had to be manufactured by a Swiss watch maker, LeCoultre.  As a feature on it in Camera magazine in 1965 put it, the Compass was ‘everything but a success.’ Part of its problem was simply the price: at launch, it cost £30, compared to the Leica selling at £15.


Compass advertising in Amateur Photographer, 1939, reproduced in Cyclope 52, 2000

Another difficulty would have been its phenomenal fiddliness.  It looks like a fantasy of what a spy camera might be, yet you’d have to wonder what kind of spying would offer the leisure to manipulate quite so many tiny dials and switches to operate the thing.  It takes 35mm film – perfectly standard stuff, you’d think, ideal for spying.  Except not quite.  It takes individual sheets of 35mm film, pre-backed on light-tight paper, which are loaded like the single plates of much larger, heavier (and acknowledgedly slow) cameras. A later modification allowed use of a roll of film, but even that was hardly convenient, as it was limited to six exposures. Yet some 4000 of these things were made; some of the design ideas it encompassed are still in use.  It was brilliant, it worked, and it’s beautiful.

Amateur Photographer 1943

Compass in the Hand, from Amateur Photographer, 1943


Compass Camera


Compass Camera

Compass Camera


Compass Camera


Compass Camera


Compass Camera.   Designed by Noel Pemberton Billing in England.   Made by LeCoultre & Cie. in Switzerland

The Compass was the design of a man called Noel Pemberton Billing, about whom fact and false fact swirl. If this little camera is beautiful, his more abstract ideas were vile.

Michael Pritchard, in whose History of Photography in 50 Cameras I first met Billing, calls him mildly enough “a true English eccentric”. The historian G. R. Searle (who also wrote Billing’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography) was more outspoken. As quoted by Lucy Bland (in Modern Women on Trial: Sexual Transgression in the Age of the Flapper), he called Billing “the most conspicuous and dangerous of all the war-time jingo demagogues”.  

Billing was an engineer and designer, principally in aviation. He held hundreds of patents, including many to do with cameras, but stretching beyond them as far as a simple package for safety razor blades.  He designed improvements to the gramophone player, too. Philip Hoare, in an essay called I Love a Man in Uniform: the Dandy Esprit de Corps, calls Billing “an Edwardian Lothario, the inventor of the seaplane”.

“Like the prewar ‘nut’, but decidedly more virile,” he goes on, “this dandy autofact’s accessory was the car: Billing drove a lemon yellow Rolls Royce and other, futuristic motors of his own invention; commentators noted that he dressed in ‘unusual clothes,’ especially long collared shirts worn ‘without the usual accompaniment of a necktie’.”

Hoare tells us – with a picture from his own collection to back it up – that Billing “had a ledge of flesh inserted in his cheek to keep his monocle in place”.

Had Billing stuck to aviation, he might have been a solid success.  He was in it from the very first, experimenting with gliders almost as soon as he came back (in 1903) from a youthful fugue to South Africa. (He had joined the South African police and seems to have served for a while in the Second Boer War.)  Billing opened in 1908 what was probably the first airfield in England, on a marsh in Essex. It was overtaken by Goodwood as the centre for pioneering flight. He started an early aviation magazine, Aerocraft in 1909. He raced cars (and also steam yachts). He tinkered.  He had money, and he also made some.  In 1913, he made a £500 bet with the aircraft engineer Frederick Handley Page that he could get his flying licence from scratch in twelve hours of flying.  He had probably been practising for months or years before that; he was that kind of man.

But he won his bet, and the winnings (a very substantial sum at the time) allowed him to invest in his very own aircraft factory.  He put it on the Solent, on the River Itchen, in fact, because he wanted to specialise in seaplanes. He designed original configurations of aircraft, including one with four stacked wings. He was interested in planes to hunt down Zeppelins, he thought about planes which could land on water and ditch their wings to become lifeboats for damaged ships. None of this was nonsense: the whole industry was full of trial-and-error, chimera-chasing, making-do.  It was wartime, and aviation was an industry whose boundaries nobody knew. Pemberton Billing got close; but never quite got the cigar. When the government effectively bought out his plant, it survived by repairing planes damaged in the appalling carnage of the time.  Never mind the enemy, these things fell out of the sky with alarming frequency and terrifying consequences.  He was really close, though. The telegraphic name of the Pemberton-Billing company, chosen by Billing as the superior opposite of submarine, was ‘Supermarine’, which became the company name and which would echo in aviation glory as the maker of the Spitfire – but only after he had sold his share.


Pemberton-Billing PB1, as exhibited at the Olympia Aero Show, London, March 1914. One 50hp Gnome seven cylinder rotary engine. Span 30ft. Length approx 27ft. Maximum speed 50mph.

Billing retired from the Royal Naval Air Service after serving only briefly. He wanted to make a name in politics.

The issue of Flight (“official organ of the Royal Aero Club of the United Kingdom”) of January 13th 1916 contains the announcement of Billing’s convenient eleventh-hour promotion to Temporary Squadron Commander at the same time as the notice of his resignation from the Service. The issue runs what is in effect a campaign manifesto for Billing, including a front-page editorial, a full-page portrait, and a long and frankly hagiographic profile.

“His object is to become the advocate in Parliament for the very extended air policy  which has been so strongly urged in the past in ‘Flight’…From his knowledge of aviation he is not likely to be led astray by a lot of flap-doodle statements emanating from those who have some axe to grind of their own.”

defence against the night bomber

Pemberton-Billing as a Lobbyist for Aviation

Tellingly, Billing is described as standing for parliament ‘at the request of an influential committee’.

In other words, he was backed as a lobbyist.  He was eventually elected, in Hertfordshire. Partly because he was loud and a showman, and partly because the arguments for increased air power were in fact sensible at a time of appalling slaughter on the ground, he acquired a certain populist renown.

Then things went from the zany Buster Keaton world of early aviation to something a great deal nastier.

With the financial backing of Lord Beaverbrook, Billing opened a journal called The Imperialist (renamed in early 1918, in case anyone had any doubts of its methods, The Vigilante).  Openly anti-Semitic and homophobic, this looked for people to blame for the way the war was going. Billing was persuaded that a secret German campaign called The Unseen Hand was sapping the British will to fight.  And what was The Unseen Hand?  Networks of prostitutes, deliberately infecting our boys.

“The German, through his efficient and clever agent, the Ashkenazim, has complete control of the White Slave Traffic. Germany has found that diseased women cause more casualties than bullets. Controlled by their Jew-agents, Germany maintains in Britain a self-supporting – even profit-making – army of prostitutes which put more men out of action than does their army of soldiers.”

In December 1917, Billing ran an article by the virulently anti-Semitic Arnold Henry White saying that Germany had a network of homosexual agents (he used the word urnings) on the same kind of mission.

“Espionage is punished by death at the Tower of London, but there is a form of invasion which is as deadly as espionage: the systematic seduction of young British soldiers by the German urnings and their agents… Failure to intern all Germans is due to the invisible hand that protects urnings of enemy race… When the blond beast is an urning, he commands the urnings in other lands. They are moles. They burrow. They plot. They are hardest at work when they are most silent. Britain is only safe when her statesmen are family men.”

Then a Black Book appeared (although mysteriously, its appearance seemed always just around the corner). The book was in the hands of a German aristocrat, briefly king of Albania.  Then it was in the Home Office Such a one had seen it but couldn’t produce it just now.  The Black Book was supposed to be

“a book compiled by the Secret Service from the reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past 20 years, agents so vile and spreading debauchery of such a lasciviousness as only German minds could conceive and German bodies execute…. for the propagation of evils which all decent men thought had perished in Sodom and Lesbia…. the names of 47,000 English men and women…. Privy Counsellors, youths of the chorus, wives of Cabinet Ministers, dancing girls, even Cabinet Ministers themselves, while diplomats, poets, bankers, editors, newspaper proprietors and members of His Majesty’s household follow each other with no order of precedence…. Wives of men in supreme positions were entangled…. In lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of State were betrayed.”

This kind of stuff was barely coded at all.  Readers would have recognised, I think, in the “wives of men in supreme positions” an allusion to Margot Asquith, wife of the recently unseated Prime Minister, and a constant lightning-rod for gossip and slander.  The reference to ‘dancing girls’ would certainly have suggested Maud Allan, the most famous dancing girl of the time. The vision was clear – if clearly mad. There were 47,000 high-placed names, all homosexual, all capable of being blackmailed by Germany.

On it went.  The kind of stuff that only a semi-hysterical population can take seriously.  But the war looked very hard to win, to say the least.  Passchendaele had petered out only recently – the ‘end’ of the battle is usually given as November 1917. In the face of consistently dreadful war news, hysteria was more understandable – and more exploitable – than at more stable times.

Billing went further and further. He claimed that Jews in government were conspiring in treason to lose the war; he fomented a series of attacks on Jewish businesses or even on those of people with German-sounding names – all very nasty, and an obvious prefiguring of the habits of British fascists to come.

No need to be a psychologist to see that Billing was a fantasist, or even to suspect that he may have had some trouble dealing with an element of homosexuality of his own. He was certainly an extremist of the right-wing, of the kind that is violently anti-everything. The cast of characters that whirled around him is ‘colourful’ but also included deeply dangerous people. Lord Beaverbrook I’ve mentioned as one of his sponsors. He was the man of whom Evelyn Waugh said “Of course I believe in the devil.  How else could I explain Lord Beaverbrook?”. Billing was involved with Charles Repington, the military correspondent of The Times (and later the Morning Post), a sinister military figure openly contemptuous of politicians and privily plotting against them when their views on strategy differed from his own. Billing employed on The Imperialist the certifiably mad American Harold Spencer (discharged from the British Army for paranoid delusional insanity), the author of a shrilly anti-Semitic book published in 1918 under the title Democracy or Shylocracy.

In early 1918, a private performance was planned of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. It had to be private because the theatre in England was carefully censored (as it remained well into the 1960s).  Salome was to be played by Maud Allan, the American actress.  The Vigilante published (under the screaming title The Cult of the Clitoris) a hysterical claim that the thousand people due to attend the performance would all also appear in the Black Book.  Maud Allan sued Pemberton Billing for criminal libel for suggesting that she was a lesbian.  The trial was a sensation: mud of every kind was flung. The court became the perfect launchpad for Pemberton Billing to air his conspiracy theories. A succession of witnesses made spectacular allegations.  Dr. Cook, tuberculosis officer for Lambeth, gave evidence to the effect that everybody concerned in the production must have perverted minds, be sadists and sodomists.

Maud Allan as Salome by Reutlinger

Maud Allan as Salome –  Photo Reutlinger

As always around Billing, the cast of characters was gaudy.  Ms. Allan was herself a sensation. She was a huge star, having long been performing as a dancer to big audiences in London in costumes quite amazingly revealing for the date; but she was also revealed to be the sister of a man executed in California in 1898 for the lurid murder of two women. Oscar Wilde’s former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, now a vehement homophobe, gave evidence, as did an extraordinary woman called Eileen Villiers-Stuart.

“Lloyd George and his advisers,” according to Toni Bentley in Sisters of Salome, “hired a young woman with some experience in political subterfuge, as an agent-provocateur. She was to offer Pemberton-Billing her support, information, and sexual favours if necessary, and then lure him to a male brothel to be secretly photographed for blackmail. Eileen Villiers-Stuart was a political adventuress primed for the job. She was an attractive, twenty-five-year-old bigamist, and her lunch with the Independent M.P. was all too successful. By the end of the afternoon, mesmerized by him, she flipped her allegiance, slept with him, and divulged the Liberals’ conspiracy to blackmail him. She even agreed to testify as a star witness in her new lover’s libel case.”

Gaudy is the word. These people didn’t care too much about telling the truth.  Spencer and Villiers-Stuart both later admitted to having lied in court.  The judge, Charles Darling, a very senior figure, barely kept control of the trial, but in June 1918 Pemberton Billing was acquitted of all charges of libel.  For a few days there was uproar; it seemed a vindication of his preposterous views.  The fascination of the case has not diminished over time.  It is, for example, one of the events rumbling in the background of The Eye in the Door, the second of Pat Barker’s novels in the Regeneration trilogy.  No doubt you could make a movie of the life of Noel Pemberton Billing.

The uproar got Billing re-elected to Parliament, but as the credibility of his witnesses became harder to maintain, and as the victory in the war removed the primary cause of the public hysteria in which Billing’s theories had found their ground, he gained little traction from the case.  He retired from politics in 1921.

One of the points of the Compass is that it was meant to be a complete camera system: everything you might need was designed into the little block of machined aluminium, including filters and other such elements normally carried separately. Even the tripod was beautifully designed and made for it.  A swivelling connector between camera and tripod was built in to allow matched pairs of stereoscopic pictures to be made without effort. Another connector with five notches allowed perfectly aligned panoramas. There were choices of methods of focus, careful exposure ratios (calculated in Compass Units, which were engraved on the machine). It even had a spirit level built in. If you really were in a hurry, there was a SNAP setting in the middle of the shutter speeds (although even getting to that was fiddly).

It was maybe too perfect.  Small wonder it was made by a watchmaker.  It had some 250 parts.  To take a picture with such a thing involved daintiness and precision at the expense of convenience. Pemberton Billing designed another camera in 1946 – the Phantom, which never went into production.  It was Michael Pritchard, then at Christie’s, who was responsible for the sale of the prototype in 2001.  It was estimated at £8,000-12,000 and sold for £146,750 – smashing the auction record for cameras at the time.  Pemberton Billing should have stuck to what he knew; he was a really good designer.


Compass Camera


Compass Camera


Compass on its tripod


Compass Camera


If you haven’t seen quite enough pictures of the fetish-object yet, there’s an amazing little film in which somebody called Sarah Smoots carefully .. fondles a Compass camera for quarter of an hour.  That should probably be enough.

Who Says it’s Good?

Frank Brangwyn,  Preparatory study for the Skinners' Hall Murals, c.1905.

Frank Brangwyn, Preparatory study for the Skinners’ Hall Murals, c.1905.

In photography we have no or few shared standards. The camera club virtues (perfection in the craft skills of photography at the expense of any or every notion of expressiveness) are not by any means to be mapped to the virtues aimed at by the members of World Press Photo, artists working in photography, or professional wedding photographers.

It is not, in general, a very controversial thing to say that “we have standards”. It is not awkward to expect that some jobs are better finished than others.

Try to get a little more specific than that, though, and standards are fiercely difficult to apply. In photography, as in many art forms, we resort to the crude ways of keeping the score of the hedge-fund or the investment bank: numbers and particularly currency numbers. Platinum records, best-seller lists, highest-grossing film releases… The great auction houses routinely spew out press releases announcing the breaking of this or that ‘record’. Their diligence must have contributed a lot to the fashionable notion of art as an investment area. Do note that they never send out releases announcing unsold works in a sale or a price well below that expected. To get those figures calls for investigative reporting, and that, for complicated reasons, barely exists anymore.

Photography — although not immune to that kind of lowest-common-denominator boosting system (see for example the self-promotion of the Australian landscape photographer Peter Lik, who claims on his website as at September 2015 “to now hold four spots out of the top twenty most expensive photographs ever sold” ) — has not so far succumbed wholly to it. We can still see that lots of good or excellent pictures have not sold many times or for high digits, and also that lots of money continues to be made by pictures plainly junk.

Drifiting Shadows by Peter Lik.  My spellchecker unkindly offered YUK as a suggestion for the name of the photographer.

Drifiting Shadows by Peter Lik. My spellchecker unkindly offered YUK as a suggestion for the name of the photographer.

To rank any artworks higher or lower by more subtle gauges than those of the stock exchange ticker is to invite contradiction or dispute. People quite naturally disagree with rankings, propose alternatives, scoff at comparing what they consider non-equivalents… If it seems probable to me, say, that Pat Barker is a “better” novelist of the Great War than Sebastian Faulks, (which it does), am I immediately looking for a punch in the mush from some outraged fan of the opposite persuasion? I could make arguments to back up my claim – starting with the coarse circumstantial one that Faulks, former books editor, male, and fully paid up member of the London literocracy, has had a number of advantages in generating favourable attention that Pat Barker has not had. I could add a few more of these broad contextual strokes, and then dance into the texts, and so make my case.   But why would I? What does it mean to invite comparison between one artwork and another? How does the unexceptional thought that there are standards become transformed into bellicose or at least provocative dispute as to what exactly they might be or where they might precisely be found?

I don’t exactly know. But I do know that the weaselly pretence that all art in any domain must be equally good is just a flight from a difficult series of questions. Without shared standards – which some artworks must almost by definition fail to achieve – we can only be subjective. Aside from the question of all those photographs with good pretensions to excellence but no pretensions whatsoever to art, you might well feel that in the criticism of photography we’ve had quite enough of that. Subjective judgment is the rule not the exception, and no attempt to systematize that seems ever to have got much traction. My feeling is that this is not a flaw but a natural consequence of some of the central elements of the medium.

Several modes of criticism quite routinely cohabit. Which is the same as saying that a number of separate standards are in operation. There is what we might call the style of the late Sir David Frost – in which everything is “Super, Super”. By that standard, the work under consideration is always excellent. Good things that went before – and most especially better things that went before – have no place at the table. This is the standard of the press release, and the press release is a form of writing which has grown exponentially during the ‘information age’ of fast digital communication, and whose influence, I think, has grown much more in the art world than is easily realized.

I can’t say I have lived through the invention of the press release. US sources routinely credit Ivy Lee with that, for the controlled way he managed news of an Atlantic City railway crash in 1906. (Upton Sinclair, in his novel The Brass Cheque – in which Sinclair gave an account of Lee’s corrupt handling of the press on what became called the Ludlow Massacre, a mining strike in 1914 which escalated into violent reprisal ­– scathingly dubbed Ivy Lee “Poison Ivy”.)   I suppose there have been people detailed to claim the attention of the press from the art world as long as there have been mass media. But the role has grown and spread and drawn little comment in doing so. Now we’ve reached a point where even the tiniest arts organization has a PR person – or an account with a PR firm. Individual artists have PR people, all furiously spinning away. Public cultural institutions spend tax-payer’s money on PR, wads of it. There has grown up and flourished a kind of art-writing which is no more than reheating the press-releases that these people pack up and pump out, and it sometimes is pretty disgraceful.

In photography, notably, where there are very few specialist critics, one can trace press releases right through into general acceptance. As a person in the business I receive a lot of press releases and I can often see large chunks of them appear in finished articles over the name of a supposed ‘reviewer’ or ‘previewer’. Even when that isn’t quite so, even when the words are altered, I can see the point of view of the release unquestioningly reproduced with no more than a shift of expression. In an era when deadlines are tight, and when ‘content’ is so often no more than space-filling, when pay for arts journalism has barely increased since the 1980s and journalists are under more pressure to produce stuff than to make it interesting (or right), one can have a certain sympathy. What is a writer to do, asked to produce three hundred (or seventy-five!) words on an artist they’ve barely heard of in a field whose very Peles and Maradonas are all-but unknown? That’s what the press release is for. But perhaps what comes out of that system shouldn’t be called criticism. It’s something else: puffery if you’re feeling nasty, background information if you’re feeling generous. Reheating a press release may let a reader or a listener know what’s going on; but it will hardly inform her or him.

I can’t prove it, but I think one could say that there’s more writing in the information age, and less reading. People read fast, they are satisfied with the surface reading, they don’t use much detail. Whereas the production of texts rises and rises. Many of them are produced to sell something, only it doesn’t necessarily appear so in the final context.

That’s the world of press releases. It cannot be discounted in seeking to understand what standards apply. Photography is the area I know, but I doubt it’s very different elsewhere. Culture is made to fit into the system we operate, and is divided up to be sold as product. A great deal of what purports to be criticism is too close to marketing for comfort.

But not all. Some still argue that technical perfection is the only standard worth achieving. A ‘good’ photograph then becomes a well-executed exercise in doing what cameras and computers can do[1]. A lot of people sneer at that: it brings to mind camera-club contests in which producing even curves in Photoshop is more important by far than having anything to say. I’m the first to say that I’m not specially interested in ‘perfect’ pictures of ‘perfect’ drops of water falling off the very end of ‘perfect’ rose leaves. But sneering is no good. A great deal of the photography that we are most influenced by is made along precisely those lines. Much more commercial photography is made like that than perhaps we notice. Car pictures – ever so shiny. Travel pictures – no politics. Fashion – has to show the clothes. Portraiture, lifestyle, below-the-line, art, sport… The rules by which serious and experienced professional people judge photographs in their particular neck of the photographic woods are often particular, sometimes absurd, and not always tenable in the abstract.

A Weasel Rides on a  Woodpecker, by Martin Le-May, 2015.  This picture 'went viral' and one can see why.  Nobody who saw it had ever seen such a thing before.

A Weasel Rides on a Woodpecker, by Martin Le-May, 2015. This picture ‘went viral’ and one can see why. Nobody who saw it had ever seen such a thing before.

Even news photography, which you would have thought has to confirm most of all to the grim hurly-burly of the real world, is often made according to a series of arcane rules about what it is or is not acceptable to do to a photograph between capturing it and letting audiences see it. The recent and ongoing kerfuffle at the World Press Photo about manipulation is revealing[2]. I attended one of the meetings and was shocked by the almost religious inflexibility of a certain kind of working photojournalist, who really believes that his or her pictures somehow tell pure truth, and not only that, but that he can recognize such a thing when he sees it. There are still news photographers – plenty of them –who are convinced that truth is to be measured in pixels unaltered in a file, but not — say — in the editorial stance which chooses which horrors are newsworthy and which to be ignored[3]. The very notion that the in-camera and in-computer algorithms without which their pictures don’t exist might themselves build-in certain distortions away from Truth is unthinkable. Not to mention the ‘human algorithms’ of media owners and editors and marketing people…

Photography can and does deal in certain moderated versions of truth; but the virtues which aim at that are hard to reconcile with those that aim at winning hearts and minds to a sale or a belief, or making persuasive autobiography, or inviting viewers to share subtle or otherwise nearly-unattainable emotion. Historical evidence would tend to show that photographs have been asked to do many things, and that ways have been found to do all of them exceptionally well. There is not much evidence that we all recognize the same virtues when we call a picture ‘good.’

We can sneer at camera club rules by all means : the prissy precision, the lack of tolerance for doubt or ambiguity, the rejection of metaphor and wit, the preaching only to the like-minded… but if we do, we have by the same token to sneer at lots and lots of photographic activity which is usually deemed more important, more interesting, or more influential than that.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander ( The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ), photographed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino.  Famous, famous photographer.  shall we be charitable, and say simply that everybody is allowed an off day?

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander ( The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ), photographed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino. Famous, famous photographer, but the picture?  Shall we be charitable, and say simply that everybody is allowed an off day?

I continue to believe that we are less confident in arriving at shared standards (however modifiable or temporary) in photography than in any other cultural activity I know of. I don’t hear people hesitating to rank pop songs or movies or books. Yet we commonly really hesitate to say “this is a better photograph than that”. Or when we do, we fall back on absurd mechanisms to justify it. One is the one I mentioned further back: if we leave a space in applying standards because we don’t quite know which standards to apply, the whole press release industry will be quick to step in to the void.

The other is related, but slightly different. It’s the grim culture of name-checking. Annie Leibovitz worked for years for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair and so on. She has had books published by such eminent publishers as Jonathan Cape and Random House.   Good galleries have sold her prints. Does any of that make any particular picture by Leibovitz any good?   It does not. Do people cite these things as though it did? They do. This speaks to me of a lack of confidence in those making judgment.   We are too far along the many roads of photography ever again to think pictures good merely because they are sold at White Cube or Gagosian, shown at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, or written about in the Journal of Visual Culture.

From Be Bold With Bananas, published by Fruit Distributors Ltd, Banana Importers of Wellington, New Zealand .  Undated but 1970s. I seem to have come to this amazing book later than many others.  I was pointed to it by Rudi Thoemmes.

From Be Bold With Bananas, published by Fruit Distributors Ltd, Banana Importers of Wellington, New Zealand . Undated but 1970s. I seem to have come to this amazing book later than many others. I was pointed to it by Rudi Thoemmes.

Photographs are often given their importance by someone other than the photographer. I am beginning to think that a fine ‘receiver’ of photographs can make any photograph ‘good’, whatever its previous status. More than that: I find myself wondering whether I have ever known a photograph to matter at all until it has been granted the extra heft of somebody somehow receiving it and giving it its position in the world. Receiver of photographs? Well, a number of roles centre around receiving photographs carefully: picture editor, internet harvester, lawyer, curator, creative director, collector, art director, critic, historian, designer … I’d like to add photographers; but their inclusion confuses the issue.

Fundamental among them, however, are what used to be called laymen, who are sometimes now called the general public (the contempt for their not being specialists is barely concealed). It is among those who don’t make the pictures but who read them or use them with care and culture that I think the standards are set. Many of those people are not ‘image-professionals’ in any real sense. A trivial family snapshot, recovered a generation later by strangers, is not much without the simple accolade of a plain caption of place and date. But much can easily be made of it. Think of the novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs[4]. This odd best-seller was apparently written in part around the vintage photographs which dot its pages like milestones. The pictures are anonymous, salvaged. They were nothing. Now they are something. Riggs treated them as material for his book, in the same way that he treated his own memories, odd facts about places (like Wales) and so on. That doesn’t necessarily give them excellence. But it does take them straight from their pre-Riggs indifference to something which only a very small proportion of the floods of photographs ever acquire: once they’ve been in the novel, they are interesting. You could look at them in detail. You could write about them. You could start to work out stuff about their puncta and their studia.

I think this counter-intuitive idea of pictures acquiring whatever importance they have later in their existence is important. We are used to thinking the opposite: that pictures conform to a pre-photographic pattern whereby they are either pregnant with importance or not from the outset.   You are commissioned to paint the walls of one of the Scuole in Venice. The job will be important; you can depend on it that future members of the guild will ascribe to the pictures the importance that they have from the outset. Art historians and curators and others could add to the lustre, but probably not create it outright. That was the usual pattern in the days when pictures were rare, and the pattern which we thought would not change as they grew more common. But everybody is a picture editor, now. My 12 year-old son pointed out the absurdity of an advertisement on TV in which a computer-generated time-lapse medieval town growing at speed was shown on a landscape which anachronistically contained an unmistakably twenty-first century wind farm. The CGI needed a base, he said, with neither any great sense of showing off, nor any great wonder, and the base hasn’t been properly cleaned. The customer is an experienced editor, now, even when he’s twelve.

This corresponds to a wider shift. All over the intellectual landscape, mandarinate and professional specialism are having to share space with broader and unmediated access to knowledge and opinion. Interest in history has been shifted from professional historians to a wider group coming at it from angles in ‘heritage’, genealogy, town-planning, tourism, and so on.

So in photography, all sorts of people are now routinely in a position to grant to pictures a status they did not have before. We can no longer assume that pictures are important just by virtue of being pictures. Grant them a modicum of thought, of emotion, of context, however, from whichever angle, and they can be given that importance at any stage in their trajectory. Find a way to tell the story of pictures and they become more than they were. I even wonder whether the great shift towards multiple readings and alternative but equally valid positions which is such a mark of the intellectual colour of our time, at least in the more-or-less liberal West, did not in fact originate in photography .

A number of the better histories of photography consider ‘alternative’ pictures (those which had no place in the previous formal history) and give them leave to elbow themselves into contention. A fine example of this is Ian Jeffrey’s ReVisions – the magisterial catalogue of the first exhibition at the (former) National Museum of Photography Film and Television in Bradford after a major rebuild and rehang in 1999. Jeffery talks about ‘homeless’ pictures – those which don’t fit comfortably into whichever plodding conventional value system dominated at their time. But it is hard to ignore that it is his own attention granted to them — often a hundred or more years after they were made — which in fact finds them a home. The minute they found a way into the show and the book they weren’t ‘homeless’ any more. Photography seems to be cumulative in a paradoxical way: as soon as sustained attention is granted to a photograph, it becomes capable of bearing sustained attention.

A magazine sub-editor writes a caption about a topical sports picture; and the picture which was one of twenty or a hundred under consideration to occupy that particular space on a page, has suddenly acquired a context. It’s gone from being graphic ‘noise’ – we might almost call it a potential picture – to being a whole picture, with a modicum of meaning, history, value and so on. A lot of photography is recovered through the internet, edited into modern versions (or parodies) of the old cabinets of curiosities. Just as it wasn’t obvious that the stuff in the Wunderkammern was interesting until it was just there, with just those other objects to left and right, just that owner, and just that audience, so it seems that pictures are often nothing until they are given a place in the world and in our thinking. That place may be granted formally or informally, but the granting seems always to have to take place. A hard drive full of images is neither a work of art nor a research database nor a ‘collection’ until somebody says why they’re there, or why she thinks they’re there, or suggests something one can take from their being there. A single picture held to a refrigerator by a magnet may well be a more telling piece of communication; it very likely is. At the very least, somebody has chosen it over others to occupy that place where it is to be seen. The Dutch curator Eric Kessels recycles old, often anonymous pictures from flea-markets into something that matters much more than it ever did when the pictures were still part of the life-baggage of the original owners. Who then is the real source of the meaning and mattering in the pictures – anonymous and unconscious photographer, or active and deliberate curator-creator?

From In almost Every Picture No. 9, collected and edited by Erik Kessels.  A brilliant book about a family's inability to photogpraph their black dog.

From In almost Every Picture No. 9, collected and edited by Erik Kessels. A brilliant book about a family’s inability to photograph their black dog.

I look around and I see the same phenomenon everywhere. Crap pictures from stock libraries enormously enlivened by a smart context in advertising. In many books by W.G. Sebald, the pictures are a ‘source’ for the text, but even as they inform the writing, they are granted by it a status they didn’t have before. I once spent a considerable amount of time researching a carte-de visite of an unnamed young man. It remains probable (but I was never able to prove) that it was the earliest known photograph of Vincent van Gogh. The photographer didn’t particularly care: a client. The various owners whose hands it had passed through didn’t particularly care: a picture. If I had been able to join up the dots, though, it would have been a historical document and no doubt quickly a well-known one. A nothing photograph becomes a something photograph at an unpredictable point in its continued existence, and the transition from nothing to something is by no means always along predictable lines. That is the lesson we learn. The root sense of the word curate is to take care of something, and by extension, to care about it. Taking care of photographs seems to be in a very real sense the crowning element in creating them. Only occasionally is the extra mattering granted to the pictures by the same person who made them.

That throws a rather different light on criticism, of course. Because if I’m right, and pictures are more usually dead until somebody’s act of caring breathes life into them, then criticism ( in the widest sense ) makes the pictures. They may never have said or contained what the critic claims they say or contain until after he or she has written. But nothing can take that content out of them afterwards.  Seen in that light, well-known pictures are in some way the accumulation of the various intellectual and emotional positions that have been held about them; less well-known ones have less of that heap of ancillary content, but if they’re under discussion at all, they have the beginnings of it.

I understand that all this might sound like special pleading on my own behalf.  I have never been a photographer, after all, and have certainly been a receiver of photographs in one role or another for many years.  What could be more natural than that I should argue for the primacy of my role and for understating of the role I have never had?  All I can say is that I think the argument has validity notwithstanding my own position and in spite of it. Put simply, I think we all finish photographs in our own ways;  I just happen to represent that more specialised type who has tried to make a living at it.  That’s only a question of degree.

How does this get us to the question of standards in photography?  It seems that photographs are hardly finished until they are ‘cared for’ – which may be as simple as pinning them to refrigerators, as it may include writing scholarly catalogues of them. The caring does not require any special language, does not presuppose any particular purpose, and nor does it have to address an audience self-identified as having any special aptitude.   I have described this elsewhere as finding or granting to photographs whatever ‘mattering’ they might be said to bear.   It may well be that this extraordinary attribute, of being incomplete until under interpretation, lies at the heart of our historical difficulty in finding shared standards in photography. It may be mildly depressing to have to admit that there is no such thing as a good or great photograph – only a good or great response to it. But it is also an extraordinary confirmation of many of the central strengths of photography.

Photography is portable, transmissible, transcultural, available to almost everybody to make and receive. It has an intimate proximity to reality and yet is separate to it. It has always been vernacular. It is a kind of time-machine. It is capable of triviality beyond endurance and yet is the main visual literacy of all of us and many of the various truths we know we know through photographs.   If no photograph is fully made until someone confronted with it finds that it moves him or her to a reaction, then photography is even more pliable and supple a thing than we knew.   It has no standards of its own. It merely challenges us to refine our own standards in the face of it. To receive photographs well then becomes to keep one’s own relevant standards in mind, to keep them ready for revision or refinement, and to hold the photographs up to them so that the light of each shines on the other.

I cannot tell you what particular intellectual equipment must be brought to bear on any photograph. Any one of them may need historical, moral, scientific, visual, social, sexual, verbal, mythical sensitivities or others, in combination or together. But they do need some of those things to be engaged if they are to be more than dumb slices of reality on a page or a screen. No engagement (I’ve called it no ‘caring’) means no mattering. Under the system I’m describing, photographs not only remain capable of analysis – which they must do if they are to be treated as plain ordinary cultural objects like any other – they actively need it. However rudimentary or vernacular that analysis — it may be no more than the choice of a place — it is that which makes a photograph complete.

We can conclude that pictures are not made just to be seen. They are made to be thought about. The question then shifts. It is not mysterious that different people judge photographs by different standards. The question is no longer how good is the picture, but who says so, and how good are the standards that they apply?

[1] Few of us realize how far the technology is ahead of any real control, however. For just a flavor of this, cf. Stephen Mayes, The Next Revolution in Photography is Coming, Time, Aug 25, 2015.

[2] The Integrity of the Image, World Press Photo Report by David Campbell, November 2014, available online at

[3] I wrote the first draft of this in the days immediately after a number of Western tourists were killed in an Islamist attack at a hotel in Sousse, Tunisia. In the UK coverage (a number of the victims were British) no mention was made of how very odd – I almost use the word provocative – it is to remove almost all of one’s clothing in public in a Moslem country. Yet that is what many of those who were killed had done. The truth is not limited to their corpses in the sand. It would have been difficult (but I insist it would have been possible – if only because so many ‘impossible’ pictures have been published before) to make pictures which addressed this question of the colonialism of mores. Selective distortion of this kind is the norm in photojournalism; don’t let any photojournalist tell you that her truth is The Truth.

[4] I am grateful for this reference to my fellow-critic Colin Pantall, who I think liked the book better than I did. But he had read it when I had not yet heard of it, and kindly passed it on.