The selection for The Lives of Great Photographers exhibition was a difficult one for our curators. The photographers in the exhibition were chosen according to five categories and we have displayed the best examples from each. Only photographers who had died and therefore completed their life's work were chosen as it was thought that only then could a photographer be judged.
But, there are so many photographers who could or should be 'great'. What does the word 'great' even mean in this context? Does the praise of an expert make a photographer great? Does a great life make a great photographer? Robert Capa lived a risk-taking, high-society, celebrity lifestyle and Weegee was a master of self-promotion, whilst others were more obscure during their lifetime but left a great legacy.
A couple of weeks ago, the exhibition's curator, Brian Liddy, and Anne McNeill, Director of Impressions Gallery met to discuss this question, and explore wider issues surrounding the exhibition. You can watch the video of the interview which took place in Gallery One right here:
Brian kindly agreed to write about the interview for our blog:
"I was feeling a bit apprehensive about being interviewed by Anne McNeill about ‘The Lives of Great Photographers’, which I had selected the photographs for.
"All of this was to be in front of an audience, and on top of that we were to be filmed by my colleague, Emma Shaw with a view to putting it on the web. Yikes! The whole idea for the event was Emma’s, and was arranged by another colleague, Fozia Bano. She knew it would go down well, said we should go for it and encouraged me all the way.
"So, Anne and I met beforehand to have a chat about the ‘interrogation’, but I didn’t know what questions she was going to ask me on the night, which made me nervous. Also, Anne is really knowledgeable, has strong views and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. All of this made me nervous, but I needn’t have been. Anne was great, and really put me at ease right from the start."
"Don’t get me wrong - it was a serious event, with important issues to be raised, but Anne phrased her questions as if she was more of an interested friend than an adversary. So, thanks to her I actually began to enjoy myself once we began.
"I had chosen photographs for the exhibition by famous photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Dorothea Lange, Bill Brandt, Julia Margaret Cameron, Fay Godwin, Cartier-Bresson and Weegee for the show. But there are also less well known photographers such as George Davison and Edith Tudor Hart. I would have to account for their inclusion, why I had chosen the photographs I did, and perhaps explain why photographers like Ansel Adams and Cindy Sherman weren’t in the exhibition. It could have spelled trouble!
"But in the end we talked about things like the history of the National Photography Collection, and why it's shaped the way it is. I explained that as an institution we’re much older than you might think. Not everyone knows that we’re part of a wider group of museums called NMSI which includes the Science Museum, and that we moved from London 26 years ago, but the collections here have been growing since the 1880s.
"It was good to be able to explain that although Julia Margaret Cameron’s work has been in our collection since that period, it would have been acquired as examples of albumen prints from wet collodion negatives rather than works of art. That side of her work would have been covered by the V&A Museum and the Royal Photographic Society.
"I was pleased that people asked questions, and that we were able to have a few laughs along the way. Now I’m looking forward to doing more events like last night in the future, and hope to maybe see you there."