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Kiss the Past Goodbye

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The following text by the late Peter Turner is reproduced from The New Zealand Centre for Photography web site (now closed). A slightly different version may also be found in ZoneZero Magazine. It was written by Peter Turner in 2002.

I am writing with a sense of regret. No: tears are more to the point. The magazine I edited for many years is no more. Creative Camera, lately retitled DPICT, is no longer part of the photofirmament and I weep at its passing, cut down by an autocratic, self-serving, penny pinching bunch of arseholes who have the nerve to call themselves the Arts Council of England.

The last issue of Creative CameraThey decided to cut off funding to the magazine, even though it raised 60% of its income through sales (in statistical terms CC out-performed Covent Garden Opera). I am amazed that the Arts Council could behave so shamefully and disgusted by their callous attitude. Creative Camera may not have been perfect, but for more than 30 years it was an outlet for photographers' thoughts and expressions. To severe it at the jugular is to make contempt and mockery of more personal endeavour than any arts council with a sordid routine of shuffling papers and snapping elastic could imagine. For 'attitude' one could read 'perceptual problems'. The arts have always needed patrons - not because arts lack worth but because people are generally ill-educated in their value. They are simply not willing to pay the price to have their lives enriched except through consumables like cars and video players. Make no mistake, photography is as fine an art as any - something I realised many years ago - when I was at art school. I think art school is a place that most arts administrators would not understand.

I am furious. Angry at indifference. Angry at crass stupidity, and crying for photography being disregarded or dropped in the general mire of post-modern confusion. I feel a little like the figure painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1793 - a portrait of Jean-Paul Marat who was stabbed in his bath tub for the crime of trying to help France. It doesn't help that the cost to resuscitate the corpse of serious photography will be huge and that people have lost their livelihoods - I mean, what is a few more souls on the scrap heap? And we all know that artists are a bunch of self-indulgent tossers who want to live in a garret. So ignore artists' intelligence and vision, spit in their general direction and go on with mass crime of the cultural kind. I am ashamed of being English and witnessing this genocide. It was once a quite civilised place until it is was overrun by lager louts and bureaucratic baboons of the bean-counting kind. The Barbarians are at the gates.

What follows is a brief and anecdotal history of Creative Camera - a tragi-comedy to celebrate its existence and lament its passing. And I should cease to rattle sabres. Of course I wear rosy glasses, even if they are smeared with tears. Yet all the best histories have come from first hand accounts. They may not always be authentic when uttered later, but mine is based on travelling the world and meeting very committed photographers who spoke to me of how the magazine had affected them. That I was party to this process is a source of pride. Creative Camera was a large part of my life from 1969 onwards. It made my heart beat.

First let me introduce a cast of characters (you might call them eccentrics) who made the magazine possible. Top of the list must be Colin Osman, the first publisher, whom I once described as 'having a taste for improbable ties'. Next is me. I grew up with Creative Camera and didn't wear a tie. I was a closet hippy, an idealist who eventually learned to be a business man. Then there was Bill Jay, editor and inspirer. Bill started his own magazine Album when CC was about a year old. He phoned me, told me what he was up to, and suggested that I approach Colin Osman for a job. Curiously, Bill and I had similar backgrounds - we had gone to the same art school in Guildford, Surrey, though not at the same time, and both of us later worked for photo magazines which were trying to be better than Amateur Photographer. Perhaps there was something in the water...

Album was terrific, for the time it was a fine production. CC in comparison was trying for a mass market even though it wanted to be uncompromising. Album had very expensive production costs, CC was more moderate. Now enter two more characters - David Hurn and Tony Ray-Jones, both photographers with a sense for how magazines tick. Tony died from leukemia in 1972 but David has done better and is still trotting around Wales (where he lives - he is a Welshman) and the world taking pictures. Although different in temperament they both gave Bill Jay ideas and support. And both were wedded to an idea of excellence in photography. Me too, but that came a little later, after all, I was only a kid with enthusiasm. I had to prove myself. Album lasted for 12 issues before the money ran out - there simply were not enough people interested in paying the price of a high quality magazine which contained no advertising and was being produced on a billiards table in David Hurn's London flat. Bill eventually went to the USA where his talents were more valued. He has written a number of books - the latest is Sun in the Blood of the Cat (Nazraeli Press, Tucson, Arizona, USA, ISBN 1-59005-022-9). I love the title and have bought a copy for my cat, even though it's photographic and contains nothing remotely feline. I am still in awe of Bill's enthusiasm and tenacity.

Before Bill came two South Africans; Sylvester Stein (publisher) and Jurgen Shadeburg (editor) and a magazine called Camera Owner. Jurgen resigned in 1967 and returned to being a photographer. Stein was going to close the magazine. Enter Bill Jay who wrote for that magazine ('turned a trick' in common parlance) and contributor Colin Osman. Colin was an intelligent person who had fallen in love with photography while running a family publishing business which produced a weekly newspaper for pigeon fanciers. It was highly profitable if somewhat surreal for non pigeon people like me. Colin, while relatively wealthy, was not afraid to use his money for things that captured his imagination. Between them he and Bill engineered a name change and co-opted Colin's wife, Grace, to take on much of the administration. Meanwhile the pigeons continued to flutter and lay money on the table. Creative Camera was effectively subsidised by a bunch of birds. And Osman largesse. Colin was and remains a most remarkable person who put his money where his mind was. He embodies my idea of a grand socialist. Given the incongruity of the circumstances (I mean, can you imagine hanging out with a bunch of pigeon fanciers who were more deranged than any photographer?), my years working with Colin were memorable. He was more like a father than an employer. Photography has had few better friends, other than photographers, who are necessarily self obsessed. Colin's ideas were to put those obsessions into broader circulation - because he thought them to be worthwhile. He used photography to explain himself to himself and others too.

So, exit Bill Jay to make Album and enter Pete Turner. I had been working in commercial photography but found it lacking in substance. So I became a magazine journalist. It is a twist of human nature that I will write crap for money but refuse to take or publish indifferent photographs. I was once described by the Director of the Tate Gallery, London, as 'a nice guy but too much of a purist'. He was right and I am not ashamed of my stance. I mean, who wouldn't like to be called a 'nice guy' by the boss? I love the Tate and its collection. It taught me the history of art. As did three others; a resigned monk, Paul Harris, an Australian film-maker, Paul Cox and an academic, Ian Jeffrey. They were maniacs with a profound sense of dedication to the visual and the stories pictures can tell. Going to art school was possibly the best thing I ever did - it opened my mind and made me feel capable of anything, even if I wasn't much good at some of the 'anythings' that came my way. Like talking to bank managers and anybody who worked for the Inland Revenue. I also found 'political correctness' which surfaced in the late 70s to be troublesome in its pedantry. Of course, It could have been the drugs, but I think not as I got through that stage quite quickly and stopped using them in 1968.

I went to CC with a genuine sense of respect. At the time it was one of four magazines with international circulations that tried to address the notion of 'photography as art'. Or, as we put it, 'photography as a medium of personal expression'. The others were Camera from Switzerland, Aperture from the United States and Camera Mainichi from Japan. We were a happy little union of like-minded souls. We wanted to try and tell a truth in photographs. Sometimes it was big tits, sometimes big guns but always big ideas. There were other magazines, of course. Colin made frequent visits to Eastern Europe to conduct 'pigeon business' and would return with prints, magazines and books from a very active photographic culture. Which is how we were able to be the first in Western Europe to publish Alexander Rodchenko, now acknowledged as a wonder of 20th century Russian modernism. It would be wrong of me to present Mr Osman as the personification of perfection, for example he disliked my admiration of Bill Jay, but he was a genuinely kind man and I miss the pleasure of his company.

In retrospect I can see that I was an arrogant young turk and not afraid of my opinions - a trait I have carried with me into middle age. Time and experience has tempered my arrogance, but not my opinions. It was opinion that drew the picture of my life. And I got mine from photography.

I am writing this because CC was so personal, though not individual to me. It would be impossible to list all the people who influenced the magazine. Over the years we published an extraordinary number of people; some famous, many not. We loved young photographers, and old and ignored photographers, as well as classicists and iconoclasts. It was a wonderful time and we meshed with a burgeoning international interest in the medium. I once travelled across the United States from the border with Canada to the border of Mexico, meeting dozens of photographers. CC was my passport. I met just about everybody who was anybody. The same was true of Europe - I went from Sweden to Spain. It was a lucky life made possible through passion, hard work and a sense of conviction. As well as all the photographers I knew, I met poets and painters, architects, anarchists and art historians. I was even introduced to members of the Royal family and got to photograph Yul Brynner, a keen pigeon fancier. I mention this not for self aggrandisement but to give some context. My employer, a very straight business man, was once spied at a Janis Joplin concert, and I once took the afternoon off to go and see 'The Longest and Most Boring Movie in the World' which was being shown in a basement in Doughty Street, just opposite the house where Charles Dickens had lived.

I left the magazine in 1978 to involve myself in book publishing, then became entangled in teaching, exhibition curating and writing books. Judy Goldhill took on my role, then in quick succession came Mark Holborn and later Susan Butler. Each added their own flavour and each was supported by Colin. Judy's contribution was largely visual, Mark's visual and verbal and Susan provided a hybrid mix of feminist polemic coupled to academe. Each arena was appropriate to recording its time and the shifting sands of photography as it re-defined itself. Meanwhile the pigeons were cooing more softly and not so much money was on the table. Time to call in the thought police i.e. The Arts Council, and get some dosh. Colin did this, and was required to form an editorial board. This motley crew included me. The magazine still had the advantage of Colin's central London offices - a fine Georgian building in Doughty Street.

All the financial incidentals came from Racing Pigeon profits, so no rent to pay, no salaries, free photocopier and so on. But we were not selling enough copies of CC. This is a common tale in photographic publishing when it is done without compromise. Some of the necessary expenses, like typesetting and printing were partly covered through book selling. For a while CC had the best stock of photographic books in town. But one day in 1986 Colin phoned and invited me to lunch. He told me that he was going to close the magazine - even with its Arts Council grant he could no longer provide kind of magazine I would want to read. Meanwhile the Arts Council was going through its own changes, trying to balance the voices of a multicultural society with those of Thatcher's Britain - 'survival of the fittest and Devil take the hindmost'. It wasn't like that on the street where you had to hit first and ask questions later. I was given a few raps over the knuckles for being obstinate and Eurocentric but I had rescued the magazine and was able to manage its finances. And I was never, ever, racist. It hurt me deeply to be accused of having an 'hidden agenda' by an outside observer who happened to be from India, a place whose culture I find profound. Photography is a minority pursuit and I believe hasn't got the internal infrastructure to support factions. I tried to be even-handed.

So we got along by fair means and a great deal of support from the photographic community, most particularly from those who felt disenfranchised. We got other kinds of help too - volunteer workers, free accountancy, financial advice and a great deal of hand-holding. Image-makers, writers, typesetters, printers all came to the aid of the party. We had a great group of Trustees too who shared in my enthusiasm. I thank all of them , not by name but they know who they are. The Arts Council got a bargain. But like their counterparts in other countries they looked a gift horse in the mouth and didn't like the teeth.

In hindsight, my times with CC were the best. I was free but securely held and met a better class of person than most will. They were all photographers and I loved them for their vision, integrity and capacity for being naughty when it was called for.

David Brittain is another very important member of our cast. Just like Bill Jay and myself he had been to art school (Glasgow School of Art) and worked as a journalist for a photographic magazine. I liked his style and got him to contribute to CC. It lead to a job working with me - David had a finger on a pulse that I was beginning to lose under the pressure of keeping our little boat afloat and we got on well, probably because we were both quietly mad but knew the disciplines of magazine making. His input allowed me to spend more time on the administration side - boring but necessary. So we evolved a system where I called the shots, informed by David and he did the leg work; I did the production and managed the business, he made the phone calls and went to exhibition openings. He read my copy and I read his. It became a symbiotic partnership. When I left the magazine for the second time in 1991 I put it in David's hands because I knew he understood its spirit. I feel proud for him and what he did. Just like me he had to deal with shit hitting the fan yet still managed to pull off a thoroughly contemporary magazine. Major effort and minor money is what happens in the art world.

That said, I cannot really comment on David's editorship. Or more particularly the tribulations with which he had to contend. I was too far away - 12,000 miles separates London from Wellington, New Zealand. I had gone to live at the end of the Earth. What I will say is that I got a free copy of every issue and if they had not been free I would have paid for them. He did what I expected he would and produced a magazine I wanted to see and read. David Brittain has my respect. The Arts Council of Great Britain has my contempt and sits in my five star category for stupidity. I piss in their general direction.

I dislike footnotes but the title of this article comes from a remark made by Robert Frank. The painting I refer to is Marat Assassinated, in the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels. It is reproduced in most history of art books. What follows is part of a letter I sent to David Britain about a year ago. My intuition was telling me that something was up...

None of this applies to my astonishment that CC should be around to look over the shoulder of the year 2000. Theory says that such an arcane magazine should be long gone - ground down and mangled by the magic of market forces or bought out by Rupert Murdoch (joke, please titter). Practice has proved different. For a little and under-capitalised publication to have ridden the waves of financial change and the vicissitudes of arts fashion for more than 30 years is a testament to tenacity on the part of several editors - you, me and others (they know who they are).

It also needed loads of dosh and a sense of readership with an editorial responsibility. Profit in a fiscal sense was never the intention, more a sense of the greater good. I know from my two tenures with the magazine how editorial intention and creating financial viability had to match reader expectation. Which I thought rested on an Alexey Brodovich aphorism - 'show me something new'. CC also introduced me to the notion of 'The art of walking tall' which is a bit Kipling I know, but I received it through meeting photographers, artists using other media and being part of a circle that had 'thunder in its pocket and lightning in its shoes' to borrow from an old blues song.

Thus my involvement with the magazine from 1969-78 and again from 1986-91 became a succession of personally defining moments. I met just about every one in Europe and the United States who cared about this medium from Paul Strand and Walker Evans to Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Kertész and Bill Klein; Bill Brandt, Don McCullin (or was that Don McSullen?), Phillip Jones-Griffiths, Chris Steele-Perkins, Lewis Baltz, Marketa Luscacova, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Fred Sommer, Robert Doisneau, Mary Ellen Mark, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Ralph Gibson, Gilles Peress, Paul Caponigro, Ansel Adams, Minor White - the list could go on and on and would include as large a number of women and persons from the so-called ethnic minorities. not to mention a whole host of museum people, historians, dealers and the general wierdos who gather around our specialism. Yet it does spell out its own tale of a concern with modernism and a kind of photographic formalism. You, I know, have pinpointed the influence of John Szarkowski of MoMA, New York on what I did. This, I think, is at once true and false. True because he set a persuasive style of writing and exhibition making in our minds and false because we had our own mind set. I admire Big John, but no more than I admire you. The point is in separating originality from imitation, or honesty rising above our daily deceits.

Peter Turner

This text is © Copyright the estate of Peter Turner, 2002.