For The Grange Prize 2012, the AGO and Aeroplan are partnering with a European country for the first time: the United Kingdom.
Why the UK? The region has a long history of invention and innovation in photography that continues to this day. In the 19th century alone, the UK clocked in a dizzying number of accomplishments that shaped the field. Sir John Herschel coined the terms “photography” as well as “negative” and “positive” to describe William Henry Fox Talbot’s early discoveries. Talbot invented the calotype in 1840, a paper negative precursor to the negative / positive process used until the advent of digital technologies. This new process prompted the collaboration of Scottish duo, David Octavius Hill, a painter, and Robert Adamson, a photographer, whose moody portraits are often cited as the first artistic achievements in the medium. In 1843, the botanist Anna Atkins published a group of cyanotypes of algae, the first book illustrated with photographs. Frederick Scott Archer developed collodion in 1848, an emulsion that significantly reduced exposure times.
The 1851 Exhibition of Works of Industry of all Nations (also known as the Crystal Palace exhibition) debuted many photographic innovations, including stereographic photography, which with its illusion of three-dimensionality became an indispensable 19th century entertainment (the ancestor of the Viewmaster). Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were both huge photophiles, which assured the medium’s popular appeal in the UK. In 1860 they commissioned John Jabez Edwin Mayall to make portraits of the Royal Family and allowed them to be widely disseminated, which fuelled the interest in images of well-known figures.
Roger Fenton’s views of the Crimean War in 1855 have often been described as the first war photographs. The South Kensington Museum presented the first ever exhibition of photography in a museum, organized by the Photographic Society of London, in 1858. Francis Frith founded a photographic publishing firm in 1859 – F. Frith & Co. – that quickly became the world’s largest, with a stock of more than 1 million photographs. James Clerk Maxwell laid the foundations for colour photography in 1861. Peter Henry Emerson was one of the first to publicly champion photography’s artistic possibilities in the 1880s, and The Linked Ring was founded in 1892 to forward those aims. Julia Margaret Cameron – great aunt of Virginia Woolf – remains the most well-known woman photographing in the 19th century, though the dramatic tableaux of Lady Clementina Hawarden and the whimsical photocollages produced by many Victorian ladies can’t be overlooked. And in 1904, London’s Daily Mirror became the first newspaper in the world to be illustrated entirely by photographs.
From this photographic bedrock, things have only accelerated in the 20th and 21st centuries, aided by the robust network of photographic societies, arts institutions, academic programs, festivals, and publications have flourished to support this activity, like the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Media Museum and the Brighton Photo Biennial. Not to mention publications like the British Journal of Photography (established in 1854!), illustrated weekly Picture Post (1938–1957) and Photoworks, a magazine and commissioning agency, which have provided and continue to provide a range of outlets for photographers, thinkers and enthusiasts.
The photographs of Bill Brandt, Bert Hardy, Ian Berry and Don McCullin have reflected social conditions, at home and abroad, at war and at peace. Figures like Cecil Beaton, David Bailey, and Corinne Day all captured the spirit of their time in portraits and fashion photographs – Beaton in the 1920s and 1930s with the “Bright Young People” and beyond; Bailey the “Swinging London” of the 1960s; and in the 1990s, Day’s photographs of a young Kate Moss launched two careers and a whole new look.
After more than 40 years, Gilbert & George continue to make their riotous compositions, paeans to life, love, death and desire. Martin Parr continues to affectionately critique the British middle classes. Gillian Wearing continues to explore the disjunction between how we look and what we think, in photographs and films that are charming as well as haunting. And just last week, Paul Graham was awarded the prestigious Hasselblad Award for a lifetime of work, the first UK photographer to be so honoured.
All of this makes for an ideal moment to take a look at what’s happening in photography now in the UK and to discover the next generation, in dialogue with artists from Canada. The contrasts and similarities promise to deliver a new view on our contemporary moment.
By Sophie Hackett, Assistant Curator, Photography at the AGO and Lead Juror of The Grange Prize 2012.
Image Credit: Claude-Marie Ferrier, View of Transept, Looking South, 1851, salted paper print, Reports by the Juries, Vol II, Exhibition of Works of Industry of All Nations 1851. 21.1 x 15.6. Gift of David Thomson, 2007, 2007/1940.2.41 © 2012 Art Gallery of Ontario.