The English family vernacular
I have been flirting with the idea of sharing more of my family photographs for some time now. Having already shared with you a small number of my Grandpa’s many hundreds of black and white photographs from colonial India. I think the time is right to begin to share with the world some of the beautiful photographs that were tided away and hidden from view, stored in two round 1960’s biscuit tins on the top right hand shelf of an old unmovable wooden cupboard that leans against the chimney wall of my sisters old bedroom in my parents house in Coventry, England. This is the room where I currently sleep and where I found these photographs.So, where to start? I might as well start with a photograph of me. Check out the white shoes and knee-length white socks. Why do we do this to our children? Dress them looking really quite stupid then photograph them, little concern for health and safety either, you can only just spot my mother’s hand holding on tight to my left foot.
At the birth of photography arguments immediately ensued as to whether this new science would ever be seen and enjoyed as an equal and credible art form, was it equal as an art form to painting, they argued? Photography was therefore problematic from its very beginning. In my view photography is too complex a practice, only be viewed as ‘art’ and it remains the only form of art that could actually be argued to have been born fully formed but that on occasion, it has also deteriorated in its technical quality as it has continued its evolution.
The photograph above shows four young ladies resting in the summer sun in Warwickshire, England in the early 1920’s. The woman lying down on the far left of the photograph with what appear to be black buttons lining the front of her white dress is my grandmother. The digital scan that you can see on your computer screen allows us to take a step back in time and to view this simple idyllic English scene but what I cannot share with you is the object itself, its size and its weight and the thickness and texture of the paper that the photograph is printed on.
As the digital age crept upon us we all now devour and share images like carnivorous pixel eating beasts, at no other point in photography’s history have we been able to behave like this and as a consumer (pixel-eater) of the image myself, the photograph as the document, the artifact, has become even more important to me.The photograph above was taken in 1914 at Tayler Brother’s photography studios, 20 Primrose Hill Street, Hillfields, Coventry. The two men pictured in uniform are brothers and they like thousands of others men at that time are about to go to war. Seated in front of them are their proud parents and sandwiched in the middle is my Grandmother, who was known as Queenie. Thankfully enough prints in the early 20th century were reproduced and distributed and some of these photographs mercifully remain to this day, safe in our family’s possession passed from one generation to the next out living the people in them, and the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign of Coventry during the German bombing campaign of WW2.These four photographs above, range in style from the candid and informal, to the formal and here in the last image a candidly formal photograph. If there ever was or is such a thing? I never questioned or worried if these image were good enough or relevant enough for them to be considered ‘art’. Quite frankly, I do not give a fuck! But none the less I do on occasion and from time to time, get drawn in to the argument and at my age I should know better.Should we imagine that an argument began, between on one side; Eminent european scientists in the mid 19th century, who were busy inventing their own methods of capturing and fixing a permanent image and on the other side, painters of that same period, who felt so threatened by this new group of scientific image makers and the imminent death of their century’s old trade that between these two groups of (mainly) men and their inordinately large egos they began ‘the’ most pointless and irritating argument in modern-day art history. An argument that even in more recent years has been pursued with great vigor by artists photographers and academics.
Forgive me for seeming lazy for including this but I was taken with this article by Brain Sewell, and obviously he writes with more dry creative wit than I could ever dream to possess.
01 November 2012 Many thanks to Brian Sewell for these words. (Although I never asked his permission)
The National Gallery’s winter exhibition is devoted to photography. For the next 11 weeks, the building fondly dubbed The Nation’s Mantelpiece will hang in its misbegotten basement, not great paintings on panel, canvas and sheets of copper, not historic works in the ancestral media of oil and tempera, not the meticulous business of three hairs of miniver in the Eyckian brush nor the heavy laying-on of hogs’ bristles in the hands of Rembrandt, not treasures pillaged years ago from palaces and churches, but photographs, flat, smooth, glistening and lubricous of surface, by photographers familiar, if recognised at all, only to drifters through the Turner Prize, Tate Modern, the bleakly extravagant premises of affluent dealers in contemporary art and the collections of the even wealthier fools who buy from them.
The exhibition is, its protagonists declare, a provocative investigation of photography’s enlistment of the ancient traditions of painting (and, less frequently, of sculpture) to justify this upstart’s assumption that it is a form of art. Foolishly, they have given it the title ‘Seduced by Art”, using the term in its loose romantic sense — as might a chick-lit writer — rather than as debauched, corrupted, raped; but in the corruption here at work it is the photographer who is the rapist, stealing the virtue of Gainsborough and Goya, Delacroix and Ingres, the National Gallery his procurer in this distasteful business.
The gallery has, it seems, “specially commissioned for the exhibition” new photographs to compete with old paintings, but that it should feel compelled to do so surely indicates that there must have been too little evidence to lend importance to the link, and thus that it is a point hardly worth the demonstrating in an exhibition. If the underlying thesis is that photography must be acknowledged as an art of pictorial legitimacy equal to that of painting, yet, in order to support it, photographers must be let loose in the gallery, there to be inspired into rivalry with the old masters, then the thesis must be very weak and the curators should not have been allowed to engineer the evidence. To turn the thesis on its head, however, and prove that painters with no imagination are readily seduced by photography (and even use it as a form of underpainting, even of easy collaboration), then the visitor to the National Gallery has only to wander upstairs and examine the spurious paintings of Richard Hamilton (and why are these, pray, in Trafalgar Square rather than any of the too many Tates?), or go next door to the National Portrait Gallery where, annually, ghastly portraits based on photographs are jubilantly exhibited as art.
I must declare my hand. For the photographer as recording angel I have profound respect; without him in Belsen I would, as a boy, perhaps never quite have understood why we had fought the Second World War; without him in Spain I would never, later travelling there, have discovered the depths of self-destruction plumbed by Spaniards in the Civil War; without him I might not have formed quite the views I held of wars in Vietnam and the broken Yugoslavia, nor the views I hold now of Iraq and Afghanistan. Without the photographer, what could I have known of the volcano, the tsunami, the nuclear disaster and the melting Arctic ice? And looking back more than a long century, what could I have known of Venice, Rome and Florence in the later 19th century as the Grand Tour petered out, without the curled brown photographs of Alinari brought back by the middle classes instead of painted townscapes by Canaletto and his ilk? What would I have known of Imperial Chinese tortures and executions without the similar brown photographs displayed by Mme Tussaud when I was a boy?
As for photography equalling, even exceeding, art, I will admit to one moment when I know that it happened — in the work of those photographers who accompanied Scott and Shackleton in the Antarctic, men who in those then unique circumstances had eyes to see that with the coolly calculated technology of their clumsy cameras, they could enhance the ice and snow, the darkness and the light, even the numbing chill of the deep distant south, in ways far beyond the dramatic romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich and Frederick Church, and the dabbing of the Impressionists, their near contemporaries. There are times when photographers of sport capture the high emotion of solitary endeavour and recall a saintly martyrdom, when in the well-chosen stilling of a rugger scrum one perceives the baroque composition of a mythical contest to the death or, in a line-out, a bodily assumption to the heavens, but these are unintended accidents selected by an editor from a hundred alternatives, and not the deliberate compositions of a painter. When the photographer pretends that he is an artist, he is a trespasser.
By the same token it is not now for the painter to paint scrupulous documents of people and events — events are best left to the photographer, and people too, for no painter of portraits would dare tell us of the madness of Blair and Brown (madder than the Mahdi, both of them), or that Cameron, Clegg and Miliband are empty-headed boys devoid of wisdom, imbued with the shallow cleverness of the school debating society, and still expect to be paid his fee. It is for the photographer to document the decades too — recording the Swinging Sixties half a century ago, Lewis Morley (all but forgotten?) made a far better fist of it than the more celebrated David Hockney with his narrow interests. And it is for the photographer to explore a particular field in such depth that it becomes his own, as with the partnership of Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low, whose probing enquiry into the physique of the athlete reaches so far beyond the physical that their photographs become meditative and metaphysical, but they have nothing to do with the painters of the past, not even with the academic drawings of the nude that were for centuries their basic discipline.
The curators of the National Gallery’s exhibition have, however, swallowed hook, line and sinker the notion that the photographer is, in genius, the equal of the painter and, without questioning, promote the folly. Patented in England and France in 1839, barely 20 years passed before photography claimed that its poky little sepia images were art. I am with Baudelaire, who saw it as, at best, art’s servant, at worst, as art’s usurper and mortal enemy — never more mortal than now.
The exhibition includes a number of these sepia trivialities as though their age lends authority to the photograph now, and a video in the manner of Charlie Chaplin records a modern reconstruction of the imagined posing, in 1845, of the future Lady Eastlake (wife of the director of the National Gallery) for the photographers David Octavius Hill and Robert Erskine; but its main purpose is, it seems, to match new photographs with old paintings and declare them to be of equal aesthetic merit. The chosen photographs may well be triumphs of current technology in terms of glossy ghastliness and scale, aggressively large, aggressively coloured, aggressively lit, subtlety never their point. Anything these photographers take from painted models, they abuse, almost to destruction, certainly to deconstruction. Sarah Jones photographs roses against a black ground, stealing the idea from Mary Delany, Barbara Dietsch and other 18th-century ladies, but where theirs are all of normal small paper size and in flat gouache or watercolour on variable dark grounds, hers are a metre and a half tall, the pinks and greens of her roses doubled in intensity by being silhouetted against a gloss of intense black, the result hideously vulgar.
Vulgarity is, indeed, the almost common factor among these present-day photographers (most of them fiftyish or so) — the vulgarity of the commonplace subject, the vulgarity of colour, the vulgarity of scale (now common in every current form of art) and the vulgarity of surface, too often utterly repellent. Craigie Horsfield is alone in expressing a dislike of the photographic surface that is as intense as mine — “I did not like the presence of the great majority of photographs,” he said of another exhibition: “The surface of a photograph does not act; the surface of a painting does, but the surface of the photograph is redundant, it is not engaged by the artist.” I must go further and argue that the surface is as much a barrier to the image as a varnish thick as treacle on a painting.
To be blunt, I was not provoked but sickened by this exhibition, nausea my overwhelming response to it. As an exhibition, its content is much less than the ugly catalogue suggests and the hang so haplessly confused that it fails to make the points energetically promoted in the text — but the catalogue too is repellent, the nastiest example of book design ever issued by Yale University Press. None of this would matter were it the show of the year in Milton Keynes or Margate but it is in London, in Trafalgar Square, in the National Gallery with Christopher Riopelle (in charge of 19th-century paintings there) as co-curator, and that magisterial institution is disgraced by it. Shoddy, mischievous and gravely mistaken, intellectually the work of students at some post-polytechnic university, those who devised it have seduced the National Gallery, led it astray, debauched and corrupted it.
Brian Sewell, originally printed in the London Evening Standard with added garnish from my family photograph albums.