Three Boys and a Pigeon

Article published in Planet, Autumn 2009, Issue 196


Photography has played a role in Wales since its invention in the 1830s when its key figure William Henry Fox Talbot, along with his family and friends, made some of the earliest ever photographs in and around Swansea and Margam. This summer, three concurrent exhibitions, two at National Museum Cardiff and one at Ffotogallery, offered an opportunity for Paul Cabuts to reflect on the development and growth of the medium over the last forty years.

Diane Arbus is widely regarded as one of the most important photographers of the twentieth century. Her work was already influential by the time of her death in 1971 at the age of forty-eight. The exhibition at the National Museum presented some of her most important works and offered a rare opportunity to scrutinise at firsthand some of the photographs that helped reposition documentary photography. Not least they indicated how photography took up a significant role in the world of the contemporary visual arts. A key turning point had been the 1967 exhibition New Documents at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) where Arbus, along with Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand, presented a startling new hard-edged form of black and white photography. In the decades preceding the MOMA show the most visible photography had been undertaken by humanist photographers working for mass media magazines such as life. In this period most photographers saw their work as a way to promote positive social change. However, New Documents marked the point where photographers including Arbus started to engage with their subjects in very different ways. As MOMA’s renowned curator of photography John Szarkowski pointed out, “Their aim has not been to reform life, but to know it” [1].

In her work at the National Museum it could be seen how Arbus unflinchingly turned her camera on those human subjects that had previously been less visible. Dwarves, giants, transvestites, prostitutes and others all became part of her “contemporary anthropology”. Many photographers had believed that it was their responsibility to show their subjects in a positive way, or at least with some dignity. For Arbus the only way to represent people was to show them as they were, no matter how shocking or uncomfortable for the viewer. Her later works in this exhibition, which featured people with Down’s Syndrome, must have brought into question her motivations in choice of subject, yet it is clear when you look at her work as a whole that the directness of her scrutiny was applied to all those she photographed, whatever their human condition.

It was interesting to watch a group of teenage students from Italy navigate through the gallery. They were clearly enjoying and engaging with the photographs, which perhaps reflects the fact that whilst these photographs were shocking in their day, current ‘inclusive’ societies are more familiar with images of those once less visible. Perhaps, of course, these particular images having entered the canon of the photographic arts are recognisable and have somehow lost their shock value through a disengagement from their original social contexts. The students, like other viewers of these photographs, delighted in the opportunity to get close-up to details they might not otherwise see. Arbus herself pointed out that if she had to ask a stranger if she could go into their house and ask them for their life story, they would have thought that she was crazy. She believed that her camera was a kind of licence, and that people actually enjoyed the attention she as a photographer was paying them [2]. It is in this sense that the photographs were given to Arbus by her subjects, and not stolen from them by her. Her photographs let us in on this intimate engagement and the attention to detail is formidable. Sometimes it can be cruel as in the case of the acne-ridden youth in the photograph ‘Patriotic young man with flag, N.Y.C. 1967’. Sometimes it is tender as with the mixed race couple in ‘A young man and his pregnant wife in Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. 1965’. And sometimes it’s simply funny as in ‘Retired man and his wife at home in a nudist camp one morning, N.J. 1963’ where a naked elderly couple sit ‘naturally’ in their living room. The husband with his legs akimbo makes a rather ungainly arrangement for the camera in comparison to the ‘kitsch’ reproduction hanging above his head showing a young naked woman striking something of a more alluring pose.

For many years Britain had lagged behind America in terms of an institutional acceptance of photography as an art form in its own right. At the same time as MOMA was delivering cutting edge photography shows in the late 1950s the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Director was pointing out that “Photography is a purely mechanical process into which the artist does not enter” [3]. Wales was something of a leader in the development of what was then in Britain called ‘Creative Photography’ when, in 1968, its Arts Council organised the first travelling exhibition of the work of a living photographer. Support for Raymond Moore’s exhibition was followed in 1971 by a grant awarded to David Hurn, the first given to a photographer working in Wales. The 1970s, became a key time for the development of photography in Britain and witnessed the establishment of specialist photography galleries including, The Photographers’ Gallery, London; Impressions Gallery, York; Open Eye, Liverpool; Side Gallery, Newcastle. In 1979 Wales’ own Ffotogallery opened with the mission to promote photography in Wales.

The second exhibition at the National Museum, No Such Thing as Society, which featured aspects of British photography as it developed in the 1970s and 1980s, highlighted the work of many key photographers who would emerge onto the international photography stage. It is the case that the National Museum provided a rare opportunity to move between the work of one of the most influential international photographers of the twentieth century, and the work of some of the most important British photographers in recent generations. This proximity offered an opportunity to consider how Arbus may have influenced her British counterparts. For example, Keith Arnatt’s wonderful portraits of pairs of people in ‘The Visitors’ (tourists visiting Tintern Abbey) are reminiscent of Arbus’ photograph ‘Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967’. Arnatt’s portraits, like those of Arbus, point out the strange everyday-ordinariness of his subjects but his photographs are never cruel and are very ‘British’. His square black and white format is one shared with Arbus, as it was with another key photographer to feature in this exhibition, Daniel Meadows.

The Italian students having migrated into this gallery were clearly more bemused by the imagery it offered. There is a universality about Arbus’ photographs and her subjects, but what could the students make of Meadows’ portrait of three boys and a pigeon? The photograph, ‘Portsmouth: John Payne, aged 12, with two friends and his pigeon, Chequer, April 1974’, like many other photographs in the exhibition, offers a window on a lost world, one that is difficult to perceive without considerable culturally-specific contextualisation. Meadows’ photograph is however a masterstroke in providing clues about the life and times of those recorded through his lens. The boys became the subject, although the pigeon had been the vehicle for this particular engagement. In offering up their pigeon (the photograph was taken at their request), we enter a world of friendship and pride, the social activities on a working class housing estate, and not least we enter a time of large collars and tanktops. This was a time when there were only three television channels, no iPods (the Sony Walkman was a gift of the 80s), and not a personal computer in sight (let alone the Web).

Wales was very well represented in No Such Thing as Society, both Arnatt and Meadows once worked at the Newport School of Art on its Documentary Photography course established by David Hurn. Another contributor to the exhibition, Ron McCormick, had also worked at Newport and went on to produce work for Ffotogallery’s Valleys Project, a documentary survey of the South Wales Valleys in the 1980s. Two other Valleys Project photographers, John Davies and Peter Fraser, also featured, with Fraser’s photograph of a garage in Pontypridd “I Hate Green” being one of the earliest examples of large format colour photography to be seen in Britain (let alone Wales). In the 1980s, Ffotogallery had also exhibited the colour photographs of Martin Parr and Paul Graham. In No Such Thing, works such as theirs provided an index to the ways in which contemporary photography would evolve, and to some extent also provided a more familiar insight into the subjects and period covered in the exhibition. The Britain presented in the black and white works appeared astonishingly distant. As two young museum attendants swapped a turn invigilating the gallery they, like the visitors, were engaged by the exhibition. Chuckling to each other, one was drawn to point out to the other a photograph of a child sitting on its father’s shoulders taken by Chris Killip. The attendants were no doubt amused by the demeanour of the two characters. The unkempt young father squinting at something that both he and the child found interesting, his open mouth showing the mismatch between his gums and his dentures. The child, whose arm nonchalantly rests on the father’s head and who, despite bright sunshine, is wearing his fully buttoned duffle coat hood up, also squints but with each of his eyes gazing in slightly different directions. Both father and child are apparently unaware of the close proximity of the camera. The chuckling appeared not to be drawn by the rather unfortunate condition of the two remarkable characters in the photograph, but rather the fact that they could have somehow belonged to late twentieth century Britain. For those old enough, the photographs in this exhibition are perhaps less strange.

The journey across Cardiff to Penarth provided time to reflect on the Museum’s exhibitions and the developments in photography since the photographs on show had first been made. By 1990 a ‘British Photography’ had been recognised and was to some extent acknowledged by the MOMA exhibition “British Photography from the Thatcher Years” which featured photographers including Martin Parr and John Davies. As suggested earlier, Wales had played a considerable part in the developments and continued to do so. Exhibitions in Wales included that of the work of the late, great, Philip Jones Griffiths who gained a prominent international reputation for his work during the Vietnam war. He spoke memorably in Wales about his work on several occasions including at the National Museum during his 1997 exhibition Dark Odyssey, and in more recent years at the Lens Photography Festival dedicated to war photography and organised by the National Library of Wales. Many internationally important photographers have exhibited and made work in Wales including Josef Koudelka, whose Welsh photographs were commissioned and exhibited through a collaboration between Ffotogallery and the National Museum in 1998. Significant shows have also featured in other galleries throughout Wales including at venues in Wrexham, Llandudno, Newtown, Aberystwyth, Swansea and Newport.

Since the establishment of the now acclaimed Documentary Photography course at Newport, other photography courses have flourished in Wales such as those at Swansea Metropolitan University, Aberystwyth University and, more recently, the University of Wales Institute Cardiff. With such institutional advocacy, and the provision of undergraduate and postgraduate photography courses available up to PhD level, it is little wonder that Wales is perceived as a hotspot for contemporary photography with many international practitioners and students choosing to come here. On this point it is worth noting that it was said of Arbus, “Diane Arbus was not a theorist but an artist. Her concern was not to buttress philosophical positions but to make pictures” [4]. The widespread academic development of photography, and the critical and theoretical reflections on it since the 1970s and 1980s, has increasingly made it a significant intellectual activity. It has been suggested that Britain often led the way in this [5].

On the threshold of Ffotogallery’s premises many photography purists have paused and taken a deep breath in preparation for what they may encounter inside. However, during the last twenty years in particular, Ffotogallery has intelligently explored contemporary photography’s potential as a means of communication and expression, whilst continuing to celebrate important landmarks in photography’s wider development. The exhibition Humming Paradise by the artist Joe Magee presented the audience with what might be expected from a twenty-first century contemporary visual arts space. “Exploring the nature of human communication, and how people interact and communicate in the digital age”, Magee presented a range of works that included digital video images of people in train windows, large scale images of dandelions, and a large scale mosaic photograph of silhouetted trees overlaid with images of Braille. Whilst this is a starkly different presentation of photography to that at National Museum Cardiff whose exhibitions reflect the curatorial aesthetics of their origination, Humming Paradise offered an eclectic mix of presentation techniques reflecting forms that have developed in the visual arts over the last two decades.

The large mosaic of winter trees, comprised of square panels approximately ten inches by ten inches pinned to the gallery wall. At first glance there appeared to be worrying gaps in the presentation making it look a bit like a heat shield on a doomed space shuttle. However, it soon dawned on you that the piece was an interactive artwork, and that visitors had been able to buy and immediately remove their part of the work. The installation, along with its deconstruction, was recorded with the potential to form part of a video presentation at the next exhibition tracing the evolution of the work. In another Magee piece the people videoed in train windows appeared distant and anonymous. This is a stark contrast to those depicted in the photographs of Arbus, Meadows and others. A telling moment was at the end of the video when the image was frozen as a train guard made a signal with his hand covering his face. It suggested something about society’s current aversion to the gaze of the camera; this would seem very different in comparison to the attitudes displayed just a few decades ago. Whilst distinctly different to the works on show at the National Museum, Magee’s work still said much about the way photographic images can be consumed, and how they can question our own relationship to the world in which we live.

These three differing exhibitions, essentially American, British and Contemporary, reflect the shifts and turns in photography and its development in terms of cultural life in Wales. It is acknowledged that photography is currently in the process of major changes brought about by digital technologies. Not only is this changing how photographs can look, it is also changing the expectations of photography audiences and the way they choose to consume images. Ffotogallery, which has been a significant part of photography’s dialogue with contemporary audiences, had hoped to develop a National Centre for Photography in Wales at Margam Castle. Due to strategic difficulties with partners, the project will now not happen, and alternative plans for the organisation’s future are less clear.

Other developments in Britain might also be signalling a change in photography’s fortunes including the cancellation of a new building for the Photographers’ Gallery due to a shortfall in raising the £15.5 million funds for the project [6]. Also significant is that the Victoria and Albert Museum, with its considerable collection of historical and contemporary photography, no longer has a photography specialist on the committee that decides its exhibition policy following the departure of the leading photography expert Mark Haworth Booth [7]. Another growing trend appears to be the repositioning of the development of photography away from specialist centres to those working with a range of contemporary art forms. Tate, with its broad remit in both historical and contemporary arts, is heralding a new advocacy for photography through the appointment of a new Tate Gallery Curator of Photography. Also, the National Media Museum based in Bradford is intending to open a satellite gallery in London’s Science Museum, which will occasionally exhibit photographic works from its collections. It should not be forgotten the Royal Photographic Society’s unique and substantial collection of historical photography, once housed and exhibited at the Society’s headquarters in Bath, were moved to the National Media Museum just a few years ago.

In some ways these developments reflect the incredible success of organisations such as Ffotogallery, which has worked tirelessly over the last thirty years to expand photography into the spheres of contemporary art. In Wales, Ffotogallery has developed a sophisticated audience for photography not just through its sometimes-challenging exhibition programme, but also through numerous collaborations with other organisations (including academic institutions), and through the work of its own ground-breaking education wing. Ffotogallery has not just helped develop photography in Wales, but it has also had considerable influence on the broader development of contemporary photography in the UK and beyond through its influential publications, conferences and commissions. The wide range of people enjoying the three exhibitions discussed here is testament to the value of the promotion of photography in Wales. However, with its current cultural ubiquity along with its centrality in the contemporary arts, there is a possibility that photography itself, as a prime medium of communication and a form of artistic expression, is becoming invisible. There is a danger that we will no longer seek to separate its specificity from the other forms that operate with and around it.

In recent years there has been a discussion about the development in Wales of a National Centre for Contemporary Art. It has to be hoped that the establishment of such an important cultural enterprise, whilst arguably long overdue, would not assimilate Ffotogallery. Now, perhaps more than ever, we should continue to celebrate photography ‘itself’ by building on Ffotogallery’s thirty years of work through its continued independent development. This would not only enrich Wales’ own distinctive cultural landscape, but would also continue our significant contribution to the development of one of the world’s most dynamic and expressive visual art forms.

© Paul Cabuts

[1] KISMARIC, S. 1990. British Photography from the Thatcher Years. New York. MOMA (p10)
[2] ARBUS, D. 1972. Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph. New York. Aperture Foundation (p1)
[3] MAYNE, R. 1986. The Street Photographs of Roger Mayne. London. V&A (Preface)
[4] ARBUS, D. 1972. Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph. New York. Aperture Foundation (cover)
[5] CAMPANY, D. 2007. We Are Here. In: Tate Etc. (10) London. Tate (p94)
[6] DUNCAN, J & WEST, R. (Eds) 2009. New Photographers’ Gallery Cancelled. In: Source. Summer 2009 (p3)
[7] DUNCAN, J & WEST, R. (Eds) 2009. A Real National Collection for Photography? In: Source. Summer 2009 (p3)