This Is British Photography
by David Brittain
Despite the internationalization of art and the uncertainties over the identity of photography, the British photography survey is an enduring institution. Since the 70s, survey exhibitions have cropped up with amazing regularity, ostensibly to satisfy an ever-increasing interest, at home and abroad, in photography as art and in art. In 1980 Artist and Camera, an Arts Council survey of conceptual practices, announced that it owed its existence to, 'an expanding appreciation of photography proper.' The following year the British Council presented Photography as Medium in recognition of, 'the increasing use of photography by artists... in the 1970s.'
Since the start, commentators wrestled with the problem of how to present photography as a tendency in the knowledge that photographers themselves were notoriously divided over what makes photography art. Perhaps the exhibition that symbolises this state of affairs was Three Perspectives on Photography, staged at the Hayward in 1979. It comprised three sets of photographers, chosen by selectors from each of the perceived 'communities' of British photography (i.e. loosely: 'art photography' 'polemical/feminist practice' and 'post-structuralist' practice). Writing from the perspective of 1997, the curator, David Chandler, would note the 'uneasy juxtapositions' brought together by Paul Hill, Angela Kelly and John Tagg. 'In presenting the work of photographers such as Ray Moore and Martin Parr alongside more theoretically based and overtly political work by others like Jo Spence, Yve Lomax and Victor Burgin, the exhibition revealed and prefigured the conflicts and oppositions that were to mark and profoundly alter the course of photography in Britain over the next ten years.'
For a place to be found in the collective imagination for a British art photographer (like the English poet or the British composer), it would be necessary to construct an identity; and this has been one of the tasks of the survey. The British photography survey exhibitions of the 80s are possibly the most revealing because their organisers consciously built on the creative fruits and experiences of a decade of state support for photographic practice. The 70s began with a very sure sense of who the British photographer was and what it was he produced, ending in uncertainty and confusion. We need to look at the 70s survey shows to detect the beginnings of the reconstruction of the British art photographer.
In 1981 Photography as Medium risked combining conceptual artists and straight photographers for the very pragmatic reason that they existed side by side in the British Council's collection. In an early effort to mark the emergence of a new spirit in British photography, Teresa Gleandowe classified these dominant groups according to different traditions and milieus. By focusing solely on the newly emergent support structure for photography of publications, new courses, exhibitions and so on, Gleandowe implied that these conditions - rather than the work itself - were what gave photography in Britain its identity. As for the artists, she cast them as transitional figures of the post-60s avant-garde who emerged in The New Art exhibition at the Hayward in 1972. By this time, she wrote, 'it was clear that the photographic works exhibited by Hamish Fulton, Richard Long, John Hilliard and Keith Arnatt were fulfilling a visual as well as conceptual or documentary function. The photographs themselves demanded attention as visual objects.' Although she didn't elaborate, we can assume she meant that perceptions were being transformed by the new climate of appreciation for photographs as aesthetic objects.
Photography as Medium may be one of the earliest attempts to construct an identity for the British photographer based on establishing a 'common ground' between different traditions. Another indication that photography was redefining aesthetic values was the Artist and Camera whose organisers used the timing to map conceptual photography, distancing it from the art of photographers. The artists, wrote Miranda Strickland Constable, 'use photography in their work always, sometimes or only occasionally'; often 'the question of whether a particular example is a "good" photograph does not arise'; 'the photowork is usually unique, or made in a very small edition, like a sculpture', etc. By contrast, 'photography proper', had a 'social' distinction which 'colours the way photographers are regarded'; a reference to the stigmatization of art photographers due to the low cultural associations of photography. It was because of this social aspect that photography was 'a different order of activity' to painting or sculpture. Photography as Medium may be one of the earliest attempts to construct an identity for the British photographer based on establishing a 'common ground' between different traditions.
This model of a British art photographer, whose tradition was no impediment, evolved over the 80s, but not without opposition. In the 80s photographers suddenly adopted colour, radically transforming British photography and polarizing those who shaped it into at least two influential camps which advocated rival versions of British photography. Reformers saw opportunities in colour to reconcile philosophical differences between groups within photography (identified by the Three Perspectives exhibition) and to reposition photographers from the margins of the photographic 'ghetto' into the mainstream alongside artists. Alternatiely a quite separate identity, rooted in the past, was proposed by conservatives who saw colour, less as a rupture with the past, and more as a revitalisation of formalism and documentary practice.
The first important surveys of the 80s were staged by the Photographers' Gallery in 1985, then two years later by the British Council. Although the former, Image & Exploration, was heavily biased towards straight photographers, it also included Helen Chadwick. Inscriptions and Inventions: British photography in the 1980s, curated by Ian Jeffrey, comprised a provocative mix of artists and photographers including Richard Wentworth, Martin Parr, Ron O'Donnell and Verdi Yahooda. Arguably, Jeffrey made a curatorial art form out of seeking the 'common ground' strategy. By reaching back into the history of painting, then teasing out connections based on what he called 'a native love for investigative observation', Jeffrey stressed affinities, while subverting the counter-productive them-and-us stance of the 60s and 70s.
Both shows seemed determined to distance the photographer of the 80s from the incarnation of former decades - one loosely modeled on Robert Frank. Code words for that persona included documentary or reportage. Jonathan Bayer at the Photographers' Gallery argued that new talent had managed to 'break away from a traditional photo journalistic approach' to a more 'conceptual examination of culture, myths and symbols'. Jeffrey wrote that, 'photography in Britain has often meant reportage, but that definition has been under stress since the early 70s, largely because photography can be notational and a servant to improvisation.' For Jeffrey there was nothing mutually exclusive about photographic documentation and art making.
Such a reconstruction may have been inconceivable but for the example of key figures whose work could make sense within competing discourses. One of those was Jem Southam who came out of a background in documentary and was one of the first to work in colour and stress narrative structure. Southam's importance is underlined by his presence in many survey shows of the decade, including both of the above. For Susan Butler, then editor of Creative Camera, his work reconciled old established oppositions between 'straight photography' and 'constructed' and between the introspective concerns of photography and those of mainstream post-modern artists - such as 'quotation, allusion, re-presentation, framing, reframing'.
Another who reflected the transitional state of British photography in the 80s was Keith Arnatt, a conceptual artist who taught photography with David Hurn. Arnatt's unique position as embodying two traditions was noted in the catalogue of Photography as Medium. His work was also discussed in detail in the catalogue of the 1987 survey show Mysterious Coincidences to which he was a contributor. That the exhibition was indebted to the Ian Jeffrey school of curating is confirmed in a conversation between Stuart Morgan and the organisers in which Morgan (alluding to Jeffrey) observes that Arnatt 'would connect' with Peter Fraser and Richard Wentworth because all were united by a 'British preoccupation for the photograph which modestly points to everyday occurrences...'
Towards the end of the decade a rival identity surfaced in the survey show, British Photography from the Thatcher Years. It was masculine, predatory and, though said to be of its moment, it was haunted by demons from the past. Significantly the exhibition was staged by, MoMA in New York, the institution whose espousal of photographic modernism had moulded British identities of the 60s. The American curator, Susan Kismaric, selected work by Chris Killip, Graham Smith, John Davies, Martin Parr and Paul Graham. Kismaric anchored this new 'independent' photography (problematically linking Killip's black-and-white representations of working-class life with Parr's self-reflexive portraits of the well-heeled) in the documentary tradition of the 1930s. Such new work, argued Kismaric, revitalised the old traditions and represented a, 'photographic lifeline based in the origins of the medium'. Interestingly, both Parr and Graham were by now veterans of the survey show and, like Jem Southam, regularly appeared in support of one or other contending position.
The exhibition was to some extent complemented by a British survey, Through the Looking Glass: Photographic Art in Britain 1945-1989. Both rehearsed the old self-justifications of photography as an 'independent' art. Although the show represented a fair picture of British photography - uniting all factions under the vague banner of 'postmodern pluralism' - it was ultimately a nostalgic last stand for the Robert Frank tendency of British photography.
Survey exhibitions all try to present something coherent from a combination of contradictory elements. This can be achieved, as we have seen, by applying the 'common ground' strategy in which a unifying discourse tendentiously cements disparate talents. Another approach admits the existence of various conflicting styles of photography and simply develops links between discursive practices. This practice, borrowed perhaps from Through The Looking Glass, underpins On the Bright Side of Life, a German survey of 1997. A third style of survey (Strange Days: British Contemporary Photography and Public Relations: New British Photography, both 1997), operates on the premise that there is no difference. This is in contrast to earlier surveys which are to some extent enriched by a conception of the difference of 'photography proper' (to borrow a phrase). The author of the catalogue of the 70s show, Photography as Medium implied that artists were shaped by tradition, while photographers were moulded by their support and advocacy institutions. This is still an interesting idea. The essayist of Artist and Camera stated that the difference of 'photography proper' was constituted in its artisanal connections, and she used this contrast to map out the territory of conceptual art. Almost two decades later, in 1997, Mark Haworth-Booth would insist that the reason photography was an 'independent art' and an inappropriate bedfellow for painting or sculpture, was because of its difference as 'the currency of thousands of social transactions.' In the catalogue for Mysterious Coincidences, Stuart Morgan notices a 'persistent impulse towards self-definition in the photography community'. Such self-questioning is wholly absent from Public Relations and Strange Days. The 'photo artist' of the new millennium is an artist, plain and simple - free from the troublesome baggage of difference and tradition and maybe even self-examination. In her catalogue essay Gilda Williams observed that, 'Photography as an artform is a given (author's emphasis) at the end of the 20th century, and this has had a tremendously liberating effect on its practitioners.'
This view seems to chime with a recent tendency to forget or efface difference and, of course, may accurately reflect the self-image of a younger generation of producers. It is equally possible that arguments for the difference of 'independent' photography have been irrevocably discredited because they were formulated in the 60s and 70s by modernism.
I would argue that it is crucial to keep an awareness of difference alive in discourse because some photographic practices, that do not aspire to be art, can only be understood within photographic discourse. The Tate Modern may classify Martin Parr as a conceptual artist. But a more meaningful description of Parr and his work emerged during the run of his retrospective at the Barbican, where he was portrayed as the personification of the 70s British documentary tradition.