Archive for the ‘Photo History’ Category

On and Off Photography

Monday, November 13th, 2017

Back in the late 1970s when there seemed to many of us that their was a least a glimmer of a photography culture emerging in the UK that might support serious photographers, thanks to the efforts of Creative Camera, the Arts Council  and a few people in education, particularly in the Midlands, including Paul Hill and Ray Moore, we suffered a huge academic land grab which more or less snuffed out that fledgling. Creative Camera degenerated, the Arts Council altered course and many photographers were relegated to obscurity.

Photography was largely sacrificed on the altar of academic respectability, becoming subservient to the word, being relegated to what many saw as its rightful subservience in our logocentric culture. You want a degree you’ve got to read learn a secret language to read deliberately obscured texts and write pretentious essays, never mind the pictures.

The flagship of this enterprise was a curious work, On Photography by Susan Sontag, which came at the top of every degree course reading list. My own copy of this 1977 best-seller soon got into a sorry state from being thrown down at its more ridiculous sentences, its margins annotated with my explosions at her ignorance and misunderstandings, her half-digested regurgitations from earlier sources.

It did make rather a good television programme, which I had recorded and watched several times, and felt to be far superior to the book, not least because in it her thoughts became tied to actual examples, the particular rather than the generalisation.  And perhaps because of the work of a better editor than at her publisher and the more limited canvas available.

It was a book that spawned more books, but never provoked any photography of significance, that led to a whole school of academia that treats photographs as just an abbreviated list of the objects and events they depict, largely dismissing the aspects that make photography an vital and visual medium.

We no longer simply looked at photographs, no longer experienced them, but in that oh so reductive usage, we ‘read’ them. Not that reading photographs can’t give us valuable insights – and it was always a part of looking at them – but it is only a partial exercise, and the visual, expressive, aesthetic aspects were generally dismissed as unworthy of study.

On Photography is a book that should only appear on reading lists for students with a health warning, and one of the best health warnings is provided by an article recently resurrected by A D Coleman, Susan Sontag: Off Photography, originally written by him in 1979 but not published until 1998. In his introduction to this republication, Coleman notes:

Sontag subsequently acknowledged that photography was not her real subject and had simply served her as a convenient whipping boy, and — in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) — she eventually retracted most of what she’d had to say in her original diatribe.

Regarding the Pain of Others is certainly a far better book about photography, and the photography of war in particular, but I don’t recall ever seeing it on the reading lists for photography students. Perhaps it should be, replacing her ‘On Photography‘.

 

f8 and Be There, plus …

Wednesday, November 8th, 2017

f8 and Be There‘ is a famous quote attributed to ‘Weegee‘, the New York press photographer Arthur Fellig whose brutal flash-lit exposures documented the seedier side of the city’s life and crime in the middle years of the last century, and is often quoted as the maxim for photojournalists and street photographers.

Weegee got to many crime scenes before the police, not because he used a Ouija board as the nickname implied, but at first because he hung around in the Manhattan Police Headquarters and watched the teletype, rushing out to take photographs when a crime report came in. He started without any police permit, but from 1938 because he was the first journalist to get permission to have a police-band short-wave radio, which he kept in the boot of his car along with portable darkroom facilities. He would get to the location, rush in with his 4×5″ Speed Graphic camera and bulb flash, take a picture, develop and print the sheet film, stamp the back with ‘Credit Photo by the Famous Weegee’ and have it at the newspaper or agency hours before other photographers.

Despite the quote, Weegee seldom if ever worked at f8. You needed greater depth of field for his work, and he would generally have his camera set at f16, with the focus at 10 ft and the shutter speed of 1/200th, probably the fastest speed to synch the flash bulbs with the lens he used. It worked, and he didn’t have to think about technique, just get in the right place and press the button.

Of course not everything needed to be done at such a rush, and despite the impression of naked emergency given by the flash and the often slightly dynamic framing, as with other newspaper photographers many of his pictures were posed. He was a photographer who knew what he wanted and made sure he got it.

Photojournalist‘ is an overused term in photography, as too is ‘street photography‘and I don’t think Weegee was either, but essentially a news photographer. His work was certainly effective and his simplified technique worked well.

Much of the time many professional photographers now use the ‘P’ setting on cameras, often derided as for amateurs and newbies (including by me in years long past.) It generally works well and enables you to concentrate on framing and content and let the camera get the exposure more or less right. And should you need a faster shutter speed or greater depth of field a control dial is there under your finger or thumb to give it – and automatically adjust the other exposure parameters (these days we can use shutter, aperture and ISO) to retain correct exposure in P* mode. Though should you be using flash (other than for fill), S seems to be a better choice, at least with Nikons.

‘f8’ simply means the technical side of making an image, not the literal aperture, though I often do work at f8, though in winter more often at f4, or whatever the maximum aperture of my lens is, stopping down one or two stops if light allows – or for greater depth.

‘Be There’ is of course a sine qua non, but it isn’t sufficient. To make good pictures you have to be in the right position – sometimes with almost millimetric precision, with the right lens and the right framing. Often there will be dozens of photographers at an event, but only one will get a great image. Even good photographers take plenty of pictures that are marketable without being of any great merit, and many feel that if they get paid that’s all that matters. It’s one area where I find myself in agreement with Ofstead; when taking pictures, ‘satisfactory‘ isn’t good enough.

But ‘f8 and Be There’ still isn’t enough, though it may make for the financially successful newspaper photographer – so long as they can also get the pictures in before the next photographer. Perhaps the word I’d choose to add is ‘attitude‘. It’s what you need to have to know which is the right place, the right framing and the right moment, even if you may not always be able to catch it (for that you usually need a little luck as well.) Unless you have a point of view how can you know how to express it through your pictures?

Though it may well not help you financially. When Kertesz went to the USA in 1936 attracted by an offer from the Keystone agency, the editors complained his images “speak too much” and they soon parted company. In his pictures Kertesz said he interpreted “what I feel in a given moment, not what I see, but what I feel.”

You can see some of the best of last year’s press photography in London now at the Royal Festival Hall, where the 2017 World Press Photo Exhibition is on show – free to view – until 20th November 2017.

The Salgado Effect

Monday, October 16th, 2017

Like me you have probably seen the set of pictures by Kevin Frayer published by The Guardian Documenting the Rohingya refugee crisis – in pictures.

They are a powerful set of pictures and I have a great deal of admiration for the photographer having gone to document the situation and managing to photograph scenes such as this. But I also found myself feeling a little uneasy at certain aspects.

I think I remember years ago Don McCullin discussing the dangers of aestheticising scenes of violence and death, I think in relation to working in Biafra. Obviously we need to produce powerful images using the tools at our command, but there comes a point where making pictures out of scenes conflicts with showing the brutal realities.

I’m also a little disturbed by the use of black and white rather than colour in these and many other sets of images, the huge majority of which are actually made in colour. Perhaps Frayer worked in black and white either on film or on that Leica M Monochrom but the images have a look that owes much to software. With many photographers conversion to black and white is simply an affectation that makes them think their work is more documentary, or perhaps reflect their admiration for the work of photographers such as Salgado (whose work sprang to my mind looking at some of these pictures), Frayer (or his post-production team) certainly take full advantage of its possibilities, much too full for my taste.

Photographers have long taken advantage of the possibilities offered in the production of their images, whether in darkroom or with Silver Efex. Where would Gene Smith’s Spanish Wake be without the hours (and the ferricyanide and whisky) in the darkroom? But as Horacio Fernández comments on this image, the selection of pictures for Time’s 1951 Spanish Village essay (one of the landmarks of photojournalism) were made “paying more attention to beauty and emotional meanings than to information and political commentary.”

Of course, as Smith said, “The honesty lies in my—the photographer’s—ability to understand…I will retouch.” And we all do to some extent. Some of my pictures have a little help from Lightroom’s ‘Clarity‘ brushed delicately on faces or elsewhere (though mainly I work rather less aggressively with a little added exposure and contrast – it’s something that has enabled me to largely move away from using fill-flash.) But in these images it has been applied with a shovel not to enhance what was there but to create a deliberate and to my eyes un-photographic effect. Some of these images are well onto the way to becoming film posters for the crisis rather than exposing it to the world.

In How not to photograph the Rohingya genocide in the making… Suchitra Vijayan examines these pictures and also features a lengthy YouTube video of a talk with writer Maaza Mengiste, Unheard of things – the vocabularies of violence. I’ve not listened to all 88 minutes, but it is worth starting as I did at 38:10.

And here’s another set of photographs – also in black and white – of the crisis. Less dramatic, less aestheticized, less post-produced but I think that Greg Constantine work is somehow more real and tells the story better. And there are other pictures both black and white and colour that do so too.

Walker Evans at SFMOMA

Monday, October 9th, 2017

Another feature on the BJP site that caught my eye recently was Walker Evans’ love of the vernacular at SFMOMA’s enormous retrospective by Diane Smyth. The SFMOMA show, Walker Evans, opened on September 30 and continues to February 4, 2018, and was organized by the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in collaboration with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Smyth’s feature is well-illustrated and contains extensive quotes from a phone interview with curator Clément Chéroux, and is rather more informative the the SFMOMA site, which does however have some excellent links if you scroll down the page.

Walker Evans and in particular his 1938 book ‘American Photographs‘ appealed to me greatly when I first came across it as a relatively new photographer, so much so that I followed his example in writing myself a script for my own colour work similar to one of his which I carried in my wallet for years (it may still be there), and I probably spent far too long telling my students about it when I taught a photography history module. In 1999 I tidied up my notes into a short essay for publication, and, with a few very minor changes here it is now:

Walker Evans, American Photographer

Like many newspapers, the Guardian (once the Manchester Guardian – arguably the best of the UK’s serious dailies) is currently busy reviewing the century. Earlier this month the weekly feature was devoted to photography, giving a reasonable if understandably brief and fragmentary overview of the first thirty or so years of the century before jumping erratically to TV, Warhol and computer manipulation. Somewhere along the line the author’s argument had missed some vital links, enabling her to disregard much of the photography of the second half of this century. One of the key pieces missing in her jigsaw was undoubtedly Walker Evans.

Evans seems generally to present a problem to writers on photography in the UK particularly and often elsewhere, largely because he is known almost exclusively for a small selection of his work for the FSA and the book co-produced with writer James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Of course the simple and powerful portraits of Alabama sharecroppers and their living spaces in this is certainly a compelling body of work, but it far from exhausts the contributions Evans made to photography. Restricting one’s vision in this way allows his work to be dismissed as a simple extension of the socially committed photography of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, similar in nature if distinguished in content to much of the photojournalism of the time.

To get a deeper understanding we need to examine where Evans came from. His background was a literary one, and he only drifted into photography after an unsuccessful attempt to become a writer. His friends included a number of leading figures on the American literary scene, including poet Hart Crane and critic Lincoln Kirstein. Evans was certainly aware of the work of other photographers of the time – including those artist-photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Edward Weston, but he found little to interest him in it, although he did acknowledge the contribution of Stieglitz to the development of photography in America. What attracted him more than these artistic photographers were the often anonymous records of small-town America, postcards, portraits and old photographs that recorded scenes and events unselfconsciously – the ‘vernacular’ tradition in photography.

Evans combined this straightforward and often frontal approach to the medium with a sophisticated analysis of the content of images, their relationships with other pictures and their cultural context which derived from literary models. Essentially he was a photographer of ideas. In preparation for taking photographs he wrote lists or ideas and themes that interested him – sometimes in very general terms, but at other times going into specific details. He was also generally a careful recorder of scenes as he found them, scrupulous in not altering the details, photographing what he found to make a good photograph; unlike some other photographers he did not arrange or construct to heighten the effect.

Evans’s great work – one of the volumes that every photographer should own – was ‘American Photographs‘*. This book was carefully designed in every way from the typeface and its bible-cloth binding to the layout and particularly the sequencing of its images. First published – and panned by most critics in 1938 – it has been made available in various editions over the years since then.

The first plate of American Photographs shows the ‘Licence Photo Studio’ on a street corner in New York in 1934. Much of its curious two storeys are covered with boards and adverts promising ‘Photos in 5 minutes’, as well as its sidelines of auto licence applications, driving school, licence plates and Notary Public, and a hanging sign repeats the message. Two large painted hands direct us from either side of a dark open doorway direct to dimly visible stairs leading up; another set of steps runs diagonally from the bottom left on the front of the structure leading to a door on the upper floor almost immediately above the first. On either side of one of the hands is graffitied Mae West’s ‘Come up and see me some time’.

Obviously the picture is an invitation to go in further to the book and to look at its photographs, but it is more than that. With this picture Evans announces some of the major themes of the book; clearly it is dealing with the vernacular, it is about how things are represented in photographs, about the car and it is about choices and putting things on public record.

Turning the page we find a ‘Penny Picture Display’ from a photographer’s studio door in Savannah, the word ‘Studio’ superimposed on a grid of some 70 examples of the photographers work. This is the American people, or, more precisely, a representation of them through vernacular photography. The next picture shows actual people, two workers on the street in Pennsylvania, behind them an out of focus crowd. Standing together the gaze past each other in opposite directions. Plate 4 is another window, with flowers and a drawn portrait of a politician framed in one of its panes.

Next is the amazing ‘French Opera Barber Shop’ in New Orleans, with crazy stripes on its frontage, post on the pavement in front of the door and lamp echoed in the striped jumper of the woman standing in its entrance. The anarchic stripes contrast with the ornate formal ironwork of the balcony at top of picture, and the woman in the doorway contrast with the idealised face in the advert in the neighbouring drug store. Here also, as in the first picture, we have some problems with space, the differing angles of the stripes on the almost flat frontage tending to make us misread it in perspective, and the square barber pole on the pavement moving visually into the same plane as the other similarly striped surface, creating a kind of tension that enlivens the picture.

The remaining 45 pictures in Part 1 of the book continue the story, and you will find them worth study. They do include many of his best-known images, including some of the Alabama sharecroppers, but they are here set in the context intended by their author. As Lincoln Kirstein wrote in his lengthy essay in the original publication ‘Looked at in sequence they are overwhelming in their exhaustiveness of detail, their poetry of contrast, and, for those who wish to see it, their moral implication. Walker Evans is giving us the contemporary civilisation of eastern America and its dependencies as Atget gave us Paris before the war and Brady gave us the War between the States.’

Of course there is more to Evans than this one book – he continued working for many years, extending the ideas here and also working in new areas, including the series of subway portraits taken in the 1940’s with a concealed 35mm camera and only published some 20 years later. There are also many fine pictures from his early work for which there was not space in the book or which would not have contributed to its sequence – you can view over 1200 from the FSA work alone on the Library of Congress site, some at high enough resolution to enable you to make better prints than his if you would like a Walker Evans on your wall. American Photographs, however, provides an unparalleled insight into the way that Evans saw his own work, and it represented a considerable enlargement of the complexity and possibilities available to the photographer, one that many later photographers – notably Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander – were to pick up and exploit.


*’American Photographs’ has been since published in various editions, and you can download a good preview PDF of the best of the republications, the 75th anniversary version, on the MoMA site. You can also watch the pages of the first edition being turned on Vimeo. While you can pay anything from £1500 up for the first edition, the 75th anniversary publication is still available for well under half the cost of the exhibition catalogue, and should be on every phtoographer’s book shelf.

British Journal revisited

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

Back in the old days, the British Journal of Photography was the main trade weekly paper of UK photography professionals including photographers, keeping them up to date with the news in the industry, and also widening their view with reviews of photography books and shows and listings of exhibitions. It also published a year book which was mainly a good collection of recent work by British photographers along with a technical section at the end with developer recipes etc. I had a few pictures in what turned out to be the last issue, the BJP Annual 1988, though I don’t think I can be blamed for its demise.

With news increasingly breaking on the web the audience for a weekly trade paper diminished and so too presumably did sales. Perhaps too the problem was partly editorial, as throughout the time I was a subscriber as well as publishing much worth reading it also gave space (and paid by the word) to some of the most turgid prose ever written in some of its reviews, probably far too boring for even the editor to have read to the end before publishing.

BJP changed direction and relaunched as a monthly, moving more into covering the art world and since I already subscribed to several overseas magazines that seemed to be doing a rather better job of that I let my subscription lapse. Occasionally I’d look at its web site to see what it was doing, but there was seldom a great deal of interest for me.

But in the last week or so there have been several articles which have attracted my attention and which have been well-illustrated online. The first of these was about the show Illuminating India: Photography 1857-2017 which is showing at the Science Museum until 31st March 2018 and since entry is free I’ll certainly go in and look at if I have some spare time and am around South Kensington.

Back in 2003 I wrote a series of long articles on the early years of photography in India for the web, none of which are unfortunately still available (though parts live on, pirated on other web sites.) I began with ‘Photography in India: The Early Years‘, including the work of British photographers such as John Murray, then ‘India – The Late 1850s‘ looking at the work of Felice Beato and Robert and Harriet Tytler, going on to ‘Linnaeus Tripe‘, ‘Samuel Bourne: Search for the Sublime‘, then ‘Indian Photographs‘, a consideration of whether there was a specifically Indian way of photographing in the earlier years. Perhaps the best of the articles was on the ‘Prince of Indian Photographers’, court photographer to the Nizam of Hyderabad Lala Deen Dayal, and the last in that short series was on the Irish photographers ‘Burke & Baker‘.

Indian photography was certainly one of the many areas I would have returned to had I kept my job on the web, but probably the main reason I was sacked was for writing too much about such things, which were thought not to be of much interest to US readers and US advertisers – though it was exactly in line with what I was hired to do by a previous management and the articles attracted considerable interest.

Robert Delpire (1926-2017)

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

Photography owes much to the work of Robert Delpire, who died on 26 September, aged 91, but probably few of us realise the huge contribution he made in other areas of his publishing. Back in 2012 in New York, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in collaboration with Aperture Gallery, The Gallery at Hermès, and La Maison Française of New York University presented Delpire & Co., an exhibition featuring a half century of achievement in the life and career of Robert Delpire, and the short video on their web site has his wife Sarah Moon talking about his career.

Probably most photographers know him best as first publisher in 1958 of Robert Frank’s legendary ‘The Americans‘, which was only later published in the USA and much later became a book that every serious photographer had to own. But possibly an ever greater legacy to photography was the whole series of those small black covered ‘Photo Poche‘, carefully selected and well-printed collections of photography at a price that students and struggling photographers could afford – and most of us will have a few on our shelves.

But so much has been written about him that it would be superfluous to add more, but here are some of the more interesting links I’ve come across so far that go beyond the Wikipedia article – but there are and will be many more:

The great publisher Robert Delpire passed away: The Eye of Photography
Obituary: Robert Delpire, Publisher of Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, Cartier-Bresson: Photo District News
Remembering the legendary Robert Delpire: British Journal of Photography
In Memoriam: Robert Delpire (1926-2017): Magnum
Remembering Robert Delpire, Publisher of the Greats: Aperture

In The Eighties

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

In The Eighties‘ is the title of a new book by Derek Ridgers, an old friend of mine, being launched tonight (14 Sept 2017) at The Library Space in Battersea Park Road, London.

You can see a preview of the book and read some of Derek’s views in the feature ‘Documentary Photography: A Masterclass from Derek Ridgers‘ on ‘Another Man’.

Derek gives a straightforward account of how he took these sometimes remarkable portraits in the article: “I just walk straight up to people and say ‘Do you mind if I take your picture?’”. The people he chose were those who caught his attention, particularly as he walked along the King’s Road, then the epicentre of young London’s trend-setting young fashions. Since most – but certainly not all – of those he chose were very deliberately presenting their image to the public I imagine most were more than pleased to be asked to pose for a photograph, and cooperated with him as he moved them into a suitable place nearby to find the kind of background he liked, “something that’s very plain, without anything to detract the eye, and yet something that still possesses an element of time and place.”

The quote about backgrounds comes from one of five tips for aspiring documentary photographers in the article – you’ll have to read it to find the others.

Derek and I were for some years a part of a small group of photographers who came together monthly to bring our latest pictures and discuss them. We all I think benefited from the sometimes frank appraisals, and Derek’s were usually franker than most, often saying bluntly what others of us were thinking but trying to find more delicate ways to express. ‘Framework‘, as the group became known as, was something of a hard school, and one that some could not take. Elsewhere I’ve described it as “a pionering UK group of independent photographers until its demise in 1993; together we organised around 20 group exhibitions almost all of which included some of my work. (Among many UK photographers to exhibit with Framework were Terry King, Carol Hudson, John RT Davies, Derek Ridgers and Jo Spence“), though Jo was never a member, but one of a number of others we invited to take part in our shows.

Framework had started life as a group inside a photographic club, but became a separate organisation after than club appropriated a gallery space and exhibition opportunity we had arranged for wider club use, changing its name from ‘Group Six‘ to ‘Framework‘. Derek had designed the orginal logo for Group 6, and it was one of his pictures on the poster for our first exhibition in 1984.

You can read more about Framework on an unfinished web site I began about it some years ago. Since I wrote this, at least two of the members, its main organiser Terry King and Randall Webb have died. Framework itself came to an end with the formation of London Independent Photography in 1993, which most of us joined. It was the experience of Framework that led me when a LIP committee member a year or two later to argue for the setting up of the local groups which now form a vital part of that organisation.

Looking at Lens

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

Although I regularly take a quick glimpse at the New York TimesLens‘ blog, often just with my newsreader that doesn’t actually show the pictures, I don’t that often find things that are of enough interest to comment on here. Much of what they publish is interesting, but generally I only write about things if there is something I feel I can add to in some way or take a special interest in.

In the last week or so, there have been quite a few posts there that interested me, and I particularly warmed to some of Nathan Farb‘s pictures in 1967’s Other Summer of Love, perhaps because they reminded me of when I was young and a student, though Manchester in England was very different to the New York Lower East Side of his pictures. But there was just a little something of the same spirit of counter-culture in the air.

The slide show with this piece has 21 pictures, enough to get a good idea of the work, whereas sometimes on Lens I find there just isn’t enough. Usually of course you can find more pictures elsewhere – and Lens sometimes provides a link or you can search for yourself, but then things can get rather time-consuming.

That piece led me on to the large format and very posed portraits of Harf Zimmermann, who, inspired by Bruce Davidson’s book ‘East 100th Street‘ took his camera into the homes and onto the streets to photograph his fellow residents and workers in the East Berlin neighbourhood where he lived. His pictures have for me a kind of dissonance like I often feel in dreams between the people and place and perhaps seem more like theatre sets with actors rather than real people – whereas the colour images he took when he returned to the same area in 2010, judging by the couple of examples in the article, Exposing Life Behind the Berlin Wall, simply look like high-quality versions of family snaps.

East Germany was of course a police state, where it was healthy to assume that everyone except you was a Stasi agent (especially if you were not.) Rather like living in G K Chesterton’s nightmare novel ‘The Man Who Was Thursday‘. Though working as I do with many protest groups I find I often look around and wonder which of us present is one of the 144 undercover UK police stated recently by the authorities to have infiltrated more than 1,000 political groups since 1968 – around the time I first got involved in such things.

But there is also something very German about the pictures – and not just in some of the obviously German backgrounds. They didn’t remind me of Davidson, but they did remind me of August Sander and his attempt to study and classify the people of his country, interrupted by the Nazis who seized and destroyed his ‘Face of Our Time‘ in 1936.

I then went on to find several more ‘Lens’ posts worth looking at, including Fighting For Basic Rights in Morocco, Amid Crisis and the remarkable Venezuela’s Youth Wait to Live Again.

John Morris 1916-2017

Monday, July 31st, 2017

Many words have been written and said about the photo-editor John G Morris who died last Friday, 28th July 2017, and he has obviously played a large role in photography over so many years. Probably the most widely read of the obituaries is by Andy Grunberg in the New York Times, and although excellent in many respects it is a shame it was not more carefully brought up to date after being retrieved from the ‘morgue’ where it had been lying for some years in waiting for Morris’s death.

His was a long career as a photo-editor, working for some of the greatest names in photographic publishing – Life,  Ladies’ Home Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic and Magnum Photos.

His was a career in which he undoubtedly recognised the power of a number of images which subsequently became iconic. Although we now can be sure that the legend that he wove around Capa’s actions on D-Day was almost entirely false, he saw the power of one of the 11 frames that Capa exposed which many editors would probably have rejected out of hand for being unsharp – and it was an image that was only more widely recognised for its expressive potential quite a few years later. Had Morris told the truth about it and given the facts that the investigation by A D Coleman and his team have made clear, the image might have been published and long forgotten.

Again, while working for the New York Times, it was Morris who recognised the power of two of the iconic images from Vietnam, and fought to get Eddie Adam‘s picture of a summary execution of a suspected Vietcong by a Saigon police chief on the front page, and fought the paper’s ‘no-nudity’ policy to get  Huynh Cong (Nick) Ut‘s image of a naked young Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm bombing raid published – again on the front page.

It was Morris too who invited W Eugene Smith to join Magnum following his break-up with Life, and apparently suggested him (after Elliot Erwitt had turned it down) for an assignment to photograph Pittsburg – which almost ruined Magnum financially after Smith turned what had been meant as a three week assignment into a year working on what he believed to be his ‘magnum opus’, though it only really got an adequate publication as ‘Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project‘ in 2001, 23 years after Smith’s death.

A D Coleman in Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day (36): John G. Morris Dies (Update) has written about some of the obituaries for Morris, including the New York Times one, pointing out some of their many errors. Its also worth reading the comments on his piece, particularly one by Robert Dannin, who calls the story that Morris made up “nothing more than an unprofessional excuse to conceal his apparent embarrassment at Capa’s work on the Normandy beachhead.”

It’s perhaps a little harsh. I can imagine Morris’s immediate shock on looking at the processed film and seeing only 11 images. And then looking a little more closely and seeing that those eleven were all blurred. A little fabrication to protect his friend’s reputation would be understandable. But to invent such an elaborate story and to keep up the deception for as long as Morris and Capa did was clearly unacceptable – and something of a stain on the reputation of both.

Morris was obviously a man who cared about photography and cared for photographers – and you can read a tribute to him by one of those he helped and was a friend to, Peter Turnley, on The Online Photographer. We can remember him for that and should also put the record straight over Capa’s D-Day pictures.

Hugh Edwards

Friday, June 30th, 2017

As friends including regular readers of these posts will know, I don’t generally have a very high opinion of curators – except for a few that I’ve known and have worked with. Too many have put on shows that server largely to illustrate their lack of knowledge and real interest in the medium and are clearly concerned only with building their own careers. And far too often money that would be better spent on photography and photographers goes into their pockets and into creating fancy displays which might enhance their reputation but often take away attention from the work presented.

But of course there are exceptions. Actually quite a few of them, including the obvious ones like John Szarkowski. Many of the best have been, like him, photographers and have had a real appreciation of the medium.

Thanks to a recent post Hugh Edwards: Unknown Icon by Kenneth Tanaka on The Online Photographer, I have now been made aware of another fine curator. Edwards (1904–1986) was Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he had already worked for 30 years, for his last 12 years there from 1959-70, during which time he organised 75 exhibitions, as well as regularly showing new acquisitions.

This was an important time in the evolution of photography, and one in which Edwards played an major role, giving Robert Frank his first American museum exhibition in 1961 and promoting many emerging photographers as well as building up a fine study collection of work by nineteenth and twentieth century masters. And his contribution is finely and extensively documented in the web site on him and the photography he championed and bought for the Art Institute collection by photography curator Elizabeth Siegel and a team of researchers.

Photography was one of his many interests; David Travis, Curator and Chair of the Department of Photography from two years after Edwards retired until 2008 writes about him at some length and remembers the rare and memorable evenings at his home when he would show his own colour slides made at “a roller skating rink in Harvey, Illinois”. In in a letter to Frank, Edwards wrote “I ran away from ‘culture’ and accelerated education to spend all my evenings in a large skating rink on the outskirts of Chicago for five whole years. There were many wonders there and I used to wish someone would catch them so they could be kept. Then I found your book and saw you had done it.” Travis comments that having seen Frank’s work “published, Mr. Edwards felt his own mission as a photographer could end.”

Those who can make it to Chicago can see the extensive show at the Art Institute also curated by Seigel, The Photographer’s Curator: Hugh Edwards at the Art Institute of Chicago which runs until October 29th 2017. But otherwise the web site is a fine tribute to an amazing curator and his legacy.