Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Easter Rising 1916 at the Photographers’ Gallery

The Countess Markievicz confusing armed struggle
 with theatrical posturing (Sean Sexton Collection)

To mark the centenary of the Easter uprising in Dublin, the Photographers’ Gallery in London has put on an exhibition focusing on that historically significant event.  There are about 80 images, including ephemera, drawn from the important collection of Irish photographs owned by Sean Sexton, who lives at Walthamstow in London.  The first part examines early photography in Ireland in order to emphasise the poor living conditions in the rural south, and the British military presence, the asymmetric relationship symbolised by an 1861 photograph of Queen Victoria in a carriage surveying her Irish domain.  The main section deals with the uprising itself, the major personalities involved in its leadership, and the immediate aftermath.  The final section looks at the consequences, the dividend for Sinn Fein despite not having been involved in the uprising, the political fallout as the struggle for independence gave rise to partition, and the bloody civil war which followed.

It is clear that photography had long been used not only as a documentary tool but also to foster a distinctive Irish culture which was Celtic and Catholic.  That could be achieved overtly – photographs of evictions – or implicitly, in photographs of archaeological sites that suggested the continuity of a national identity which pre-dated the presence of outsiders.  In that sense records of the events of 1916 were part of a continuum of photography as propaganda in the Nationalist cause, though clearly qualitatively different in their dramatic impact.

The uprising started on 24 April 1916, taking advantage of British involvement in the European conflict.  As one of the information panels put it, ‘England’s engagement in a protracted war provided the perfect cover for a revolution and resurrected an old adage, “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”.’   Understandably with the cumbersome technology of the period and wartime censorship, plus the dangers inherent in standing in an exposed spot, the fighting during the six days of the uprising itself was largely unphotographed.  Once the rebels had surrendered and the immediate dangers were over, however, there was a concerted effort to document the damage, which was extensive, and highlight the ham-fisted treatment of the ringleaders which appalled a population that had been to a large extent indifferent to the uprising itself.

The introductory panel refers to the role photography played after the uprising ‘in evolving a set of archetypes – the martyr, the hunger-striker, the rebel, the traitor, the spy – which paved the way for Irish independence and helped to shape the nationalist narratives that informed the Irish Republic.’  In particular there was a religious undercurrent underpinning the uprising, notably the idea of martyrdom for the executed leaders, who achieved fame after death to an extent they had not had while alive.  The images assisted a political transition from the previous emphasis on Home Rule by constitutional means to extra-parliamentary Republicanism.  The ascendency of Catholic influence in the movement is displayed in a photograph of a well-dressed group, those at the front on their knees and Irish flags in evidence, captioned ‘A crowd reciting the Rosary during the Irish Conference at Downing Street 1922’, reminding any who sought the establishment of a secular Republic, with Church and State separated, that they were going to be disappointed, and there are references to the way women in general were discriminated against in the 1937 Constitution.

In a video interview, curator Luke Dodd consistently refers to the rebels as insurgents so it is not difficult to see where his sympathies lie, and this is not an even-handed display – one wall has even been painted green to set off the photographs of the uprising to better effect.  The show couldn’t have been more partisan if selections from the James Connolly Songbook were playing on a loop.  One would be forgiven for thinking when reading the captions that ‘England’ was united in its desire to exploit the Irish, ignoring the fact that large sections of the working class in Britain, both rural and urban, also experienced extreme levels of poverty.

Similarly crude in its analysis, the exhibition pretends to cover both sides of the religious divide but material dedicated to Loyalism is fairly sparse, notably a couple of albums commemorating Edward Carson and the Ulster Volunteers.  One might be forgiven for assuming that the Protestant population outside the industrial North-East consisted entirely of wealthy landowners, and one certainly won’t learn anything here about the ethnic cleansing of Protestants from the Free State.  There are 20,000 images in Sexton’s collection, so this must be a very thin slice of what might have been shown.  It is enough to make the desired political points, certainly, but a more nuanced context would have been welcome.  That would have gone some way to reducing the sense, walking round the gallery, that the propaganda surrounding Easter 1916 in Dublin is still deemed to have currency in 2016 in London.

The exhibition opened on 22 January and runs until 3 April.  I doubt if there are any plans to transfer it to Belfast.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Changes at the National Media Museum

On 31 January 2016, Dr Michael Pritchard FRPS, Director-General of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS), circulated an important announcement concerning the Society’s Collection.  This had been transferred to the National Media Museum (NMeM) at Bradford from the RPS’s headquarters at Bath in 2003.  However, the NMeM’s remit is undergoing a substantial alteration and the RPS’s holdings will shortly be on the move once more.  As Dr Pritchard put it, ‘The NMeM is refocusing on the science, technology and culture of light and sound and away from the “art” of photography.’ Consequently an agreement has been reached between the Science Museum Group – of which NMeM is part – and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London.  Under this agreement the RPS’s Collection currently housed in Bradford will be transferred to the V&A.  This does not just affect the RPS: anything characterised as ‘art of photography’, will be moving to the V&A.  Dr Pritchard suggests that the operation will take place later this year.

The scale of the task is indicated in the RPS announcement, where it states that more than 400,000 objects will be sent to the V&A: ‘These photographs, cameras, books and manuscript material will join the V&A’s existing collection of 500,000 photographs to create an International Photography Resource Centre. The new Centre will provide the public with a world-class facility to access this consolidated collection, which will become the single largest collection on the art of photography in the world.’  The present limited exhibition space at the V&A devoted to photography will be doubled, which is welcome news in itself, but to enhance access there will be a digitisation programme and touring exhibitions around the country.

Those developments will facilitate greater usage of the RPS’s archives than was the case in either Bath or Bradford.  The RPS has been assured that its Collection will retain its status as a distinct part of the broader V&A holding, as was the case with the NMeM.  The main concern expressed in the RPS press release is the loss of a coherent curatorial approach to photography, with the V&A concentrating on the art of photography rather than its artistic application in conjunction with the technical and scientific aspects that the NMeM was able to supply and consideration of which is vital to a full appreciation of the RPS’s Collection.  In practice one hopes that the RPS and the V&A will work together to ensure that usage is optimised to take into account those aspects which would otherwise fall outside the V&A’s art remit.

Overall the announcement is good news for the V&A and researchers in the south of England, but surely not for the NMeM.  The lengthy announcement on the RPS website highlights the key change: the NMeM is in future going to focus on STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  The NMeM will retain more technical items, for example the Kodak Museum collection, those that deal with photography’s cultural impact, such as the Daily Herald archive, and anything specific to Bradford.  A new ‘interactive light and sound gallery’, costing £1.5m, is scheduled to open in March 2017, a valuable initiative for public education, but there will be fewer opportunities to undertake research there than before.  With even less reason to visit the NMeM once its archives have been reduced, its long-term future must be in doubt; after all, it was under threat of closure three years ago when faced with significant public spending cuts.  It is a large and expensive institution to maintain if its core function in the area of photography is going to be to inform school parties and the casual public about the medium’s science and technology.

The NMeM used to be called the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, though as its logo indicates its current scope is broader.  One has to wonder about the long-term future of its non-photographic collections.  Those relating to film and television tend to be more about technology, so they may be safe, but the future must be less certain.  I went to the NMeM to examine Charles Urban’s papers in my research into the early colour process Kinemacolor (and found both staff and surroundings very pleasant); the Urban papers were originally at the Science Museum and could easily go back there, or to the British Film Institute.  Further announcements about the changes will be made in the coming months, but losing such an important part of its offering feels like the thin end of the wedge for the NMeM, however upbeat it tries to be about future developments.

Update 20 March 2016

An upsurge of opposition to the move of photographic collections from Bradford to London has been building since it was announced at the end of January, with politicians and figures in the art world expressing their dismay.  Now the Guardian on 17 March has an article, ‘Royal Photographic Society “not consulted over collection move”,’ sub-headed, ‘In first public statement, society says it would prefer collection to remain at Bradford’s National Media Museum’.

The RPS’s announcement sounds slightly more equivocal than the subheading’s bald declaration suggests because the article goes on to say:

‘In its first public statement on the move since it was announced in February, the society said it would prefer its much-loved collection to remain in Bradford provided the museum remained a well-staffed centre for photography, although it added it would not oppose the proposed move to the V&A if certain conditions are met.’

The RPS is actually fairly glowing about the V&A.  The article continues:

‘The RPS described the V&A as a “world-class museum of international renown” and said it would have no reason to oppose the move providing that it met four key criteria: “The collection is kept together as a whole and not broken up; our initial agreement with the Science Museum Group is transferred to the new custodians and honoured in full; public access is maintained or enhanced; the collection is seen as a live collection and continues to grow.”’

It is most unlikely that those conditions would not be honoured by the V&A.  On the other hand, with the NMeM making staff redundant, the RPS’s requirement that the photographic part of its operation be well-staffed could be difficult to satisfy should the move to London be halted.  This issue was recognised by the RPS’s Director General, Michael Pritchard, in a Guardian article on 2 February (‘Bradford photography collection move to V&A reviled as “vandalism”’), noting declining staff and funding cuts at Bradford.

On the surface it was discourteous not to have consulted the RPS beforehand, assuming the report is accurate, considering what a significant proportion of the volume to be moved its holdings represents, though given the storm of protest that has met the announcement one can understand why the V&A and NMeM wanted to keep the matter quiet during their discussions.  The RPS Council needs to be diplomatic, but it must surely be secretly pleased that, while expressing legitimate concerns about the loss of a unified approach to the art and technology of photography, its collection will be utilised far more in London than it has been in Bradford, and the organisation will achieve a higher profile.

The Guardian article makes much of the fact that a 2015 exhibition of RPS photographs, Drawn by Light, was visited by 29,000 people at Bradford, while 21,260 attended when it was shown at the Science Museum.  That might suggest a greater appetite for the art of photography in the north.  But then the NMeM show was free to enter, whereas Londoners were forced to cough up £8.  If the Bradford leg had charged, one wonders how many would have gone in.  And of course someone is paying for it, either the visitor directly or, as at Bradford, through subsidies.  The NMeM is strapped for cash, and those in favour of retaining the photographic collections there need to explain how photography would be better served than at the V&A, with the latter’s vastly superior resources and potential for both scholarship and public engagement (and possibly visitors’ greater willingness to put their hands in their pockets for an exhibition).

Bradford East’s MP got excited by the Drawn by Light numbers, declaring ‘This revelation further illustrates the need for a full review and meaningful consultation before any decision can be taken with regards to moving the collection.’  I’m not sure that the numbers actually reveal very much, other than that people will always enjoy getting something they think is free.  And to refer to the move as ‘an appalling act of cultural vandalism’, an ‘act of cultural rape’ and ‘metropolitan cultural fascism’, as it has been variously described, is offensive hyperbole on the part of local politicians who should know better.  If you want to see those things, go to Syria, not the V&A.  Much of what is going to London came from there in the first place, and London rather than Bradford, it can be easily argued, is its natural home.