“Tunnel Vision: Photographic Education in Britain in the 1980s”

Tunnel Vision: Photographic Education in Britain in the 1980s

By Simon Watney, Afterimage, January 1, 2006

In Britain the 1980s began in 1979 with the election of the first government of Margaret Thatcher, and it would be impossible to discuss any aspect of social life in Britain in that troubled and turbulent decade without some initial reference to Thatcherism. To take just one symbolic example, in the early 1980s a pub just outside the Underground station at Highbury and Islington in north London advertised itself conspicuously on the outside as: “An Equal Opportunities Pub Regardless of Race, Creed, Nationality, Disability Or Sexual Orientation.” This was possibly over-earnest, but by 1989 the message was obliterated under a blanket of red paint.

Thatcherism in the cultural domain had many faces, from the introduction of museum charges to the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986 and the introduction in 1988 of Section 28, which was aimed at preventing the supposed “promotion” of homosexuality in schools (it was repealed in 2003). Not that the Thatcher government ever had a coherent or even consistent cultural policy; rather their various actions were based on an instinctive hostility to the principle of state funding for the arts, which was loosely yoked to a visceral philistinism. They had no developed sense of culture as a site of personal or collective belonging, and hence lacked any real sense of the deep anguish caused by the cuts, which were taken as carefully targeted assaults by so many groups. Hence the ghastly screeching tone of so much of British life in the 1980s, from the hate-filled headlines of the tabloids to the deluded rantings of those who maintained that we were all only a hair’s breadth away from fascist dictatorship. In retrospect it seems increasingly clear that rather than representing some profound sea-change in British society, Thatcherism survived and flourished not by virtue of its own strengths, but from the virtual absence of effective, pragmatic, political opposition.

This had many paradoxical consequences, including the unintended result of greatly strengthening regional and minority social identities of many kinds, on the part of groups that felt themselves directly under attack, as was reflected in the impressive growth of independent black cinema, local nationalisms, the women’s health movement, the gay response to HIV, and so on. Such areas of struggle and contestation generated a great number of very different and often exciting photographic projects, including exhibitions, many of which were met by distinctly hostile criticism, especially from would-be populist politicians and newspaper editors eager to promote moralistic controversy and hence sales.

Within the field of photographic education, the 1980s saw the emergence of two huge juggernauts pulling up alongside it within the curriculum, namely, Cultural Studies and Film Studies. This was already clearly predicted in the late 1970s by, among other things, the 1979 Arts Council exhibition “three perspectives on photography” at the Hayward Gallery, the catalog of which still provides a fascinating and revealing roadmap of the times. (1) Section One on “Documentary and Art Photography” was introduced by Paul Hill, and contained impressive work by Ray Moore, Martin Parr, and others, including Thomas Joshua Cooper, who wrote with characteristic insight on the importance of questions of sanctity in the modern world. (2) It is surely significant that looking at the catalog today, this section, perhaps neglected at the time, has lasted much the best.

Section Two on “Feminism and Photography” was introduced by Angela Kelly, and included work by artists ranging from Yve Lomax to Jo Spence. Yet elsewhere in the 1980s it was often sadly the case that the vitally important goal of getting more women involved with photography ended up in rather puritanical and dogmatic forms of feminist politics and debate. In a decade in which Radical Feminism played such a major role, it would however be surprising not to feel its presence in the field of photography, as much as elsewhere. This was most widely apparent in the type of feminist critique based on exposing “stereotypes,” and all too often promoting the idea that some level of absolute truth about all women is indeed immediately accessible to the camera, and that there is in effect “good femininity” and “bad femininity,” and that the latter can be blamed entirely on men.

The third and final section on “Socialist Practice” was introduced by John Tagg who used the opportunity to call for nothing less than “a new politics of truth.” (3) From this influential perspective the entire history of photography could be dismissed as no more than a series of repressive apparatuses, all of which, it seemed, were in one way or another engaged in propping up the much-hated State. As he wrote in 1984: “What alone unites the diversity of sites in which photography operates is the social formation itself: the specific historical spaces for representation and practice which it constitutes.” (4) In a phrase that sums up the attitudes of much of his generation, Tagg concluded that: “Photography as such has no identity. Its status as a technology varies with the power relations which invest it. Its nature as a practice depends on the institutions and agents which define it and set it to work…. Its history has no unity. It is a flickering across a field of institutional spaces. And it is this field we must study, not photography as such.” (5)

From this perspective photography was regarded in its totality as serving the sinister interests and hidden agendas of the institutions employing it, and furthermore it was them, not photography, which should be the photographer’s proper object of study. It was rather as if photographers were expected to study photography as if they were not themselves image-makers, and moreover as if photography were intrinsically suspect, and perhaps best avoided altogether. This position became increasingly influential, as can be seen in a 1985 article by Janice Hart who spoke for many in her insistence that: “If it is to educate, then it is precisely that questioning of the apparently fundamental tenets of photography such as concepts of greatness, the authority of the market-place and the conventions of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ that will provide photography with a way forward.” (6)

This general outlook became widely fashionable, and it was usually premised by the dubious assertion that the power of photography depends on the fact that it has always been taken to be intrinsically and unproblematically “truthful,” a claim that was closely harnessed to a deep distrust of all types of documentary practice. In reality, however, it is difficult to think of any photographer who ever for one moment entertained such a simplistic belief. In this way a welcome new attention to the social contexts in which photographs are produced and viewed ended up sneeringly turning its back on most contemporary photography.

Any full historical account of British photography in the ’80s would have to include consideration of many important local and national groupings and institutions including, in no particular order, the Arts Council of Great Britain, together with its funding policies and the regional network of galleries it supported all over the country; the role of photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum; the Photographers’ Gallery and its founder Sue Davis; the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and the work of Lisa Appignanesi, Erica Carter, and many others; the Photography Workshop, led by Terry Dennet and Spence; The Cockpit Photography Project under Andrew Dewdney and Martin Lister, and so on. (7)

Any such account would also need to consider the role of magazines and journals including Creative Camera, especially under the editorship of Susan Butler, working with the assistance of Ian Jeffrey, David Mellor, Val Williams, and others; Camerawork under Liz Wells and others; Block, which was closely associated with Middlesex Polytechnic; Screen and Screen Education, published by the Society for Education in Film and Television; and above all Ten. 8 from Birmingham, with its impressive themed issues such as those on landscape, race, and identity. All of these sustained and developed important debates about photography throughout the decade, which also saw the founding of Portfolio in Edinburgh in 1988. The various institutions of further and higher education were closely related to this sector, with different specialist pedagogic emphases associated with individual colleges. Thus Trent Polytechnic was widely associated with the work of Paul Hill, while the School of Communication at the Polytechnic of Central London represented a very different strand of theoretical work under the leadership of Victor Burgin.


In retrospect we may trace at least four key tendencies intimately connected to the type of left-wing culture that then as now dominated most photographic education. First, there was evidently a broad swing of the historical pendulum away from a largely apolitical postwar analysis of photography, to one that was by contrast primarily political. Second, there was a widespread loss of faith in “science.” In many respects this was naive, as very few critics had ever actually studied scientific method, and was closely connected to the flourishing of irrational conspiracy theories of many kinds. Third, there was a growing hostility to what was dismissively termed “the Fine Art tradition.” Fourth, there was a widely felt sense that photography lacked (and needed) its own specific curriculum, preferably tightly harnessed to the goals of anti-capitalist revolution, and the still fashionable Foucauldian premise that western society is uniquely repressive and incarcerationist.

Deeply committed to the view that all aspects of art and crafts should be defined and evaluated primarily in political terms, the left also tended to distrust commercial photography in its entirety, arguing that it could only be understood in terms of its hidden ideological cargo. Yet however much intellectuals such as Stuart Hall struggled to redefine theories of ideology, at the end of the day the notion of “ideology” remained a kind of magical explanation of collective thought and emotions, carrying an ineradicable freight of dubious assumptions about the way power is supposedly maintained via selective processes of mass deception.

This was closely connected to a deep distrust of humanism, understood as a form of heinous “essentialism,” a term that was widely employed as a kind of intellectual sledgehammer to be swung in the direction of any offending attitudes or beliefs. Notions of “individualism” were also highly suspect, together with ideas concerning individual ethical choice, with a pronounced preference for collective work and notions of group agency. This was widely reflected in the field of education by a vast gulf of mutual ignorance and suspicion between the worlds of Cultural Studies and the art schools. Thus the left remained trapped in a political account of all aspects of culture that resulted in the arid joyless cults of Bertolt Brecht, Jean-Luc Godard, and Hans Hacker–on the part of those who had never even heard of Josef Beuys, Louise Bourgeois, or Helen Chadwick.

The baleful influence of Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan, the Scylla and Charybidis of 1970s “High” theory, was joined in the 1980s by the influence of Jean Baudrillard, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Jacques Derrida, fusing to create the widely influential fiction of “Post-modernism.” The result was a thorough assault on all notions of truth. In relation to photography, a blanket critique of photographic modernism was based on highly selective accounts of the history of the work of John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, regardless of the fact that the UK lacked any equivalent institution. (8) A widely fashionable new rhetoric preached dogmatically against what it dismissively termed “the Canon,” while almost nobody in Britain was actually teaching the history of photography, let alone defining a canon. Intoxicated by this rhetoric, the history of photography was largely abandoned by many photographic degree courses, and the legacy of British photo-historians such as Margaret Harker was respected only within the museum sector and a handful of graduate Art History departments.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the deep dislike and distrust of public museums and galleries on the part of the fashionable left intelligentsia at precisely the time at which they were becoming the most interesting and open-minded cultural space for photographic education, and at the same time were highly vulnerable to punitive cuts in funding. Hence the curious irony that many art historians and intellectuals were largely indifferent to the worsening plight of the museum sector, which they regarded as bastions of pernicious Establishment ideology rather than as vital and vulnerable public services. It is surely no coincidence that much of the best British critical writing on photography continues to come from the museum and gallery sectors rather than from inside the Academy. (9)


Nothing reflects the stockade mentality of much photographic education in the 1980s more clearly than the narrow fixation on semiotics and psychoanalysis, which were intended to provide an adequate and self-sufficient theoretical toolbox for understanding all aspects of photographic meaning, shouldering to one side all aspects of history. Yet however useful much of its terminology may be, semiotics almost invariably encourages a tendency to think of photographs as if they were weak or failed propositional linguistic utterances, rather than being in some important sense, direct traces of reality.

Thus semiotics tended to privilege the use of texts in order to securely “anchor” what was seen as the dangerously unstable and unacceptably open-ended nature of photographic imagery, and to force photography into the desired straitjacket of didactic political discourse. This quickly degenerated into a private language for the Elect, and we would do well to recall Roland Barthes’ impatience at the end of his life with semiologists who regard photographs as “nothing but artifice.” (10)

Key texts representing the growing authority of psychoanalytic theory, above all in its Lacanian incarnation, included the writings of Burgin, and the extensive legacy of Laura Mulvey’s hugely influential 1975 article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” with its celebrated insistence that “Psychoanalytic theory is thus appropriated here as a political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form.” (11) From this perspective all forms of culture were regarded as monolithic agencies of a supposedly universal Patriarchy, just as they had previously been read as agents of Capital. This is not to question the development of important debates about psychoanalytic notions of identification, displacement, condensation, and so on. Yet all too often the acquisition of the language of psychoanalysis became an end in itself, together with a very narrow pedagogic vision of how one was supposed think about oneself and other people.


All of this sat in cozily unquestioned relation to the work of extreme Foucauldians such as Tagg who insisted that photographic education should only be about the supposedly primary role of photography in maintaining the pernicious ideologies and institutions of global capitalism. It is surely not insignificant that the sole reference to a named work of art in Tagg’s anthology of his published writings from the 1980s, is to Rudolf Baranik’s “Napalm Elegy” paintings from the Vietnam War era, which he describes as leaving “a trail of damage across the institutional field.” (12) One can only assume this was intended as praise. It was a decade that saw countless monolithic and equally misleading Foucauldian accounts of the role of photography in relation to every last branch of the social sciences, from sociology and anthropology to the history of medicine. One should also note the widespread and equally reductive influence of Alan Sekula’s critique of “the archive,” with the goal of supposedly “liberating meaning from ‘historical use.'” (13)

This seems to me inseparable from the type of irritating nonsense promoted by Barthes in his widely influential 1977 article “Death of the Author,” and Michel Foucault’s equally unconvincing “What is an Author?” (1977), both of which continue to exercise a harmful influence in the photographic curriculum long after they ceased elsewhere to be regarded as anything more than curious footnotes to the history of farfetched French literary theoretical posturing. (14) Their pedagogic longevity in relation to photography is explicable solely because of the ways in which they can be used to justify a total refusal to consider the role of individual practitioners, as demanded by those such as Tagg and Sekula who wished to blame photography for the very social ills it was often (doubtless inadequately) attempting to describe. Nothing is more revealing of the limitations of so much photographic education in the 1980s than the endless dismissive critiques of most aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century photography, including work for charities, on the grounds that they were all no more than sinister technologies of “surveillance,” a term that lost any kind of practical application as a result of the kind of over-use promoted by Tagg and his many ardent disciples.

Yet by the middle of the decade it was blindingly obvious that the work of artists such as Chadwick was infinitely richer and more challenging than any of the pious image-text work coming out of such bastions of theoretical purity as the Polytechnic of Central London. As early as 1983 Hall had argued, “the left has to look around and see the language that consumer capitalism speaks to people in. It’s very up to date with a high stress on technology. People know that’s going to define the future … The [l]eft has to be professional. Just look at the slickness of adverts.” (15) This, however, was just what the academic left could never bring itself to be, not least because of its deep-seated inverted intellectual snobbery and contempt for any kind of ordinary external professional standards.

All too often the observation, trite in itself, that the institutions employing photography are rarely neutral was flourished as a triumphant discovery, closing down all further debate, rather than being taken as a rather commonplace perception from which our analysis should begin. Surely the acknowledgment that many dimensions of photographic meaning are “socially constructed” should be that starting point rather than the conclusion of an intellectually alert “theory” curriculum? Instead, it was repeatedly insisted that since photographs (like everything else) are “constructed” they therefore have no abiding or trustworthy significance. This all contributed very harmfully to photographic studies, and lead to an increasingly restricted and impoverished educational curriculum that encouraged the production of images to illustrate “theory,” rather than the development of theories to illuminate the complex, changing historical reality of photography. This in turn led directly to a kind of active collusion with the wider ongoing assault on historical memory that so disables the young today. The legacy of the 1980s continues to be uncomfortably felt in British photographic education to this day in the widespread tendency to overemphasize the political to the virtual exclusion of other issues, especially the aesthetic, and all too often considering photography to be no more than a passive instrument of other agencies, while still tending to be radically amnesiac about the richness of the history of the medium and hence of its remarkable creative achievements and potential. (16)

SIMON WATNEY teaches in England part-time at the City and Guilds of Louton Art School and at the University of the Creative Arts in Farnham. He is also the Conservation Cases Recorder of the Church Monuments Society.

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