Like A Toothbrush, It Does the Job – Don McCullin

homeless irishman near spitalfields 1969

Sir Don McCullin – Homeless Irishman Near Spitalfields, 1969

Sir Don McCullin was the marquee name at the 2016 edition of PhotoLondon. (He wasn’t  knighted, as a matter of fact until the New Year Honours list of that same year, a few months later.)  I was asked to write various texts in that connection, including the words to go on wall panels for a very fine one-man exhibition that Hamilton’s – his gallery for many years –  put on in his honour.  I wrote two more general pieces at that time, which I reproduce here in advance of his retrospective show opening at Tate Britain in 2019, which will once again put his name in the headlines. That will run 5 February – 6 May 2019.

The first of them is a curiosity – the formal address I was asked to make to mark McCullin’s being appointed the PhotoLondon Master of Photography for that year.  He was embarrassed to hear it, and I was more than embarrassed to give it.  I was a sweating, stuttering wreck, to be honest.  Who could possibly enjoy giving such a speech in front of the man it described?

The second was a catalogue piece to accompany the Hamilton’s exhibition, a more usual format for me, which was published (a slight variant) in the PhotoLondon guide for visitors.  Neither is easily accessible for most people. Together they both make the point which I still think worth underlining, that McCullin was never only a photographer.  He was always a tremendous journalist – who happened to use a camera as most traditionally used a typewriter and some sometimes a tape-recorder.  There is a kind of snobbery in isolating McCullin by the tool of his trade which limits our appreciation of his high talent.

These pieces overlap as I repeat myself across the pair of them.  I hope that doesn’t matter too much as they add up to a whole.

early morning, west hartlepool, 1963

Sir Don McCullin – Early Morning West Hartlepool, 1963

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is customary on these occasions to make an introduction.  But I can hardly introduce you to someone you all know.  Don McCullin is with good reason the best known name in British photography, and if some of you don’t know the person before you here today, you all know the work almost intimately well .

I hardly need to bring to your mind that there is no end of places in the world where cruelty is allowed to flourish for advantage; and that there is still a very large number of photographers who make some part of their living by showing us the manifold horrors to be found in those places.  For most, I’m afraid, it is simply a question of getting to the site of whatever famine or war or other crisis, making pictures without seeing too much and getting away.  Increasing evidence suggests that those pictures have little or no effect upon viewers.  Call it ‘compassion fatigue’ as some do, or call it mediocre photography, as I do; either way you have a vast pool of pictures from the bad places in the world, spread before us to consume as part of our varied media diet, but which do nothing to persuade us of injustice or cruelty.

Don McCullin set himself apart from that way of working many years ago.  He has said many times that his emotional commitment to what he photographed was always the thing that mattered.  He has been open in discussing his motives, his frame of mind.  But in the end he remains impatient with the hairsplitting.  He acknowledges that he made for many years his living and his reputation out of the suffering of others. No, he doesn’t ” hide behind the camera”.  Yes, he knows the truth when he sees it. Yes, he knows that great pain and fear and damage and squalor slide onto light-sensitive paper just as easily as grace and joy.  He knows, in other words, that photography changed for ever our notions of truth and beauty.   He was one of the people who did that, and that, difficult as it is to accept, is why we honour him today.

Don McCullin was born shortly before the Second War and raised in modest circumstances in Finsbury Park in North London, the son of a father who was too ill to work much, and who diminished and died in front of McCullin’s young eyes.  He had as a youngster a tough evacuation during the War, which involved among other things being separated from his sister.  His mother had a great love of music, and even had a few 78s ; she owned the Ink Spots, of course, but her real love, although nobody knew where she had found it, was opera.  McCullin told Roy Plomley on Desert Island discs in 1984 that she had saved money to take him just the once to Sadler’s Wells, where he felt out of place.  He heard La Bohème.  McCullin won a Trade Art scholarship to study art at the Hammersmith School of Arts & Crafts at Lime Grove, but had to pass it up to earn his living after his father died when he was 14.  He got a job:  working on the dining cars on the railway – sleeping, he recalled, in incredibly crisp sheets at the staff hostels where some kind of imperial splendour of service still somehow prevailed.  Perhaps some of his dandyism comes from those starched sheets, or perhaps from his next job, as a messenger and colour-mixer for Larkins – film animators in Mayfair.  He has described his education in ‘the beautiful’ coming from the windows he passed on Mayfair streets, notably Moyses Stevens’ flower shop in Berkeley Square (the window display was described in the 1920s as “a veritable Chelsea Flower show every day of the year”).

He did his military service, becoming what he called a “broom-wallah” in the RAF, and being sent in the end to Kenya, where he bulk-processed film of the jungle before it was bombed.  On leaving the RAF he pawned a camera bought on his RAF money, having no great mind then to make it the tool of his trade. He wanted a 500cc Norton Dominator rather more.  Indeed, he famously said later that he used a camera as he used a toothbrush; it did the job.   Yet he was beginning to see all the same that he had a gift for pictures and that they gave him a certain power denied to others.

An early successful sale to The Observer – of a gang in his home district he had posed in a bombed-out building some time before one of their number was charged with killing a policeman outside Gray’s Dancing Academy in the Seven Sisters’ Road – netted him more money than he had ever earned before.  That was encouraging.  He took a risk. When he heard that the Berlin Wall was going up he spent all the money he had, everything, on a throw of the dice.  He paid for his own trip in 1961, with no commission, while more established journalists waited to see what would develop;  he made brilliant pictures;  and his career was on.

The Observer sent him to Cyprus, and he found he could manage in war zones.  From then on for many years, there was hardly a hot spot in the world to which he was not sent.  Mark Haworth-Booth, the distinguished curator of photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum called the pictures that have resulted ” part of the furniture of all our minds.”

He moved from The Observer to The Sunday Times.  He worked there first in 1966, and had a contract from 1969-1984.  The peculiar blend of the British Sunday supplements owes a lot to many people:  to Michael Rand, the picture editor of the magazine, to Harold Evans, the editor, as well as to many precursors such as Stefan Lorant who had edited both Lilliput and Picture Post a generation before.  But it was Don McCullin who nailed the business, week after week, of putting the unspeakable in front of the public in images of such exquisite beauty that there was no hiding from them.  I should underline, too, that he was by no means a specialist in the far-flung places.  His reports from the deprived corners of a Britain exhausted in the war years, and losing one by one all the industries upon which its nineteenth-century fortunes had been made, are every bit as burningly urgent as the better-known work from elsewhere.

So he became – with neither hyperbole nor any chance of being contradicted – one of the greatest war photographers there has been.  It is an odd footnote that the three greatest photographers working in Vietnam, one of the periods when McCullin was at the height of his powers — who did so much between them to change public attitudes to violent colonial adventures overseas — were all British (the others were Larry Burrows and Philip Jones Griffiths).   It is another odd footnote — and one rich in ironies —  that it was McCullin who made the photographs for Michelangelo Antonioni’s famous Blow-Up – in spite of the hero being a fashion photographer.  The originals, and the eponymous enlargements were made by McCullin, probably introduced – we can ask him – to Antonioni by Francis Wyndham, his colleague on The Sunday Times.

Don McCullin’s motives were complex.  David Cornwell, who proved in his great series of novels under the name of John Le Carré what an acute judge of character he was, felt that ” McCullin was peace-weary before he ever went to war.  He arrived at the battlefield with open wounds and he has bitterly refused ever since to let them heal.”  There’s probably something in that: but it was written in 1980, and McCullin has made huge efforts to look for healing since then.  By developing his career in landscape photography, in particular, he has made himself a great master in an area which uses wholly different skills to the ones we know he excelled at way back when.

McCullin was a very angry photographer. He has said so many times. His background in poverty made him angry, and so did his work.  When you read his description of coming to a hospital in Biafra in which 800 had died, children and women among them, you can see why.

Were Don McCullin passing through the education system today, he would most likely be diagnosed dyslexic.  He certainly had a quite exceptionally retentive mind yet found great trouble absorbing information from books. He was also, curiously, colour-blind to some degree, a condition which affects more men than women.  As an adult, he has understandably and openly admitted suffering badly from what we can only call post traumatic stress.

Yet you can’t be fuelled by rage as a landscape photographer.  You can’t even necessarily hope to tell the truth.  All you can do is try to say who you are.   McCullin still itches to go to war; I suspect that he has a visa for Syria in his pocket right now.  But his friends will try to stop him.  He’s slowed down, and he’s let some of that anger go. He shouldn’t go back. He’s told us what he has to say about war.  He has a magnificent new career, making long careful sequences of pictures, first about the landscape where he has found some solace, on the low hills of Somerset, and later a major work around the margins of the former Roman Empire.

If ever a man was self-made it has been Don McCullin.  The career, the reputation: both are stellar.  It goes without saying that he forged those alone and against long odds.  He also no longer speaks or dresses like that boy from Finsbury Park.

I opened by saying that it was absurd to introduce a man of this calibre to you; you know him already for his great skill as photographer and printer of photographs; for his refusal to drop below high standards of honour; for his insistence on speaking the truth to large corporations or governments; and above all for the great dignity he has always given to those suffering in the most violent or catastrophic moments of man’s inhumanity to man.  But I want to make a slight introduction all the same.  We know Don McCullin as a photographer.  That’s what we call him: the great war photographer.  He was that, of course, but I think the title does him a disservice.  He was more.  In honouring Don McCullin today, I don’t think we are honouring only a user of cameras and lenses.  Don McCullin was one of the great journalists of his generation, a great reporter, a communicator of genius.

Don, I speak formally on behalf of PhotoLondon, but also informally on behalf of many, many others, when I say thank you for all that you have done.

east wall 8

Sir Don McCullin – Vietnam View, n.d.

unemployed men gathering coal, sunderland, early 1970s

Sir Don McCullin – Unemployed Men Gathering Coal, Sunderland, early 1970s

Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin 1961 by Don McCullin born 1935

Sir Don McCullin – Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin 1961

Gangs of Boys Escaping C.S. Gas Fired by British Soldiers, Londonderry, Northern Ireland  1971, printed 2013 by Don McCullin born 1935

Sir Don McCullin – Gangs of Boys Escaping C.S. Gas Fired by British Soldiers, Londonderry, 1971

A Young Lebanese Christian Woman Throwing a Hand Grenade from the Holiday Inn Hotel 1976, printed 2013 by Don McCullin born 1935

Sir Don McCullin – A Young Lebanese Christian Woman Throwing a Hand Grenade from the Holiday Inn Hotel, Beirut 1976,

 

If — and you should —  you listen to Richard Dimbleby’s icy broadcast of 19th April 1945 on the BBC from the newly liberated Belsen concentration camp,  you will hear him say quite calmly “I passed through the barrier and found myself in the world of nightmare.”  He then goes on to describe appalling suffering, in which death is vilely cheap and even cannibalism necessary to survive.  Don McCullin has passed that barrier many times.  Like Dimbleby, but not necessarily like other war reporters, McCullin seemed also to remain calm in the very face of man’s worst inhumanity to man.  Wounded, flung on a truck in Cambodia among the dead and dying, he took his mind off the pain and the fear of what might happen next by struggling in the fading light to get his exposures right.  Another harrowing set of pictures was the result.

Everybody thinks they know Don McCullin.  His face is known, his name almost a shorthand for that place where photography meets conscience.

Part of the reason for that has been his subject matter.  He volunteers to see such cruelty, such pity and shame, that where we see those things it’s not hard to associate him them.  But that’s only part of the reason.  For while McCullin been able to survive (and with his eyes wide open) in places most of us would flee, he has also done a great deal more. We tend to forget it because we think that a reporter like him can only tell the unvarnished truth.  We have to hope that what he shows is never a trick of photography.  It isn’t a trick.  But that doesn’t mean it’s naïve or neutral.  Don McCullin has in fact been a great stylist.

He is a wonderful printer, a great one.  Today, he spends a lot of time in his darkroom, getting his prints miraculously right.  That wasn’t always so; inevitably he sent many rolls of film back from the field to be printed by someone else.  But he was always a great technician, of the cameras and the film, even when the final print was by necessity made elsewhere.  I remember him telling me once, years ago, that he used to carry a length of lavatory-chain as part of his kit.  I wondered why, as he expected me to.  Some kind of arcane tool of self-defence? In fact, he used to screw it into the tripod socket under his cameras, and then brace his elbows tight into his ribs while jamming the lower end of the chain under his foot.  That extra tautness gave his camera a little more stability; and that in turn gave him a stop, perhaps two, of exposure.

Those sunken pools of black and glistening greys of McCullin’s are not accidental, in other words.  There is a gulf between making pictures and taking them. McCullin’s great images are made and worked at even though we see in them circumstances so fast — and often so appalling — that simply to have pressed the button at all would have been enough for most. Under the most appalling stresses, McCullin remained a virtuoso.  His compositions bear careful examination; the tones of his prints are exquisite.  For balance and harmony he equals Ansel Adams.  Only to see that, you need sometimes to abstract the photograph from what it shows.  For his photographs — it’s a word which is troubling in his contexts, and one with which McCullin has quite naturally wrestled for years — are beautiful.  Part of his greatness lies there, that in spite of everything, the language that he chose to address us in was the language of art.

There are a number of public visions of Don McCullin which are only partly true at best.  First is the myth of Don the straightforward antique hero in a safari jacket.  McCullin has been brave as a lion.  He has gone where angels fear to tread. In a long career witnessing horror on our behalf, he has more than earned a number of clichés of that sort. It is perfectly true that McCullin rushed to the car in which Nick Tomalin died in the Golan Heights in the vain hope of saving his colleague and friend.  He knew full well as he did it that he would be in clear gunshot and did it anyway.

Clearly, there is in Don McCullin something of the hero.  But he is far too intelligent to be a classic hero.  He has never been blithe, or insouciant, or nonchalant.  In the face of the terrifying, he has often admitted to being terrified.  The classic hero does his duty, patriotic or romantic. Although he may have an Achilles heel, he does not engage in moral ambiguity. Don McCullin has never disengaged from that.  He has been an actively moral person, with all the complexities that implies.

This shades into a related myth: Saint Don.  This was most clearly seen in a retrospective show put on by the British IWM, the former Imperial War Museum, under the title Shaped by War.  In this extraordinary tribute, McCullin’s work – his pictures, whether seen as individual images, or gathered together on the pages of the magazines as thev were first seen – was not enough.  That show surrounded the work with relics, actual relics, whose clear function was to add a kind of moral aura to the man behind the pictures.  There were passes and letters allowing him to various hell-holes.  There was his military issue bayonet, a weapon of war used presumably only to open tins of food.  There was above all the camera damaged by a bullet which would otherwise have damaged the photographer.

There exists an extraordinary picture of Don McCullin in 1964 (it was made by John Bulmer, then working for The Sunday Times while McCullin was still working for The Observer) carrying an old lady in his arms to safety.  That was useful to the museum’s view of the reporter-saint.  So was the fact that our own Ministry of Defence refused him permission to go to the Falkland Islands embedded with the taskforce:  it’s traditional for saints to have their truths denied by authority.

Don McCullin has indeed carried many wounded. He has shared privation and desperate danger with hundreds of victims of war or civil war.  He has suffered dreadfully, not just in terms of wounds to his body, but in terms of what we would now call the Post Traumatic Stress which he has described searingly in himself.  His relations with people, his family foremost among them, have suffered as a result. But he isn’t a saint.  His motives have been professional or personal like all of ours, his actions sometimes frankly wrong.  He is a person.  A person of exceptional gifts, certainly. But it is wrong to caricature him even in a complimentary way.  Hero, saint; these are nice labels, but they are also ways of avoiding understanding.

Don McCullin wrote that he was a “product of Hitler. I was born in the 1930s  and bombed in the 1940s. Then the Hollywood people moved in and started showing me films about violence. ”   As a young man, he was poor, and he was dyslexic, and his father died when he was fifteen.   He had to give up then a scholarship he’d won, to Hammersmith School of Arts and Crafts.  No need to be a subtle psychologist to see already that there were causes of great anger there.   His brother made a thirty-year career in the French Foreign Legion, and McCullin might easily have done the same.  He did do military service, in the RAF, and won a campaign medal for service against the Mau-Mau in Kenya.  But he realised early that the military life was not for him.  We are immeasurably the richer by that.

There is no need to caricature Don McCullin.  He remains – perhaps oddly for such a great traveller – a devotedly English Englishman.  He loves India, and many other places, too.  But he has no wish to pretend to be other than as he is, still less to abandon himself and remake himself differently.  He had not much to start, but he made himself a really great journalist.  That requires no caricature.  He believes in finding out the truth, in part by deep and serious reflection, and then telling it with energy, clarity, and beauty.  When his employers changed, and wouldn’t afford him doing that any more, he left them and found another way to carry on doing the same.  He has made pictures just as telling in Bradford as in Biafra:  he is not only a foreign correspondent, a war reporter, or even perhaps a photographer.  He is a powerfully gifted communicator with important things to tell us. ” I only use a camera like I use a toothbrush”, as he put it once.  “It does the job.”

It isn’t extraordinary that a man who found it difficult to read should have found such sophisticated virtuosity in communication. It should not still have to be said, but the message has still not sunk in: A photographer of the calibre of Don McCullin is a great communicator, fully the equivalent of a great songwriter or film director or novelist.  He does not merely illustrate the words his pictures are often published alongside; he does not ‘merely‘ do anything.  He expresses in his pictures his arguments, beliefs, prejudices, judgments as well as the bloody facts of each case.  You can no more misunderstand McCullin on war than you can misunderstand Primo Levi or Wilfred Owen.

Don McCullin has spent his life in showing us that wars are not accidents; the suffering he has seen has not been a by-product.  Policy; doctrine; profit; even economy or system….these words sound so abstract, so remote. The child’s ditty is simply wrong.  Sticks and stones, they do break bones.  But those words end up hurting, too.

 

 

Curators on Skates

V and A E.1128-1989

View of the V&A by Bolas & Co., c.1909, V&A E.1128-1989

It’s not often, in the cash-starved world of UK photographic institutions, that there is major good news to celebrate. But yesterday the V&A announced ambitious and yet wholly realistic plans to expand its photographic activities in a range of impressive ways.

The catalyst for the advance was the arrival of the collections of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) at the V&A. The transfer last year of the RPS collections from the Bradford outstation of the Science Museum was shockingly badly handled (mainly by the Science Museum Group itself, but a number of other parties including the Arts Council and the ministry responsible, the Department for Culture Media and Sport, showed some pretty craven lack of leadership, too).

No doubt the tale of the former National Museum of Photography, Film and Television may need to be revisited at another time. But for now, the Media Space, the Science Museum’s attempt to get London attendance figures for its Yorkshire collections, will have the daily humiliation as it flounders of seeing its neighbour across the street make giant leaps forward in the business of collection-centred museum activity in photography.

There was a bit of a fuss about the abandonment (in effect) of the museum in Bradford. The V&A was presented with an incomparable opportunity to step up in the rankings of world photography collections, but it would need a certain investment to do that properly, and investment, in the UK cultural world, has often been the stumbling block. I hope and I also suspect — as one of those who fussed — that the to-do actively helped, in allowing the curators and developers of the new plans for photography at the V&A in laying out their claim for a chunk of the necessary money to point to obvious public concern.

Whatever the exact sequence, the arrival of the RPS collections has had a galvanic effect on the photography department at the V&A. And for that, credit must go first of all to Martin Barnes, the Senior Curator, who has quite obviously seen a chance and gone for it, big time. It was not, as he put it to me, up to him to judge the manner in which the RPS collections were allowed to leave the hands of the Science Museum Group. But when offered one of the great photographic collections in the world, he needed no second invitation. Why would he look such a gift horse in the mouth? There have been other important moments in UK museum management in the field of photography; but I have no memory of a department making such a well-judged expansion so very fast. In the terms of the usual shuffling trudge from report to committee to fund-raisers and back again, this has been a lightning strike. Barnes has done wonders, and he must have been supported at the very highest levels in the museum to be able to move so decisively. What a gift it makes for incoming museum Director Tristram Hunt: a major expansion in a field popular with and important to the public, dropped at his feet with nothing for him to do but smile politely and bask in the applause.

The incoming RPS collection of some 270,000 photographs compares to the roughly 500,000 the V&A already holds. For comparison, the website of the Museum of Modern Art in New York gives its photography collection as some 25,000 ‘works’; that of the Bibliothèque Nationale gives its own (supported by legal deposit) as nearly five million ‘items’. These numbers are not necessarily like for like, but they give orders of magnitude. The RPS collection goes far back in the history of photography and includes early material of great significance. It is complemented by many artefacts and documents which are not photographs, including for example, several thousand cameras.

Photographs-gallery

A previous exhibition of photography in the two galleries which will now again be dedicated to its display. Image courtesy V&A.

This is what is going to happen. The upstairs gallery of photography at the V&A is, in a first phase, going to double in size by expanding into the gallery parallel to it. A highly visible (not so say gaudy) piece of architectural branding, in the form of a ‘periscope’ full of cameras, will sign it from the ground floor – with an effect I imagine to be based upon the huge central column of books in the British Library, part storage and part advertising.

The V&A has already (!) equipped a new archive with fancy rolling shelves and climate control, adjacent to the Prints and Drawings Study Room, so the long tradition of open access to photographs will not only continue but be actively enhanced. I’m always amazed at how few Londoners avail themselves of the chance to see original photographs simply by turning up and asking for the box to be brought (you do need an appointment but you do not need to be recommended or in any particular research position); but for those who want to use it, that service is going to be improved.  It can’t be used less than the equivalent Insight space at Bradford, an echoing cavern of research not being done and pictures not being seen.

The first phase will also include a space for screenings and a clever space where the perpetual scanning that any modern museum must do will be on view to the public, so that we can see the increase in access to the collections being facilitated before our very eyes.

All of this will be ready by 2018; that, in the world of museums, is time-travel. You have to imagine your curators getting out of their grey flannel bags and tweed coats, and jumping onto rollerblades.

After that, a further second phase expansion will add a library, a sensible addition given how much of the dissemination of photographs has always been through books. This one will not merely be a collection; it is specifically intended from the outset to facilitate browsing on open stacks, so that pictures can do the work they have always done, of jumping out at us from unexpected angles. Further rooms, including teaching rooms and a darkroom for photographers-in-residence will complete a suite which will when complete add up to the entire first floor of the North-East wing of the V&A and represent in total something like four times the existing space devoted there to photography.  The expansion of activities that will radiate from this space will likely be on a logarithmic scale.

V&A 3294- 1954

View of the 1939 centenary exhibition of photography in gallery 73 of the V&A. V&A 3294- 1954

3346-1954

View of the 1939 centenary exhibition of photography in gallery 73 of the V&A. V&A 3346-1954

This is an incredible achievement. It is being done for £8m. This is obviously a large sum, but not in the context in which it sits. The National Army Museum, for example, announced a few days ago (March 2017) that its re-development had cost £23.75m. The Financial Times cited £83m as the cost of the new Design Museum in the old Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington.

The RPS collections themselves were purchased in 2002 for the National Museum of Photography Film and Television with public funds, including the largest ever Heritage Lottery Fund Award for photography of £3.75m and £342,000 from the National Art Collections Fund. Since the V&A has paid not a single penny for the collection itself, we can see that in the context of a (favourable) 2002 valuation not far short of £5m, a 2017 cost of £8m to make the best possible use of the collection comes to look like very fair value for money. (The figure includes, I understand, some of the costs of digitization, although these are hard to quantify because they come under general costs the V&A already underwrites). In the context of the overall re-jigging of the V&A under the FuturePlan label, it’s a bargain. My memory is that the funding target to enable the London Photographers’ Gallery to move to its new building in 2012 was £8.7m; the cost of the V&A’s expansion compares with that.

All of this presages not only a world-class photographic research and display centre, but it also seems to come hand in hand with a steady rethink of what the museum can do. In particular, the V&A announces on the same day that the immensely distinguished historian of photography Professor Elizabeth Edwards has been appointed Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor at the V&A. At the same time, the Royal College of Art and the V&A join forces from September 2018 to launch a new history of photography course under the umbrella of the History of Design MA program at the RCA. The photography department, in other words, is taking the moment of its physical expansion as the moment of its virtual expansion, too. To seek to act as the focus of scholarship in the disciplines whose artefacts it cares for is precisely one of the things the museum should be doing, and these cascaded announcements suggest hope for a steady stream of scholarly material to come.

There is obviously (there always is, nowadays) talk of an expanded online offering in photography from the museum, reaching people off the site, or interested in things other than those programmed for any particular time. Also off-site, there are ideas of touring shows already in the air, in a reprise of the lamented Circulation Department of the V&A, which fell in a distant round of earlier cuts. The success of the Artists’ Rooms project by which (in England) the Tate manages the huge donation of Anthony D’Offay, has brought the obvious benefits of touring shows back into the forefront of planners’ minds.  There is going to be a boost to the Prints & Drawings Study Room. There will be space for more events across a range of types, from screenings to lectures to demonstrations and so on.

The new library will obviously have to work well with the National Art Library, which is not only in the same building, but actually forms a part of the same department – the Word And Image Department of the museum. But a new browsing library in photography can only serve to increase the numbers using the existing library; the photographs department was in part set up by the re-classification of objects in the National Art Library, so these close ties go back a very long way. In the same way, the rehoming of the collections will go some way to patching up the historical split across Exhibition Road between the scientific and art aspects of photography. Some individual artefacts will actually be reunited in the V&A, having been held together in the South Kensington Museum before it was split into the component parts we know. It is possible to express the hope that the commercial and industrial aspects of photography will not be left behind in the re-shuffle, aspects which have traditionally fared less well in the museum context.

There’s a lot to look forward to. It’s encouraging and welcome. Martin Barnes talks in the press release that announces the new Photography Centre of a “dramatic reimagining of the way photography is presented at the V&A.” He’s moved an elderly and sometimes rheumatic institution at quite remarkable speed in the direction he wants it to go. Just getting this expanded photography department to happen has taken strong leadership; he’ll have a lot of fun with it once it’s running. And as a result, so will we.

Save

Full of Mind

“Of Mr.Rejlander’s pictures (for such we may justly call them), we have no hesitation in saying that they are full of beauty and full of mind.”

Anonymous reviewer in the Art Journal for 1868

 

RejlanderAlbum1

Oscar Gustav Rejlander

The National Portrait Gallery in London has recently acquired these very different pictures from an album of the mid-1860s (holding both well-known and unknown studies) by Oscar Gustav Rejlander after a successful export block. The watermarks you see on the scans are those of the auctioneer Morphets of Harrogate who sold the album for £70,000 in late 2014. The estimate had been £7000-£10,000. The necessary funds to cancel the proposed sale and make it instead a public purchase were raised with the help of the Art Fund and of National Portrait Gallery supporters.

 

 

RejlanderAlbum3

Oscar Gustav Rejlander

RejlanderAlbum4

Oscar Gustav Rejlander

RejlanderAlbum2

Oscar Gustav Rejlander

This modest little story is presented here as something of a mild inoculation against the fever of museum closures or failures in UK photography. We have seen the absurd mistreatment of the Birmingham Library archives in photography, the grave mishandling of the transfer of a number of collections from the National Media Museum in Bradford to the Victoria & Albert Museum and a number of other failures.   We are told to expect the closure of the expensive Media Space in London almost before its fancy paint has had time to dry. The national collections in photography are, to say the very least, not receiving the very highest level of care and attention in the period we are living through.

In that context, it is salutary to see the ordinary work of national collections proceeding in an orderly way. An important album comes up for sale. Its value to scholarship is patent. The export is halted pending an opportunity to raise the necessary funds, and when those funds are quite properly made available, the album is bought for the nation.

No doubt there is a very disappointed overseas buyer. That buyer may be a private collector, or perhaps more likely, an agent acting on behalf of another institution. Whoever she is or represents, that buyer feels (as buyers always do in these circumstances) that her cup has been unfairly dashed from her lips. That buyer will feel that she had found the thing, had the courage to bid high, and should be allowed to march off with it. We can sympathize.

At the same time, if due process has been observed, we can also feel that the greater right has prevailed, and be very glad that the album is now in a place where schoolchildren can see it from time to time, and where scholars can use it to change once again our perceptions of Victorian art, of photography, of the history of dress and of dressing up, of social mores and much, much more. One of the things about national collections is that no generation can know what will be of interest to future scholars, so you carefully keep things whose value may not be obvious against the time when someone will scrutinize them from a perspective that we cannot predict today. That costs money, and therefore needs to be justified against other claims on the public purse. But when it is done right, it is a civilized process and one that can be applauded.

Phillip Prodger, curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery was quoted (in one of those bland quotes people are asked to produce at such times) as saying the album “transforms the way we think about one of Britain’s great artists”. It remains for Dr. Prodger to show us the early fruits of the scholarship he now has the opportunity to turn to this acquisition. We should look forward fairly promptly to a display of the album, washed in the light of that scholarship. That, on a small scale, is the normal functioning of a properly handled national collection, something British people interested in photography may be forgiven for imagining they no longer had.

 

RejlanderAlbum5

Oscar Gustav Rejlander

 

 

I followed the story of the Rejlander Album on the excellent British Photographic History blog, which has covered it from before the auction sale through to the successful incorporation into the collections of the National Portrait Gallery. Persons interested in the subject are well advised to subscribe to this free source of impressively curated information.

The full Rejlander album is still visible thanks to Morphets Auctioneers who took the trouble to scan it and still have it open to view. Again, this seems a normal proceeding at that juncture where the commercial world of art and antiques meets the scholarly world of museum collections and of those who use them.   It even might be good if the Harrogate auction house could be persuaded, in a small further step, to keep the scans permanently available, perhaps if necessary by transferring them to the National Portrait Gallery’s website. That would represent a trivial cost but a non-trivial commitment to scholarship. No doubt their respective information technology systems may have difficulty in corresponding, but the idea seems a good one and one that might become routine with a little bit of tweaking.

 

Pinch & Swipe

battlefields-jos-jansen-8

From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

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

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

battlefields-jos-jansen-9

From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

 

Jos Jansen, from the Battlefields series

From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

 

 

Jos Jansen, from the Battlefields series

From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

 

Jos Jansen, from the Battlefields series

From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

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

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

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

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

Transmutation XV Clasp by David Hiscock

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

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

Cabinet Card from Wisconsin

Cabinet Card from Wisconsin

Cabinet Card from Oregon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

battlefields-jos-jansen-3

 

battlefields-jos-jansen-4

 

battlefields-jos-jansen-6

 

battlefields-jos-jansen-7

From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

 

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

 

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

 

 

The Sort of Thing They Like

 

2015HK9144_jpg_l

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I want to keep gnawing.

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

2015HK9146_jpg_l

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


2015HK9137_jpg_l

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


2015HK9141_jpg_l

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shafran selected 2_Page_42

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


Shafran selected 2_Page_46

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


Shafran selected 2_Page_49

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

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

V& A annual_review_201213 p54

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shafran - 5

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


Shafran - 4

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

 

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

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

 

 

Post Scriptum:

I reviewed Beneath the Surface at the time for Photomonitor:

http://bit.ly/1BQpF48

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

Luke 16:1 – 16:2

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

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

Luke 16:1 – 16-2

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who Speaks for Photography?

At the ceremony on 18 September 2012 to mark the start of construction by which the former Commonwealth Institute in High Street Kensington will become a new Design Museum, Sir Terence Conran used the opportunity to once again “persuade government of the importance of design in this country”. Ed Vaizey, the Minister of Culture, replied by saying “Government has taken note of Terence’s comments, and I’ll take back what he said and see what we can do.” Sir Terence is the founder of the museum, and a generous patron. But he is also the owner of a number of businesses whose profitability might well be affected by the government’s response.

Lord Rogers of Riverside, whose 1997 book Cities for a Small Planet (based on his Reith Lectures of 1995) established his credentials as an advocate for sustainable and liveable cities, has advised both Prime Minister Tony Blair and London Mayor Boris Johnson on urbanism. Lord Rogers has designed a number of very private buildings in London whose contribution to the liveable city is to say the least open to question. It is not plain, for example, that the great corporate monuments which are 122 Leadenhall Street (known as the Cheesegrater) or the Lloyds Building do anything very much for ordinary citizens, for permeability, or for the small planet, come to that. Lord Rogers got himself into a mildly embarrassing pickle earlier this year when he drew attention to the large number of empty homes in the most expensive sectors of the London residential market, only for it to be pointed out that he himself was the architect of the luxury apartments at One Hyde Park, which were easily predicted to become, as they almost all have, second homes owned by non-residents and most of which are used only a few weeks per year.

Even Sir Paul Smith ­– a man who once reacted to Prime Minister David Cameron’s horribly self-promoting down-with-the-guys public dithering on whether or when to wear a tie with the terse fly-swat “the political arena is not the place to make fashion statements” – has been known to appear at industry gets-together with Business Secretary Vince Cable promoting UK textile mills or that more nebulous something called ‘creativity’.

Creative industries in the UK have a number of leading figures who can routinely be called on to provide a headline or shape a point of view. Sir Martin Sorell, CEO of WPP, the largest advertising agency in the world, has been a frequent voice for years. He gave a famous speech at the D&AD in 1996 which made broad claims on behalf of the industry: “What we sell are pearls. Whether we are designers or planners or writers or art directors or corporate strategists, our raw material is knowledge. We turn that knowledge into ideas, insights, and objects that have a material, quantifiable value to our clients”.

Another such voice has been that of Sir Nicholas Hytner, outgoing director of the National Theatre. (“Sir Nicholas Hytner: Arts are Economic Gold for Britain – The Daily Telegraph, April 2013).

Some of these figures carry a more or less official appointment (Lord Rogers, for example, as well as setting up the Urban Task Force at the request of government, held for a number of years a role as Chair of the Greater London Authority Panel on Architecture); many others do not. Some speak ex-officio: the Director-General of the BBC, Director of the Tate, and so on. But most do not. In a very British way, speaking up on behalf of a whole cultural industry is part of a position among ‘the Great and the Good’ ; that may well carry fringe benefits, but these voices are not really being heard for the money, or at least never directly. Crucially, too, these spokesknights and spokeslords are not by any means specifically limited to pronouncing on their own particular area. Across a broad swathe of the cultural industries and the creative industries, these voices form a ready-made and fairly establishment lobby.

Nobody really cares about possible conflicts of interest in these circumstances. A sound-bite, a photo-opportunity, are not to be seen as audits. Just an opportunity to scatter a little business, promote a few of the good guys.

Most of the people I’ve listed here are in design fields. Design has become a shorthand way of referring to a supposed way of thinking, and claims are routinely made for design that it lies at the heart of the creative industries. I’m rather sceptical about all of this. I think design in its contemporary incarnation is often largely an advertising word, a weasel-word. Design at its worst is a pseudo-culture that can be painted onto almost any activity the easier to sell it. Quite often, ‘design’ has been the camouflage for a very Thatcherite agenda whereby the shareholding has been kept in one set of hands, based or at least serviced in the UK, while the labour of making things has been exported to cheaper markets elsewhere. Dyson, for example, the design-branded electrical-appliance company, has steadily moved production from its base in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, to Malaysia while keeping research and development mainly in the UK. It is naturally no coincidence that the production was mainly done by people who were members of trade unions; the R&D is done mainly by people who are not.

Similarly, while a wide range of businesses thrive in the UK for whom some part of their assets are creative thinking and creative practices, a lot of blather about the ‘creative industries’ refers to a sector in which many of the participants would not recognise those with whom they are supposed to share the label, let alone acknowledge any common ground. We may be world leaders in computer aided graphics effects for films, for example, but I doubt that the people who work doing that have ever felt close cousinhood with those who run market research companies for advertising. Sometimes it would be better to think of the creative industries as just one sector of the new European reality that says we are better at services than we are at goods.

There is a huge culture of design, of course, and very important and serious it is, too. But it is not that which is under discussion when a Marc Newson Lockheed Lounge chair sells for £1 million at auction, nor when the word ‘designer’ is used as a kitemark for aspirational and safe and expensive. Designer handbag. Designer restaurant. Design in fact is very like photography: long history, wide spread, deep range from vernacular or applied to wholly self-conscious. But somehow design has been actively marketed and lobbied-for in the last half-generation, with predictable increases all around. Design is booming. Auction houses now have glamorous sales of design quite separate to the sales of furniture or print or clothing (or other designed stuff) they used to have. University courses in design areas are multiplying by the year. And at the upper end of all of that, lots of designers are quite regularly asked to speak on behalf of the whole pack of cards. So are TV people, people in theatre, music, publishing, architecture…Universities of course relentlessly lobby government and bend the ears of the upper reaches of the press corps. It works. It makes a difference.

 

Design makes the interesting contrast to photography. Who has the equivalent role for photography?   If a museum needs to campaign against the cuts, or a change is mooted in the curriculum for ‘A’ Level study, or a failure in intellectual property law cries out for lobbying in Parliament – who speaks for photography?

Silence. Resounding, echoing silence.

There are plausible systemic reasons for this, or at least one could argue so.

The first is the sheer breadth of photography. It is naturally very hard to find a strategic or policy stance which might sensibly apply to photography as a main driver of contemporary fine art, photography in advertising, photography as a tool of memory (or group memory), journalism, scientific photography, photography in education, photography as just another of the many ways a modern person has of expressing herself …. Some of the members of each of those sectors actively despise the members of the others, and few of them know enough about each other to feel any shared social connection simply by their shared ownership of an extraordinarily diverse practice which is hardly recognizably the same for all of them.

For a long time I have been writing that the fact that we all own cameras and can use them at the drop of a hat not only to take pictures but to disseminate them, too, does not make us all photographers. We need a new vocabulary. The estate agent who routinely makes and disseminates photographs as part of his work is not a photographer. I’ve suggested that we use the expression camera-operator for all those uses, and reserve photographer for those who self-consciously expect some appreciation of what they do as connected to previous photographs.

That’s problematic enough. Who can speak for photography as a whole if we’re already hiving off great chunks of photographic activity as being non-photographic?

There’s another way of looking at it. With only a small shift of mindset, photography is not a sector or a sub-sector of the creative businesses. Photography dates from a long time before bicycling, but it helps to think of it in the same way. Both are tremendous Victorian technologies which triggered social change far beyond the expectations of the pioneers who launched into them. It is a romantic thought but hardly an exaggeration to say that the bicycle was the single most important factor in the liberation of women, in particular. The stifling conventions of British industrial towns were broken down partly by the two genders sharing long cycle tours – the first affordable individual transport for ordinary waged people. And if it should so happen that a lady and a gentleman should be delayed by a puncture, well, that happened, and the rest of the club would wait for them at the chosen campsite or Cycle Touring Club hostel further on. Courting would never be the same.

This simple machine, readily affordable, mendable, adaptable, light in the resources needed to make it and slow to decay helped to defeat the trillion-dollar US army in Vietnam and powered the Chinese social uplift in its early phases. In countries which have embraced it – in the Netherlands, say – you no more call yourself a cyclist than you call yourself a trainist because you use a train to get from one city to another. Everybody uses a bike, granny or schoolchild, to go about business. She does it in normal clothes, without feeling the need to adhere to a sect of activists to do it. The government sees that cycling is a universal good, and facilitates it, by policy and by funding and by administration in its favour. There are certainly racers and mountain-bikers and long-distance people, too. But they choose to identify themselves: they are cyclists. Everyone else is just a citizen, who will be, many times a week, upon a bike.

Precisely the same can be said about photography. Photography has been for years a universal tool. It too is a wonderful Victorian technology that has spread far beyond its origins. The successive democratisations of photography have had their effect. Of course there are some enthusiasts who want to think about photography and photographs. I’m one of them. But the vast majority are just citizens, who many times a week want to communicate or be communicated to through photographs and their derivatives. We’re mostly not photographers. We’re consumers of photography on a huge scale, and some of us are camera operators.

So another parallel seems to fit. Photography is like gardening. It’s something which tends to the common good, but only a tiny proportion of those who do it would regard themselves as ‘serious’ and an even smaller number earn their living from it. Yet that is enough to make a large interlinked group of professions depend on gardening. No doubt gardening between all its aspects represents a share of the balance of trade. Huge numbers of people are passionately literate in gardens without for a moment considering it even among their specialist activities. But people speak for gardening all the time. Gardening permeates our culture. Design is beginning to. More specific cultural activities like cinema and literary fiction and opera have disproportionately huge broadsheet coverage, funding and numberless hordes of spokespeople. Yet photography, which is really the shared culture of all of us, has none of that. There are few photography writers and fewer photography sections in the papers. There is no administration to facilitate it, no policy.

Photography is not really defined as an industry in quite the same way as the (pop) music business or advertising or television or even architecture (with its direct connections to construction). In contrast to other creative industries, photography as an industry is actually rather diminished, now. Where fashion can still be more or less be quantified by pounds spent, even if they are now spent online, photography no longer has huge factories churning out film or cameras. The former manufacturing base has been disseminated through a wide range of digital hardware and software manufacturers few of whom now think of themselves as mainly in photography . Much of the online practice of photography is free. Getty Images in March of this year made the final price reduction – to £0.00, free to use ­ – on thirty-five million pictures. Photography departments in museums are tiny groups of four or five people.   The truth is that photography remains, in spite of one or two massive attempts to aggregate it into corporate blocks, essentially a group of interlinked cottage industries. One of the salient facts about photography is that nobody controls it in the way that the music business or the film business or even the big-bucks sectors of publishing are controlled by corporate entities. That militates against one voice speaking on behalf of the whole of it.

Photography tends to show a remarkably wide range of business models corresponding in some way to a wide range of forms of expression. The guy who rents out his drone-helicopter with a number of rotors to act as a stable platform for aerial photography may not feel that he has much in common with Miss Cara Delevingne. One can see that it might be hard to find representative voices for both of them, and then to multiply that out by hundreds of sectors. It would be fun to map the readerships of the various magazines which are based upon photography. Is there any single person with a subscription both to Esquire and to Railway Modeller? Yet both are in a real sense photo-magazines.

There are Getty Images, of course, and Corbis. But I have never been made aware of any public pronouncement from either which had any claim to broad general application. They are companies, and when they speak they speak in the interests of the shareholders or owner. Maybe they are too young still to feel any public responsibility for ‘the field’ or the business’. Or maybe they just stick to their onions.

 

 

There has only ever been one holder of the position of Photography Officer at the Arts Council. Barry Lane held that job from 1973, and oversaw a specialist photography sub-committee which carried on throughout the 1980s allocating grants and also purchases into the Arts Council collection by acquisition. But, as David Mellor’s 2008 touring show No Such Thing as Society so vividly demonstrated, there are enormous gaps in the Arts Council collection, notably after Barry Lane left. Photography was then subsumed in the wider visual arts as far as the Arts Council was concerned, there to sink or swim as it might. Lane was anyway more concerned with documentary than with other practices, and the Arts Council never really even glanced at the wider photography world. With tiny budgets, incomprehension if not downright hostility from those who might have helped, an impossible task in a dozen different ways, Lane tried to speak for the whole and within reason made a good job of it. Could one envisage his post being re-created? I think so, although Lane’s own struggles go a long way to showing that it can’t be done without structure, strategy, and support.

There is no national ‘home’ for photography. The museum in Bradford deliberately (and disastrously) abjured the role when it changed its policy from being the museum anchored to collections in photography, film and television, to being a museum anchored in something weaselly defined as media, in which it still holds no serious collection and likely never will. There has never been a BBC strand devoted to photography — and I continue to be amazed that there has not. Given that photography stretches from high art to high vernacular, it would be hugely popular. The BBC should at the very least have a photography correspondent, to be wheeled out across their various platforms when photography comes to be at issue. That might be for the release of a new set of Abu Ghraib pictures or potentially trumped-up phone photos from the ISIS insurgency in Iraq or it might be for the latest papped picture of documents carefully-carelessly exposed by ministers rushing in to Cabinet or to analyse satellite pictures of pollution in the Western Approaches.   The UK is actually falling back in photography. We’re falling back in the museology of the thing, in commerce, everywhere. We have had (although at the moment the UK lags far behind other countries in this area) absolutely world-leading creative directors and art-directors, but they don’t act in concert. We have lost a number of photographic festivals, and although there are new ones in the pipeline, the catch-up to the Rencontres at Arles or Paris-Photo is dauntingly far. We are especially bad at promoting our own: in the UK excellent photographers routinely fall into obscurity for lack of that proud national conviction that they should be honoured, whose equivalent is so visible in other countries with a comparable photographic culture.

The great national museums do what they can, but not one of them has at the moment a charismatic leader in the photographic field. Excellent departmental curators, certainly. But national figures? Probably not. We have museum practitioners, itching and twitching to do more than they can. Yet who in the wider public has ever heard a word pronounced by John Falconer, devoted and long-term head of photographs at the British Library? The British Library is headed by Roly Keating, who grew up in the cultural reaches of the BBC. You can bet your bottom dollar that he has been heard arguing for books, literacy, culture in general. He is the head of one of the great photographic collections in the world. Has he ever said a word in public even about his own holdings, leave alone photography in the wild?

There are really no voices on the model even of the people I opened with above. The day when a government minister can say with a straight face that ‘Government has taken note..’ of a spokesman for photography will be the day that the tide will have turned. We have in photography our share of time-servers and officials in the Ministry of Circumlocution, of course. No doubt even as you read this, somebody is including photography in a seven-point plan or a ‘downwardly reassigned budgetary solution’. But that’s not speaking for photography. That’s merely trying to manage it.

When there were more physical photographic products to be advertised than there are now, there was no natural place in the mainstream media to advertise them. The Sunday supplements, photographic papers in the very fibre of their bones, never made any attempt to seduce the industry. My own specialist corner reveals the same picture. I review exhibitions and sometimes books for a broadsheet audience. But I have suggested for years that I be allowed to review advertising campaigns, news photographs, scientific pictures… I want to write obituaries of great picture editors, write about how estate agents use photography. Zilch. Zip. No interest. Photography, which could be as widely discussed (I was tempted to write ‘is as important’) as food, is still kept in its little marginal corners.

We used not to have a culture ministry, deeming it a rather threatening, European, slightly rum sort of thing. We had a Reithian BBC and an Arts Council which was once run on the principles laid down by Jennie Lee. We had heroic short-cutters of museum directors like Kenneth Clark or Roy Strong. But in 1992, the day after the election, we got a ministry, (perhaps partly because some civil servants had looked with envy at the centralised, almost imperial, cultural regime run – with a gap – by Jack Lang in France from 1981 to 1992). It was originally called the Department for National Heritage, and entrusted with a weird magpie’s collection of bits and pieces from elsewhere. The jewels in the crown – mishandled without exception – were the granting of licenses to exploit mobile communications, the development of broadband, the reform of the horse racing industry, a number of Olympic bids, and an untried form of voluntary taxation in the shape of a new National Lottery whose winnings would in some mysterious way be devoted to the celebration of the Millennium. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has stayed one of the smaller departments, and with the exception of Chris Smith, one which has always been headed by people who were manifestly less than thrilled to be placed there and whose collective contribution to national cultural prosperity has been nugatory. David Lammy, anyone? Maria Miller?

Periodically, the DCMS has conducted a weird exercise in Blairite social control, which has been the attempt to map the creative industries. Modern management – and a fortiori government – can’t do things without obsessive collation of measurables, and unfortunately in the cultural sphere more than in any other (except perhaps religion) measuring is the last thing you can do with any precision. ‘Creative industries’, after all, is not only an unsatisfactory catch-all term that doesn’t hold water, but is also obviously a domain where it’s harder than usual to match outputs from specific inputs in order to measure them. In the Blairite vision (shared, by the way between Labour and Conservatives quite indifferently – I only use Blair’s label because his people articulated it most clearly) culture has to pay its way. Ask anybody who has run a publicly-funded gallery or a ballet company or even a library in recent years and they will sigh as they tell you about the struggle to do things in the hallowed names of diversity, and access, and fitting in with the national curriculum… In other fields, notably in that of finance, practitioners have been allowed to do whatever they liked in the name of excellence; the massive public bail-outs in the banking industry, the constant vast subsidy of the nominally self-financing railway companies, any number of examples show that it wasn’t always necessarily such a good idea. But in culture, where the risks and costs were much lower, practitioners have been forced to toe the line. Culture has had to have social utility or face being cut off from the money. Excellence has come a long way behind.

So the DCMS conducts this absurd exercise every so often in mapping the cultural industries. So does the Arts Council, and, guess what? Neither of them has ever been able to find room for photography. Because, you see, nobody speaks for photography in their meeting rooms any more than they do in the broadsheets or on the radio. Terra Incognita. Here be Monsters.

The greatest recent public contribution to photography has arguably been the Artist Rooms, the touring shows of individual artists from the enormous donation of the art dealer Anthony d’Offay, which happened to be weighted quite markedly towards photography. The ethos of the gift – touring shows, works not separated from each other – was set by the donor. That the donor happened to be interested in — more than interested in: passionate about — photography to some extent set the agenda. The Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland, which together administer the gift, simply had to hold out their hands. The d’Offay donation has willy-nilly accelerated the interest those institutions took in photography. It is even arguable that it changed the national agenda quite specifically. His donation, called “the most important thing that has happened in the art world in this country in my lifetime” by Richard Dorment, art critic of the Daily Telegraph, was announced in spring of 2009. By the autumn of that year, the Tate had appointed Simon Baker as its first ever curator of photographs.   Is it wrong to see that the two were intimately connected? Is it possible to think that Baker might not have been appointed and the Tate would have carried on serenely mistreating photography as it had for generations, had d’Offay’s pressure not been brought most specifically to bear? One can have reservations about how it has been done without denying that photography has been a success at the Tate. It beggars belief that it might not have been an act of policy at all, however much the bland corporate announcements and press releases suggested that it had been. It might have been a purely pragmatic response to one very powerful donor speaking for photography.

It is impolite to recall that less than a generation earlier, the Circulation Department of the Victoria & Albert Museum, responsible for a permanent succession of tours (some of which had also been of photography) which represented similar brilliant value for money, had been axed. No one spoke for photography then.

The sad detail is that photography really does tick every one of the social-utility boxes. It is transnational and transcultural.   It traverses (nearly) seamlessly from one kind of support to another, being notably successfully transplanted to the internet and to digital screens. It can be used and understood by children and by professors: no-one, however disadvantaged, need be excluded from photography, and everyone can find some benefit from it. It can tell truths or stories, be useful or be exalting. It is the communication tool of the age, and still we treat it as a marginal offshoot of the visual arts. If it’s commercial, we condescend to it; if it’s personal we overlook it.

 

 

There still exists (or until recently there still existed – it is hard to tell the precise moment of death of something moribund) a nearly unknown entity called the Committee of National Photographic Collections. The curators of a dozen or more great national collections of photography meet every so often, to discuss matters of shared import. Over many years, these discussions have been more a professional exchange than a strategic one: setting sensible standards for the number of lumens appropriate to fall on older photographs, knowledge exchange about digital files, that kind of thing. As things stand, the committee struggles because it has no independent financing. To attend a meeting, curators need to find a train fare and maybe a couple of nights in a hotel, and (absurdly) that simple and necessary strategic expenditure is often beyond their reach. Every so often we read of the discontinuation of the Committee, and indeed, we are in a period now again when it is talked about as under threat or actually disbanded.

The core of the national interest in photography is represented in the national collections. There are certainly dozens of photographic activities which are not intimately tied to collecting or the old institutional framework which kept collecting at its heart. But all could benefit from a vigorous, informed, flexible, contemporary, brave collecting culture. It is through the collections that analysis can be disseminated; and it is shared analysis of photographs that we lack. Scholarship in all its forms (far beyond the scholarship merely of learned men; I mean the scholarship which gives a new producer the chance to see the things done in his field before himself, which allows children to see that old wars were not so different to new wars…) is anchored in collections. There are plenty of great art directors and photographers who would no more set foot in the V&A or the Birmingham Central Library than they would set foot in the Opera House. But make the collections more relevant to them and they will be there.   You have to start somewhere.

But the committee that could bind these great collections is toothless. Give it a director, a secretariat, a small budget, and some legislative teeth, and it could do wonders. Let us give it a try. Let us have a Director of the National Photography Collections, or let’s broaden it and say a Director of Photography Policy, to shout from the rooftops on behalf of photography. That person naturally won’t represent all the many constituencies of photography evenly, but without him or her, the gradual silencing of photography as a cultural asset will continue.

It is amazing, but true, that there are no conservators of photography employed full-time by the state in Britain. There used to be one ­- a brilliant one – named Liz Martin, who worked at the V&A in London. She died sadly early (in 2003) and her post has been ‘frozen’ ever since. Other institutions have conservators who work sometimes on photographs, but they are trained experts in glass or paper, not necessarily specialists in photography. Yet photography was invented in Britain, and boomed here early. We have an incredible stockpile of fragile early material in the national holdings that already needs attention. Appoint someone to oversee strategy in photography, and major long-term problems like that should begin to be addressed. That the problems have been allowed to grow so urgent has been partly because no-one speaks for photography.

So I envisage a director of the national collections, looking not to oversee the individual choices of the collecting departments, but to lobby on their behalf, to draw together workable strategic plans and to work toward their implementation. Such a person would naturally have been answerable to the Museums, Libraries and Archives council, but that no longer exists. So the role will have to answer to the Arts Council or perhaps directly to the ministry. Gradually, that role, one person and a small office, will touch others, and suddenly there will be people – concertedly and with purpose – speaking for photography. High time, too.