Susan Bright is co-curator (with Val Williams) of Tate Britain's major photographic exhibition 'How We Are Photographing Britain'. This wide-ranging show has had excellent reviews. In the interview below for Art and Allusion she explains the thinking behind some of the selections she made.
What is the guiding idea behind this exhibition?
The idea of ‘Photographing Britain’ originally came from Tate. It freed us up from doing a more didactic ‘history of British Photography’ which Val [Williams] was originally asked to submit a proposal for and then I was asked to join her to co-curate the project. A ‘definitive history’ was something that neither of us really wanted to do as we both believe very strongly that there are many histories and not one official line on it. From the perspective of ‘Photographing Britain’ we could think about Britishness and British photography which is idiosyncratic and very different from the other countries. It is often seen and understood in a more over arching history which favours American photography but it really has nothing (or very little) in common with it. What we aimed to do was show a kind of portrait of Britain concentrating on its people and its land. It is a documentary show with recurring themes throughout. So what guided us were our own ideas of Britain, our nationality and perceptions of the country. Its also about the photographers and what they chose to photograph and where they chose to go in their explorations of the country.
Where did the title come from?
The title is from Euan Duff’s 1965 book. Val knew this book very well and has always championed it as a book that was remarkably important at the time but had fallen from critical view. It was always in the show and we were delighted to have it as the title of the show as well. Its deliberately provocative in a way and we hope that people will see it more as a question and think about their own place and nationality – just as we did when we were researching the show.
What would be your ideal response from a visitor to this exhibition?
We would like people to ask questions and to be provoked. We would also like them to remember things – not in romantic or nostalgic way but think back on their own life. We would also like visitors to think about the politics which are implicit in a show like this. This is certainly happening in the reviews which really tackle some of the ‘meatier’ issues and also the politics of the curatorial direction, strategies and stance rather than make bland value statements about it being a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ show. This has been really interesting and rewarding to see. Many of the photographers (both in the exhibition and not) have written to us saying that much of the work has reminded them why they got into photography. This is really a wonderful compliment. What is also interesting is the various different projects which have been sparked off by work that photographers have seen. I know of two new projects directly related to work seen and we are hoping to write to all the photographers in the show and see if there are any more.
How did you select the images to include?
In a variety of ways. Val and I worked very organically together. We always had certain photographers and photographs that we wanted to include – Benjamin Stone being an example. In a way I guess these photographers formed the backbone to the selection and we worked from there. There were also themes that we were both interested in such as costume, aspiration, loss and posing/performance, the idea of home, our relationship with wildlife and land etc... Of course, we also had to deal with large historical events and choose a consistant way of showing them. An example of this is how we chose to represent the wars. We chose to show these through damaged bodies (1st World War amputees, plastic surgery images by Percy Hennell and the recent stressed and exhausted young Marines by Alastair Thain) rather than photojournalistic events. We went on a lot of archive trips and had great discoveries along the way. We spent 18 months on the show from conception to completion and this time was incredibly intense. Everyday was spent thinking about what to include, how many, were we able to track them down. Also we had to let a lot go as it just wouldn’t fit in (both physically and conceptually) to the show as a whole. This file of ‘rejects’ is very dear to me and there are certainly projects in there I would like to follow up.
Did you make any interesting discoveries while researching this exhibition?
Lots. There were incredible moments. Too many to mention really but here are a few
The extent of the Barnardo’s archive - this is something I would like to investigate further – they have always had a full time photographer and still do. Although of course the photographer now works very differently and does innovative education work.
Percy Hennell’s plastic surgery images
The Hippesley Cox Archive at the Theatre Museum
The glorious and eccentric RPS collection
The Munby Collection at Cambridge University (this wasn’t a ‘discovery’ as such as the cartes are known but I didn’t know the extent of it and nor had I ever seen them ‘in the flesh’. It was such a privilege to spend that time looking at the work and attempting to understand that man who commissioned the thousands of pictures).
Do you think there is anything recognisably British in the approach we have to photography (in contrast, for example, with American photography)?
Very much so. It is much more melancholy. There is a sense of loss inherent in much of it. It hasn’t the lyricism of European photography nor the ‘edge’ of much American work. It is austere and critical and it continuously challenges the status quo in the medium. Having said all that humour is an important element too – but it is often a self mocking humour.
You've included a number of 'vernacular' images here, photographs that werent taken for any artistic purpose. For some gallery goers this will seem strange in the context of an art gallery like Tate Modern. Could you explain your thinking behind this.
Including a variety of photography was always important to the selection of the show and something that Tate were always very supportive of. They didn’t want, and nor did we, an ‘Art Photography’ show of the usual suspects who have been singled out as ‘important’ by previous collectors and curators. We wanted to do something much more challenging and surprising, but most importantly we wanted to be inclusive and the exhibition be attractive to a wide audience. The studio pictures, books, magazines, snapshots, postcards and albums does this and is a very important part of the exhibition.
David Campany in an article in Tate Magazine mentioned that you have steered away from including work by the self-consciously artistic photographs of the 1970s, those whose work was informed by art theory and who investigated the nature of representation in their photography. Was this deliberate?
Yes, this is mainly a documentary show and we didn’t want very personal stories in there. So for example, Lady Hawarden is not featured in the 19th Century as her work revolves around her family. We are both huge admirers of her work but it just didn’t fit in conceptually or aesthetically. This also goes for much of the work in the 1970s and 1980s which was about the status and position of photography which David refers to. The ‘Photographing Britain’ line is the key to the show. As I mentioned its not a history of British photography so certain things just had to be left out. This doesn’t mean that we don’t like them or respect what many artists were doing during this time – it is about context and continuity for the exhibition as a whole.
It is exciting that Tate Britain is now prepared to mount a major photography exhibition. Do you think this will be the first of many?
We can only hope so! In the foreword to the catalogue the Director of Tate Britain says that there is a growing commitment to photography in Tate Britain’s exhibition Programme. They are also going to appoint a photography curator so all this indicates that as an institution Tate are going to embrace the medium more.
How do you see photography in Britain evolving in the next decade, particularly in the light of new digital developments and the opening of websites like flickr.com?
The snapshot has entered back into our understanding of photography in a very interesting and vital way at the moment. The photosharing sites are fascinating and are changing the way in which we make albums and take pictures. The editing process here is fascinating and also how we represent ourselves. Our portraits are there for millions to see – the idea of privacy has totally been turned on its head. What we put on our facebook profile or blog has to say something about who we are and how we want people to think about us. I love yours for instance! I would be interested in knowing why you chose that image. Also, we can change them according to our moods etc – I love that flexibility of the ‘new photographic album’.
On the ‘art’ side of things we are experiencing a return to documentary, lots of portraiture and a back lash against the very staged and theatrical work of the 1990s. There is also a lot more black and white being used in smart, ‘post conceptual’ ways. As mentioned there have been photographers who have mentioned to Val and I that they are encouraged to take work in Britain after seeing the show – hopefully that will filter through in the next couple of years. It would be really nice to see more work made of what is in front of our noses. Britain is a curious and fascinating place. …perhaps also we are all (curators, museums and photographers) regaining a bit of regionalism after being influenced and seduced by America for so long.
Selected Reviews of the exhibition
Peter Campbell (LRB) - he didn't like it...