Last night Photomonth2009 was officially opened at the Museum of Childhood, part of the V&A Museum in Bethnal Green. It was an appropriate venue for several reasons. The V&A – at its South Kensington site – was one of the first museums to collect and buy photography, starting around 150 years ago, and has one of the finest collections around which is accessible to visitors through their Print Room, as well as various exhibitions. It is a great experience to go there and handle vintage prints by great photographers such as Eugene Atget, Edward Weston and so many more there.
Festival director Maggie Pinhorn and Mick Williamson
The buildings that make up most of the Museum of Childhood were actually physically transported from South Ken into East London and opened in 1872, very much as a part of a mission to bring culture to the masses (a massive failure which you can read more about in Cathy Ross’s ‘The Romance of Bethnal Green‘ – the feature includes a few of the photos I supplied for the book.)
Photomonth, based in an East London which has now become the artistic centre of the capital, is a rather more successful attempt, including a huge number of photographic shows and events as I mentioned previously. It is very much the largest photographic event in this country, and I think the most important and most vital, though I’d like to see it even bigger and better as a London photo festival.
If you read my several postings last November on the events in Paris – the dealer trade show ‘Paris Photo‘, the ‘Mois de la Photo‘ and the ‘Photo-Off‘ fringe festival (see the >Re:PHOTO archive for November 2008 and MyLondonDiary for the same month) I think you are likely to share my feelings that some of the most exciting things on show were in the fringe (and there were some on the fringe of the fringe too.)
While Paris becomes an inclusive festival by the presence of these different strands, Photomonth sets out to be so from the start – open to all photographers who want to participate, through major museums and arts centres, small galleries or any other spaces they can find to hang work. The Photomonth Photo-open at the Old Truman Brewery provides an even wider opportunity for taking part.
What is perhaps most important is that it is largely a photographers festival rather than a curators festival. Photography in this country suffered a near-fatal blow around 40 years ago when the Arts Council decided to concentrate funding on galleries and curators rather than on artists and photographers which almost halted the immature but developing photographic culture of this country in its tracks.
Photomonth opened with a photographer who first became known in those few years of opportunity in the 1970s, Paul Trevor, who I wrote about a little for last year’s Photomonth. His show ‘Childhood‘ in the Museum of Childhood is a small selection of 20 pictures featuring children from the many thousands of pictures in his ‘Eastender Archive.’ Most were taken in the 1970s and 80s around where he was living in the Brick Lane area, and they include several of his justifiably best-known pictures, some of which I first saw in ‘Camerawork’ soon after they were taken. Although the printing is adequate in letting you see his images, it perhaps lacks the kind of depth and dimensionality his work really needs to be seen at its best.
Also on display at the V&A Museum of Childhood was a small series of large (3 times life-size and 105×134 cm) head and shoulder profile views of one-year-old children by Bettina von Zwehl. The catalogue note says “With her distinctively precise and patient approach, von Zwehl creates images which challenge traditional expectations of how young children are portrayed” but I found them rather boring. You can make up your own mind, at least from small reproductions of ‘Profiles Three, 2005’ on her web site The size on the web or on in the Photomonth catalogue, which you can pick up free at any of the participating venues, is really at least as much as I feel a need to see.
It was a well-attended opening, with many well-known photographers, including of course Paul Trevor. A temporary exhibition showcase of dolls very much attracted the attention of both Martin Parr (and myself.) Jenny Matthews is one of the festival patrons (I didn’t see the two others, Tom Hunter and Stephen Gill, but they may have been there.) Far too many other photographers were there to name them all.
There were just three short speeches, one welcoming us to the museum and a second by Festival Director, Maggie Pinhorn of Alternative Arts, who had the idea for the festival a few years ago and got it running with little or no support from the arts establishment. It’s still a festival that runs on a shoestring with the support of a few sponsors. The third and final speech was by someone from the World Photography Organisation which is sponsoring the new Youth Photography Award as a part of the festival.