Jesse Alexander talks to Sir George Pollock
Sir George and Lady Doreen Pollock have been important figures in the Royal Photographic Society since the 1960s, and their enthusiasm for audio visual practice has promoted the practice in the UK and has been a driving force behind the development of the audio visual branch of the Society. In Lady Doreen's absence, Sir George discusses the history of the Royal Photographic Society Audio Visual group, and some of their collaborative works.
Jesse Alexander: How did you become aware of AV work?
Sir George Pollock: Slide-tape with dissolve was brought from France to England by Ray Beaumont-Crags. He was invited by Amateur Photographer to show his work at a photo-fair in 1965. He was then invited by the RPS's kinematographic group who immediately gave him one of the Society's distinctions. A few other people began to take it up, particularly a man called Michael Tickner. He was already doing a single projector show called Audioscope and bought a mechanical dissolver and converted it into a twin-projector dissolving view. My wife, Doreen and I saw Ray's work in about 1969 and were absolutely fascinated by it. The first sequence - we call each item a 'sequence' or a 'programme' - we sent to an international competition was in 1971 in Epinal in Eastern France, which had already been going annually for eleven years.
Jesse Alexander: At what point did a group of AV practitioners begin emerging?
Sir George Pollock: By 1971, by which time I was on the council of the RPS, it was fairly well established. Doreen and I had been running lots of courses all over the country, mostly in adult education places. Councils were able to afford them in those days. It took up all of our time. We did it professionally, charging for shows, with sponsorship in addition from Agfa and Olympus, Practical Photography and the makers of the AV equipment. Our shows were not the biggest. In 1971 I thought it would be a good idea if the RPS created a new distinctions panel for AV work, so I proposed it to the panel and they agreed and we had our first meeting in 1972. We were having these meetings regularly and, coming back from one in East Anglia once, Doreen suggested that we ought to have our own magazine for AV workers. I put this to the council who agreed, and the first issue of AV News was produced in 1976. At a meeting in Bath, someone suggested that we ought to have a group. I put that to the RPS who agreed, and the RPS AV group was formed in 1977. The magazine then became the group magazine.
Jesse Alexander: What fascinates you about this medium?
Sir George Pollock: Firstly, you can put across thoughts, ideas and artistic interpretations of poetry and music - which is my speciality - very quickly. But the real visual beauty is the 'dissolve': the magical transformation from one image to another, which can be extraordinarily beautiful. It's more like a short story than a novel - a visual poem if you like. There's an agreed international maximum length of twelve minutes for a sequence that is entered into a competition. This means that you have to condense your ideas and thoughts very considerably. This is very good as it concentrates the mind! We became particular experts at the dissolve. Later developments have been towards a greater use of text than we did - Peter Coles' work in particular. The combination of images and text is interesting in itself. We did use text, particularly for our historical sequences. The combination of everything is crucial in AV - it has to be a complete work. It is so much harder to get ideas across in single images.
Jesse Alexander: How were the national and international competitions co-ordinated?
Sir George Pollock: The French invented these competitions, and there were two or three important international events each year. They also devised the rules that have been followed ever since, such as the maximum duration of a sequence.
Jesse Alexander: As an author of these works, are such rules restrictive to the creative process?
Sir George Pollock: It seldom bothered us; in the big shows that were two-screen back-projected, we always finished with a fairly long travel type of feature. The longest we ever did was thirty-two minutes, which was The Exploration of the Colorado by Major Powell, but those were not suitable for competition. Most of our work was within the time-limit. Long AVs are not like long films: it's extremely difficult to maintain the audience's interest for a long period of time in this format.
Jesse Alexander: Aspects of AV - the sequence, the dissolve and the projected image - remove it from conventional photography and place it closer to film and video. How do you see AV in relation to film?
Sir George Pollock: Of course film grew out of the Magic Lantern show. As far as movement is concerned, when we were projecting slides, movement was difficult to achieve and not very satisfactory. Now, there has been a complete revolution into digital; movement - panning, zooming - all these things are possible, which is beginning to blur the distinction between movies and AV. There are one or two workers who can use movement satisfactorily or in a way that works. But basically an AV is a series of single images which simply dissolve into one another, and even in digital it's still much the same.
Jesse Alexander: The Revelation sequence (that is a response to the Biblical text The Revelation of St. John the Divine) was one of your wife's sequences, but could you give an insight into why she made this work?
Sir George Pollock: She is not religious at all, although she was educated in a Church of England boarding school. I don't think she was much of a believer of any sort. I think it was simply the beauty of the language of that passage. The language is of course absolute nonsense! But there are lovely things like: '...the leaves are for the healing of the nations...' And the text goes quite well with the abstract sequence of images. They were all her photographs. I helped her with the sound and she of course selected the bits that she wanted out of Revelation.
Jesse Alexander: How was Revelation received at the time?
Sir George Pollock: It was received very well and it won the first prize in the third Opeus International Festival. Largely perhaps because there were two Americans on the jury, one who was head of the art department in his school in Maine, and the other was head of the English school. It obviously made a lot of sense to them!
Jesse Alexander: Tell us a little about the task you are currently undertaking to collect and archive sequences by AV workers?
Sir George Pollock: A constant anxiety for me and other workers is that slide-tape sequences are essentially ephemeral. Equipment is required to play them, and they are difficult to collect. There are collections of slide-tape shows already such as the International Federation of Photographic Art. There are at least two in France, but we never managed to get one started in Britain. When digital came along, and you could put a whole series of sequences on one disc, suddenly the thing becomes easily collectable. I filmed ten of our sequences, so that I could produce enough discs to sell or give around so that our works will not simply disappear. Then I thought that perhaps the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television in Bradford might be interested. They were in fact prepared to collect discs containing AVs of the best work of key practitioners. I thought that we could create an RPS panel to help collect and decide what work to submit to the archive. The ideal way to document the sequences is to scan each slide and then recreate the whole thing digitally. If you do it simply by filming, you loose quite a lot of quality, but it is still useable, and is much easier. Where it can be done digitally, we get the authors to do it. Where it can only be done by filming, we are happy to accept that. So far we have only got Doreen's and my work, and Peter Coles', and a worker called Norman Veal, who is now aged eighty-eight. We are just at the beginning.
Jesse Alexander: How much work do you hope to collect?
Sir George Pollock: Let's say between the slide-tape period (c. 1972 - 2002), there must be at least twenty 'key workers'. Some who have produced only one or two sequences, but others, like Peter Coles, who have made about two-hundred. We produced about seventy or eighty sequences.
Jesse Alexander: Do you think the role of the worker as performer of these sequences is worth considering?
Sir George Pollock: Originally, audiovisual meant a lot more than slide-tape shows, and particularly in education it has a wider meaning. We adopted 'slide-sound sequences'. I wanted people to understand that you didn't have to have tape - you could have live commentary or live music. We had one worker, Hazel Andrea who was a singing teacher, and she played guitar and sung whilst dissolving from one slide to another with her feet! Photography was of course part of it, but it was a live performance.