How We Are: Twentieth Century Blues

Coming back finally to the current Tate Britain show, ‘How We Are’, the first section ‘First Moves’, dealing with the nineteenth century is certainly the most comprehensive and inclusive of all six chronological sections of the exhibition.

Around 120 photographers are listed for the remaining five sections, and they include some fine photographers (as well as some whose inclusion is hard to justify on any grounds.) My own selection of a similar number of photographers would perhaps have included rather under half of those chosen. It was certainly good to see a fair number of those whose work I think deserves to be better known – for example Norah Smyth and Edwin Smith in their very different genres, and obviously pleasing to see a number of photographers I know or have know with work on the wall, as well as to find some of those books on my shelves are now museum pieces. Some people – such as Bill Brandt – could not of course be omitted (although I’m assured that it was initially planned to do so.) Others, quite frankly had little relevance even to the particular view that the curators were presenting, perhaps representing strongly argued cases by some of those called in to review the plans.

In part the titles given to the different eras both indicate and dictate the omission of many fine photographers. ‘Into the Twentieth Century’ may seems pretty vague for the period 1900-1918, but appears to be a pretext for ignoring almost all of the pictorial photography and news photography of the era. As this was the first age in which cheap methods of mass reproduction led to photographically based newspapers, I would have expected more emphasis on how these new media used photography, rather than the rather specialised examples in the show. The photography of the Suffragette movement, with Christina Broom (Christina Livingstone, (1863-1939), Britain’s first woman press freelance photographer) and Norah Smyth, is a highlight of this section, reflecting the curatorial interest perhaps more in that movement than in their photography, which for both was considerably wider than the visitor to this show might conclude. Both of them are also featured in Mike Seaborne’s Photographers’ London: 1839-1994, which, despite its obvious metropolitan bias, succeeds in offering a considerably wider view of this era and others covered by the show.

By defining the period 1918-1945 as ‘New Freedoms in Photography’, the curators again choose particular work from the era rather than cover it more generally. Despite the title, there is perhaps less emphasis on photojournalism that might be expected from the era that saw the growth of the photographically illustrated magazines such as Liliput, Weekly Illustrated and Picture Post.

Again, it seems to me impossible to consider the period 1945-69 adequately as a whole under the title ‘The New Britain’; for most of us it changed radically at some point between the fifties and the sixties.

Equally it seems hard to argue that the seventies and eighties were dominated by ‘The Urge to Document’ or indeed that since then we have been making ‘Reflections on a Strange Country’. These are strange generalisations indeed, and the choices (and missing persons) they lead to make the show unrepresentative.

That isn’t to say that there is not a great deal of work of interest in this show. British photography does have a great deal to offer, and the story of British photography shown here is at time enthralling. But different curators would have made different choices of photographers and images, telling at least an equally valid view of photographing Britain.

So here are just a few names from the 70 or so who would have been on my personal list for 1900-1990 but are missing, in vaguely chronological order. Where I’ve written about them elsewhere and remember I’ll give a link.

Horace Nicholls, John H Avery, George Davison Reid, Emil Otto Hoppe, Felix H Man, Margaret Monck, Cyril Arapoff, Kurt Hutton, Thurston Hopkins, Henry Grant, John French, Eric de Mare, Raymond Moore, John Blakemore, Philip Jones Griffiths, Don McCullin, Ian Berry, John Benton-Harris, Jo Spence

Among the foreign visitors who perhaps have a greater claim to be included than most of those actually present are Izis Bidermanas, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Sylvester Jacobs.

The final selection deals with contemporary work, and selection in this area is always going to be a lottery. The 20 or so photographers whose work appears in this section are an almost random cross-section from the several hundred whose work I find of some interest at the present time.

Although there is much to see, How We Are is a show that disappoints, as a missed opportunity. How long will it be after this before Tate Britain once again tries to tell the story of photography in Britain?

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.