Peter James was an instrumental figure in British photography, establishing an outstanding collection of photography at the Library of Birmingham over his 26-year career at the institution, and researching and curating exhibitions at the V&A, National Portrait Gallery, Somerset House, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Ikon Galley, the Library of Birmingham, and many more. He was also a modest and affable man, universally known as Pete and as at home over a curry as in a lecture hall delivering an academic paper. As Hilary Roberts, research curator at the Imperial War Museum, put it in a tribute on James’ Facebook page: “Pete has been a wonderful friend and exceptional colleague for more years than I can remember. His contribution to the world of photography cannot be overstated. It was a privilege to work with him and I will miss him more than I can say.”
London-based collectors Claire and James Hyman have donated 125 photographs to the Yale Center for British Art, gifting key works by leading figures in British photographic history – including Bill Brandt, Bert Hardy, Roger Mayne, Tony Ray-Jones, Martin Parr, Chris Killip and Anna Fox – to the 44-year-old institution in New Haven in the US. It’s a move that could be interpreted as a damning indictment of UK institutions’ commitment to collecting British photography – particularly as, the last time BJP caught up with James Hyman (our May 2015 issue), he said building such collections has been “left to private individuals, and it shouldn’t have been”. In the same interview Hyman also singled out Birmingham Library and its curator of photography collections Peter James for praise – yet in the intervening time, both the photography archive and James’ job have fallen victim to funding cuts. But Hyman says the donation should be viewed in a positive light as evidence of the growing interest in British photography abroad – an interest which may spark more commitment in the UK.
“It’s got nothing to do with Brexit or Europe!” says curator Greg Hobson. “I think we can’t begin to understand that yet. It’s just being addressed by photographers now. We’re discussing the exhibition A Green and Pleasant Land – British Landscape and the Imagination: 1970s to Now, which he’s curated with Brian Cass, head of exhibitions at Towner Art Gallery, and which recently opened at the Towner. Including over 100 works by 50 artists (52 if you count the people in duos separately), it’s a major survey of the land we live on and how photographers have shown it, including image-makers such as John Blakemore, Thomas Joshua Cooper, Fay Godwin, John Davies, Paul Graham, and Theo Simpson.