Great North Road Garage, Edinburgh, November 1981 by Paul Graham

Paul Graham, Garage on The Great North road, Edinburgh

Paul Graham; Garage on the Great North Road, Edinburgh, 1981


[Continuing to re-post pieces from my 2013 series Hodgson’s Choice]

Paul Graham changed my attitude to colour. An excerpt from a gallery text on his own website says that he “belongs to a rare group of photographers that were the final generation to enter photography before it became part of the broader contemporary art world.”  That’s true, and it has nothing much to do with exact dates.  Along with such as Philip-Lorca di Corcia and even Nan Goldin, Graham remains a photographer, not an ‘artist-working-with-photography’.  Graham won the Hasselblad award last year (2012), the first Briton to do so. He’s an international player. Yet, in our very British way, in the UK he’s hardly known outside photographic circles.

When Graham started, documentary photography (at least in Britain) was in black-and-white, and it was about telling the truth.  After him, it was in colour, and it was about having a view.   Richard Billingham, Martin Parr, Nick Waplington, Paul Reas, Donovan Wylie, Anna Fox, even Gillian Wearing…a generation of British photographers, shading off in all directions towards art, were liberated by, and in some sense indebted to Graham.

In the early days, Paul Graham did eye-watering things.  He went to Northern Ireland in the middle of the Troubles and made beautiful, even romantic landscapes with just the tiniest glimpses of all being not well.  He made a record of Britain on the dole in the Thatcher years that would (I’m not joking) have brought down the government had it been published by a major novelist or film-maker.  But he was a youngish photographer, and it passed.

In that same period, Paul Graham went on an absurd road trip up the A1.  The A1 is to road trips as a fairground choo-choo is to the TGV.  It was so British it wasn’t even a motorway.  It still isn’t, as a matter of fact. And on this ridiculous road, with culture and reflexes and patience and sympathy and wit, Paul Graham began to make pictures about what it meant to be European as Europe fell away from dominance.  He was literate in photography – and in a lot of other stuff, too – and he made out of the sleepy cafes and uninspiring landscapes of the A1 a vision so much bigger than the A1 that everything he has done since has been checking the wake behind.

Of course Graham had seen his Joel Sternfeld and his Stephen Shore and his William Eggleston and his Joel Meyerowitz. But still.  A subaqueous car showroom, in which the only line of black is a twisted aerial?  And those names, perfect for cars:  here we go, in the money of 1950 or so, Singing and Humming along.   I don’t even think Humbers were still manufactured when the picture was made: sold to Chrysler or somebody, and then again, to become Talbot, I think, then swallowed up in Peugeot.  This showroom was drowning even as Paul Graham photographed it. The Singer, descendant of the sewing machines which represented one phase of the Industrial Revolution.  And next to it, the Humber, named after the great estuary that watered part of that British industrial landscape.  All going under, in the early days of Thatcherism. It’s very simple: I know intimately the culture this picture comes from.  I even remember the smell of those places, of T-Cut and spilt petrol.  In Britain, this is a brilliant, game-changing picture.  But it also speaks right to me.

Paul Graham’s early prints are absurdly undervalued.  You can buy them from Pace/MacGill in New York, or from Anthony Reynolds in London.

Teenage Kicks

Tillmans Studio 2012

Wolfgang Tillmans, Studio, 2012                                        A pared-down reflection on what studio photography used to be. Black, and white, detailed in texture, and with an amassed heap of transparent greys adding up to all the tones of platinum or photogravure. All made of the simplest elements with total control.

Wolfgang Tillmans is a very lucky man. I happened to revisit his show at the Tate on the day Sotheby’s announced a record price for one of his photographs at the grand Evening Sale of the night before. As reported by the Art Newspaper, this represented more than just good business :

“The contemporary art market has proved itself immune to the perceived threats of Brexit and the election of President Donald Trump, judging by Sotheby’s performance last night. The auction house made £100.7m (£118m with fees), comfortably falling within its pre-sale estimate of £80.9m-£112.6m. The result is 70% up on last year’s sale.

German artists led the way, with more than a quarter of lots by artists hailing from the country. In his first appearance in an evening sale at Sotheby’s, Wolfgang Tillmans smashed his record set by Christie’s only the night before. At least seven bidders propelled the 2005 photographic work, Freischwimmer 119 (free swimmer 119), to £380,000 (£464,750 with fees), tripling its upper estimate.

Gordon VeneKlasen, a partner at Michael Werner gallery, … says there is a concerted effort to link artists such as Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Jörg Immendorff and Albert Oehlen. “They are a formidable group of the like not seen since the Abstract Expressionists,” he says.

The strategy is paying off for Sotheby’s. The 15 works on the block by German artists sold for a combined £48.1m (with fees) against a low estimate of £26.7m, accounting for 35% of the overall sale total. Richter’s 1982 Eisberg contributed £15.6m (£17.7m with fees), selling to a phone bidder from Asia.”

German Artists Capture Zeitgeist at Sotheby’s Contemporary Sale

By Anny Shaw for The Art Newspaper, 9 March 2017


I sulkily admire this attempt by Sotheby’s press department to make a coherent phenomenon out of the chaotic competition of the various dealers whose products are really in play here. I like the suggestion that art-Germans are collectively leading the way against Brexit and Donald Trump in a European cultured resistance against anti-European economic action. I even like that a dealer can be found to drop the strongly market-magic (and wholly un-German) label of Abstract Expressionist on the goods he’s trying to sell.

This German-branded subsector has been doing very well for quite a while. At Sotheby’s itself, much of the credit for the long harvest from the contemporary art markets has to be ascribed to two formidable Germans (both now both moved elsewhere), Cheyenne Westphal and Tobias Meyer. It’s been obvious for many years that Germany is the leading economy of the European Union. It was only a matter of time before its creative industries were seen to take their share of that lead.

How nice for Tillmans – a photographer – to be included among all this art-gold. How nice that the Tate and Sotheby’s work so conveniently hand in hand promoting each other’s stuff. The sums are big by any reasonable standard – although generating £460,000 of £48m raised by 15 names is not really carrying one’s share of the financial load. It’s more like hitching a ride. It’s been a long time that a record price below £500,000 has not been all that impressive in the scales of the contemporary art market, even at the lower levels available for an artist using photography. As usual, photographers are still the junior partners in these equations.

However the money works, and whether it’s in the background or in the foreground, here we have an artist granted his second large show at the Tate in less than fifteen years. I did notice that the Tate put out this phrase: “This is Wolfgang Tillmans’ first ever exhibition at Tate Modern ..” on its website — which is true enough if one chooses not to count the Turner Prize as an exhibition — but which also veils the fact that he had a “mid-career retrospective” at Tate Britain just a couple of miles up the river in 2003.  Tillmans is Wolfgang Tillmans, RA, too: a Royal Academician. For a combination of reasons, the Tate — like the Royal Academy before it, and a lot of other fancy names in the art world and the magazine world — is banking on Tillmans. He may still just about carry off his vaguely down-with-the-kids camouflage; but Britain is surprisingly good at making apparently unlikely people fully Established and this is membership of the Establishment on the grand scale.

I find The Tate show more than troubling. I think it’s vitiated in some quite serious ways.

Tillmans has made it his badge to be un-precious about what he photographs: he is one of those artists who photograph to understand, not to inform. But that doesn’t work on the huge scale that the Tate has awarded him. For this is a truly enormous show. Fourteen rooms, hung with Tillmans’ habitual elaborate mock-casualness (which ironises the hundreds of thousands of pounds the biggest of the pieces are now worth). As usual with him, some of the prints are simply stuck to the walls; many of the larger are hung unframed from bulldog clips pinned by nails to the wall. Hundreds of artefacts, including vitrine after vitrine crammed with printed stuff, his own and other people’s. High ceilings, and a handful of prints on a truly monumental scale. He shows us – and it is one of the genuine wonders in the show – a little weed in a badly tended garden which must be 12-foot tall at least. A very great deal of careful thought has gone into the arrangement of these things – it’s an installation as much as a traditional ‘exhibition’. The show reverts to many of Tillmans’ long-established enquiries; but he has lost control in the airy vastness of the Tate of the process of addressing a viewer. It’s not at all clear that the installation adds to our experience of the exhibition beyond the very coarse shock-and-awe of number and scale. The installation is in fact, in spite of a good deal of pretension, deeply meh.

Tillmans Weed 2014

Wolfgang Tillmans, Weed, 2014

As is well known, his subject matter is catholic. That previous show at the Tate was called “If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters”, which just about sums it up. He photographs with a kind of disorientating prolixity: people as portraits, people as fashion, people as economic data. Flying in to Port au Prince, he takes a picture. Landscape, still-life. Personal, professional. Finding a bloke in pink robes leaning on a purple car with Saudi number plates, he takes a picture. A hairy arse presents itself to him, straining upwards, the balls crushing down on the lino…he takes a picture and blows it up to 6 feet tall. He looks up; he looks down. The infinite sky; a drain in Buenos Aires. Camera-less photography, abstract prints, pixellated patterns… That enormous photograph of a weed, with drying dead hellebore leaves on the ground next to it, is very appealing. The little corner of a yard in which it has taken root is damp. Yet the thing itself is kissed by an ever-so-gentle London sunlight. What it means is up to you. What any of it means is up to you.

This is my trouble. The generosity of this vision is untroubled by any attempt to digest. We are in, effect, not seeing a show by Wolfgang Tillmans. We’re seeing an almost unmediated collection of sights, as we would do if we made the pictures ourselves, a click every so often, all day, every day. The editing part of the process has not been left out – of course not. But as Tillmans’ viewers, we are given no clue as to what he edits in or cuts. We don’t know what he’s editing for. Everything he sees interests him – and that’s fair enough. Everything I see interests me, I suppose, until I try to order my thoughts.

Tillmans has always been omnivorous; he used to be brilliant at it, too. Years ago, reviewing the 2003 show, the always-interesting photography critic of the Village Voice, Vince Aletti, found that “there’s nothing indiscriminate about this inclusiveness. Tillmans has mastered the tossed-off beauty of the snapshot and married it to a generous, optimistic, and politically engaged we-are-the-world sensibility”. He had, indeed. But this is not that any more. This is incontinence.

Before breaking the auction record for one of his pictures, and before starring in this overblown show, Tillman’s most recent high visibility had been in his campaign for Britain to remain in the EU. By designing and distributing posters and T-shirts, by pressing his friends to get involved, by enlisting urgent active support, Tillmans committed himself once again exactly as Aletti had said : generous, optimistic, politically-engaged. That was only a few weeks ago. But none of it is traceable in the Tate show except as loose threads. If you read the endless vitrines full (among heaps of other stuff) of political screeds, you can indeed track something of his interest in Europe. It’s vague; it’s shapeless. It’s more of a sense of belonging than any sense of understanding. As soon as you read the first line about him, you know as much about his European politics as he really reveals in this rambling, uncritical, vaguely shocked collection of snippets that have caught his eye. He’s a German artist of a certain generation (he was born in 1968, was about 20 when the Wall came down) who’s made his home in England. One can see that he’s concerned; active in defence of the various liberties he prizes. He’s photographed the gay scene in Russia, where that is under frightening threat. He’s vaguely environmentalist (although he seems to take an awful lot of planes). He values the liberties of his friends.

Compare all of that to the evolving but never imprecise enquiries of Paul Graham, say, and you are left scratching your head. The comparison is not at all unfair: Tillmans called a book Neue Welt in obvious expansion of Graham’s New Europe of a few years earlier. Graham has moved closer to the nebulousness of Tillmans in recent years; but in a long sequence before that which included hard accurate work on what it meant it to be poor under Thatcher, on the complex crises of Northern Ireland, and that brilliant scrutiny of the way the weight of history gets in the way of a shared European present, Graham  shifted through the gears: documentary; post-documentary; post-modern….Local, national, international… Just as Tillmans does, he threw the labels in our faces. It was hard to know what to call Graham’s pictures : it still is. Yet each time he committed to his viewers, committed himself to getting difficult messages across, even when those messages were doubtful, non-linear, complex, and sometimes even contradictory. Sure, Graham has – as Tillmans has –taken on the role of ‘a concerned photographer’ (the ancient phrase that used to be reserved for a certain kind of documentary in Britain that had not been commissioned by journals). But Graham has tried to know what he thinks. Tillmans has simply enjoyed wondering what the questions might be.

He is, by the way, absolutely ruthless at purloining the style of photographers he notices to be successful elsewhere: here is the sea à la Roni Horn. Here some abstractions à la Adam Fuss… That refusal to commit to a style of his own has been interesting in the past, a telling element in Tillmans’ view of the democratic equality of images. But on this enormous scale and within the wild visual incontinence of the hang, it becomes something else. It becomes just the artist’s brand. The vitrines within the show have a separate incontinence, a verbal one of the obiter dicta and press cuttings and internet detours he cuts out and keeps.

red headlight

Wolfgang Tillmans, Headlight (f) 2012

Yet none of this incontinence is accidental. Many of the pictures have been seen already. There are many fractions here of more numerous series he has shown in different ways before (a number of them already published as books). The vitrines have appeared in previous of his shows under the ponderous name of the truth study centre. There is, for example, one single example of his very striking series on car headlights, angular hostile little evolutions from the cheerful goggle-eyed round lamps we used to like on earlier cars. When he showed at Arles a few years ago, these things punctuated the show like a sour chorus, a plangent commentary upon the aggression of late capitalism. But to leave a single one in the new show? It’s just another picture (although admittedly a wonderful one). The actual design of the vitrines themselves is a re-make from a show he had at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2012. He revisits, reworks, reconsiders, recombines. In the past he has done all of that with taut vigour. But at the Tate? Excess replaces tautness, and discord vigour.

Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza 2012

Wolfgang Tillmans, Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza 2012

Although he’s a prolific artist, I rather regret that other interesting art has been forced further down the queue at the Tate to make room for this stuff. It’s circumstantial. It’s trivial. It’s completely self-centred, but seemingly with desire neither for self-understanding nor for real self-revelation. Tillmans has been, like lots of other photographers (Juergen Teller; Corinne Day ; Nan Goldin, for example – with all of whom he bears close comparison, by the way) open about his own life for a very long time. His work is often formally autobiographical, and even when it isn’t, he is clear about his own closeness to each picture. His titles often refer to his friends by their first names alone. But if you were known as an autobiographical artist years ago, isn’t it incumbent upon you to have discovered something new about yourself by the time your next huge outing comes around at the Cathedral of Culture?

Tillmans made his name as a prodigious enquirer. He has been an excellent and brave curator himself, promoting art at his Between the Bridges project first in London and then in Berlin, that he thought needed more attention. His watchwords have always been equality and curiosity. Nothing that he turned his camera to had any ‘worthier’ or ‘higher’ interest than anything he might turn it to next. He seemed non-snobbish, driven, voracious, genuinely unchanged from environment to environment. He was against the mistakes of the past, optimistic about the future. He developed, in other words, the art of the teenager in a phenomenally more articulate form than most teenagers can. He worked for magazines, made music, made films.

The Tate show is credited in part to Chris Dercon, the recently departed Director of the Tate Modern. Short of asking Nicholas Serota to curate, there can be no higher accolade. Because Tillmans is a familiar of the Tate, he has been granted the right to turn almost a whole floor of one of the great art institutions in the world into his own pin-board or crazy-board. Truly like a teenager’s, it spills from portentousness to sex to music to good-times-with-friends to travel and back to sex. You could find just such a grouping on many phones of young people who hold no idea of calling themselves ‘artists’. One of the photographs, indeed, is of his own desk, a cluttered mess full of potential but with nothing complete upon it.

I think we are entitled to expect that an artist granted that second huge retrospective should have come to some conclusions, or at least that the curators working with him have identified a progression sufficiently capital to invite their public to consider it. With Tillmans there are still no conclusions. He’s still collecting material, still a giant teenager, still unable or unwilling to commit to anything other than his own enquiries, still convinced that whatever interests him is … interesting. This is the constant flow of pictures of Instagram, scarcely ordered, rarely revisited, with no step in value between deeply moving and shallow swill. Social media has often been compared to a river. Pictures flow past us, never to be thought about again once the next thousand or hundred or even ten of them have gone by. You can never step in the same river twice, if you remember your Heraclitus. I can see why the Tate’s people want to show art of the Instagram generation in this way. I can see that Tillmans is a careful, concerned and still skilful exponent of it. As a talker or a writer, I’m sure he has a lot to say. But he hasn’t marshalled his thoughts for the biggest exhibition of his life so far, and that’s a huge let down to those of us who hoped that he might.

Solipsism is not necessarily a great vice in an artist. But lack of discrimination is, and this is a show absolutely jam-crammed to its elegant rafters with evidence of that.

Tillmans once pronounced orotundly to the Art Newspaper that he found no trouble in being contemporary. I think that the biggest achievement, in a way, is to be of your time, because you cannot program timelessness. I was never afraid of being contemporary.” Which is a teenage sentiment if ever I heard one.

One of the last sections in the show is a series of musings about time. These are of quite mind-bending banality – the sorts of perceptions we all have from time to time, but that stoned kids think are somehow profound. “The end of the Cold War is now as long ago as the end of World War II was in 1970.” Somebody – preferably the artist, but a curator, a friend, an electrician fixing the lights in the gallery before the opening – somebody should have taken Tillmans aside and just checked whether he was sure he wanted all of this stuff in there, whether he didn’t think that the littlest teensiest editing might be a good thing.

There is something about the incontinence of his show at the Tate which diminishes Tillmans. Here he is, completely co-opted into the twin Establishments of the art market and the art museum, jetting all over the world having trivial thoughts, and being taken completely seriously.

It’s a shame, because in all of this eructation of undifferentiated hot air there are a number of really important themes that Tillmans touches upon, and there are also, as there always have been with him, occasional pictures of true brilliance.


Wolfgang Tillmans, CLC800 dismantled (a) 2011

He has a very rich interest in the production of images. In among his more identifiable studies, he makes blank images of various kinds. He’s interested in light-sensitive paper itself, in blur and movement, in ‘mistakes’ and illegible details. He’s interested in the distribution of pictures, the degradation of imagery through successive reproductions. There is a pleasing picture of a dismantled colour printer, the very one, we learn, that he acquired with the money from his Turner Prize in 2000. This thing doesn’t look like those studies of pots of brushes that painters have always included by their elbows in self-portraits: but it has the same function. It shows how much the business of making images relies on hard practical material effects. It reminds us to think of pictures as made objects, and not just the temporary visions it’s so easy to think they are. Coming from Wolfgang Tillmans, that’s interesting.

At the very beginning of the show, a carpeted downslope in an airport undergoing refurbishment leads to “Rest of the World Passports.” It’s a modernised version of those signs that make us giggle on motorways in Britain, which simply say The North. In these times, of Trump and Brexit, and all the forced movements of people, there’s no doubting Tillmans’ concerns at the effects of globalisation.

lampedusa 2008

Wolfgang Tillmans, Lampedusa, 2008

These are vast and various themes. To have explored either one of them (or others of several like them that he touches) with precision and feeling and detail and skill would have been a great exhibition in the hands of a photographer like Tillmans. But he doesn’t do such a thing. Instead, he’s content to be vague. He invites us to the Tate, in effect, to scroll through his phone. Vaguely interested, vaguely troubled: and that’s disappointingly little substance in this explosion of imagery.






John Myers – Middle England



I sometimes publish here pieces which for any reason didn’t make it into the paper I write for, the Financial Times.  This is not because I am so desperately proud of my own prose that I will publish it at any price, but that sometimes I feel that attention directed to a particular photographer (or photographic event or group…) will be valuable.  This is certainly the case here.  John Myers is a fine British photographer of great interest but precious little renown.  He worked with originality and a deep appreciation of the photographic culture beyond his immediate circle, at a time when there was little institutional help for people of his stamp, and it is not much of an exaggeration to say that he has come close to being forgotten in the years since his major output.

This was a review of a show earlier this year at the IKON gallery in Birmingham. A book – Middle England – was published at the same time by IKON, and it is a pleasure to acknowledge the scholarship, loyalty and hard work of Pete James and Jonathan Watkins (leading a group of others) who have managed to recover a reputation which might otherwise have been lost.

I do feel that we in Britain are  culpable in this regard.  I can’t prove it, but it seems unthinkable that a photographer of the calibre of Myers could have been so largely overlooked in the Netherlands, in France, in Finland or Germany, in the United States… Paul Graham, in a modest and generous speech of acceptance of the Hasselblad Prize yesterday evening, spoke of photography passing through ‘wilderness years’ in Britain.  He didn’t for one moment sound as though those years were over, either.  We need to be careful.  It is suprisingly easy for a photographer to become first hazy and then faint in public memory.  Quite apart from the personal aspects of that, which are bad enough, there are also more general ones:  if we can’t write and re-write our own photographic history by carefully looking at the precursors and pioneers, then we are in hock to those who are prepared to make the effort for their own.  Photographic history has not been made in Britain in the last few years, but has had to be imported, from America for a long period, and now more recently from other places, too. Paul Graham, believe it or not, is the first British winner of the Hasselblad award. He moved to New York some years ago.  Could he have won it had he stayed in Britain?

In 1976, the Ikon gallery in Birmingham showed the high-speed stroboscopic photographs of the American scientist Harold Edgerton. Two lecturers from Stourbridge College of Art, Geoffrey Holt and John Myers, conceived the exhibition, and their aim was to show just how broad photography was, and just what wonders were to be found by exploring it.  Now, more than thirty years later, something of the same kind has happened to Myers himself, whose first major exhibition opens at the Ikon gallery this week. An effort has had to be made to recover Myers.  He was at one time a solidly visible artist.  He was included in a major show of modern photography at the Serpentine Gallery in 1973, for example, and often appeared in the photo journals of the period, notably the specifically Birmingham-based Ten.8.  But his list of publications and shows is almost completely blank for the 1990s and the 2000s.

In the early 1970s, John Myers took a heavy 5 x 4 inch plate camera called a Gandolfi to photograph around the Midlands. Many years after light quick hand-held cameras had become the norm, he deliberately burdened himself with the slow patience that such equipment required.  A family of interconnected series of pictures makes up Middle England, and behind them a complex of different views of photography.  But that slow careful patience is at the root of them all.

John Myers (born in 1944) was a teacher in an arts school art before it was yet certainly accepted that they would become homes for photography.  He became one of the pioneers of a peculiarly British form of documentary which was just about the only kind of photography that could get Arts Council funding, and indeed Myers’ 1974 publication of some of the pictures seen here was one of the first photographic books to be so financed.  We have forgotten just how much socially motivated photography there was at that time.  There was a deep mulch of projects on urban decline, on changing patterns of employment, and on the appearance of the ‘new brutalism’.  Some of it was conceived as journalism, or at least paid for by the colour supplements.  Some was landscape work; more took the form of treatments of particular industries or towns. There were centres of concerned photography in numerous big cities: Newcastle, Liverpool, and York as well Birmingham.  Strong work came out of each of them.  In Birmingham alone, Derek Bishton and Vanley Burke and several others could each amply justify a retrospective on the scale of this one. A high proportion of today’s better-known photographers either made their practice in that period of documentary’s expansion, or learnt from those who had.

Myers dropped very knowingly into this world where photography was a social tool.  He knew his August Sander and his Atget and his Walker Evans and his Diane Arbus.  He was familiar with the various types of photographic activity that would play themselves out in the documentary arena, and he quietly mixed them up. 

Portraiture was the heart of his practice, simple slow portraiture of the kinds of people who were missed by more generic image making.  Non-fashion, non-advertising, non-reportage: just plain people seen in their own environments.  Today much of the initial appeal of these portraits lies in the details of the clothing and décor of the period, the 1970s now as irrecoverably distant as the 1870s.  Robert sat on his sofa in 1973 in co-respondent shoes with white laces, flared jeans, a V-neck and a cardigan of two violently contrasting patterns based on the lozenge.  Even in black-and-white, the sofa’s geometric swirls competed loudly with some alternative geometry on the carpet.  It’s easy to be po-faced about social photography, but there’s no harm in noticing that these pictures are droll to a later eye.  Behind Robert, a guitar identifies his troubadour spirit (if his John Lennon specs haven’t done that already) and a book on Leonardo tucked into the crate-turned-bookshelf by his side tells us of his visual culture.  He’s probably an art lecturer. Yet on either side, creeping determinedly into the picture, some ferny house plants point to the decorative taste of a landlady of a generation earlier. 

These portraits are far more than just a giggle, though.  The scrupulous refusal of the photographer to exploit his sitters is very clear.  Nobody’s taken by surprise, nobody satirized by an unfortunate juxtaposition or a chance moment made to seem typical.  The sitters are participants in the slow business of the photograph, near-equal partners in an approach to self-portraiture.  Yet the photographer remains firmly in charge, presenting to us a world of people who don’t really know how to present themselves. Had they been seen in the magazines, these would have had just as much effect as Arbus.  They’re unsettling, discomfiting in a British understated way.

The other series than portraits add a lot to that feeling of instability.  A set mainly of landscapes is called Boring Photos.  They’re not boring at all, of course.  They are an early but scrupulously well-crafted black-and-white precursor of that study of non-spaces which has become so much more common in colour. They owe something to American photography, but are not slavish copies at all. They have glorious titles:  Lift Doors Waitrose 1975 or Factory Forecourt 1974.  They’re clear antecedents to Martin Parr’s famous book of Boring Postcards, and they had just as much knowingness about them, even when they were made. 

Other series look at the components of those landscapes in detail:  Houses are just that, tidy houses which look superficially so much more liveable than the tenements of a previous generation’s photography but which have somehow lost all their people.  A set of Substations invite the eye to linger on an architectural type which although never secret had never really been seen.

A few pictures of the inside of a furniture store in New Street, Birmingham, in 1974, make a stage-set of aspiration.  British people will expect a high-period Tony Blackburn to appear in these, simpering and drooling over the classlessness of it all, although Myers put nobody in them at all. 

Finally, the exhibition includes a very fine group of Myers’ studies of televisions in the corner of living rooms.  Unlike Lee Friedlander’s more famous TVs, these are  seen switched off, and often reflect the photographer at work.  They don’t fit properly in the rooms they occupy.  People put plants on them, or try to treat them as just another ‘surface’, or give them fancy space age stands.  In modern jargon, these add up to a typology, although you could just as well call them a collection of shots of TVs.  They’re prescient of the uncomfortable way that screens have taken over our lives.  They’re witty, scrupulous, well seen and well made. Myers is quite plainly a first-rate photographer.  It’s nice to have him back. 

Simon Roberts – We English


At Maldon, in Essex, they race across the mud of the River Blackwater at low tide.  It’s not a medieval tradition.  It was started a few years ago, a bet for a pint.  High over the South Downs, hang-gliders grant a few hours respite from the 9-5.  You can buy Chatsworth brand ice-cream.  It would be easy to mistake Simon Roberts’ excellent survey of the English at play for another of those slightly sneery collections made from on high. A new show by Anna Fox opened in London recently, showing Butlins as an alien place, very much ‘how the other half live’.  Roberts is more complex than that.  Apart from anything else, he has a degree in human geography: this is a research project in photographs as well as an exhibition.

Roberts made a road trip around Britain looking at leisure in the countryside. It’s an industry that has boomed as more of us have had more time on our hands.  His distant models include such photographers as Benjamin Stone, but there is a whole written canon of non-photographic surveys of the English which dates back to Celia Fiennes in which this project takes its place, too.  His direct model is probably Paul Graham, whose A1 was among the early surveys of British life to be done in colour.  Graham was openly shocked by the direct outcome of specific political decisions.  Roberts is much more ambivalent.  He sees land use changing (in such things as an inland beach made on a former gravel pit, or a roller coaster rising in lunatic arabesques above flat fens) and he sees the massive dependence on the car to get people out into the country.  But he also sees enthusiasm and patience and a deep-respect for tradition. Just as the changing sociology is made of many strands, Roberts’ pictures resist a single reading. 

We do absurd things.  We drive miles to a beauty spot and barely leave the car-park.  We even camp within yards of the car. We accumulate mountains of consumer goods to bring us ‘closer’ to nature, from strollers to shove the children around, through carbon-fibre fishing rods to the ubiquitous car itself.  On beaches and National Trust sites we crowd close to feeble ‘amenities’. People do things in groups, from bird-watching to rambling. Yet we are also more inclusive than we ever were, more equal.  A Moslem couple walk in the wilds beneath Stanage Edge, and it is only prejudice that makes that a surprise. 

Roberts’ manner is calm.  He shows people small in the landscape, clustered into groups rather than isolated as individuals.  He likes to shoot from relatively high, so we see patterns. It is partly a show about ritual in the landscape, the strange things we do to feel we belong. It is partly about how the very numbers of us who come to enjoy the land spoil the thing we admire.  A strong theme is about movement, but Roberts shrewdly notices how much movement is local.  Playing golf still has something pastoral about it, even in the shadow of the very power station which employed you.

These elegant pictures invite multiple readings, but they do it with confidence and zest.   With flashes of wit, humanity, and abundant respect for his photographic predecessors, Simon Roberts has added a good one to the canon of surveys of the English.