California Redux, BJP's September 2015 issue, is dedicated to the documentary photographers unheralded by their generation, and now rightfully considered as greats. It's available in print and digital download now.
San Francisco photographers from the 1980s. James Ellroy’s raid of the LAPD archives. An Iranian photographer, a Magnum legend in the making. Each is featured, exclusively, in the new issue of British Journal of Photography, available to buy now.
BJP September 2015 is a documentary issue dedicated to shining a light on the photographers forgotten by their generation, unrecognised by their native culture, but creating acerbic, politically-charged and revealing documentary photography works.
We’ve featured these photographers for the fact that photographic canons, the pantheons of accepted greats, can feel pretty permanent while they last.
But the celebrated photographer of today can easily be a historical footnote of tomorrow, and the obscure images lost in the archive one day can easily take centre stage the next.
This, we think, is what’s happening to the three photographers profiled in this month’s cover image – Mimi Plumb, Janet Delaney and Michael Jang, all of whom hit their stride in California in the 1970s and 80s. Making acute documentary work with a historical or political bent, they never quite got the critical acclaim they deserved – until now. Now institutions such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and publishing houses such as Mack Books are getting behind them, giving them a place alongside the better-known photographic greats of their time with monographs and solo shows.
It’s also the case with James Ellroy, the most famed noir writer in the world but consistently unheralded for his photographic eye. Ahead of his latest book LAPD ’53, a tightly curated selection of 1953 crime scene photos from the Los Angeles Police Museum archive, we were lucky enough to talk to the iconic Los Angeles institution about his impressions of his beloved LA, then and now.
We also talk to Newsha Tavakolian, one of six photographers nominated to be part of Magnum Photo Agency. But Newsha is no run-of-mill photographer; she’s an Iranian woman, creating fearless, meticulously composed and inspiring photography about the millennials of Tehran; the generation who grew up after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and whose lives remain largely invisible. She explains why must she be heard – and defiantly on her own terms.
Each of these photographers have not until now, gained the recognition they deserve. There’s a wider point here. Our correspondent Stephen McLaren, writing about Plumb, Delaney and Jang in our cover feature, credits SFMoMA’s curator of photography, Sandra Phillips, with rediscovering these photographers, writing that: “Her diligence in inviting photographers from the 1970s and ‘80s to show their work, which has been languishing in their archives for a long time, has been rewarded by some key discoveries.”
Michael Mack agrees, pointing out that publishing and the art world often tends to “be predicated on this idea of the new shiny young thing” – but that what matters is the quality of work.
People miss the big time for all kinds of reasons, he says, that have nothing to do with their ability. “You get people – not necessarily outsider artists, but artists who don’t make it into even the middle tier never mind the top tier – [who] continue to make work, and continue to see themselves as artists,” he says. “Things happen in their lives that don’t put them onto that track where they get exposure.
“It interests me that often some of the most authoritative voices in relation to a particular time or idea produced work that simply hasn’t been seen, rather than the work that has already been acclaimed as the great works of, say, America in the ’70s,” he adds. “There are always other stories to be told, and the beauty of photography from that period is that there was a huge number of people making work, and a huge number of archives that haven’t received the exposure.”
It’s an interesting point and one that anyone in photography, or the arts more generally, will be familiar with – the problem of the great photographers (or artists, or writers) who somehow never get to the top of their game. Maybe it’s because they’re not interested in playing it, or maybe they’re just swimming upstream at the time.
Maybe, less positively, work that’s directly political is easier to palette once it’s safely historical. Whatever the reason, it’s great to see these photographers finally get some recognition, and to be able to play some part in spreading the love.
Buy the issue now at thebjpshop.com