Autumn 2005

Deciding which moment: multiple histories of British photography

What happened here?

Photography in Britain since 1968
Conference 01 (1968 to 1979),
14 October 2004,
National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford
Conference 02 (1980 to 1989),
12 March 2005, Derby University
Conference 03 (1990 to present)
14 May 2005, Tate Britain, London

The photographic image is central to contemporary art practice – yet the story of art photography in Britain is fractured, and there is no written recent history. This conference series aimed to piece together the story of photography as an independent art, making it a ‘must-attend’ event for the broad constituency that photography claims.

Creative Camera was the voice of independent photography in Britain from 1968. It played a pivotal part in the dissemination of ideas until the Arts Council withdrew its funding in 2000, forcing it to close. The title still exists as a brand name and the conferences were part of its plans for one-off projects and publications.

The choice of speakers made the series fascinating: inviting people who had shaped the course of this recent history was an opportunity to hear the voices of the time. Each conference took on the characteristics of the photographic community of the period: fierce and provocative in the 1970s; polarised and political in the 1980s; confident and cerebral in the 1990s.

The starting point was 1968, the year editor Bill Jay took the trade magazine Camera Owner, renamed it Creative Camera and launched his passionate campaign for the recognition of photography as an independent creative art. At this time, British photographer Tony Ray-Jones returned from the US with a vision of photography that played a formative role in the early editorial policy of the magazine. The first conference tied in with the opening of a Ray-Jones retrospective at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford.

The exhibition of Ray-Jones’ gentle, wry imagery that had such an immediate and profound influence on British photography, particularly on Martin Parr and his generation, fleshed out the visual language of the time. Jay’s presence was crucial to an understanding of the period. The initial mellow mood of his presentation, recalling his editorship of Creative Camera and the brief-lived, elegant Album, shifted to reveal the combative tone that was a hallmark of his editorials and lectures in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His broadside against pretty well everything that he perceived as curtailing the autonomy of the photographer – particularly critical theory and the role of the curator – provoked a vociferous debate.

Val Williams stressed the multiple stories of the 1970s that exist, the divergent histories and the dominance of particular reminiscences. Paul Hill traced the seismic shift in photographic education in the 1970s. At the start of the decade, photography courses were vocational and technique-led, excluded from degree status. By the late 1970s there were at least six degree courses.

The second conference was at the University of Derby where one of the defining strands of the 1980s – the positioning of critical studies above photographic practice – had been so vigorously pursued. Memories of the 1980s were bitter. Simon Watney spoke of the ‘rivalries’, ‘the most terrible vociferous feuds’ and the ‘distortions and delusions’ on the left as well as the right. But his brilliant introduction went on to describe the excitement of the debates about representation, and the important work generated by photography’s engagement with sexual politics, gender and identity. His skill in conveying the emotions of the time, and marrying this to a dispassionate reflection on the decade, particularly on the ‘baleful influences of Althusser and Lacan’ and the ‘influential fiction of postmodernism’, made his paper the most compelling of the series.

It took Mark Haworth-Booth’s upbeat account of the period from his perspective as curator of photography at the Victoria and Albert museum, ‘a golden age of acquisitions because there was money and the prices were low’, to really highlight the good times.

Stevie Bezencenet was a powerful advocate for community photography, and ‘process’, not ‘product’. Chris Boot disagreed. With hindsight he saw the positioning of ‘process’ above the image itself as a failure of the period.

It was fitting that Tate Britain should be the location for the final conference, 1990 to the present. It wasn’t until 2003 that this institution, with its first photographic exhibition ‘Cruel and Tender’, recognised photography as a fully fledged medium. This conference could be seen as a celebration of the contemporary status of the photograph, more than 35 years after Bill Jay drew up the battle lines in Creative Camera.

The mood was confident and informed; the range of speakers, curators, writers and practitioners, balanced and representative of the time; the papers buoyantly mapped a living, breathing history. David Campany, for example, opened up questions about art and photography in the 1990s, pointing out that photography has always been in dialogue with other practices, and suggesting that now it has given up the ‘decisive moment’ it is free to explore what the moment is.

Brett Rogers, tracing the multiple initiatives of the Arts Council, the seminal exhibitions, and the publications, noted that both Paul Graham and Martin Parr enjoyed extensive international success during the 1990s: ‘Parr through editorial work as well as exhibitions and a raft of significant publications (30 alone from 1990-2000) and Paul Graham mainly through major shows in art museums . . . rather than specialist photography galleries’. This drove home how much things had changed. Parr, present at every conference, spoke of the absence of photographic monographs when he was at college in the early 1970s, and how British photography was ‘marginal to photography in Europe’.

‘What happened here?’ never set out to provide a definitive history, but it has been successful in bringing to light and positioning many of the multiple histories that exist in a continuum.

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