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Talking Photography at Oxford

17 September 2014 - Graham Harrison

Photography Oxford 2014, Oxford’s first international festival of photography, was launched on Friday by Minister for Culture Ed Vaizey with the promise of bringing an ongoing debate about the medium to the city. By Graham Harrison.

The sense is of Fox Talbot, we are that close to the beginning. And as this festival is as intimate as the early work of the British inventor of photography it is worth catching Photography Oxford in its infancy, then following it.

Perhaps uniquely for a biennial festival, Photography Oxford will not disappear in the intervening year. On the 5th of October when the prints come down and the films and talks end, the dialogue about photography in Oxford will continue, says Festival Director Robin Laurance.

Minister for Culture, Ed Vaizey, launches Photography Oxford in the Divinity School at the Bodleian Library on 12th September 2014. Standing left is Festival Trustee Dr Mark Alexander. Photo © Graham Harrison

Rolling Debate

Laurance, who, at Arles one year, conceived the idea of bringing an international photography festival to Oxford also hopes to bring the medium to academia and to keep it there. He anticipates, he says, a “rolling debate” about photography in the university city.

Not that that will be easy among the dreaming spires. Oxford’s oldest colleges, University, Balliol and Merton, were established at a time when the translated writings of Greek philosophers were challenging the status quo of the thirteenth century. The Church funded the colleges in the belief that they might help reconcile its position with the new world view. Of course, that never quite happened.

We need look no further than recent headlines to see how reactionary religion can be, how powerful the photographic image is in communicating a message and just how easily images can be used to manipulate public opinion.

“Yet it is remarkable that you can study journalism but not photojournalism at Oxford,” said Laurance citing The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism for their “steadfast refusal to engage” with photography.

“How photography is used by politicians and how it informs and influences our perceptions demands analysis at an academic level,” says Laurance. “And those who use photography and employ photographers need to be included in that debate.”

The oldest surviving winner of a World Press Photo award, Louis Garnade, holds a print of his winning entry of a fire rescue in London in 1956. The print was presented to Louis at World Press Photo 2014, at Oxford Brookes University. Photo © Graham Harrison

Photographers make photographs, not agencies

One of Photography Oxford’s achievements has been to bring World Press Photo to Oxford before London this year.

Admitting that the exhibition venue, Oxford Brookes University in Headington, “Was not associated with photography,” Brookes’ Pro-Vice Chancellor Paul Inman, went on to tell a story about a mother of a Philippino architecture student looking at the exhibition and pointing to an image of the 2013 typhoon and exclaiming “That’s my home!” It’s the non-photography people who remind you of the power of photography, said Inman.

Laurens Kortweg, Projects Manager of Exhibitions at World Press Photo, said WPP want to build a platform for photographers, to give them a face. “It’s human beings making photographs, not agencies,” he said. In that spirit, Oxford resident Louis Garnade, believed to be the oldest living WPP winner, was presented with a print of his winning image by Colin Jacobson, two-time chair of the WPP jury and curator of the Talks and Discussions programme at Photography Oxford.

The Brussels-born Garnade was a staff photographer on the Daily Mirror in 1956 when he won Second Prize in the news category with a photo of a child being rescued by the fire brigade from a burning house in Chelsea. “I shot four glass plates on a Speed Graphic at 250th at f8. The second plate was the one they used,” said Louis. “The Mirror didn’t tell me I’d won. Yesterday’s news was always the next day’s chip wrapper.”

When Louis won his prize without knowing it in 1956, the work of 181 photographers was entered. This year 5754 photographers submitted work. “World Press Photo,” Colin Jacobson pointed out, “is now a high-tech operation with a massive staff in a beautiful headquarters.”

Colin Jacobson, Photography Oxford talks curator (left), with Francis Hodgson of the FT and photographer Rory Carnegie at the Bernard Plossu exhibition at the Maison Francais, Oxford. Photo © Graham Harrison

Proustian Plossu

Things are distinctly low tech at the Maison Francais in Oxford where, on press day, Francis Hodgson presided over the small Proustian prints of the French humanist photographer Bernard Plossu like a broody chicken.

“Plossu captures just the moment when the life you lead becomes memory,” said the FT’s photography correspondent. “He’s more like a writer. It is always about what Bernard Plossu thinks about real life rather than what he sees,” said Hodgson who on Sunday chaired the opening panel discussion of the festival, The Role of the Critic in Contemporary Photography.

Equally low-tech, in the chapel at Wadham College, is the exhibition Designed to Deceive, which, with prints and extended captions, highlights some of the “bad habits of photography,” as Lewis Hine put it, in an attempt to alert the viewer to the “false messages sent out by those who want us to get the wrong end of the stick.”

One example shows Goebbels’ Trotsky-like removal from a photograph of Hitler, Eva Braun and Goebbels’ wife Magda on a visit to Leni Riefenstahl’s villa in Berlin in 1937. The Nazis promoted Goebbels and Magda and their six children as the perfect family unit but a rumoured affair between the womanising Goebbels and Riefenstahl meant a photograph of the propaganda minister at the filmmaker’s villa was certain to undermine the Nazi spin.

In 2010 The Economist removed a Louisiana parish president, Charlotte Randolph, from a cover photograph of President Obama near the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The tight crop of the original picture, taken by Larry Downing of Reuters, is acceptable because it makes the image easier to read but the photoshopping out of Randolph means it is no longer a truthful image.

Although no cover up, the manipulation of a photograph for visual effect by an influential news magazine nevertheless raises an important question about editorial integrity.

Designed to Deceive is curated by Colin Jacobson and Lefteris Pitarakis of AP, a long-term advocate of ethics in photojournalism. On Saturday 20th September they join Stuart Franklin, Shahidul Alam and Alexandra Fazzina at Modern Art Oxford for a panel discussion on photojournalism’s role as an eyewitness to history.

Other discussions at the festival include How Photography Informed and Influenced the Northern Ireland Peace Process at Keble Collage on Saturday 27th September and Shooting Local, a discussion about the merits of shooting photographic stories close to home, which is at Lady Margaret Hall on Friday 3rd October.

Also at Wadham College is Document Scotland. When asked for directions the custodian at the gate said defensively, “By the stairs. It’s nothing to do with us.” His comment was explained by the discovery of an inactive projector in a padlocked box in a darkened room.

Apparently the fellows at Wadham chose to form a squash club at the last minute and moved Document Scotland from the squash court to this surreal room where the boxed projector faces a blank magnolia wall either side of which are two doors, one marked A the other B.

Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert suggests that Unsullied & Untarnished is some of what we should see for Document Scotland.

Balancing act

St. Johns College hosts separate exhibitions of the work of three Finnish photographers Arno Minkkinen, Veli Granö and Pentti Sammallahti who’s delicate prints of birds and dogs photographed at dusk, during winter, seem to glimpse at pre-Christian mythology in the snowbound silence of the deep north.

Pentti Sammallahti grew up surrounded by the photographs of his grandmother, the newspaper photographer Hildur Larsson. He was a lecturer on photography for many years at the School of Arts, Design and Architecture at Aalto University in Helsinki. Under Sammallahti’s influence the photography department produced a disproportionately high number of internationally celebrated photographers.

Personally out of pocket but bubbling with enthusiasm Robin Laurance has attracted a disproportionately high number of internationally celebrated photographers to Oxford to exhibit their work and talk about photography. With little more than a research grant from the Arts Council and a team of spirited volunteers, Laurance got Photography Oxford off the ground in 2014. By 2016, he says, they will have a stunning product to sell to corporate sponsors.

If photography is less the poor cousin of the other visual arts than it was a decade or so ago then it is thanks to people like Laurance, but what ground photography has gained as an art form is in danger of being lost as a journalistic medium.

Colin Jacobson believes the World Press Photo jurors got the balance between art and hard news photography right in 2014. Many of the winning images are informed and elegant and the progress made since 2013 is noticeable at the WPP exhibition at Brookes.

Robin Laurance, Director of Photography Oxford 2014, looks forward to a “rolling debate” about photography in the university city. © Graham Harrison

Fox and hounds

Photographer Rory Carnegie, who’s composite images of dogs and Burgess Field, a nature reserve near Port Meadow, promises something very different but with elegance too, is at the Sarah Wiseman Gallery in Summertown. At 337 Banbury Road, is Paddy Summerfield’s Mother & Father, exhibited in the home where they grew old.

On Friday 3rd October there will be the panel discussion William Henry Fox Talbot and Oxford at the Bodleian Library. The Bodleian recently secured all the funding it needed to acquire Fox Talbot’s Personal Archive at a total cost of £2.2 million. The acquisition includes glassware and artworks seen in Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature and some of the earliest photographs of Oxford.

Fox Talbot stayed in the city on a number of occasions and took twenty pictures over three days in 1843, just four years after he announced the invention of photography in Britain. Some of those views have remained unchanged in this great walking, or cycling, city.

How we use photography and how photography uses us

Since the end of the Second World War, nine out of thirteen British Prime Ministers have been educated at the University of Oxford.

We need look no further than the disappearance from public view in 2007 of the notorious Bullingdon Club photograph, which “deeply embarrassed” our present Prime Minister, David Cameron, to guess that there might be images of all of them that have been quietly shelved or destroyed.

Among those that got away are Anthony Eden waving blandly during the Suez fiasco by Bert Hardy for Picture Post, Margaret Thatcher leaving Downing Street in tears by Ken Lennox of The Daily Mirror, and the Tony Blair Photo Op artwork by Peter Kennard and Cat Phillips.

These three images illustrate a healthy loss of deference since 1945. More importantly, they serve democracy by pinpointing the moment when a politician lets ambition get the better of them – when they lose touch with reality or reality crashes down on them or they see only themselves. The message is clear for anyone who aspires to be Prime Minister.

“We don’t get to talk enough about the importance of photography,” Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications & Creative Industries said when he launched Photography Oxford in the Divinity Hall at the Bodleian Library on Friday.

The debate on photography in the city has already begun. Now, Robin Laurance says, we should start talking about how we use photography and how photography uses us.

Photography Oxford, supported by Arts Council England, continues at 26 venues across Oxford until 5th October 2014.

Photography Oxford – Exhibitions

Photography Oxford – Talks & Lectures

Wooden Churches by Richard Davies, at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, shows the power of understatement with clear eyed, sympathetic images of the forgotten wooden churches of north western Russia. The accompanying book is recommended.

Festival Visit Bursaries: In return for a written or recorded piece about a photo festival or fair of their choice, successful applicants for one of Redeye’s new Festival Visit Bursaries will receive a financial contribution towards their travel and accommodation costs.

Correction: “One of Photography Oxford’s achievements has been to bring World Press Photo to Oxford instead of London this year” was changed to “One of Photography Oxford’s achievements has been to bring World Press Photo to Oxford before London this year” on 8 November 2014.

Text © 2014 Graham Harrison with thanks to David Hoffman and Brian Harris for their assistance.

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