Why the British Don’t Like Photography
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 204, July 2017
We British people do not like photography. Writing this in a magazine read by people who evidently love photography is deliberately provocative. However the truth is that the culture of Britain is antithetic to photography on the whole and this reluctance to embrace photographic art is the reason we lag so far behind other countries where photography is a widely respected art form.
There are three main reasons for this nationwide reluctance to engage in the art form that defined the 20th century and looks to continue its tenure well into the 21st. Firstly the historic reason; it started so well – we didn’t invent photography but we did more (and earlier) to popularise it than France or the United States. Henry Fox Talbot saw the artistic potential in being able to ‘draw’ with the Pencil of Nature (the first photographic book to be commercially published) in 1846.
Fox Talbot’s accomplishments were legion; he commercialised the production of photographic materials, he developed a way of ‘fixing’ a print, through his ‘calotype’ process he drastically reduced the time required to make an exposure and with this same process he enabled the production of a negative that could reproduced an image countless times. We owe much to the industry of this man. And as we will see it is the industry of certain men that makes such a difference.
In 1853 the mainstream art world and photography were coalescing nicely. The English painter, William John Newton, said that the camera could produce artistic results if the photographer would keep an image “slightly out of focus” (oddly this is also the title that Capa gave to his riveting account of World War 2). The inevitable adoption of photography by artists as an aid to painting meant that the division between photography and painting was blurring.
By 1892 the ‘Brotherhood of the Linked Ring’ was formed to “propose and defend that photography was just as much an art as it was a science…” This was the formal birth of the Pictorialist movement in England to which such luminaries as Julia Margaret Cameron, John Ruskin and Henry Peach Robinson would belong. In short we ‘owned’ photographic art. Our mercantile nature led us to commercialise the materials and our inquisitive tendency engaged with the medium.
And then along came the New Yorker, Alfred Stieglitz. He was the first American to be elected to the ‘Brotherhood’ and he saw what was happening and was inspired. There were two photographic societies in New York; the Society of Amateur Photographers and the New York Camera Club. in 1896 Stieglitz amalgamated these to form The Camera Club of New York and took complete control of the new institution in a bid to make its photographers key contributors to the contemporary art scene in the United States. It is at this point that the history of photography begins to be directed away from British and European shores and winds its way across the wide Atlantic ocean to the ‘New World’.
Stieglitz’s incredible energy led to the creation of the Photo-Secessionists movement that sought to secede from the established (old fashioned) idea of what a photograph was. So with the creation of the ‘Little Gallery of Photo-Secessionists” in New York and an exhibition that Stieglitz timed to coincide with the watershed Armory show (the first International Exhibition of Modern Art) in New York, he established a new pathway for photography and its inclusion in the mainstream of American contemporary art and culture. There isn’t enough space here to outline what happened next but let me finish this part of the essay by saying that there was no British Stieglitz and there was no grand movement until perhaps the Vorticists in the 1930’s to rehabilitate photography with contemporary art. At a crucial moment in the development of photography the mainstream British art scene did not adopt photography as one of its own.
Next we have problem of mechanics. Britain gave the world the industrial revolution. From the 18th century onwards we ruled the waves ,and the fields, and the looms etc, etc. Great fortunes were made by clever men with funny accents. The élites, who were constituted of a virtually unreconstructed, feudalistic hierarchy and who dominated culture and politics, were very happy to harness the power of new technology but were mistrustful of it at the same time. Think of the art of the time; Constable, Stubbs, Millais (not Turner) and you will see an obsession with the bucolic, pastural ‘naturalness’ of the motherland. It took Turner to inculcate motifs of new technology and the dawning of a new machine driven era into his paintings. But this is what marks him as exceptional rather than indicative.
As has been noted above, the progenitors of photography in Britain were mainly well todo amateur enthusiasts – in other words practitioners of an arcane method that was never more than a gentleman’s hobby. The British didn’t love machinery or see the romance or beauty in it as did our German and French counterparts. To the British élite, machinery was an extension of their pragmatism – tools to make money with – just listen to Blake’s condemning words in the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ to hear the sound of mistrust and warnings of exploitation in the newly mechanised Britain. To conclude, the second reason we don’t ‘do’ photography is because we like machines in all their practical application but we either mistrust them as cultural anomalies or disregard them as artistic tools because we have never had a Stieglitz to converge our love of traditional arts with the new possibilities of mechanical capture. We do not trust that a machine such as a camera is capable of making fine art.
My third point is that the British have not been forced to accept photography as a cultural totem on a par with painting, sculpture, literature or even theatre. Take France and Germany for example. Both of these countries have been extensively invaded and occupied in the last 150 years. At the same time American culture had been fomenting. If you compare, as a proportion of the time of the US Republic’s existence with that of the existence of photography you can see that photography has defined American culture from the civil war onwards. At the same time both France and Germany (and arguably Spain and Italy, too) have been occupied and destroyed forcing on them a new relationship with technology and an optimism about its practical and cultural purpose. This has lead to photography being seen as more central and enabling of culture than it ever has in Britain where, apart form some ugly bombing, we have not been forced to readdress our cultural and emotional relationship with technology. This has left a very old and deeply engrained suspicion of the cultural value of photography largely intact.
Finally it is worth mentioning that the British (as a culture and people) are ambivalent at best to photography perhaps due to nothing more complicated than the fact we are a literate rather than visual nation. Count up the number of great writers we have produced versus the number of great painters. And then do the same for France. Culture is deep and hard to change but perhaps all we need is our own Stieglitz. A man who could teach the British how to look at and love photography.
Please note that the pictures that accompany this article were shot by me of my ‘uncle’ Peter Layton, Britain’s foremost glass blower. Peter is 80 this year and has been redefining glass art since the ’70’s. I have illustrated the article with these pictures because they show a tangible art form that is, arguably, more readily accessible to British tastes, broadly speaking, than photography.