I was under pressure to get off the next issue of the magazine, and struggling with layout sheets over my desk, when a stranger barged in. He was bedraggled with unruly reddish hair and a Fu Manchu mustache. He carried a 8 x 10-inch yellow box under his arm. His first words were: “Your magazine’s shit! But I can see you’re trying, so I’ve come along to help.”
Offended, I replied: “Then you had better put your pictures where your mouth is, because I don’t know you or care to. Show me what you have to offer.” He gave me the box, full of magic prints. I said: “O.K., I’m convinced. You do have something to teach me. Who are you?” “Tony Ray-Jones,” he said.
From that day on, he was an irritating, exasperating monkey on my back, calling at any hour of the day or night, quizzing me on whom I had seen, what I had done, berating me for wasting time with “that phoney-baloney,” a photographer whom he did not respect. Tony was my self-appointed conscience – and I respected and resented him for it.
Tony had recently returned to England from the USA where he had worked with Alexey Brodovitch and had made contacts with many photographers. He suggested we go to New York together, where he would visit publishers with his book dummy, and I would meet with photographers for possible magazine features. In September 1968 we took off for New York for my first visit to the USA and met many of the photographers personally, including Weegee, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank, John Szarkowski, Joel Meyerowitz, Diane Arbus, W. Eugene Smith, Nathan Lyons, Andre Kertesz among many others.
I have often heard it said that this trip was the beginning of the magazine’s “discovery” of American photography. That’s nonsense. As I have already pointed out, we were all very well aware of what was going on in the USA from books, catalogues and visiting American photographers. Also, even a casual glance at the contents of Creative Camera issues put to press prior to the trip will show that we had already published work by Ray K. Metzker, Arthur Tress, Bruce Davidson, Burk Uzzle, David Attie, Burt Glinn, Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Elliott Erwitt, Charles Harbutt, Duane Michals, John Loengard, Joel Meyerowitz and others. For most of these photographers at the outset of their careers this was their first exposure in a European photo-magazine. And yes, I am proud that we introduced to British photography the work of these names and that our initial judgments about their merit “hold up” after 30 plus years
Which brings up another, paradoxical, criticism which we often heard in Creative Camera’s early years: its “emphasis” on American photographers. Now that I look back on those issues I do not see an undue emphasis on American work. What strikes me is that we were publishing the best of photography, as we saw it, without any regard for nationality. Indeed, in the first two years we published the work of photographers from France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, S. Africa, Italy, Spain and Poland as well as from Britain and America.
Certainly, we were hearing reports of a photographic revolution (photography-as-fine¬art) occurring across the Atlantic, and we hoped the same spirit would spread through Britain. (It never did, at least not in the same manner and, in retrospect, perhaps that isa good thing). So let me dwell on the USA for a few words because that country’s influence seems to generate quite a few myths about this period in British photography.
America was certainly experiencing the beginnings of a photographic upheaval in the early 1960s but its magnitude has been greatly exaggerated – as has its influence on Creative Camera in 1967-68. The truth is that the current emphasis on fine-art photography in the USA was just beginning.
Let’s take the year 1963, for example. Fine-arts programs in photography at universities were virtually nonexistent. Only one university offered a Master of Fine Arts degree in photography. But the growth was rapid. By 1967, there were 13 MFA programs; by1972, 59 MFA programs. (Today, there are over 300).
The first conference of the Society for Photographic Education (a very important organization in its first decade) took place in 1963. Two years later it still had only 30members. In 1967 it had 165 members. Today, it has more than 5,000 members.
Also in 1963, Norbert Klebert opened the Underground Gallery in the basement of his home in New York City. When Tony and I arrived in 1968, it was still the only gallery (outside the Museum of Modern Art) devoted to serious photography – and even then it was only open at weekends and at night because Norbert was working full-time at a camera shop.
America was not so far advanced in its patronage of photographers. The National Endowments of the Arts fellowships began in 1967, just as Creative Camera was getting started.
More of the same would be tedious, but I wanted to emphasize that 1) yes, institutional photography was a little more active in the USA than in Britain in 1968 but 2) no, it was not as active as you might have been led to think. And, yes, we were well aware of what was going on.
But the charge that Creative Camera was favoring American work, paled in comparison with the attack on “wasted space” whenever I published images and articles on historical photography, or art, or essays of criticism. As far as I was concerned this expansion of what was deemed mainstream photography was an essential component of Creative Camera’s editorial policy, as I defined it. I believed then, and I still do, that photographers should know the history of their medium, examine its interaction with the other visual arts, and read and think. So I made no apologies for publishing historical images by John Thomson, Eugene Atget, Frank Sutliffe, P.H. Emerson, John Heartfield, Erich Salomon among others, and the historical columns by Van Deren Coke and Aaron Scharf, or the art of Jack Yates and Peter Cundall, Andy Warhol, Juan Genoves, Herbert Bayer, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Rene Magritte and others, or the essays of Roland Barthes, Graham Leman, Raymond Durgnat, Thomas Barrow or even Krishnamurti.
Inhaling the zeitgeist of the energetic 60s, photographers, like all other aspects ofsociety and culture, were beginning to question established values and traditions. Individuality and self-expression were the rallying cries. Nothing was sacred or could betaken for granted. Radicalism was not a political slogan but a state of mind. In spite of the recent inevitable backlash and the not always healthy fallout of those attitudes, there was an excitement in the air which was invigorating. In that sense Creative Camera was challenging, even attacking, the photographers of the era who were locked into a narrow notion of what constituted “photography.”
Its role in photography was to promote change, attack the establishment, ask “why not?,” and pull the medium in Britain, kicking and screaming, into an unknown future. I was merely attempting to publish a modest magazine which reflected my own vision of what photography could and should be. At last, the magazine was starting to make a difference.
And then I was fired.