Depth of field

Simon Stephens, 05.09.2012
It's good to see museums taking photography seriously
Despite being unable to take decent pictures myself, I’ve had a long-standing love of photography.

I think it started when my dad showed me a close-up of Muhammad Ali’s fist featured in a book about photojournalism, Pictures on a Page, written by former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans. I was amazed at how my hand was dwarfed by the boxer’s as I placed my fist over the top of the image.

I later became interested in British photographer Bert Hardy and his work for the Picture Post magazine and then moved on to some of the great photojournalists, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa. This in turn led to an interest in the street photography of Americans such as Garry Winogrand and William Klein.

So, the increasing seriousness with which British museums and galleries have been treating photography in recent years has been of real interest to me.

Tate appointed its first photography curator, Simon Baker, in 2009. And last year the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) opened a new gallery dedicated to photography. Both organisations now actively acquire photography.

This autumn is a particularly busy time for photography shows. I’ve just been to the opening of an Imperial War Museum exhibition of Cecil Beaton’s photographs from the second world war.

Tate Britain’s Another London show closes on 16 September but a few days earlier the Barbican is opening Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s. And in November the V&A is unveiling what it says is the first major museum exhibition of contemporary photography from and about the Middle East.

One of the interesting things about photography is how it is thriving in today’s digital world. People can now share images in ways that have transformed the medium.

Providing digital access to images has also allowed museums to reach new audiences. There are numerous examples, including Bradford Museum’s archive of portraits taken of the city’s Asian communities at the Belle Vue Studio, which can be seen on the online arts portal, The Space.

But photography can still work as a very traditional medium. Earlier this week the Photographers’ Gallery announced that John Stezaker had won this year’s £30,000 Deutsche Börse prize.

The UK-born artist is unconventional in one way, as he does not take photographs himself, but uses vintage postcards, film stills and pictures from books and magazines to juxtapose different images. But rather than use a digital software programme such as Photoshop to achieve this, he does it by hand.

All this activity points to a bright future that I, for one, will be following with interest. Maybe I will even learn how to take a good photograph myself.


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Simon Stephens
MA Member
Deputy Editor, Museums Association
06.09.2012, 11:28
I should have included in this blog that even the National Gallery is opening a photography exhibition. Seduced by Art opens on 31 October and the gallery says it will be its first major photography exhibition. It will explore early photography from the mid-19th century and contemporary photographs, alongside historical painting. The gallery did stage an exhibition by photographer Tom Hunter in 2005, i think.