British photographic history

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The recent national symposium of photography in Derby included Charlotte Cotton from the National Media Museum and Francis Hodgson the Financial Times photography critic as speakers. Although I wasn't able to attend there is a very informative blog report here which I would recommend reading:

I have extracted some of the blog here:

Charlotte Cotton is new creative director for the National Media Museum, leading on its new photography satellite at the Science Museum in London. She spent 12 years at the V&A where she was able to develop a curatorial narrative, within a fairly encyclopaedic museum. Then she went to Los Angeles to be the head of photography at LACMA, where she aimed to reinvigorate and broaden the programme. At LACMA she curated a project called Words Without Pictures which invited people in many different ways over one year to share views about photography, now in a book just published. She organised a great project called Field Guide allowing Machine Project to organise 10 hours of all kinds of marvellous activities. Here’s a free book to download from the event. She organised another project with a folk singer doing religious protest songs in front of religious artworks, and another project with the Fallen Fruit collective, who do things like gather fallen fruit and have communal jam-making sessions.

She saw this experience as really opening up her practice and not having to be so defensive about programming. She feels that photography is an incredibly pluralistic form, increasingly so in the digital age, and that big institutions couldn’t keep up with the mode of curating it requires. That’s why she left for LACMA to try these ‘happy’ projects. But now, she’s been attracted back to the National Media Museum because of the potential, that she doesn’t have to use guerilla tactics to try this exciting practice. She’s very perspicacious about museology and critical practice in curating, and listening to her I feel really excited about what she might achieve with the new London photography galleries. I applaud her view which is that rather than making learning complementary to display programming, the new approach is to foreground it. It’s really heartening to hear a curator say that.

The other talk that interested me was Francis Hodgson, the photography critic at the Financial Times (with whom I’m doing my session on climate change). His talk was provocative and a few people didn’t agree with him on a number of issues, especially on his view that photographers must be culturally literate about the artform. I was interested in his comments about the lack of co-ordination and policy overview by DCMS (and MLA, ACE etc) about collaborative acquisitions, digital strategy and programming. His focus here is on photography, seeing it as suffering through neglect. Of course, we know that the same lack of co-ordination happens across many other collection types, but it may be true that photography is a particular victim. From the audience in Charlotte Cotton’s talk, Francis asked her about the competition between the V&A as a national centre for photography collections with the new NMM photography galleries just over the road in Kensington. She doesn’t see it as a conflict at all but as a great opportunity. She feels it could help make national collections really national, and sees digitisation of the collections as playing a big role in aiding collaboration around a research-based community of enquiry. I think that’s the most positive way of tackling this problem.

However, in his opening keynote, Francis did speak convincingly and captivatingly about the importance of photography yet its dire state in the UK. This is a summary of pretty much everything he said, missing out a few extrapolations and lacking the articulacy of his expression:

He once said that photography was a practice that tried out new things and represented new things, before other cultural forms. That you could run up against new stuff, make images of novel things, without seeking to understand them. Photography doesn’t have so many priests and keepers as fine art, for example. It changed the way that imagery could have such currency in our wider world (not just in galleries or privileged spaces), and now other kinds of culture are following in its wake. Photographs are like soundbites, as they stay in the memory, and can be reused and circulated.

It is the originator of a way of thinking that other artforms have followed. However, there is a low level of intellectual dialogue between photographers and audiences, compared to more literary forms. He is shocked that professional photographers are illiterate in history of their own artform. It’s now questionable what remains in the very centre of photography. If we don’t know we share same definition of it then who is there to stand up for it? It’s hard to say what is intellectually and properly photographic. We used to define it by its machinery, by being made with a camera (which, by the way, belittled it). An example of what happens with this lack of clarity around what it is: That £20 million has been given to the British Library for digital archiving of digital visual culture, and not by the National Media Museum, who anyway have changed their name to leave out ‘photography’.

A photographer must ask: Is my work understandable for what it is by an audience that isn’t primed? If it isn’t for communication it isn’t photography. There are tiresome numbers of photographers who have nothing to say.
You must have a position about the imparting or receiving of ideas and information. Photography is wonderful but it is also a perfectly ordinary activity. Photographers think the analysis will take care of itself. If they do analyse they produce meaningless theoretical waffle. But images and their analysis must mean something to people. It is an ordinary activity but that doesn’t mean it has to be banal or of little value.

The state of the nation for the profession is dire. Work is declining. The UK reputation is on a steep downward curve. Systemically we don’t support photography anymore. Museums don’t do what they should do to support it despite new initiatives from Tate, NMM, the V&A and the British Library. Teaching programmes are very poor too. It’s a scandal that the British Library curator of photography, John Faulkner, has always had to get funding for his role and only for the first time now is he on the payroll. It is one of the major holding libraries of photography in the world (if you count the images in all its content, such as newspapers and magazines) but it has only one curator.

He now believes the Photographers Gallery should be closed. We need to put more resources into more regarded institutions that include photographs within their collections. The Imperial War Museum has a duty to accept all war photos, for example taken by soldiers, so it has more war photos then any other institution, but is shabbily underfunded in caring for them. The Porthcurno Museum of Telegraphy has photography collections but they are left to rot.

He told a story about 8 public museums competing to buy the same photographic items at Sothebys. Because of their competition the price went so high they left the country. Why not form a purchase partnership?

Photography education is a joke in this country. It’s popular, so is a way for universities to get punters in. It’s an easy degree to do and to suggest that standards are higher than they are. Shared cultural standards between education instutions is non existent. You don’t come out being culturally literate in photography. There is only one MA in UK where you can study the culture of photography.

Tate is now turning serious attention to photography. He is pleased about that but has doubts about how serious it is, or rather how authentic the commitment to photography is. Where has the policy come from to turn the tanker round, surely not a directive from DCMS, MLA or ACE. There is a pathetic failure of policy, leaving all institutions to do their own thing. Birmingham City Libraries are doing good things but this institutional framework will only work properly if it reflects what we demand.

He isn’t pessimistic about the change to digital. It’s a bit late to worry now. Old fashioned photographic skills will come back again, just not a mass medium. Photography has remained a producer-led industry compared to publishing or music. A cultural position around photography should primarily make a clear definition between a picture of something and a picture about something. This should be the marker around which we define quality. We have had a 50 year old emphasis on techne, and judged quality by technical adequacy.

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Comment by Francis Hodgson on May 10, 2010 at 11:36
Thanks to Bridget for blogging this so quickly after the event. I don't need to defend it, but I will just say that it needs to be remembered that this was a keynote speech at which I'd specifically been asked to cover large issues with a large brush. Bridget's breathless style may be a fair mimicry of my own, but mine was spoken, unscripted, and designed to wake up an audience not used to discussions of that breadth. There were many fascinating contributions to the National Photography Symposium which touched on many of the matters here in more detail. My own wish, I suppose, is for all of the various aspects of photographic practice in the UK to regain institutional and culture-establishment support commensurate with their contribution to our shared culture. I think photography is badly served in this country, and would do what I can to address that. But happy to discuss, of course...FH

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