Obituary: David Alan Mellor (1948-2023)

12269398082?profile=RESIZE_400xThe curator, academic and writer David Mellor (he added 'Alan' to avoid confusion with the politician of the same name) has died aged 75 years at his home in  Machynlleth, Wales. He was awarded the Royal Photographic Society's J Dudley Johnston (2005) and Education (2015) awards.

Mellor studied art at Sussex University from 1967 under Quentin Bell. During this time Asa Briggs, then Vice-Chancellor of the University, received the archive of Mass-Observation from Tom Harrisson. Mellor published and curated exhibitions about the substantial collection of pre-war photographs of working-class life contained in the archive. He stayed at Sussex until his retirement in 2018. In the words of Maurice Howard he was one of the country’s leading scholars in the fields of twentieth century painting, film and photography.' Mellor had an extensive list of publications to his name and curated significant exhibitions on Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, and on Robin Denny, Cecil Beaton and Bill Brandt. He curated major exhibitions at the Barbican and Tate, most memorably Paradise Lost: The New Romantic Imagination in Britain (1987) and The Sixties (1993), at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. 

Mellor was also a director of Brighton's Photoworks and the Brighton Photo Biennial, and Edinburgh's cooperative Photography Workshop from 1996 to 2011. 

As Howard notes 'As a teacher, generations of students testify to his unique insights into British culture. David was teaching the inter-relations of media long before the subject became an academic discipline at the University and was sensitive to art and the environment from the beginning of his career'.

12269397070?profile=RESIZE_400xWith thanks to Paul Hill (seen on the right, in the picture left) who notes: 'So sad to get the news of the the death of photo historian and teacher. David Mellor (left). We worked together quite a few times - up here in Derbyshire at The Photographers Place workshop in the 70s, Salford ‘80, and latterly talking about The Real Britain project at the 2014 Brighton Biennial. Great scholar and lovely guy….'


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  • From friend and former colleagues BEN BURBRIDGE :

    David Alan Mellor, a friend and colleague to many on here, passed away at his home in Machynlleth, in West Wales in September. A Memorial Service will be held at The Meeting House at University of Sussex on Saturday 25 November for those who want to remember David and celebrate his life.
    I had the great pleasure of knowing David for twenty-five years, first as my BA and MA Art History tutor at Sussex and then later as a colleague. My most vivid memories are (unsurprisingly) of the happy times spent in his always-entertaining company. Final year BA seminars on Friday mornings in his office on the top floor of Sussex’s 1960s Arts building, shelves lined with old copies of Picture Post and exhibition catalogues, a coffee table piled with that term’s readings, conversation ranging from Patricia Cornwell's absurd theory that Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper to W.B. Yeats’ response to the London premier of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi ('After us the Savage God') to how much Gareth from The Office looked like Aubrey Beardsley.
    There was a long train journey up north in 2005 to look at Humphrey Spender’s Mass Observation photos in Bolton Museum for a potential exhibition loan, then a walk down the high street to buy the local paper (‘the only sure way to really understand a place’). Looking at the Velazquez rooms in the Prado, almost empty just before closing, David speaking about the times he’d spent with Francis Bacon (he told me Bacon would sometimes peel notes from a large wad of cash to make sure he ‘was alright’). Lunches on campus where he’d listen attentively about my work, offering feedback via seemingly tangential observations that, I would realise afterwards, got to the heart of whatever it was I was trying to work out and so gently signalled where more time and thought might be needed.
    I sometimes got to read and comment on his draft texts and we worked together on a few things; experiences defined, above all else, by his enthusiasm, generosity and encouragement. I have fond memories of knocks at my office door, ‘just to check in’, then (if I asked) news of new discoveries or hunches: the importance of David Hockney’s Methodist upbringing; that Henry Moore’s Blitz drawings were based on photographs from Picture Post; that members of the Bloomsbury group had posed as exotic tribal people as some kind of posh prank.
    I’m starting to realise that working closely with David probably stopped me having the sort of distance needed to get a handle on the full significance of his work; it’s only now that I’m becoming more fully aware of just quite how extraordinary he was (it was something I probably knew or sensed or absorbed but did not actually appreciate).
    What was true of his teaching is so vividly clear in his writing and curating. I’m too young to have engaged with his earlier work at the time it was exhibited or published (although, like so many others, I know it from books and catalogues). I’m much more familiar with his later work: No Such Thing As Society, about British photography in the late 60s-early 90s; on industry and photography via the work of Maurice Broomfield and others; a book length study and exhibition about eccentric bohemian Bruce Lacey; so many catalogue essays for Tate, the Barbican, Hayward, ICA, Photographers’ Gallery, where subject matter ranges from Kenneth Clarke to Blow Up!, Richard Wentworth to Quatermass.
    Every text feels like a perfect distillation of specific historical periods brought to life and made legible in vivid, exquisite ways through the close and careful and imaginative attention paid to the widest possible visual landscapes. David’s writing moves effortlessly between images, makers, material conditions, and wider socio-cultural change, woven together as something utterly coherent, compelling and surprising. He had a remarkable knack for selection—always the right image or example or anecdote—often leaving me wondering where on earth he managed to find half this stuff. In all of David’s work there is the sense of being in the company of someone who not only understands his subject completely (each sentence bulging with information and knowledge and possibility), but who is taking the greatest possible pleasure in assembling and sharing these stories.
    The same was true of his talks and lectures, that took audiences on the most unlikely-seeming journeys between what others would have dismissed as unimportant or unrelated fragments. At an event at the Science Museum in 2015 (that you can still watch online) he links Robert Aldrich’s film-noir Kiss of Death, the ark of the covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the suitcase in Pulp Fiction, Edgerton’s photos of the H-Bomb tests, a picture of a Wollensak ultra high speed camera, Paul Strand’s photograph of an Akeley, the cover of an early Blossfelt book, and a trippy Paul Signac portrait of Felix Feneon in terms of radiation, modernity, and the occult. At a study day organised with the Association for Art History in the same year, I saw him guide a room full of secondary school teachers past the usual Andy Warhol cliches to think instead about obscure and altogether more interesting corners of mid-twentieth century pop culture: movie production stills, spreads from LIFE magazine, installation photographs from Independent Group exhibitions, PR images of displays at world fairs.
    I will never forget the feeling of being so intensely educated and entertained, and then so utterly astonished that he’d somehow taken us from there to here. His charisma and fluency as a speaker were remarkable and completely genuine. Lectures and conference presentations normally relied on just a few scrawled words in a small black notebook, which he’d consult from time to time like a policeman or reporter; it always felt like it was the images doing the work. Most of his public lectures and conference papers were prepared especially for a single event and delivered only once (often before the days of videoed lectures - someone needs to get hold of those Powerpoint presentations!)
    Val Williams recently wrote that all her work should be understood as a homage to David. It’s dawning on me now that the same must be true for so many others (myself included). The numerous emails received by Sussex colleagues following news of his death would certainly suggest as much.
    That it is just common-sense to weave together disparate materials—the supposed highs and lows of culture—to try to understand history and society; that gossip is a valuable historical source; that cultural analysis can be powered by fandom and enthusiasm not just critique; that writing can, probably should, involve an anarchic, irreverent, gentle sort of humour; that few things are as important as talking to those who actually produce culture, while we still have the chance: all this we owe to David. That legacy is nowhere clearer than in the work of his former students: Charlotte Cotton, David Chandler, Gilane Tawadros, Jeremy Deller and Timothy Prus, to name just five.
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  • Professor Mellor's No Such Thing as Society: Photography in Britain 1967-1987 (2007 book & Hayward/British Council touring exhibition) I sensed would prove useful for an essay I was writing on exhibitions. It was lockdown and not wishing to part with £74 for a copy I emailed blind to ask if he might just have a PDF of the book? To my delight he pinged back the reply, "I'm attaching No Such Thing and I very much hope you'll find something of interest in it!". No Such Thing proved to be the vital volume I was looking for & never fails to enlighten whenever I return to it. A sad loss. But his work lives on.



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