Academic journal article Afterimage

Tunnel Vision: Photographic Education in Britain in the 1980s

Academic journal article Afterimage

Tunnel Vision: Photographic Education in Britain in the 1980s

Article excerpt

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.

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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in 1988 of Section 28, which was aimed at preventing the supposed "promotion" of homosexuality in schools (it was repealed in 2003).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. …

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