The Three Cities of Photography

[Text of my speech at the opening of ‘Paris – New York – London‘ at the Shoreditch Gallery, London on 20.10.2010. The show continues until 29.10.2010.]

Stars of tonight’s show are the most vital cities in the history of photography, Paris, New York and London. As we know the twin birth of our medium was announced within a few days in Paris and London in 1839; New York was to dominate much of the twentieth century.

The most notable British photographer of the last century illustrates their relationship well. Bill Brandt was a German who re-invented himself as a Londoner, learnt photography in Paris, and when he had the first major solo exhibition by a living photographer in any of our leading art institutions, his Hayward Gallery show came from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

London dominated photography in the 19th century. One of our greatest photographers was Roger Fenton, honoured by a blue plaque on a fine house overlooking Parliament Hill Fields. But after a few years as our leading photographer he abandoned photography and went back to making some money instead – as a lawyer. Despite the strength of photography here, this country has never really accepted photography, never developed a culture, a community that supports it.

© Paul Baldesare
Sleeping vagrant, Davies St, Mayfair, London. Paul Baldesare

Paris’s great period was between the two World Wars; Atget was still working in the twenties, Henri CartierBresson was young and active in the next decade and others including Capa, Brassai, Kertesz and Man Ray flocked there. But photography was just one of the arts that flourished, and the inspiration for my own work on the wall here came more from Surrealist literature and in particular Aragon‘s ‘Paris Peasant.’

© 1988, Peter Marshall

One man almost single-handedly dragged the US to the forefront of photography around the start of the twentieth century, and Alfred Stieglitz in New York repeated his miracle when he published the work of Paul Strand in the final two editions of Camera Work in 1916-7. Later the city was the home for a hugely vital upsurge of photography in the form of the New York Photo League, closed down by McCarthyism at the start of the 1950s.

Alexey Brodovitch came from Paris to New York in the mid 1930s, becoming art director of Harper’s Bazaar and in the 1950s and 60s established a legendary laboratory for photographers. Two who went through that mill, John Benton-Harris and Tony Ray-Jones came to London in the late 1960s and helped to kick-start a decade of resurgence of photography here which lasted through most of the 1970s, particular through their influence on the magazine ‘Creative Camera‘, based in London, though its publisher, Coo Press was kept afloat by men in braces in the pigeon lofts of our northern cities who bought its other publications.

This was only a short-lived flutter, soon cut down to size and emasculated by a British establishment that refused to take photography seriously (and held its nose and kept it at arm’s length when it had to take it at all), and in particular the Arts Council and their ‘photographic flagship’ in London, the Photographers’ Gallery, or as I christened it a couple of years ago after its move to new premises, the zombies of Ramilees St. The gallery made only half-hearted attempts to encourage and nurture photography in this country, and these were abandoned completely  in the late 1980s.

I was one of the photographers influenced by that outburst of the 1970s, and Paul Baldesare‘s work developed particularly from that of Tony Ray-Jones and John Benton-Harris.

Although a photographic culture is still almost completely lacking here, there have been a few small glimmers of hope arising if sometimes rather dimly and uncertainly from a general pea-soup of indifference. Photofusion in Brixton, Host not too far from here, and, perhaps most notably, the East London Photomonth, now celebrating its tenth year. I’m pleased to have been able to be involved with it through shows here in the last three of these.

Peter Marshall 20.10.2010

[I ended with thanks to various people and also an advert for Photo Paris, which includes the pictures from Paris on show here, as well as mentioning that work from two of us was on sale. Pictures from the opening in a later post.]

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