“Three Perspectives On Photography”

“Sensitivity of approach is all very well,” one argument runs, “but what matters is WHAT you’re saying.” “Three Perspectives on Photography: Recent British Photography” was the untidy title of an untidily conceived exhibition. Three selectors were invited to express their views on photography in general, then find work to prove their points. Paul Hill’s essay was called “Photographic Truth, Metaphor and Individual Expression”; Angela Kelly’s “Feminism and Photography”; and John Tagg’s “A Socialist Perspective on Photographic Practice.” Critics, photographers, artists, women and socialists were then bundled into an elevator, sent to the first floor of the Hayward Gallery and forgotten except for periodic insults from the press.

It was all such a lousy idea. How could it have worked so well? Not only did the three critics account for the main types of work going on in Britain, but they also provided a spirited defense of them. 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; instead of a mere assertion of quality and a few hand-me-down critical terms, this was a sensible attempt at a comprehensible overview of photographic theory. (John Tagg’s fine polemic, in particular, should be read aloud by every employee of the Arts Council.)

Graham Smith’s mining town photographs have a consciously 19th century air. (“On the bald street breaks the blank day,” wrote Tennyson.) Does the beauty he discovers in the North East compromise his “truth”? Was Atkinson Grimshawe telling the “truth”? Do TV commercials for Hovis bread tell the truth with their images of clogs and cobblestones? The rhetoric is quite different in Christine Leah Hobbeheydar’s studies of the Chiswick Women’s Aid Centre for “battered and emotionally tormented women and children.”

A child cries, her dress fluttering around her thin legs. As if aware of her predicament for the first time, a woman in a Brixton dole queue looks at the people around her.

A young, self-taught American, Hobbeheydar does not flinch at tears or tantrums. Her rhetoric is always understated and her plausibility is based on a trusting relationship with her subjects.

Report and I.F.L. banish “style,” making candid documents that aim to allow the viewer to think for himself. These two groups of photographers are fighting to continue the work of Dephot (Deutsche Photodienst) by establishing an independent library of “news” photographs. On this occasion they produced a statistical survey of lost working days in Britain. Smith, Hobbeheydar and Report/I.F.L. were featured in different sections of “Three Perspectives,” yet, since “truth” and “beauty” are relative terms, their work interreacted to initiate important debates.

Of particular importance in Britain is the use of words. In “Three Perspectives” the Hackney Flashers, nine feminists who produced the pieces Women and Work and Who’s Holding the Baby?, used texts and speech bubbles to indicate facts the pictures could not provide, while Robert Golden, an American working in Britain, and Valerie Wilmer, a Briton working in America, employed words as emotional stimuli. Victor Burgin’s approach verged on schizophrenia, providing a “straight” text for which the visual image offered illustrative support, or creating a more enigmatic effect based on the (puzzling) relationship between a (puzzling) text and a (puzzling) photograph.

For Paul Hill’s “stars,” Brian Griffin, Thomas Joshua Cooper and Martin Parr, verbal intervention would break the spell completely. Griffin has published a book with no title, no captions, no name and no date. The less Thomas Joshua Cooper writes about his work the better. The dark, forest landscapes seem to have chosen him to perpetuate them. Born in San Francisco, Cooper has been one of the main engineers of the Trent Polytechnic photographic revival. His Waldeinsamkeit is the product of a Romantic sensibility so pure and powerful that it seems dissociated altogether from time and place. Griffin is absolutely of this time and this place, the most distinctive new photographer in the country. Sometimes he takes glamor and power at face value, making a pair of shoes shine like sacred relics or sitting for a self-portrait as Prometheus. At other times he reverses the process, revealing a middle-aged actor studying his wrinkles. Parr, “the wittiest photographer in England,” seemed a little subdued, except in Norman Wisdom Opening New Supermarket, Halifax, West Yorkshire 1978, an aerial study of middle-aged women fighting for signed pictures of an unpopular comedian, objects they have no possible use for and no imaginable reason for wanting except that they are free. Like a good journalist, Parr needs his captions and makes them serve him well. The debate over words will continue unabated.

Stuart Morgan