In this interview, Julian Stallabrass talks to celebrated Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths about his little known work from Britain in the 50s and 60s.
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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At the same time I joined the Rhyl Camera Club. I was made aware that magazines dedicated to photography existed. So I started devouring everything I could find on the subject, and it didn’t take long to discover that there was something called Magnum. I became aware that photographers ran around the world, like Samurai or Zen warriors with a Leica around their neck, and changed the world. At least, if not changing it, then showing the world to people in a way that enabled them to make changes. And that seemed to be a magical thing to be able to do. You have access to everything. If I woke up tomorrow morning and said, ‘I really want to know what the social conditions in Dubai are like for the poor there’, I can get on a plane, go there and find out for myself. There are very few professions that allow you to do that.
Now some people share my view but there are a lot of people out there who aren’t in the least bit interested what’s going on anywhere. All they want is to sit, watch TV and consume. And, of course, for those people, I have nothing to say. I understood very early on that photography represented this gateway out of the village, out of the pharmacy…
I was always taking pictures and one was published in the Guardian whilst I was working as a pharmacist. I think I was wise, because only the Guardian and the Observer gave a photographer credit, so people would see my name under a photograph. If I got called for a job, I would say ‘I’m sorry, I’m busy!’ but what I really meant was I couldn’t take a day off because I’d already been absent for the previous three on a Guardian assignment and I’d lose my job as a pharmacist if I took a fourth. I discovered something important – every time you say no, you get more offers (because everyone assumes you’re much in demand) and therefore you get better jobs. It’s something I’m always trying to tell my colleagues at Magnum, don’t ever be worried about turning down a job – it means more money next time. They seldom listen.
JS: When you started working for the Guardian and the Observer, you were a freelancer. What kind of jobs were they giving you?
PJG: Every newspaper picture editor knows that there are certain things occurring thanks to PR departments that were very well regarded in those days. So someone would say ‘So and so’s giving a talk or there’s going to be a demonstration tomorrow at nine o’clock…’ All of that is easy to do. That’s what everyone else does. The trick is to take a look behind the news. So, for instance, my ordinary behaviour was such that I would never go for the obvious, I would always go around the back. In other words, there would be a connection with the news, but it would be a tangential connection, it would a kind of ornery connection – the idea would be to make people think. Looking back, it has very much to do with how I behaved as a child. My parents were always chastising me for asking ‘Why?’ The word for ‘why’ in Welsh is ‘pam’ and I was always saying ‘Pam? Pam? Pam?’ [mimes being hit] ‘Shut up! Go to bed! Don’t ask so many questions!’ So, I think that curiosity is what enabled me to get a lot of work published in the Guardian. My value, certainly to the Guardian in those days and later to the Observer, was my ability to look behind the news, trying to see something, trying to expand on it, trying to use it as a stepping stone, to greater understanding, rather than just the obvious ‘blink’.
JS: I was just trying to get a sense of how much you directed yourself and your own interests in that sense.
PJG: With the Guardian, I would take a picture and then send it to them – pop it on the train and hope for the best. With the Observer, my success depended on doing what I’ve just described. I think what I’ve long since discovered with Magnum is that the photographer who says ‘I’ve got a great story’ – generates much more interest from picture editors than the photographer saying ‘Here are the pictures from that assignment you gave me…’
JS: Some of the pictures taken in Wales are square. Were you using a 6×6 in those days?
PJG: Yes, it was a camera prophetically called the Agiflex from the 1950’s.There was a camera made in Germany called the ‘Reflex Korelle ’ and this was an English copy of it. It was a box, 12 exposures on 120 film, fresnel screen…
JS: So you looked down at it?
PJG: Yes, you had to look down at the screen.
JS: So did you find it easier in a sense? I mean some of those candid pictures for instance the one of those guys standing outside a pub opposite Pentonville Prison, are really pretty extraordinary in terms of your proximity.
PJG: No, my recollection is that it was a loud camera. The noise was mostly the mirror going up. It’s true that in all the square pictures I think people are not paying much attention. What does it all mean? I don’t know. There was a photographer who used to work for the Observer who did all of his work with a Rolleiflex, which is essentially the same kind of camera. If he saw something interesting he would set the focus at 15 feet, walk up to subject …and cough as he pressed the shutter. Once he had got home, he would use a wonderful, huge mahogany enlarger to make pictures by cropping the negatives, which you could do easily with those big negatives. In other words he never attempted to crop in the camera. And of course having been brought up on Cartier-Bresson when everything has to be composed exactly within the frame, I found it difficult not to do so. So even my square pictures are full-frame.
JS: I was just thinking of people like Robert Doisneau and other French photographers of the 1950s, a lot of whom used Rolleiflexes in their photography which are great street cameras in some ways, in that you can frame, rest them on your stomach, and then don’t have to look down into them as you continue to shoot.
PJG: They are very different cameras. The 35mm allows you to make pictures in quick succession. I’ve never really thought of the medium format camera as more of a ‘candid’ camera than a Leica. It has a lot to do with who you are and the way you behave, how calm you are, what your body language is and that incredible ability to feign yawns so everybody thinks you’re bored, and then you look at your watch and [claps] – you’ve got your picture. Success has a lot to do with those kinds of techniques. And every situation is slightly different so one technique doesn’t work every time. But certainly, as far as I’m concerned, if anybody is reacting to the camera, it isn’t a good photograph.
JS: I was going to ask you about your relationships with the people you photograph.
PJG: Most of the time I don’t even know who they are and they don’t know who I am.
JS: Sometimes the captions suggest otherwise. I know that’s true of the some of the Vietnam Inc., and in the exhibition, there’s a picture taken in Wales of a girl who you say becomes a barmaid later on.
PJG: Yes, but when I took that picture, I didn’t stop to talk to her. She did remember me, vaguely, years later. In fact, once you form a relationship then the ability to take candid photographs evaporates very quickly. On the other hand, you’re not rude either. If they want to talk to you, you talk to them. Well, there’s that old joke about a man who is begging, and you’re asked what did you give him: ‘1/125 second at f11’—you have to get away from that. But at the same time, you don’t want to get into a situation where there is too much interaction. One of the problems about forming a relationship with the subject matter is that it doesn’t take long before the subject matter wants to please you. Unless they’re really stupid, they can work out very quickly what will please you, and therefore they’ll think to themselves ‘Why don’t we just do this?’ It would be a good picture for him’ and they do something totally false to reward you for being nice to them. And that’s what you don’t want. What we all dream about is being invisible. Impossible — in my case particularly so.
JS: Did you find it easier to be invisible in Wales, in England, or elsewhere you worked or was it always the same kind of problem?
PJG: First of all – it’s never easy. However, there are one or two countries where it is much easier than in others. For instance, in Japan everyone ignores you completely. There are some places, for example, Hanoi in the early ‘80’s in which, people would ignore you. In Saigon, on the other hand, you simply couldn’t work. When I first went to Vietnam, after a week I could say, ‘Look, I can do a book on palmistry in Vietnam because every time I lift the camera, all I would see in front of me are hands.’ I had great difficulty in getting some of the simplest pictures for my book Viêt Nam at Peace . I’d get up at four in the morning because it got light at five thirty. Two or three hundred kids would be waiting outside my hotel. I’d walk down the street and the taller ones would throw the little ones in front of my feet to make me fall over; others would be kicking the back of my knees to make me trip; they would be throwing all kinds of garbage, and they’d all be shouting at the top of their lungs, ‘Ling So! Ling So!’ which meant everyone would know that foreigner was present. It really was absolutely impossible to do anything. Of course the worst thing that can happen is you take revenge and in the end you feel better for it, but you still don’t have your pictures. There were so many similar incidents in the early days after the war.
JS: So in looking at the range of pictures in the show, there are some of celebrities like the Beatles, and there are many whimsical, humorous shots, but also there’s quite a lot on CND demonstrations, in particular quite a bit on the military, and a certain amount on politicians, especially Conservative politicians. How much of that would you say was directed by your own interests and how much of it was fulfilling the agendas of the newspapers you were working for?
PJG: I think in general, I was directed towards such subjects. Because someone wrote in a magazine that I was a political photographer, a picture editor at the Observer had me photographing every politician in the land. I didn’t complain too much because I got a lot of good pictures out of it.
JS: In terms of those pictures of politicians, there are certain critical pictures of Tories, but not much else, here at least. I was wondering what your positive politics were?
PJG: First of all you have to admit that most photography does not criticise. We’re surrounded by photography that sets out to promote something such as ‘Blair is the great leader’ or whatever. So I think it’s valid to try to puncture inflated declarations. I used to joke that I kept a very bad Leica lens that had a lot of flare, which I only used to photograph Socialist Members of Parliament because it gave them a halo that made them look particularly godly. The pictures from the exhibition will eventually end up as a book, and one of the pictures will certainly be an unflattering picture of Harold Wilson. Also Harold Macmillan facing his wife – and what’s interesting about that is that he and his wife aren’t looking at each other, because she had a long relationship with Robert Boothby, a guy linked to the Kray brothers. So when I saw them standing together on that balcony in Llandudno that’s when I knew I had the picture. I’d taken a Thursday afternoon off from my chemist job in Rhyl to go there and in retrospect it was a wise decision.
JS: So would you say that your position is something more like a ‘Spitting Image’ view of the world in which all these people are fairly equally to be distrusted and viewed as sharks and scoundrels?
PJG: Yes, though I certainly wouldn’t include President Roosevelt or Hugo Chavez. However I think all politicians deserve to be made fun of.
JS: One thing that struck me is that, although there are some pictures of Wales and the north of England about industrial dereliction, and there are some of modernisation and building, such as the Edgware Road picture, there’s not much about industrial relations or industrial unrest.
PJG: I think you’re right there. I’m not making excuses, but a lot of this work is from negatives that were lost and then found by the Observer. Apparently they were given at some point to some photo agency, which went out of business and they were going to throw out these boxes of negatives, but ended up returning them to the Observer. But they didn’t return all of them so I have lost a lot of material. I can remember photographing strikes and that kind of thing. But I think you’ve been very perceptive in your general observation. I don’t have any pictures of Gormley or the rest of them. Even though I did photograph Nye Bevan’s Funeral in South Wales but the negatives are lost.
JS: Do you think a greater range of work will make it into the book?
PJG: I hope so. The book will have many more pictures than the exhibition.
JS: I was wondering too about captioning, because obviously with big projects like Vietnam Inc. and Agent Orange you’re able to have three types of text running through those books—captions, set alongside shorter and longer passages. They’re extremely well worked out, and there’s something very rigorous about the organisation of the pictures, and the way that the text works with the pictures. The captions in the exhibition– a lot of them come from Dark Odyssey – which is more of a portmanteau book. I was wondering what you were planning for the book of Middle Years?
PJG: You’re quite right in saying, looking around the show, one caption is considerably longer than the other. There will be more text to contextualise what was happening in Britain at that time.
JS: Is this your first exhibition in London?
PJG: I suppose it is – I think of it as being the first. Technically, it’s not quite the first. I was in an exhibition that John Pilger made about photojournalism. When the Falklands War broke out, I’d actually been to the Falklands a couple of years earlier and had a series of pictures of the Falklands, which I think the Photographers’ Gallery put on.
JS: You could compare your career to Don McCullin, to take the obvious example, who after a time anyway, started to take gallery and museum exhibitions very seriously. Why would you say you have not done that up to now? Is it something about the character of your work do you think?
PJG: I could say I hate exhibitions, they cause varicose veins! But the truth is, we’re all who we are, I’ve really felt that it’s important to keep going, and to check things out and keep shooting pictures. The idea of exhibiting, it’s like needing a walking stick. In a sense, having exhibitions is a sign that you’ve come to the end, you’re not able to shoot anymore. A lot of people say, ‘No – you’ve got to respect your work’, so in the end, especially when you get sick, it does concentrate the mind rather well on the need to catalogue one’s photographs. The book in your hand, Dark Odyssey, in fact, was the result of an exhibition I had in Houston, and for the first time ever I edited my life’s work, not too thoroughly, but it was the first sweep, as it were, of trying to find material. That really happened because I got to the point where I felt if I don’t at least make a start on it, I’ll be popping my clogs, and everything would be a total mess.
JS: Have you found the experience a stimulating and enjoyable one, and do you think there’s something about seeing your work at this scale, for instance, which alters it?
PJG: Yes, but I still think a book is much better medium than an exhibition, but if a book gets a little boost from the exhibition, then why not? I think the solitary person sitting in college with a book on their knees – that’s the way to change the world.
JS: What do you think that this book will say to people in Britain today? What do you think the relevance of these pictures is, now for us, British people looking at ourselves?
PJG: First of all, the book will be different from the exhibition. What I will try to do in the book is to essentially demonstrate a way in which people are, and always have been, manipulated. That’s the most important message that will be at the simplest level: don’t believe anything you’re told. Of course that’s described as wanton cynicism but the fact is so much of what we are told or have been told has been done to persuade us to behave against our own interests. Now, you might say ‘You can’t really believe that – the pictures are too disparate’, and indeed if during the process of putting the book together I find I don’t manage to sustain the proposition, in other words there are not enough pictures to support it, then in that case, it will be perfectly respectful, perfectly honourable to produce what you might call a historical book. Then we can say, look, this is the way it was, you can deduce what you want from these historical images. So if all I’ve achieved is to have a decent record, then that in itself is very valuable, therefore I have great respect for people who do what you might call ‘historical’ photography. But let there be no confusion – I’m not talking about Gursky-ites who photograph things ostensibly historically, and then change them with Photoshop, falsifying them to the point where they are not anything, they’re not history, they’re not art, they’re just objects which look nice, that people with more money than sense buy…
Published in Photoworks Issue 9, 2007Buy Photoworks issue 9