British photographic history

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Photography: Object to Idea
A conference at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London,
organised by Zelda Cheatle, curator of the Tosca Fund Collection
Saturday 3 October 2009

This is a revised version of a speech by Mark Haworth-Booth

My name is Mark Haworth-Booth ands I am Visiting Professor of Photography at the University of the Arts London. I will soon be chairing the closing Q&A panel on collecting but Zelda has asked me - as a way of letting you know where I’m coming from - to say a few words about my current projects.

Among the delegates here today I see some movers and shakers in British photography who have been involved with the medium even longer than I have – for example, Sue Davies, founding director of The Photographers’ Gallery and Colin Ford, founding director of the Department of Photography & Film at the National Portrait Gallery and then of the Media Museum. I wonder if they share my views about certain ways in which photography has changed since we got involved some 40 years ago. To begin with, a conference like this, full of well-informed, articulate and imaginative speakers on photography, would have been an extremely rare event in 1969. Last week I gave a lecture at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. My topic was ‘The Reality Effect: questions of photography and truth’. I first gave it as my inaugural lecture as Visiting Professor of the UAL at the London College of Communication in, I think, 2003. Some delegates here heard it then. It opens with wonderful remarks by the war historian Geoffrey Best that ‘the historian is a citizen too’ and that ‘history is a form of justice’. My lecture is like the cabbage and potato soup that peasants keep going not only from day to day but year to year. I have updated it regularly and given it at the University of the Third Age, local amenity societies and so on. Everyone has a stake in the truthfulness or otherwise of photographs. My lecture confesses to the many times I have been mistaken about photographs, especially by photographers I have worked with closely – Don McCullin, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams. It then moves back into the past to consider Roger Fenton, Camille Silvy and (because of the most recent allegations made about the Falling Militiaman, 1936) Robert Capa. As time has gone by, the lecture has got darker and darker. It now takes in the black arts of propaganda of the Bush era and the recent attack on civil liberties in the UK – for example, the 2008 law making it illegal to photograph police officers. It also asks if, as photography has become accepted as an art medium - and under pressure from historical analysis, postmodern theory and our familiarity with digital manipulation - the medium has lost some of its reality. It is good, of course, that we are not naive about the reality of photographs, but I believe a desensitization has also occurred. Photographs of fatal car crashes – for example – can be shown and commented on as artistic works. Despite this, as the photographs from Abu Ghraib and the G20 demonstrations this year have shown, photography remains not only a credible but an essential witness with serious political cinsequences. I commend Paul Lowe’s OPEN-i ‘webinar’ series which discusses such issues as authenticity in photojournalism. Much of my lecture now centres on war and I was impressed by the intellectual boldness but also the curatorial care with which Julian Stallabrass presented images of war in his timely Brighton Biennale on the subject. My lecture closes with a new book by the Israeli writer Ariella Azoulay titled The Civil Contract of the Photograph. My lecture can be accessed as a podcast at the website of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I have two lectures lumbering towards publication. ‘Reyner Banham and photography’ will appear soon in The Banham Lectures from Berg. Banham showed that it is not necessary to write ponderously to be taken seriously. His books have the same accessibility and wit as his journalism. We had a fine demonstration of these qualities from Geoff Dyer this morning but I must say that all of the talks have been refreshingly jargon-free. The other lecture in the press concerns Camille Silvy and the art of art reproduction – I gave it first at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and then again in this lecture theatre in June. My main current project is the first retrospective of Camille Silvy. I first encountered Silvy’s name and work at the V&A’s exhibition ‘From Today Painting is Dead’ in 1972. I was not interested in nineteenth century photographs at the time but Silvy’s River Scene, France (1858) changed all that. Five years later I became responsible for it and around 300,000 other photographs as photo-curator at the V&A and in 1992 the Getty published my monograph on the River Scene. My new Silvy exhibition and book, Camille Silvy (1834-1910): Photographer of Modern Life, will mark the centenary of his death. I am working on this with Jeu de Paume, Paris, and the National Portrait Gallery, London – it will be shown at the NPG from July to October 2010. I have been astonished by the richness of material Silvy – so it seems - arranged for me to discover. There are the precious prints in the V&A, which have been there since 1868. Then the 12 volumes of Daybooks of his London studio which were bought by the National Portrait Gallery in 1904. Then the boxes of proof sheets, also at the V&A, provenance unknown. Then the collection of unpublished photographs kept by Silvy’s descendants from generation to generation, including letters, business documents, his scrap-book, the unique catalogue of his studio sale and even a dress that appears in cartes de visite of his wife. I am publishing the sale catalogue in the autumn issue of History of Photography and I am thrilled with the handsome book being prepared by the NPG. Silvy’s descendants speak of their act of preservation as ‘le devoir de mémoire‘ – the duty of memory. My experience with Silvy shows that there are still great treasures to be discovered and studied. This conference has shown the same thing. It is a time of great promise for the new generation of curators, including Simon Baker, recently appointed curator of photography and contemporary art at Tate.

Today we have had more than a glimpse into a fascinating, many-sided, collection of great richness. This is the moment to thank Mehmet and Zelda for devising a wonderful day of reflection on, and exploration of, the Tosca Fund collection - and also to applaud the speakers who have entertained and informed us so well. Thank you.

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Comment by Mac Adams on October 9, 2009 at 16:43
I love your writing,clear, and as you say jargon free and very smart. More please.

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