Stephen Clarke: I’m not a real photographer

In his seminal artwork ‘Trouser – Word Piece’ (1972), the artist Keith Arnatt wore a placard that announced ‘I’m a real artist’. This declaration was modified to ‘I’m a real photographer’ for the retrospective of Arnatt’s photographic works in 2007 at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. This change of designation reflected the apparent defection of Arnatt from art to photography in the mid 1970s. His friend David Hurn, one of the curators of this exhibition, had effectively repositioned Arnatt by the re-wording of the earlier artwork. In Britain the struggle between art and photography has a history that begins in the nineteenth century, but reached a climax during the 1970s and 1980s. Arnatt and Hurn had their parts to play, as did Paul Hill and Val Williams, two of the speakers at Redeye’s 6th National Photography Symposium. Hill and Williams spoke about one skirmish in this battle for the recognition of photography as an artform, the work of a group of photographers who exhibited at The Midland Group Gallery. Hill spoke from the position of a participant in this group, while Williams shared her findings as an historian. To some extent the opposing faction in the struggle for recognition was the art establishment and, perhaps, artists protecting their turf. Consequently, it is as an artist rather than a photographer proper that I sometimes feel like a trespasser when attending photography events.

Photography has now established its presence in the art gallery and this was underlined by the opening panel discussion at this year’s NPS which addressed the pathways that photographers could take to becoming successful artists. Richard West, co-editor of Source: The Photographic Review, considered the importance of portfolio reviews. He referred to a recent article in the magazine that investigated the value of paying to have your work reviewed (see Source, Issue 77, Winter 2014 ‘Portfolio Reviews, Who Benefits?’ p.5). David Drake, the director of Ffotogallery in Cardiff, expanded upon this relationship between curators, artists, and galleries as he took the audience through a number of scenarios for a photographer to gain exposure as an exhibiting artist. His discussion was illustrated by the work of several photographers who had exhibited at Ffotogallery. Preparation for this process starts in colleges and universities. The input from a degree course was mapped out by panel member Nathan Tromans of Birmingham Institute of Art and Design. Jon Levy advocated a more independent stance, putting forward the alternatives to both the art gallery and academia. The main issue for the panel was how could different organisations, magazines, galleries, and colleges, support students and emerging artists. David Drake made an important observation that students studying at institutions within close proximity to Ffotogallery might hardly ever visit the gallery during their course of study. The point is that the relationship between curators, artists, and organisations is interdependent. Maybe it is then pertinent to reverse the question and ask what can students and emerging artists do to support these organisations?

The future of organisations was the theme for the second day of the NPS. The new Library of Birmingham was a well-chosen venue to address this issue as it houses significant photography collections including the archives of Paul Hill and Val Williams. The speakers discussed how their own individual organisations operate. At the core of this discussion was the relationship between the organisation and its audience. BOM (Birmingham Open Media) is an interesting example of the interactive relationship between the different groups that use a space and the fluidity of media boundaries. Karen Newman, formerly the curator at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery, introduced her initiative, which will provide a new space for art and technology in the centre of Birmingham. The complex infrastructure of science, heritage and cultural institutions was further elaborated in a lively discussion between the critic Frances Hodgson, Peter James (Library of Birmingham), and Michael Terwey (National Media Museum). Hodgson is a passionate advocate for the appointment of a champion for photography who would lead a national strategic policy for the medium. While agreeing on many of the key issues, Peter James argues for a less singular approach that would involve a collaborative network (this discussion was reported in the current Issue 78 of Source magazine ‘How to Manage the National Photographic Collections?’ p. 7). One of the problems facing either the individual or the group is that photography is to be found in many different kinds of institutions. It is clear that photography is not a hermetic practice belonging to a defined group.

The problems of containing a diverse community became apparent with the presentations concerned with standards in photography. Roger Reynolds (Royal Photographic Society) and Denise Swanson (British Institute of Professional Photography) introduced their guidelines for professional standards and conduct within the photography industry, a theme that would be expanded upon in the third day of the symposium as delegates considered business and ethics. The attempt to define good practice is designed to differentiate the photographer from the man with a camera, but could mean the difference between the photographer and the artist. The distinction between technique and aesthetic was highlighted by Reynolds, and to this was added critical or historical awareness (something provided by academia); while one seems measurable the other is, perhaps, determined by preference.  A conflict of interests lie with the desire to delineate borders but at the same time recognise the diversity of practice. These stresses between definition and expansion are not specific to photography, in fact, they became a driving force in Fine Art practice during the late twentieth century.

Simon Roberts, We English

Image: Fountains Fell, Yorkshire Dales, 3rd August 2008 (Simon Roberts: We English, 2009)

A speaker whose practice balances this schism between definition and expansion is Simon Roberts. Roberts’ talk demonstrated the links that his work has with geography, social history, and politics, as well as engaging with both the history of photography and the history of landscape painting. Roberts works with the tradition of large format plate cameras to make his landscape photographs but he also makes full use of social media to develop his projects. An intelligent practitioner, Roberts’ generosity and layered work touched on most of the issues raised at this NPS.

The strength of Redeye is as an organisation that offers a breadth of viewpoints. The mixture of photojournalism, professional issues for working photographers, independent art photography, and photographic history gives a place to everyone. Redeye, like any good organisation, survives through the input of its members and volunteers – it is not a one-way transaction where a customer is given good service, but a community that shares its resources. Photographic practice is diverse, largely unrestrained by internal regulation. As a medium that suffered prejudice by an art establishment, photography in turn should be wary of the urge to police expression and defend its own borders. In this more inclusive photography community I can, as a student of Keith Arnatt, also openly assert that ‘I’m a real artist’ … who works with photographs.

 

Stephen Clarke is an artist, writer and lecturer based in the North West.

‘Ocean Beach, Rhyl’ by Stephen Clarke is available from Café Royal Books http://www.caferoyalbooks.com/index.php/shop/ocean-beach-rhyl/

His article ‘Simon Roberts: Travelling with others’ can be read in Royal Photographic Society Contemporary Photography, Number 54, Winter 2014 on http://issuu.com/bjsdesign/docs/winter_journal_2014_for_issuu