At the Symposium Val Williams and Paul Hill spoke about photography networking though the Midland Group Gallery in Nottingham in the 1970s and 80s. Here, Paul Hill outlines his personal experience and involvement with the movement.
My own involvement with the Midland Group Photography came about because in 1973 I was teaching photography part-time at Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham. I had been a photo-journalist since 1965, but was always interested in doing my own personal work. Through my teaching, and particularly through my friendship with Bill Jay – editor of Creative Camera and later Album – I was aware of how powerful the medium could be for expressing rather than describing.
But where could you show such ‘personal’ work in the late 60s – early 70s? Personal work for ‘thinking photographers’ was something you did ‘on the side’, whilst working in journalism, advertising, industry, fashion, or teaching.
Val mentioned in her presentation The Photographers’ Gallery in London. I had an exhibition there in 1971 of mostly personal documentary work, which was great as the gallery was ‘the only show in town’ then.
My teaching at the poly and Derby College of Art meant that I was working with lecturers and students who wanted their creative, non-applied work to get to a wider audience. So a grass roots group called Exposure, made up mostly of these lecturers approached the Midland Group, and the result was Midlands Seen. John Blakemore and Richard Sadler were members of Exposure and may have shown work at the Midland Group before, I think, but probably in a group show.
As Val mentioned the head of photography at the poly, Bill Gaskins, was most influential and, as well as participating in this first show, he asked some London-based high profile photographers, like David Hurn, David Montgomery, and John Benton Harris to exhibit with us. This showed we were serious and could vie with even The Photographers’ Gallery!
There was quite a lot of media attention as it was novel to see photographs in art galleries in those days. Even the Guardian reviewed. The formalistic approach taken by some of the participants, including me, was innovative in the reviewer’s eyes:
… to examine a portion of something in detail … is how the majority of people are teaching themselves to see now. If any popular art form or style is going to develop from this popular method of looking, Nottingham may inadvertently be the place to start it.
The first issue of the East Midlands Arts Association tabloid Artefact wanted to feature Midland Seen and they asked me to write a piece, which they entitled Photography – A Non-Art? It was also commissioned in response to a recently published interview with Lord Snowdon, who was then the public face of photography after his marriage to Princess Margaret in the 60s.
His view was that luck plays too great a part in photography for it to be considered an art. It was a craft, and he loathed the idea of signing a photographic print. An accountant doesn’t sign your accounts, he said, so why should a photographer sign his photographs?
I trenchantly argued in the piece that photography was a stand-alone art form, and concluded a pretty long piece thus:
In this country it is not very surprising therefore that even people who are deeply appreciative of the conventionally accepted creative arts – people, one supposes, like Lord Snowdon – do not put photography alongside painting, sculpture, music etc..
It is because they do not understand it; and like most things people do not understand, they are frightened of it.
Among those frightened of photography at that time were most fine artists. Vic Burgin was a lecturer in the Fine Art Department at Trent Poly then, and wrote in Camerawork that those photographers who sought to establish photography’s credibility as an art were like rats swimming towards a sinking ship.
It was a philosophical and ideological battleground then, but I think we know now who won!
Anyway, back to the Midland Group…
Some members of Exposure were asked to become Midland Group Photography charged with creating a programme of photographic exhibitions. These included Thomas Joshua Cooper’s first British show, and John Davies (a Trent Poly student) showed with 2 other Trent students later. But our ‘big idea’ was the annual Midland Group Open. We decided that if we wanted good work we needed the magnet of well-known selectors. Val has mentioned Jean Claud Lemagny and Aaron Scharf. They were followed by John Szarkowski, R.J.Kitaj, and many more over the ensuing years. Robert Mapplethorpe – wanting to impress selector John Szarkowski, no doubt – sent in 2 pictures, which guaranteed media interest and persuaded many more photographers to submit work in future years.
For a period the Midlands, and particularly the East Midlands, became – I do not think it is an exaggeration to say – the epicentre of British photography. It was because a group of photographers wanted to change things and the Midland Group offered them that opportunity which they eagerly grasped. I do not think it is too fanciful to say that if the photography networks and initiatives of the early 1970s, Val has alluded to – and is researching into – hadn’t succeeded, we probably wouldn’t be in this room today….
Paul Hill, June 2014