The Camerawork Essays:

Context and Meaning in Photography, Jessica Evans (editor) London: Rivers Oram Press, 1997.

reviewed by

Peter Marshall

Photography in the UK in the 70's was awakening across the board. New courses were springing up in schools and colleges at all levels; Creative Camera was revealing new work from across the Atlantic. A new generation of photographers had been swept up in the events of 68 (either in Paris itself or in UK colleges where students temporarily assumed power), had read McLuhan and Debord; had sat at the feet of Jim Halloran and other pioneers of media education. We were living in exciting times and did not often feel cursed! As photographers we were asking who photography was for and how it could be made to serve our political ends, and beginning to explore our answers through community photography and social documentary. As John Tagg says 'a network of relationships, institutions, collectives, agencies, spaces of practice, conversations and routeways of communication was coming into existence - and certainly not only in London - that was to transform the discursive field of British photography.' (p65)

In the East End of London in 1972 a small group of photographers gathered around the Half Moon Theatre to set up a gallery and workshop project. Visiting US photographer Wendy Ewald(1) provided the catalyst; among those who became involved were Ron McCormick, Paul Trevor and Julie Meadows. When Trevor was planning to go to Liverpool for six months shooting his Exit project(2), he was worried the group would fold and persuaded Mike Goldwater to keep it running by setting up with him a series of Monday evening Seminars (there were no Monday theatre performances). Trevor drafted a series of suggestions for 'Camera Observed'; on Education, Photojournalism, Women, Fashion etc, inviting major UK figures in these areas to contribute. These events drew new people to the group - Half Moon Photography Workshop. HMPW grew up as a loose co-operative - a group of individuals with similar interests but no legal or formal structure and, but to receive Arts Council funding they found they had to organise and set up a company - Half Moon Gallery Ltd. Those present when this was discussed suddenly found themselves company directors! Five people - Terry Dennett, Mike Goldwater, Tom Picton, Jo Spence and Paul Trevor were the nucleus of the magazine, Camerawork, with its first issue in early 1976(3). The cover price was set as low as possible and there were no adverts. The organisation ran on a shoestring - with jumble sales and other fund-raising events to collect money and 'folding parties' to assemble and fold the copies to save on printing costs. It was an era of idealism; those involved gave time freely to a movement they thought exciting and important. After seven issues, meetings began to be disrupted by continual arguments and Jo Spence (who had been stirred up by someone who was to go on to cause further conflicts within the group) was asked to leave. As she was being paid for her extra administrative work she was able to successfully sue for unfair dismissal. She had previously (in late 1975) formed Photography Workshop with Terry Dennett who she had met at HMPW and used her Industrial Tribunal award to fund its first collection of articles: Photography/Politics: One.(4)

For some years Camerawork continued its strong emphasis on social documentary and community photography, but as the remaining original members left (largely for similar reasons) - a process that was complete by issue 18 - the magazine took on a new mission and began to rapidly distance itself from its past. Issue 19 was the last to carry its initial statement 'CAMERAWORK is designed to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas, views and information on photography and other forms of communication. By exploring the application, scope and content of photography, we intend to demystify the process. We see this as part of the struggle to learn, to describe and to share experiences and so contribute to the process by which we grow in capacity and power to control our own lives.' Eventually, for its last few issues Camerawork even moved so far from its collective origins to have an Editor, Kathy Myers, who gives her version of events in a contribution to Photographic Practices published in 1986 (5). It could be said to represent a change from a magazine that had been collectively published by photographers for photographers and with a commitment to wide-ranging investigation of theory and practice to one published by academics with a narrow and blinkered theoretical perspective; an aspect of the domination and debilitation of UK photography by theoreticians inspired by the Polytechnic of Central London whose consequences still echo loudly here. For many, Camerawork died around 1980 leaving a media studies cuckoo in charge of its nest.

Meanwhile Camerwork's place in the UK photographic scene had been largely taken by the Birmingham based Ten-8, started in 1979 and continuing into the '90's(6), which was publishing work by many of those previously involved with HMPW - including Barber, Spence, Dennett, Goldwater, Trevor, Jenny Matthews and even the HMPW's own Squatting project.. Evans quotes Don Slater as saying (p254) ' was around this time [1980-2] that quite a few of the most politically and theoretically 'advanced' photographers stopped taking pictures altogether. The act of photographing someone had been so analysed as a relation of power that it come to be experienced as politically impossible'. As Ten-8 (and evidence elsewhere) shows what was really happening was a complete loss of interest in actual (as opposed to theoretical) photography by those around Camerawork. Following an eclectic and uncertain start Ten-8 later had considerable success in combining photography and critical writing about photography - including work by the author of this book, Jessica Evans. The failure of this book may indeed arise from a mistaken internal categorisation of Camerawork as simply an early version of Ten-8 whereas - at least in its early days - it had a much more radical, varied and exciting project.

In the early years, Camerawork issues were largely on a single aspect of photography - portraits, the picture story, community photography, the role of public funds in supporting the arts - or were inspired by more political issues such as the Lewisham anti-racist protests(7) or Northern Ireland and the way photography was used in these. In early days the magazine was the product of a team of talented individuals each offering what they could - most of the design work came from Trevor (who also wrote the initial mission statement) and Goldwater, while Spence was good at contacting people and Ed Barber kept the accounts. They aimed in each issue not at promulgating a consistent party line but to treat the themes from various perspectives - practical and theoretical - engaging readers in a lively open debate rather than proving definite answers. This diversity of opinions and approaches gave a liveliness that would otherwise have been lacking. (See the example of Camerawork 26 below.) To regard this - as Evans does, as a weakness - 'an intriguing problem of editorial coherency' (p 21) - reflects a serious lack of understanding of what those involved were attempting. A major conceptual flaw of this present publication is to isolate what was often one of many contributions from the context which it was designed to complement.

Photographs were vital to Camerawork - its A3 format specifically designed for their effective in large single and double page spreads. Their gutsy strong blacks also dominated the design; John Tagg aptly describes its early issues as a 'sinister, black-covered magazine' (p64). Its reversed out bold stencil face title - an echo of markings on crates appropriate for its location on the edge of London's dockland and linking photography to the working world - continued in for many issues. By contrast this collection of essays is designed around white space and elegant text (its title a fine and delicate Helvetica, modern, insubstantial, pale and refined). Its relatively few photographs are small and lacking in detail, reproduced apparently without any black. This publication marginalises photographs both physically (at times literally) and conceptually. What is important about Camerawork, it is saying, were these few theoretical contributions - particularly those by figures well known in critical circles. To those of us who knew the original this seems a betrayal of the whole approach that Camerawork exemplified; that gestalt of theory and practice which seemed so vital at the time.

However, given this collection of fragments, do they remain worth reading today? John Berger's would have been more sensibly replaced by the longer revised version 'Uses of Photography' in his widely read 'About Looking'(8) which fills one or two gaping 'missing links' in his chains of thought as well as clarifying the relationship and dependence of his ideas to Sontag's On Photography (9). In John A Walker's 'Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning' from issue 19 (not 14 as stated - one of a number of annoying minor errors in text and index - which has failed me almost every time I have consulted it); the Jo Spence/Terry Dennett pictures discussed are a welcome inclusion. Walker discusses the effect of context on the meaning of a photograph in a way that was undoubtedly felt more powerfully and with greater nuance by many practitioners among his audience, but then briefly touches on the idea of individual readings which they probably found novel. Images, he concludes, do not have an unlimited range of possible meanings and our interpretations as individuals are a product of our own shared cultural understandings; 'Pictorial stereotypes do not merely exist externally in the world of the mass media, they inhabit us'(p61) through our shared language.

John Tagg attacks that sitting duck The Photography Year Book, 1977. It is, as he himself says 'out-dated stuff' (p65). In part it repeats the dichotomy between public and private photography discussed in Berger's piece. Two photographs by Anwar Hosein, the major illustrations of the original, have been omitted. Is this in aid of political correctness or because the related text - 'Woman does not seem to undergo this evolution. She inhabits a pre-cultural plane. Pictured with a rose... she offers her nakedness as evidence of an unaffected, unchanging nature' (p67) - is hard to reconcile with our reading of this picture, with it's clear relation to a particular place and time and literary allusion? Tagg also repeats the usual half-truth that Kodak brought the camera to the masses in 1888; when for families like my own in the UK it was not until the 1950's and 60's that they moved behind the camera - an event that can be dated precisely by the demise of the beach photographer. He ends with a muddled application of a class system to photography which derives solely from the original intended destination of this article being a publication of the Communist Party of Great Britain (they rejected it!)

Victor Burgin's 'Art, Common Sense and Photography', as a plain English translation of his article 'Photographic Theory and Art Practice'(10) represented a major triumph for the editorial team. It remains one of the best brief introductions to the 'rhetoric of word and image'(p74), although it is unfortunate that the illustrations are so poorly shown. Similar material is of course now available readily elsewhere.

Camerawork 26 took as its theme 'Models of Vision - Moments of Representation'. Edited by Mike Hughes, Yve Lomax, Kathy Myers and Don Slater it ran "through several different models of what 'the image' has been taken to signify." It included a Camerawork gallery discussion with Susan Meiselas on Nicaragua, war photography with reference to Foucault by Paul Wombell, and documenting the Mafia by Helena Atlee to illustrate 'a model of the visible as knowledge, providing access to the urgent object of the photographer's concern'. Then followed an article by Don Slater, which sought to 'explore this vision as knowledge, situating it historically and contrasting it with a quite different model of vision: vision as limitless and anchorless signification.' and a photo work by Oliver Richon. The third section, introduced by Yve Lomax, looked at new computer video and audio technologies and the how they might be changing the concept of representation, with further contributions by Phil Revell, Martin Slavin, Jonathan Miles, Jo Chiles, Marie Yates and Mike Hughes. Here we get only what was and is one of the less interesting parts of this mixture, The Object of Photography, Don Slater's lengthy situationist article; with, as he says in the new introduction 'its crude periodisation, its association of photographic realism and the photograph-as-knowledge with nineteenth-century modernism; its association of spectacular representation with the twentieth century.' This leads to an over-dogmatic and often spectacularly dismissive treatment of the actual examples of work discussed , for example 'August Sander more naively (than Weston or Blossfeldt) continued the classificatory quest of nineteenth-century science aimlessly and emptily.'(p111). When theory so poorly fits the facts its value is surely negligible?

David Green's On Foucault: disciplinary power and photography from the final issue of Camerawork describes some of the key issues raised in the work of Foucault, concentrating on his 'formulation of the historical emergence of the body as the nexus of power/knowledge relations which give rise to what he termed a 'politics of the body''(p120). Being part of a feature 'Scientific Frameworks' it fails to connect with any photographic practices of its likely readers, dealing as it does with the scientific use of the medium. Green successfully retains the impenetrability of his sources.

Mass Observation: The Intellectual Climate by David Mellor is a fine introduction on a curiously English aspect of thirties documentary, a mix of public opinion polls, upper class spying and candid photography involving many leading London intellectuals (with endorsement from none other than Professor Bronislaw Malinowski.) Splendidly clear and informative, it here lacks most of the reproductions showing the range of Humphrey Spender's work. A few are included with Don McPherson's less accessible examination, Nation, Mandate, Memory. Mellor puts it well in the introduction to his own piece when he talks of his admiration at the time for 'the totalising force of Don Macpherson's Foucauldian essay... but it gave me a sense of over-mastering intellectual terrorism, a rhetoric of suspicion and a blind generality in attributing some myth of nostalgia and 'Britishness' to the process of reading those radically un-English and strange Spender photographs.'(p133) Again theory fails the acid test of practice.

Terry Smith demonstrates in Picturing History: The Matchgirls strike, 1888 that careful reading of photographs can give precise historical evidence and also 'that pictures - these ones for example - actually made history, had quite specific historical effects, influenced the actions of both the powerful and the powerless'. As he states, it combines 'accurate information and helpful analysis.'(p155)

One other frequent feature of the early issues were hints on low-tech improvised photography equipment (cost-cutting vital to organising photography groups among the unemployed or low paid) and consumerist articles. Don Slater's Marketing the Medium: an anti-marketing report relates to this in analysing the way in which the major corporations market mass photography. His study is closely based on industry reports of the time and has little of the kind of analysis that might make it useful reading seventeen years late.

Kathy Myers contributes two articles. Towards a Feminist Erotica outlines some of the arguments from a women's discussion day and then analyses the conventions used in two images of reclining women, a pornographic picture and a swim-wear advert, which although constructed to be attractive to other women appeals more to this male reader. As she suggests, erotic imagery made for women may be appropriated for use by male viewers - which appears to her as a problem. (Perhaps pornography is in the processes of production and consumption of images rather than in the images themselves - as ever at least in large part arbitrary signifiers.) Her Loves Labour's Lost suggests that inept use of the media by the Labour party and their centre-staging of outmoded left-wing images contributed to their defeat in the 1983 UK General Election. 'If Labour wants to be a viable party of the future it has to change its political vision of the media and how to use it' (p235), a lesson which Tony Blair took to heart, although some may feel that concentration on image can be at the expense of substance. Her interview with Stuart Hall adds little but his name to the book jacket.

Rosetta Brooks' Fashion: Double-Page Spread would be an interesting exploration of the fashion photography of Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin and Debra Turbeville in the 1970's if the examples given were visible, examining their use of stereotypes to promote an image rather than being concerned with showing the material. This was a time when the worlds of the fashion photographer and fine artist were appearing to converge, (for example in Cindy Sherman's 'film stills.')(11) Brooks suggests in her introduction to this article that this hope has now receded with 'a movement back into the conservative worlds of fashion photography in the service of titillating illusion where the body is again the centre for male appropriation, and the elitist formulae of formalism in the art galleries.'(p206)

Jo Spence was one of the group of five who founded Camerawork, and after leaving it consolidated her position as one of the leading figures in UK photography(12). The treatment given to her in the introduction and in other aspects of the book reflects her later work rather than the part she played as one of the team for those seven issues in which she was involved. The reader is left with a severely misleading impression of her importance in Camerawork. Surprisingly in view of this her only article for the magazine is omitted - on the grounds that it is reprinted in her posthumous book(13), as also (less surprisingly) is the article on her - Woman Behind the lens by Liz Wells - published in the last Camerawork(14). Spence's article is arguably vital in attempting to understand Camerawork's initial project and her part in it; Wells's piece puts honesty above hagiography. Both would have added to the stature of the book. The inclusion of the editor's own recent essay(15) on Spence's later work is inappropriate, but unsurprising; another illustration of contempt for the original context of the work.

As a monument to Camerawork this book is a travesty. Its title is pure fiction. There were no 'Camerawork Essays'. As a collection of writing on photography it has some points of (largely historical) interest.

The opportunity still exists to tell the real story of Camerawork which has eluded this book. Perhaps film or television might be more suitable than print. As Trevor writes. 'It's curious that Jessica Evans, concerned to "recover an historical understanding" didn't bother to talk with three of the four remaining co-founders'. The current book, he continues 'is an exercise in that 90s phenomenon - repackaging.'(16) The introduction by Jessica Evans and comments by her and the other academic authors preceding the articles invents a framework - through omission and distortion, some of which I have tried to correct above - through which a peculiarly myopic single viewpoint of Camerawork makes sense as the whole. Theory as an engine to ignore inconvenient fact rather than being firmly based on it and growing out of it has been the foundation of much academic empire building in the last twenty five years of UK media/cultural studies in photography and this book is solidly in that area. It represents a consolidation at an intellectual level of the actual take-over of Camerawork that occurred in its later years. A serious consideration of the whole project would be much more absorbing and visually exciting and a much greater contribution to the study of photography and its development in the UK. We can only hope.

1. Wendy Ewald is Director of the Literacy Through Photography project at the Centre for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
2. Exit was a collaboration between Paul Trevor, Chris Steele-Perkins and Nicholas Battye founded in 1973. Following a first project close to the Half Moon which led to a booklet 'Down Wapping' they were approached by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to extend their work to inner cities throughout the UK. Over the next 6 years they produced some 30,000 pictures and 100 hours of taped interviews, a selection of which were published as 'Survival Programmes: In Britain's Inner Cities, Exit Photography Group, The Open University Press, 1982
3. Barbara Hunt is incorrect in her assertion that 'Camerawork was founded in 1975' (p9). The Half Moon Gallery started in January 1972 and added its darkroom facilities and café in 1975, Camerawork magazine started in 1976 and all other activities took on that name in 1981. )
4. Photography/Politics:One, ed Terry Dennett, Jo Spence, Photography Workshop, London, 1979 p2
5. Photographic Practices; Towards a Different Image, Stevie Bezencet and Philip Corrigan, Comedia, London 1986 ISBN 0906 890 50 0 As well as the article by Myers on Camerawork this also has a piece on Photography Workshop. Liz Wells took over as editor for the last year of Camerawork. Despite his statement in the book, Don Slater appears to have been a member of the editorial team rather than the editor for the issues in which he was involved.
6. Ten-8. Issue Number 1, February 1979 contained articles 'The Growth of Community Photography' and 'How 'real' is Social Documentary. Later issues have ISSN 0 142 9663.
7. On August 13th 1977, 'the National Front - proud of its racialism - attempted to march from New Cross to Lewisham, an area with many immigrants. Their march was halted in Lewisham High Street which was blocked by anti-racists' (Camerawork 8, page 1). Police had attempted to force a route through this area of south-east London for the march, while ignoring offences against Public Order and Incitement laws by the National Front. Many protesters, marchers and police suffered injuries in a number of street fights and several hundred arrests were made. Camerawork published some 25 pictures from this event, together with the full text of the address by the leader of the National Front with an analysis of their racist views, articles by Tom Picton on the press coverage including a detailed analysis of all pictures printed, a visual analysis by Derek Boshier of the front page account of a leading daily newspaper and lengthy interviews with 8 freelance photographers covering the event (one of which had to be pulled at the last minute for legal reasons, leaving blank space), discussing why they were taking photographs, what they were trying to show, how they were treated by demonstrators and police, and how their pictures were used.
8. About Looking John Berger, Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative Ltd, London 1980, ISBN 0 906495 25 3, p48-63
9. On Photography, Susan Sontag, Penguin Books, London 1979 ISBN 0 14 005397 2
10. Studio International. vol.190 No.9766, 1975, reprinted in 'The End of Art Theory, Victor Burgin, Macmillan, 1986)
11. Untitled Film Stills, Cindy Sherman, Cape, London 1990 ISBN 0 224 03017 5 (photographs in this from 1977-80)
12. Cultural Sniper, Jo Spence in Bodies of Excess, Ten-8 Vol II No 1 Spring 1991 ISSN 01 42 9663 p8-25. See also the description by Rosy Martin of her work with Jo Spence on Photo therapy in the same issue, p34-49.
13. Cultural Sniping, Jo Spence and Jo Stanley (eds) Routledge, London, 1995
14. Camerawork, Issue 32, 1985 p26-28, Ed Liz Wells. Jo Spence wrote 'The Politics of Photography' in issue 1. ISSN 0308 1676
15. One important correction to Evanís article is that Jo Spence did not refuse to be defined as a photographer, thus in Family Snaps, ed Jo Spence and Patricia Holland, Virago, 1991 it states 'Jo Spence is a writer and photographer, best known for her innovative contributions to the development of collective and collaborative practices in photography.' She also took part in many and varied activities with other photographers.
16. The Camerawork Essays Paul Trevor, p2-5, LipService, ed Peter Marshall, March 1998, London Independent Photography, London.