I am currently in the process of researching and speaking with photographers whose period of mass recognition for their work was the sixties, seventies and eighties for a film project I am working on. The work of these photographers once filled the photo magazines and galleries across the world. They were asked to speak at conferences and many of them taught some of the most forward-thinking, recognized and regarded photography courses in the UK and US.
Now in their seventies and eighties, that same work resides under beds, deserted darkrooms and within dusty cupboards unseen and forgotten. Meanwhile, the photographers themselves continue to work on projects and pursue the medium with all of the passion and determination that they once did, even though they believe that they have been largely forgotten. Their emails to publications go unanswered. Their attempts to be exhibited often flounder as they hope for deserved retrospectives and recognition.
Through my research I have discovered photographers I had no knowledge of and work that I was unaware of. I have had discussions which have made me re-think my understanding of photography and its history. And by listening to these wise, experienced souls, I have been able to understand and challenge my own practice.
I am passionate about history, not only the history of photography, but all history (social, political, economic) and all of these come together in the work featured in the photographic magazines of the past. Not only those often cited professional titles, but also in the enthusiast and amateur market, who were just as likely to interview or feature a ‘named’ photographer from the period as titles such as Creative Camera, Camera, Blind Spot or Aperture. It is in reading past issues of these magazines and others that we can re-discover the work of photographers still available to us to make contact and engage with.
Why is this important? Because the history of the medium is essential to our understanding of its present and future, and by reaching out to these photographers we can experience living history outside of that written in books. The stories they have to tell are rich in detail and provide insight into realities that are too often handled with a broad-brush stroke of historical summary. As any journalist knows, if you want the facts, go to the source!
A photographic life can often be cyclical with times when even the most recognized photographer’s work is no longer in fashion or demand. I well remember working with William Klein and Jean Loup Sieff in the mid-nineties when neither of them were receiving commissions. Of course, this period was short-lived for both, but it is a fact that tastes in photography do go in and out of fashion.
Certainly, much of the work I have seen recently during my research is solidly rooted in the documentary and contemporary art aesthetic of the late sixties and seventies. Prints with deep, rich blacks and no fear of using grain to emphasize atmosphere and mood. These images are historical documents, not only of time and place, but also of photography. Where photography was at the time, its possibilities and limitations, its power when placed in the hands of those who mastered its eccentricities.
However, it is rarely seen in exhibitions today. Too recent to be seen as truly historical and too distant to be seen as contemporary, this work—and the photographers who made it—seem to have been placed into a photographic limbo by the tastemakers and gatekeepers of today.
However, I think this situation may be changing. I have previously written about the publisher Café Royal Books, based in the UK and run by Craig Aitkinson, concerning his independent approach to publishing books of photography. The imprints personality is based upon a desire to create a multiple publication documentation of British life, and in so doing Craig has been responsible for important bodies of work by photographers such as Homer Sykes, John Claridge, Daniel Meadows, Patrick Ward and Paddy Summerfield, amongst many others. This work and these photographers fill the pages of the photographic magazines of the seventies alongside the more obvious names. Their work was important then just as it is important now.
I have spoken to all of these photographers over the past few months, about their work and about photography then and now. Those conversations have been entertaining, informative and enriching and they all began by me emailing them out of the blue and just saying hello. It’s something I recommend. However many books I look at, articles I read, talks I attend and exhibitions I visit, there is nothing better than sitting down with a cup of coffee and a photographer whom I admire and letting time drift as we talk.Those conversations are based on a shared passion for the medium and a lifetime of creativity and experience, which makes them invaluable and something to treasure.
The sad fact is that if I did not have these conversations now, there is a time in the not-too-distant future when it will not be possible to do so. Many of the photographers I have spoken with recently are in their late 60s, 70s and 80s and, despite not losing their passion for the medium of photography, they are (as are we all) getting older. Their memories do not exist in books and their stories need to be remembered to be passed on to future generations. I believe that it is our responsibility to do so.
Every town and city has photographers and work of the recent past waiting for you to re-discover. They have stories to tell and work to show you, so why not go out and find them, listen to them, talk with them, collaborate with them and—most important of all—learn from them.
They are there now, but they will not be there forever.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography,
a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book #New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2018.
You can follow the progress of his documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay at donotbendfilm.com.
Text © Grant Scott 2017