"In The Days Before Selfies"
The exhibition, “In the Days Before Selfies”, was the biggest photographic exhibition that I've staged since retirement. It is probably my last exhibition as, at 93, failing eyesight has limited my photography. I recently took the final exhibition photos – of John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons (to complete the set of four Speakers that I have known), and of the National Youth Theatre rehearsing for the revival of one of its earliest hits, “Zigger Zagger”.
The principal difference about this exhibition is that the photos on display were auctioned by Neil Kinnock, David Lammy MP, and Robert Peston, of Peston on Sunday. Those pictures not auctioned on the opening night remained on display together with those auctioned, and were available in return for donations to the funds that I raised for three worthy charities with which I have long been associated – the National Youth Theatre, Music for Youth, and the North London Hospice.
My other aim is to suggest to those who are enthusiastically taking “selfies” that they should carry that enthusiasm into the wider world around them, and capture the people, the events and the places in their own neighbourhoods and communities, and in countries further afield.
A companion brochure, “Before Selfies”, accompanied the exhibition and contains some 100 of my photographs. Copies of the brochure are still available, priced £7 (£5 + £2 p&p). If you are interested in a copy then please contact me via the Contact link here on this website.
An extract from the brochure follows.
Two years ago, at a big Grosvenor House “bash” to celebrate the TES School Awards, I made a speech congratulating the TES on its 100 years of publication and thanking its successive editors (from the great Harold Dent, who I came to know well) and staff for what they had done for education in those hundred years.
The speech was warmly received and I understand tweets were circulating about it. Since it was in the d.b.T. (days before Trump) I imagine they were kind and sane. Shortly afterwards, a group of young teachers approached me waving what looked like their diaries so I wondered what they wanted. “We’ve come to get ‘selfies’ with you,” they said. “What on earth are ‘selfies’?” I asked, with all the innocence of someone totally out of touch with the world of social media. They explained what a “selfie” was and I said, astounded, that over more than 50 years I had taken thousands of photographs, but never once had I taken one of myself! I have to say that I am also innocent of all that goes with social media these days. I’ve no idea what Facebook is or does and wouldn’t recognise it if it came up and bit me, but I’ve managed to live this long without it. Similarly, I’ve never knowingly tweeted anyone, or appeared on YouTube, and have never sent text messages or received them every few minutes – though I’ve often wondered, when others have sent and received them in my presence, what on earth they were being told or asked so frequently and in broad daylight.
However, I was impressed by the obvious enthusiasm of my young teacher fellow guests about their selfies and duly joined in being taken by them. Clearly, taking selfies can be fun and a good way of telling family and friends that you are alive and going places; but as a keen photographer I strongly hope that taking such pictures would be but the beginning of a voyage into the wider world beyond themselves. In a programme in his excellent TV series “Britain in Focus” the fine photographer Eamonn McCabe said “We’re all photographers now”. Maybe we are, but what kind of photographers?
I hope most of us, including the keen selfie takers, will come to see that there is so much in our own neighbourhoods and communities, and in lands far away, that can offer many opportunities for the engagement and satisfaction that photography can stimulate. I hope in the pages that follow you will recognise what made me reach for my camera so many thousands of times before my failing eyesight has led me to shut the shutters for the last time.
My kind of photography – and how it began
People take up photography for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of circumstances. My own introduction to it (beyond the occasional use of our family’s Box Brownie) didn’t come until I was nearing the end of my war service. After hostilities ended I was transferred from the artillery to Military Government in Schleswig Holstein, and just a few weeks before demobilisation the German firm which manufactured the Voigtlander camera resumed production. A batch of the cameras was given to the NAAFI and I acquired one in a raffle. I didn’t have much time for photography before I returned to the UK but I did manage to get pictures of the first post-Nazi elections and some of the war damage in the area.
My first big opportunity came when I led a delegation from the National Union of Students to the Soviet Union in May 1954. It was not a good time to go there – the Cold War was under way and we were a non-Communist delegation, at a time when very few non-Communists were getting into the country. However, I put my camera to good use, taking shots of as many aspects of life in the country as possible. Because I was leading a delegation I guess our “minders” didn’t feel it was advisable to stop me.
Whether they did or not, I was able to interest Camera Press in my pictures and the TES published a page of them. The interest those pictures aroused triggered my interest in, and use of, photography from that point on. The many events and conferences, demonstrations and rallies, and visits to countries behind the Iron Curtain and other parts of the world opened up chances I might never otherwise have had.
What led me to think that my photography might be of wider interest came when quite a few of my friends said they kept and collected the Christmas cards which over the years were decorated mainly with my pictures of flowers. Their comments made me feel that perhaps my photography wasn’t too bad, and not confined to what I had captured behind the Iron Curtain.
Later there was one other special opportunity I had that set me on the road to staging a series of exhibitions. I was working at Millbank, the centre of the Labour Party’s campaign in the 1997 General Election, and I suggested to the General Secretary that this could prove to be an historic occasion for the party and that I would be happy to take pictures of all the activity there, if he was agreeable. He was, and thus I became the only person to capture a full photographic record of the life at Millbank and other aspects of that highly successful campaign.
Some months later, a friend who knew of my photographs suggested I ought to do an exhibition or a book about it. Acting on his suggestion, I found a sponsor, David Evans of Centurion Press. The exhibition was held at Congress House and opened by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, and was very well received.
To coin a phrase, “the rest is history”. My photography extended to a wide number of my interests, and my presence with camera at Labour Party conferences and events, at the TUC and many fringe meetings led, I guess, to Tony Blair describing me as “the Labour movement’s very own paparazzo”, and people asking me “Where’s your camera?” whenever I appeared without it. As this brochure and my dozen exhibitions have shown, my pictures are mainly of people and events rather than posed portraits and luscious landscapes, but I have been thrilled to capture the dignity and beauty of significant buildings too. And my family and friends have had to put up with the many times I have wanted to capture their warmth, beauty and vivacity, to provide rich memories for all time.
With my kind of photography one trespasses often on the time and goodwill (and tolerance) of many people, and I am deeply grateful to have received that in abundance. I guess you won’t need that if you stick to selfies but, believe me, it is worth venturing into the world outside one’s self and seeking it. While I have described how I came to take up photography and what I chose to devote my photography to, I’ve not said anything about photographic equipment and technique. This is because I’m singularly ill-equipped to deal with them, having had no lessons in photography and having relied on others for advice about equipment. I’m not a photographer in the professional or keen amateur sense, just someone who has, as a result of his luck and interests had the good fortune to be linked with people and activities across a wide field that presented the chance to take pictures of wide interest. I only regret that because of the pressures of time in carrying out these activities, I didn’t have the time to take advantage of the excellent opportunities that exist to develop one’s understanding of the full potential of photography or the great range of equipment available to produce it. Had I been able to find the time I’m sure I could have been able to achieve better results with my Nikon and Canon cameras, and the other pieces of equipment, that could have helped me. What I have managed to do is to frequent some of the admirable photographic exhibitions that give an opportunity to stand in awe admiring the magnificent work of the great photographers. Couple those visits with studying the work of such greats of photography as Cartier Bresson, Sebastião Salgado, Karsh of Ottawa, Bill Brandt and Don McCullin, and one can hope to be inspired to get somewhere near the heights they scaled, while not expecting to get very near to what they achieve.