Kiss the Past Goodbye – Peter Turner

I left the magazine in 1978 to involve myself in book publishing, then became entangled in teaching, exhibition curating and writing books. Judy Goldhill took on my role, then in quick succession came Mark Holborn and later Susan Butler. Each added their own flavour and each was supported by Colin. Judy’s contribution was largely visual, Mark’s visual and verbal and Susan provided a hybrid mix of feminist polemic coupled to academe. Each arena was appropriate to recording its time and the shifting sands of photography as it re-defined itself. Meanwhile the pigeons were cooing more softly and not so much money was on the table. Time to call in the thought police i.e. The Arts Council, and get some dosh. Colin did this, and was required to form an editorial board. This motley crew included me. The magazine still had the advantage of Colin’s central London offices – a fine Georgian building in Doughty Street.

All the financial incidentals came from Racing Pigeon profits, so no rent to pay, no salaries, free photocopier and so on. But we were not selling enough copies of CC. This is a common tale in photographic publishing when it is done without compromise. Some of the necessary expenses, like typesetting and printing were partly covered through book selling. For a while CC had the best stock of photographic books in town. But one day in 1986 Colin phoned and invited me to lunch. He told me that he was going to close the magazine – even with its Arts Council grant he could no longer provide kind of magazine I would want to read. Meanwhile the Arts Council was going through its own changes, trying to balance the voices of a multicultural society with those of Thatcher’s Britain – ‘survival of the fittest and Devil take the hindmost’. It wasn’t like that on the street where you had to hit first and ask questions later. I was given a few raps over the knuckles for being obstinate and Eurocentric but I had rescued the magazine and was able to manage its finances. And I was never, ever, racist. It hurt me deeply to be accused of having an ‘hidden agenda’ by an outside observer who happened to be from India, a place whose culture I find profound. Photography is a minority pursuit and I believe hasn’t got the internal infrastructure to support factions. I tried to be even-handed.

So we got along by fair means and a great deal of support from the photographic community, most particularly from those who felt disenfranchised. We got other kinds of help too – volunteer workers, free accountancy, financial advice and a great deal of hand-holding. Image-makers, writers, typesetters, printers all came to the aid of the party. We had a great group of Trustees too who shared in my enthusiasm. I thank all of them , not by name but they know who they are. The Arts Council got a bargain. But like their counterparts in other countries they looked a gift horse in the mouth and didn’t like the teeth.

In hindsight, my times with CC were the best. I was free but securely held and met a better class of person than most will. They were all photographers and I loved them for their vision, integrity and capacity for being naughty when it was called for.

David Brittain is another very important member of our cast. Just like Bill Jay and myself he had been to art school (Glasgow School of Art) and worked as a journalist for a photographic magazine. I liked his style and got him to contribute to CC. It lead to a job working with me – David had a finger on a pulse that I was beginning to lose under the pressure of keeping our little boat afloat and we got on well, probably because we were both quietly mad but knew the disciplines of magazine making. His input allowed me to spend more time on the administration side – boring but necessary. So we evolved a system where I called the shots, informed by David and he did the leg work; I did the production and managed the business, he made the phone calls and went to exhibition openings. He read my copy and I read his. It became a symbiotic partnership. When I left the magazine for the second time in 1991 I put it in David’s hands because I knew he understood its spirit. I feel proud for him and what he did. Just like me he had to deal with shit hitting the fan yet still managed to pull off a thoroughly contemporary magazine. Major effort and minor money is what happens in the art world.

That said, I cannot really comment on David’s editorship. Or more particularly the tribulations with which he had to contend. I was too far away – 12,000 miles separates London from Wellington, New Zealand. I had gone to live at the end of the Earth. What I will say is that I got a free copy of every issue and if they had not been free I would have paid for them. He did what I expected he would and produced a magazine I wanted to see and read. David Brittain has my respect. The Arts Council of Great Britain has my contempt and sits in my five star category for stupidity. I piss in their general direction.

I dislike footnotes but the title of this article comes from a remark made by Robert Frank. The painting I refer to is Marat Assassinated, in the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels. It is reproduced in most history of art books. What follows is part of a letter I sent to David Britain about a year ago. My intuition was telling me that something was up…

None of this applies to my astonishment that CC should be around to look over the shoulder of the year 2000. Theory says that such an arcane magazine should be long gone – ground down and mangled by the magic of market forces or bought out by Rupert Murdoch (joke, please titter). Practice has proved different. For a little and under-capitalised publication to have ridden the waves of financial change and the vicissitudes of arts fashion for more than 30 years is a testament to tenacity on the part of several editors – you, me and others (they know who they are).

It also needed loads of dosh and a sense of readership with an editorial responsibility. Profit in a fiscal sense was never the intention, more a sense of the greater good. I know from my two tenures with the magazine how editorial intention and creating financial viability had to match reader expectation. Which I thought rested on an Alexey Brodovich aphorism – ‘show me something new’. CC also introduced me to the notion of ‘The art of walking tall’ which is a bit Kipling I know, but I received it through meeting photographers, artists using other media and being part of a circle that had ‘thunder in its pocket and lightning in its shoes’ to borrow from an old blues song.

Thus my involvement with the magazine from 1969-78 and again from 1986-91 became a succession of personally defining moments. I met just about every one in Europe and the United States who cared about this medium from Paul Strand and Walker Evans to Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Kertész and Bill Klein; Bill Brandt, Don McCullin (or was that Don McSullen?), Phillip Jones-Griffiths, Chris Steele-Perkins, Lewis Baltz, Marketa Luscacova, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Fred Sommer, Robert Doisneau, Mary Ellen Mark, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Ralph Gibson, Gilles Peress, Paul Caponigro, Ansel Adams, Minor White – the list could go on and on and would include as large a number of women and persons from the so-called ethnic minorities. not to mention a whole host of museum people, historians, dealers and the general wierdos who gather around our specialism. Yet it does spell out its own tale of a concern with modernism and a kind of photographic formalism. You, I know, have pinpointed the influence of John Szarkowski of MoMA, New York on what I did. This, I think, is at once true and false. True because he set a persuasive style of writing and exhibition making in our minds and false because we had our own mind set. I admire Big John, but no more than I admire you. The point is in separating originality from imitation, or honesty rising above our daily deceits.

Peter Turner

This text is © Copyright the estate of Peter Turner, 2002.

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