No Such Thing as Society is a look at some of the photography in the collection of the Arts Council and the British Council. Unfortunately it subtitles itself as Photography in Britain 1967-87, and that it most surely is not.
In Caroline Douglas’ preface we are informed that it actually “takes a particular point of view then and does not aim to be entirely inclusive… concentrates on naturalistic, documentary and Realist traditions of portraiture and wider social activity. It does not attempt to treat the important contributions to romantic landscape photography… nor the lyrical work of David Hurn…” Eh? David Hurn is a first rate documentary photographer in the Realist tradition. What confusion is evident here?


But let’s see what the editor, David Mellor, has to say. “NSTAS looks at developments in British photography through the efforts of some of its leading figures and its social context. It focuses upon strands of Realism in photography as represented in these two collections during this time.” Fine. The problem arises because the two collections, while interesting, massively fail to represent what was actually going on at the time.


Even if we stick with the work that followed “naturalistic, documentary and Realist traditions,” so much is ignored or missed by this book as to be embarrassing. Whom did he speak to for this groundbreaking research? Not David Hurn, although he is acknowledged by Douglas because he “did so much to help establish the Arts Council’s photography initiatives in the 1970s.” Not me, and I, along with Hurn, was on the Arts Council’s photography committee in the ’70s and purchased a number of photographs featured in the book.


Mellor deals with newspaper supplements in his introduction thus: “By the late 1950s such magazines [The Weekly Illustrated and Picture Post] were in terminal decline and were only partially replaced by the colour supplements of the early and mid-1960s.” That’s it. But during that time the big foreign picture magazines, Stern, Paris Match and Life, along with the newspaper colour supplements and other British magazines such as Town, were enormously influential both in commissioning and in presenting new work. Mellor does mention Don McCullin who worked for the Sunday Times, but there was an explosion of work. The Sunday Times magazine under Michael Rand’s art directorship would do 14-page spreads and worked with foreign photographers like Leonard Freed and Diane Arbus as well as British photographers like John Bulmer, Terence Donovan, Philip Jones Griffith, Tony Armstrong-Jones, Hurn and so many more were working for these magazines.


There was also a groundswell of photographers who never received or sought Arts Council grants but focused on social issues or aspects of contemporary life that intrigued them, producing important and powerful documents. Nick Hedges was supported by Shelter to document poverty in Britain, while James Ravillious continued to document his own rural community in Devon. Independent photographic agencies were formed by committed photographers, like Network Photographers, to attract funding and disseminate work. A wave of British photographers, Magnum and Life photographers travelled Britain and the world producing an unprecedented mountain of new documentary work. It is against this creative explosion by a vast array of photographers with widely differing agendas that the work in NSTAS needs to be reflected. But isn’t.


There is some interesting and important work here. And it is difficult for the Arts Council to publish a book and declare that they have a deeply under-representative collection of photography from this period of time. But that is a fact – and perhaps these shortcomings should be recognised rather than attempting to write a history that implies this collection was the pulsing heart of British photography.


Chris Steele-Perkins

 

Purchase this book here