Cambridge Darkroom – Policy, Position & Problems

An article by Brian Human, published in Creative Camera, December 1987 

A speaker at the Cambridge Darkroom was once rather casually introduced as a photographer. She started her talk with a mild rebuke, saying that she wasn’t a photographer, but an artist, who happened to be using the medium of photography. That same distinction is at the heart of the Darkroom’s attitude towards photography and it sets the Darkroom apart from most other photographic galleries in Britain, winning it more recognition in the wider arts world than in what John Stathatos has called the ‘ghetto’ of photography.

Cambridge Darkroom is committed to the promotion of photography as a creative cultural activity and in particular to exploring the boundaries and relationships between photography and other arts. Conventionally a photography gallery stands for visual pleasure and the preservation of the autonomy of the photographic image. This means that the questions asked of the medium may only be properly put and answered in photography’s own terms. We believe that a photography gallery must extend beyond the limits imposed by this view: we seek to provide an opportunity to approach photography critically, outside the dominating conventions .laid down by largely institutionalised photography. The style and direction which the Darkroom has evolved follows from this stance and its distinctive identity is thereby established.

Our aims are realised through two principal activities: interrelated exhibition and education programmes.

We mount around 10 main exhibitions a year and our intention is to show only work conceived for the gallery, if not at its inception then at least in the way it is represented for exhibition. Hired historical and issue based touring shows are an essential part of the programme, although it is through its own exhibitions that the Darkroom believes that it can best pursue its aims. Sometimes the Darkroom is solely responsible for producing a show, Sequences (1984), Boundaries (1986) and Multiple Vision (1986), for example. Joint projects result from collaboration with artists or galleries or both, in Britain and abroad, regardless of the medium with which they are primarily involved. Examples of this are Re-visions (1985) with the John Hansard Gallery, Precious Metals (1986) with Roger Palmer and the Serpentine Gallery and open shows such as Next:Tomorrow (1986) (Death is the theme for 1988) with Kettle’s Yard. The advantages of collaboration are three-fold: it encourages the cross fertilisation of ideas; it supports more ambitious projects than either could afford individually; and combined resources and reputations attract a higher standard of work, especially to open shows. Independently and jointly organised Darkroom exhibitions are available for limited tours to selected venues. We believe that we have achieved through this a growing national, even international, reputation for supporting and showing photography as an integral part of the wider visual arts.

The Darkroom’s philosophy, because it is based on a critical approach to the medium, leads inevitably to an educational dimension and we have devoted a high proportion of our resources to teaching since our earliest days. There are three main strands to this: mutually supportive exhibition and education programmes linked by talks, discussions and workshops; work with the formal education sector, both in schools and in the gallery; and conceptual and skill based workshops centred around practical work using our darkrooms. At all three levels the desire is to extend the potential and understanding of both the individual and the medium.

The Darkroom arranges a variety of other events to complement the two main programmes. The gallery space lends itself to performance, which is increasingly presented as a counterpoint to the fixed image; artists as different as Nan Hoover (1987) and Andre Stitt (1987) have attracted promising audiences. Film programmes have included experimental work by John Welsby (1984), early European cinema (1987) and film noir from Hollywood (1987). Film is shown regularly. These activities are planned with the exhibition programme to present something of the visual cultural context within which photography should be seen.

The Cambridge Darkroom has grown and matured since the gallery doors first opened to the public on 21 January 1984. But it would be quite wrong to pretend that there is only glory in this particular garden: as well as achievements, there are problems and areas needing improvement.

The Darkroom still has some way to go in establishing large and regular audiences for exhibitions and events. Hockney’s Photographs (1984) and Koudelka’s ‘The Urge to See’ both drew high numbers, as did the local historical show Fen Archive (1986), but new and experimental work, indeed, even that by established and conventional figures such as David Hurn and Robert Doisneau, produce inconsistent attendances. Members of the Darkroom seem more interested in burying themselves in the darkrooms than in the exhibitions. While this is due in part to our location and to the general apathy towards the visual arts prevalent in Cambridge, it is clear that we still have some way to go in selling our approach to photography. This is true regionally as well as locally. Although the Cambridge Darkroom is the most important centre for photography in the Eastern region it has yet to establish an effective regional role: artists in Clacton and King’s Lynn may know of our existence, but they don’t consider us as a significant resource. We believe we have the right product – it’s our marketing and publicity which need to be improved.

These are shortcomings that we can overcome. There are also problems which are less tractable. Our premises on the first floor of a converted brewery in a side road off a traffic racked down-market shopping street a mile from the city centre conspire against our attempts to expand the regular and casual audiences. Although we have a large, flexible exhibition space, office and storage accommodation are extremely cramped and workshops have to use the gallery. It is difficult to work effectively in these conditions and the development of the education programme is hampered. And we never have enough money, of course. Yet the amount we receive might be sufficient if getting it didn’t take up such a disproportionate amount of time, which should be devoted to the Darkroom’s artistic work. It is a source of intense frustration that it can be the major arts organisations who are the most time consuming to deal with. Do they appreciate the effort involved in fund raising?

But we remain optimistic – we can’t afford to be otherwise! The immediate future for the arts looks gloomy and we see the next two or three years as a time for consolidation when we can build on our strengths, remedy our shortcomings and solve some of our problems. Beyond that? Perhaps bigger premises in a better position. If that ambition is to be achieved we must hold on to our catholic view of photography as a creative practice and eschew the pur-itanism of photographic autonomy.

Brian Human, Creative Camera, December 1987