Colin Osman, Peter Turner and Creative Camera: an essay by David Brittain.
An eerie silence followed the collapse, last summer, of the magazine formerly known as Creative Camera (1). It was dramatically broken this spring by two articles in the press. The first was an emotional first-person “epitaph” for Creative Camera written by its longest serving editor, Peter Turner(2). Shortly afterwards the Guardian, a British broadsheet newspaper, published the obituary of Colin Osman, founder of Creative Camera. Turner’s respect and love for Osman is obvious from reading his article – which, given its timing, now seems like a pre-emptive obituary for the man he has called a ‘father figure’. Turner and Osman enjoyed one of the most fruitful and controversial relationships of British photography. Despite being divided by a generation and by temperament, they shared many attitudes and convictions: a passion for photography, self-assurance and loyalty, a desire for change and contempt for the establishment. Together and jointly they used Creative Camera to articulate the themes that would define British photography in the 70s and then divide it in the 80s.
Turner and Osman began their association in 1969 when Turner became the second editor of Creative Camera. Turner would edit each monthly issue, while Osman looked after the business side. His wife Grace helped out voluntarily. For the next decade Osman would support the loss-making magazine out of the profits of the pigeon fanciers’ magazine, Racing Pigeon, he inherited from his grandfather (known affectionately in pigeon circles as The Colonel). He was also involved editorially – as reviewer, editor of influential special editions and as researcher. While abroad on business for Racing Pigeon magazine Osman would meet contacts that would be useful for Creative Camera. One such celebrated visit to the USSR got Osman an introduction to Rodchenko’s family – so Creative Camera could boast that it was the first western magazine to publish unseen photographs by the forgotten constructivist.
Among Osman’s many passions were the Soviet avant-garde; the American Photo-League; the photojournalism of Europe and Drum in South Africa; and nineteenth-century English social photography. This interest in radical causes and print was influenced by his childhood in London; the family business was publishing, of course, and Osman remembers the house being packed with books and periodicals (3). Importantly, his father was a member of the left-wing Fabian Society. In 1995 he told an interviewer that if he hadn’t been “inclined to socialism” he would have become converted after serving as a seaman in the Royal Navy, after the war (4).
In the 70s Creative Camera assumed two distinct identities – each reflecting the personalities of the duo that produced it. Osman was concerned with the pre-war European roots of British photography. He knew prominent figures, such as Kurt Hutton, who were featured and interviewed. Others, like Picture Post photographer Tim Gidal, became close friends. By contrast, Turner was interested in contemporary trends that came from the U.S. and he was a great champion of Robert Frank. Turner was primarily inspired by the processes of design and editing; he relished working with photographers. Neither man had time for analytic texts and this often angered critics(5). With hindsight one can see that historical and contemporary strands were discrete and complementary. For instance the notion that the best contemporary photographers belonged to a “documentary tradition,” based in the pictorials of the 30s, was hotly contended. So to champion British contemporaries such as Chris Killip and Chris Steele-Perkins, while celebrating émigré photographers of the pre-war era, was to take a stance. Meanwhile, Osman’s foraging into uncharted areas of photography unearthed material which shed light on overlooked histories – such as the Arbeiterfoto movement of 30s Germany and the work of John Heartfield. This was of huge interest and relevance to Jo Spence, among others, whose evolving practice and theory was informed by the European anti-Nazi resistance (6).
It seems Turner was able to work with Creative Camera’s owner easier than his predecessor, Bill Jay. When Osman met Jay the latter was on a one-man mission to shake up British photography from the slumber of the pre-war years. Jay convinced Osman that he should purchase an ailing amateur title called Camera Owner and then turn it into something “serious” like Photography magazine, once under the editorship of Norman Hall. Osman agreed and Camera Owner morphed into Creative Camera in February 1968 with a reforming agenda. Osman and Jay fell out after the latter left to edit the short-lived Album.
Osman and Turner seemed unlikely bedfellows. Osman was 41 when he founded Creative Camera and still affected by the harsh experience of war-time London. Turner, in his early 20s, was idealistic and (by his own account) arrogant. He studied photography at art school in Guildford in 1965, at a time of student sit-ins. Before Osman became a serious amateur, he had been jobbing photographer for Racing Pigeon and a cheesecake photographer. Turner had discovered Creative Camera while eking out a living as a journalist with a consumer photography title and a some-time commercial photographer. He was instantly impressed by Bill Jay’s no-holds-barred style and was galvanized by meeting his fellow co-editors David Hurn and Tony Ray-Jones, who were both renowned photographers at the time. For Jay, as for Turner, photography was one of the radical causes of the 60s and he continued to think of himself as a sort of activist.
From that point on photography became Turner’s surrogate family and Osman his surrogate father. His life would follow a trajectory from the youthful idealism of the early 70s to the testing realities of the 80s; a trajectory that parallels the story of British photography itself. With Jay in the U.S., he was free to assume the mantle of guru and proselytizer, defining the identity of the emerging scene, travelling the world to meet the key players, and advising, voting or lobbying on all the panels that mattered. Then in 1978 he abruptly left the magazine, to teach and to publish photography books. Things took a downturn in the 80s as Turner’s publishing company, Travelling Light, sank into financial trouble. He seemed to disappear from the scene as the scene itself polarized into pro- and anti-icon factions with Creative Camera as one of their battlegrounds.
In 1986 Turner and Osman began their second collaboration at Creative Camera. The magazine they had edited effectively died in 1980 when Osman couldn’t afford to support it. It returned in 1981, resuscitated by an Arts Council grant. While Osman assumed ownership, he relinquished some control over contents to an editorial board that was put in place at the insistence of the new funders. Turner was a member for a while. From most accounts it was an uncomfortable ride for everyone. One board member complained that Osman obstructed their aims and kept all the review books. Osman disliked the imposition of the board, comparing the Arts Council with an iron-curtain communist regime. He once told me that some board members tried to stage what he called ‘a putsch’ by conspiring with the Arts Council to acquire the title without consulting him.
Eventually Osman and Turner found themselves in the firing line as part of the wide-ranging – at times vituperative – critique of modernism, emanating from Britain’s new academic courses, and finding expression in Ten. 8 magazine, also funded by the Arts Council. Creative Camera was singled out for promulgating a narrow, elitist view of photography and being non-critical and anti-intellectual. Its ethos of “us and them” and “good versus bad” seemed outmoded and irrelevant. It had originated with Bill Jay who saw Creative Camera as an avenging vehicle that would purify photography – galvanize right-thinking people against the shabbiness of club photography and rank commercialism as well as snobbery if – Osman preferred to underwrite losses rather than make compromises with content to attract more conventional readers, then surely he had the right to publish whatever he wanted. The fact that Creative Camera didn’t seem to have a reader that could be imagined, and appeared indifferent to the consequences, made it eccentric, rebellious and unpredictable. This gave it a character that some readers valued highly as an antidote to both consumer publishing and “saintly” academic journals.
Turner has credited Osman with being the benefactor of Creative Camera and, axiomatically, a patron of British photography at a formative moment. Osman would usually dismiss suggestions that he was in the least altruistic. He would give a sensible reason for his commitment to Creative Camera. It was ostensibly for sound business reasons: that he saw the magazine as a way to promote sales in the Book Room (the fabled photography bookstore, run by Grace, that shared a building in Doughty Street with Racing Pigeon and Creative Camera). He told an interviewer that he got into photography publishing as an indulgence – a way to escape the “claustrophobia” of the pigeon-racing world (7). He was rightly proud of the cultural achievements of his magazine – those he could identify with – but he was always sure to mention his collaborators when there were compliments being handed out. Without Osman’s generosity there would have been no Creative Camera, yet to be owner of an influential magazine had its advantages – such as status and access to knowledge and contacts. He developed a profitable sideline wheeling and dealing. He wrote articles (latterly as editor of the Royal Photographic Society’s Photo Historian) and books that were designed to create a demand for objects in his vast collection. Together with Tim Gidal he made a killing selling a complete set of Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung to the art library at the Victoria & AlbertMuseum (8). Another perk of the job was influence, of course, and Osman used his voice to agitate energetically on behalf of photography at the highest levels of the art world. In the January 1982 issue he had readers transfixed when he defied the (then) director of the Tate gallery in London to define the difference between an artist who takes photographs (who would be represented in the collection) and a photographer (who wouldn’t).
Osman always regretted that Creative Camera couldn’t be made to pay its way. He felt let down by “serious photographers” and would routinely curse Camera Owner’s distributors for falsely inflating the circulation figures. Then one day he admitted that he had himself to blame. “It took me a very long while finally to admit that my dream…was in fact only a dream (9).” When Osman finally sold Creative Camera in 1986 some smelled a plot to reinstate modernism by the back door because Turner was mysteriously appointed as editor. Details of the hand-over from Osman’s company, Coo Press, to the non-profit-making company, CC Publishing, are murky even today. Osman received an undisclosed sum in return for the title and its assets, and obviously pushed to have Turner back. Meanwhile the troublesome editorial board was dissolved. Asked why he sold up, Osman gave reasons of health (he was always plagued by bad eyesight) and complained that he’d lost patience with the ‘PC’ Arts Council(10). He was 60.
I got to know Turner midway through his second term as editor, a few years before I become his deputy editor. Though visibly drained by the effort of producing a monthly, virtually his passion and self-deprecating wit. Plainly editing this version of Creative Camera was a lot different. He was torn between loyalty to those readers from the 70s, who shared his values, and the need to address the aspirations of younger readers – and he had to pay attention to the shifting agendas of the Arts Council, which supplied around half the income. When I joined Creative Camera in 1989, Turner began grooming me for his job. One of the last issues he edited before leaving for New Zealand, in 1991, was one of his best – a survey of new British photography featuring upcoming talents of Brit Art. In the true Creative Camera spirit this was ahead of its time.
I last saw Colin and Grace in June 2001 for sandwiches and wine at their cluttered north London home. Even though Colin had resigned from my board several years previously, I felt that he deserved to hear the fate of the magazine from me. I remember he gave one of his withering sighs and shook his great bearded head. I will remember Colin with great affection as an otherworldly figure that was a bit of a rogue but had a lot of integrity.
For some the Creative Camera of the 70s, with its silver covers, was the ultimate photography magazine, while for others it was a travesty. The magazine evolved from the contrasting personalities of Jay and Osman, but that relationship was too volatile to endure. Turner’s willingness to work with Osman ensured that Creative Camera would benefit from a combination of tradition and reforming zeal as well as a shared love of subversion.
(1) DPICT, the successor to Creative Camera, which I edited, was forced to fold last June (2001) after the Arts council of England completely withdrew its funding.
(2) Peter Turner, Kiss the Past Goodbye: An Epitaph to creative camera,” New Zealand Journal of Photography, No. 2, Summer 2001, p. 5. (Reproduced on this web site)
(3) Oral History of British photography (1996). Interview with Colin Osman (tapes F4328-4334.) He was Interviewed in 1995.
(5) In April 1973 the magazine, Le Nouveau Photocinema, criticized the magazine far the “absence of critical appreciation by the editors.”
(6) Jo Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture (London, England: Camden Press. 1986), p. 62.
(7) Oral History of British photography (1996). Interview with Colin Osman (tapes F4328-4334).
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