British photographic history

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Martin Parr Foundation launch and symposium report

The Martin Parr Foundation (MPF) was launched with an opening party on the 20 October attended by photographers, curators, archivists, academics, writers and others from the world of British photography.

The following day continued the celebration with a seminar on British photography. After a short introduction by Martin Parr, Emma Chetcuti of Multistory spoke about the organsation's work using photography to engage with the local community in West Bromwich and the Black Country. Parr’s own contribution to their work, Black Country Stories, was on display as the MPF’s opening exhibition.

Paul Trevoran important and remarkable photographer, quit a job as an accountant to become a photographer in the early 1970s. In 1973 he joined the Exit Photography Group, was a founder of the Half Moon Gallery and in 1975 launched the Camera Obscured seminar series. He was a key player in the seminal publication Camerawork which launched in 1975 and ran for 32 issues over a ten year period. His own publications such as Down Wapping remain important books documenting London’s East End.

He has never had the recognition of some of his contemporaries but has continued to work and is currently working with Four Corners to put the Half Moon archive and Camerawork online.  He made a call for anyone with knowledge of any extant exhibitions and the Half Moon slide archive to come forward.  His career to date was summed up in the title of his presentation: Doing the wrong things the right way.

Chloe Dewe Mathews, a young, rising British photographer, and highly regarded by Parr, spoke about her two recent projects documenting the Caspian Sea and the on-going Thames and the traditions and rituals associated with it. This latter work will be published by Aperture in 2018.

Another of Britain’s, perhaps Manx would be more accurate, influential post 1970 photographers Chris Killip (left) gave an overview of his career from the perspective of having lived in the United States for the past twenty-six years. He retold stories associated with the people he photographed on the Isle of Man and on the north-east and Cumbrian coasts: tough people, suspicious of incomers (and photographers), working in tough jobs associated with coal and fishing. Having re-investigated his own archive and discovering images that he had overlooked and never printed from he posed the question “who’s pictures are these?”. His, or the subjects and the communities in front of his camera? In Chris’s view it was clearly the latter.  His distinctive photography and avoidance of particular subjects was, as he said, to avoid becoming becoming labelled a 'nature' or 'industrial' photographer.

Recently he had been looking anew at his work of Newcastle’s Harland and Wolff shipyards and The Station, a Newcastle punk music venue which arose after the 1984-5 miners’ strike. He aims to publish these pictures for the first time in a book, The Station, and showed a dummy. He is currently seeking funding.

The day concluded with a panel discussion on British photography in the twenty-first century, chaired by Parr and with Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern,  Val Williams, from PARC, Brett Rogers, director of the Photographers’ Gallery and Susanna Brown, a curator of photography at the V&A Museum.  

Each gave a short introduction to their institution. Brown highlighted the V&A’s history of collecting photography and noted the opening of the first phase of the museum’s new galleries and research centre at the end of September 2018. Morris highlighted the absence of photography from the Tate until 2009 and claimed it was now centre stage. Unlike the V&A the Tate did not have a department of photography as it integrated lens-based practices (photography?) in to everything that the Tate did.  

Rogers noted the Gallery’s fiftieth anniversary in 2021 and its historical position along with Impressions, Stills and Amber/Side. All institutions needed to collaborate to create larger audiences for photography. She flagged the pressure from commercial galleries “doing our jobs and competing with us and not helping us”. She considered online and digital as offering an opportunity which the Gallery had recognised in 2011 when she appointed a Head of digital photography.

Williams felt slightly melancholic after hearing the day’s presentations and how much of 1970s photography had been forgotten. She felt British photography was largely neglected and betrayed by larger institutions. She considered that all institutions needed photography because of its accessibility for audiences.  Parr added that national gallery directors did not attend the major photography festivals such as Arles in the same way as they did art festivals such as the Venice Biennale.

In response to a question about how institutions purchased photography Brown said the V&A looked to fill gaps in its collections and bought when it had an exhibition upcoming and after an exhibition had closed. The V&A curators met photographers and visited graduate shows.  For the V&A storage space was a problem and limited acquisitions of acrhives.  Williams highlighted the importance not just of photographs but also the contextual material such as notebooks and letters. She noted that there was a whole group of photographers in the room who were reaching a point when they needed to consider what happened to their own photography archive. Morris said that the Tate only collected for display and did not collect archives, in part, because of the responsibility of looking after them and providing public access. There was a challenge around collecting digital media.

Rogers opined that there was a need for a philanthropist in the UK to fund a space to store and protect photographers’ archives as Pier 24 was doing in New York. The ensuing discussion focused largely on photographers’ archives and how they should be preserved.  Chris Killip (left) said he was tempted to select 1400 of his best images and burn the remainder so that his legacy was not misrepresented by future curators. Jem Southam noted that there were proposals for a dispersed national photography collection and a common strategy but, ultimately, it was for photographers to solve the problem and not the big institutions.  Four Corners, which houses the Half Moon Archive, suggested that market forces would determine the shape of an archive.

Parr said that he looks at work from young, British photographers to collect when they are “cheap and under-rated” . He endorsement can help establish careers. He noted that the MPF will house the Peter Mitchell archive. 

The Martin Parr Foundation is a new centre for British photography and the work of Martin Parr. It is open to the public and will be running regular events. For more information and to sign up to its mailing list visit: http://www.martinparrfoundation.org/

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