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Paul Hill. Three Perspectives on Photography

Paul Hill. Three Perspectives on Photography

Three Perspectives on Photography was was one of the most important institutional exhibitions of photography in Britain in the 1970s. At a time when photography in Britain was gaining new institutional support and developing in new directions, this exhibition sought to explore the weays in which photographers were moving beyond photojournalism towards "art photography" and more politicised approaches. Paul Hill curated the first section which explored forms of art photography that were heavily influenced by modernism, especially American modernism.

The cataolgue essay was accompanied by works by Paul Hill, himself, as well as Atget and Kertesz. Hill summarised his arguments in a way that also encapsulated his aspirations for his own work:

"It is my contention that the metaphoric use of the camera to mirror the personal experiences and feelings of the photographer is its most exciting application."

Hill has subsequently written of the importance of this exhibition, in particular, and the 1970s, in general, for photography in Britain and for his own practice:

"Although news photography was my mainstay, I began to appreciate other sorts of image making, and was particularly influenced by Bill Brandt's Shadow of Light in 1966. It opened my eyes to exciting new ways to make photographs, and probably changed me more than I realised at the time. When I was working for the Financial Times a year later, I was given a copy of Creative Camera Owner (later Creative Camera) by the picture editor and started to understand what self expression in photography meant. An FT reporter friend became features editor of the Telegraph Magazine and invited me to meet their new picture editor, the inestimable and controversial Bill Jay , who had just been sacked as editor of Creative Camera. He gave me a few assignments and lots of anecdotes about my heroes, like W.Eugene Smith and Brandt, and the new kids on the block: Tony Ray-Jones, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand, amongst others.

I also accompanied Bill when he visited the Sir Benjamin Stone archive in the Local Studies section of Birmingham Central Library (I lived in nearby Wolverhampton at the time), and sought him out one or two estimates from printers for his new magazine, the highly regarded Album. I have many stories about Bill, and visits to the magazine's tiny offices and his friend and advisor, David Hurn's London flat,that would graphically illustrate the eclectic mix of photographers that emerged from the 1960s. I would characterize most of them as buccaneers and mavericks who wished for photography to be regarded as an art form, although they themselves were largely self taught and had only a sketchy knowledge of the history of photography, let alone art history. The optimism and pizzazz of the sixties had given them self-belief and confidence to challenge the establishment and change the status quo....

... A benefit of having connections with the Art Council and the Photographers Gallery was being able to know what exhibitions were being planned and what photographers were visiting the UK. In 1976 I learned that New York-based photographer, Ralph Gibson had been commissioned to do some work in England. This gave me the opportunity to ask Ralph, a seasoned workshop leader, if he would do one for me in Derbyshire whilst he was over here. Angela and I had been considering the idea since the Trent summer school 2 years earlier as our rural location was most suitable - if a little cosy - and had been successfully used by my poly students for field trips. He agreed, and The Photographers' Place, this country's first residential photography workshop, was born. Teachers, students and helpers who participated over the next 20 years are too numerous to mention, but they included youngsters, like Andy Earl, Tom Sandberg, Debbie Baker, Paul Graham, Greg Lucas, as well as big names, like Paul Caponigro, Fay Godwin, Thomas Cooper, Raymond Moore, Lewis Baltz, Hamish Fulton, Aaron Siskind, John Blakemore, Cole Weston, Charles Harbutt, Martin Parr, Jo Spence, and many more.

One of the most comprehensive accounts of this period was written by William Messer, whose article The British Obsession: About to Pay Off ? took up most of the 1977 issue of the prestigious U.S. Camera Annual. This indicated that, as well as the rising profile of photography in this country, there was, by the mid 1970s, increasing interest abroad too in what was happening here with our publicly funded support schemes for photographers, the rising number of specialist galleries and community workshops, and our innovative photography courses and publishing ventures. Broadcasters were also taking note. I had been involved with Tom Cooper and David Hurn in a TV piece for Arena, the new BBC 2 arts programme. In conversation with the producer afterwards, I suggested that the BBC should make a series on photography. He asked me to send him some ideas, which, after a few more meetings became Exploring Photography, a six-part series written and presented by an old friend and former newspaper colleague, Bryn Campbell. It was accompanied by an excellent publication10 and the series was often repeated over the next 10 years.

Another indication of the new enhanced status photography was acquiring within the arts establishment was best illustrated by the Arts Council's premier gallery, the Hayward on London's South Bank, agreeing to a major exhibition of contemporary photography on the lines of the gallery's famous (then) annual art show. At an Arts Council Photography Committee meeting, one member, Victor Burgin suggested the exhibition should reflect different perspectives of British photography. The first (and last) one - Three Perspectives on Photography - was in 1979 and the 3 sections would focus on socialism, feminism and modernism. The curators were John Tagg, Angela Kelly (a former Trent/Derby photography student), and me. I was able, in my selection, to not only articulate and illustrate my ideas (via the catalogue), I was also able to introduce relatively unknown photographers, like Martin Parr, Brian Griffin, Graham Smith, Raymond Moore, Thomas Cooper, and Roger Palmer to a wider non-specialist audience. 'Compared with John Szarkowski's Mirrors and Windows at the Museum of Modern Art, New York last year, there was an air of freedom and confidence,' said one critic. The exhibition attracted much attention, but there is not enough space here to go into the many interesting and controversial issues that were raised by it.

It was strange to curate an exhibition of British photography in the same building where, at the beginning of the decade, I was marvelling at a major show by Bill Brandt, a person who had influenced me more than anyone else. The South Bank Centre did not organise the 1970 Brandt show themselves, preferring to hire it in from MOMA, New York.

The mounting of Three Perspectives was an indication of how things had moved on in a few short years. Another was the increasing number of auction houses selling vintage prints and commercial art galleries beginning to hang photographs on their walls. In 1978, the Robert Self Gallery, which had in its stable of artists, Gilbert and George, Boyd Webb, Victor Burgin and Hamish Fulton, gave me a one-man show in their new Covent Garden space. And I actually sold some prints too! But the best moment for me was Bill Brandt spending over an hour going round this show of my new work, looking intently at each piece, and most politely thanking me, in his whispering voice, for inviting him.

Paul Hill, How British Photography found its voice. The full text can be found on Paul Hill's website.

British Photography / The Hyman Collection

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