Who Speaks for Photography?

I’ve often commented on the lack of any real photographic culture or support for photographers in the UK, at times contrasting the situation here with that in the other country where it also came to birth – for example in posts here such as – and also in many other countries around the world. Despite our heritage, during my lifetime at least there has been little if any evidence of any real understanding or sympathy with photography or photographers in the UK (though perhaps just a little more the further you get from London.)

I think there are many reasons for this, including the logocentric nature of British culture and the snobbishness of our class-based education system and society. The fact that photography has so many practical applications made it dismissed as a subject for vocational education, and the shift into higher education courses that has happened more recently overloaded courses with pseudo-scientific theory while refusing to take the medium itself seriously. And so on.

It is perhaps also curious that while the UK is home to the world’s leading auction houses that sell photography (including in Paris, New York…), the UK has never really been home to a leading commercial photography gallery.  The best known of those that we do have (or have had) have been those that specialise in the ‘golden age’ or British photography that seems to have ended a hundred years or more ago. People have tried – sometimes heroically – but there just is not the market in the UK.

In Who Speaks for Photography?, Francis Hodgson, professor in the Culture of Photography at the University of Brighton, in England, photography critic for the Financial Times and a former head of the photographs department at Sotheby’s and more writes his own thoughts on the failure of photography to gain any real place in our institutional culture, identifying the lack of any influential voice to stand up for the medium – and suggesting what might be done.

It is a long piece, and some may well be tempted to give up reading before they even get to where Hodgson begins to address photography, with the question:

If a museum needs to campaign against the cuts, or a change is mooted in the curriculum for ‘A’ Level study, or a failure in intellectual property law cries out for lobbying in Parliament – who speaks for photography?

And his answer (again at some length, but with at least for me, considerably more interest, and including some perhaps illuminating comparisons with cycling and gardening) is that nobody does, or at least that nobody has been in any position to do so since when the Arts Council had a Photography Officer.

Barry Lane who held that post from 1973 to 1995 certainly did something, but I suspect worked under great difficulties in that organisation, and the various switches in policy largely frustrated the development of photography in the UK. In my post mentioned above I commented:

In the UK in the late 1970s the Arts Council made the fatal mistake of handing over the medium to curators and galleries, and we  … are still suffering from it.

My view is that of a photographer, and not one that Hodgson shares, as he praises Lane’s work overseeing the “specialist photography sub-committee which carried on throughout the  allocating grants and also purchases into the Arts Council collection by acquisition.

It was perhaps better than nothing, though I’m not convinced. I still see it as largely driving the train in the wrong direction.  And I’m not entirely convinced by his suggestion of trying to revivify the ‘Committee of National Photographic Collections’ would have a great effect, though it would be good to see it happen.

I’m not sure I have any better answer – except perhaps to move to Paris. Though supporting what we do have – such as the Photomonth East London photography festival would be a good start – something many parts of the ‘photographic establishment’ have rather turned their nose up at in the past.

2 Responses to “Who Speaks for Photography?”

  1. ChrisL says:

    “Up North” we do seem to have some funding but of course it is couched in the usual Arts Council speak:


  2. Redeye is something of a success story, but I think the treatment of Side Gallery by the Arts Council is a rather different matter which rather illustrates the point I was making. Good to hear that they have got a grant of £1,1m from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for its project, The AmberSide Collection: Access & Engagement:

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