Julian Stallabrass: Let’s begin with the title, ‘Middle Years’. Middle between what?
Philip Jones Griffiths: I’ve been asked that before. What happened was that some years ago I was finding pictures that I’d taken in the Fifties and Sixties and put them into a folder called ‘Middle Years’ and so the exhibition ends up being called ‘Middle Years’. Not a lot of great thought went into it, but it’s certainly the middle of the century and in some respects it could also apply to my life. I suppose I could have worked on a title such as ‘On the Warpath’ or ‘Off to War’ or ‘Before the War’ because all these pictures were taken before Vietnam.
JS: Could we just talk a bit about before the ‘middle years’, if you like: how it was that you got into photography – I think it was partly through an interest in chemistry – but also how you learned to look ‘photographically’? One of the striking things about the pictures in the show is how many of them make strong graphic statements, and how much about photography many of them are. They’re very much built upon photographic contrasts.
PJG: My early life in Wales taught me a lot but I felt trapped in my little village. I knew I had to get out. My only fear in life was and is boredom, and it could get pretty boring there. I went through the hobbies in alphabetical order, and all that, but still there was that feeling ‘I’ve got to get out, I’ve got to spread my wings’. When one got to a certain age, my parents thought, ‘We’ve cracked the problem’ which was in those days the dilemma – if you educated your children you would never see them again – they piss off to England because there were no jobs in Wales. But they thought ‘We’ve cracked this – if he becomes a pharmacist, he could be standing in the main street in our village in a white coat so we won’t lose him’. That was part of their motivation for pushing me towards pharamacy. I spent ten years doing it, largely because the illustrated magazines had all closed down. Television had come, the great Bert Hardy, photographer of the Korean War, was now shooting cigarette ads… there were a lot of reasons to have a profession to fall back on as there was little money in photography.
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Published in Photoworks Issue 9, 2007