When I heard that To the Editor of Amateur Photographer, about The Pavilion, the first photography collective dedicated to representing and supporting the production of women’s photography, was showing at FACT I got excited. I grew up with a keen amateur photographer for a father, and The Amateur Photographer magazine regularly flopped through our letter box, stuffed full of worthy photos, featuring women yes, but either excessively beautiful or lined crones (known as character studies). They never appeared behind the lens.
As a child I cannot remember a time when our terraced house in industrial Lancashire did not reek of chemicals, when every week the one bathroom was out of bounds and we had to use the privy with the spiders in the yard as Dad developed, fixed and fiddled with negatives over boards laid across the bath. Dad regularly won local competitions for black and white hand mounted photos flattened with precision by Mum’s iron on the days she was not tackling the endless racks of washing which festooned our house in the days of mangles, well before tumble dryers... And it never occurred to either me or my sister that this might be something we could do.
Yet, Leeds, where The Pavilion started in 1983, wasn’t very far away. Just across the Pennines, were women artists, art historians and cultural workers actually set on "turning the prevailing patriarchal image culture inside-out."
But, not knowing about any of this, every Saturday we were hauled off to The Lake District, ostensibly because my sister had asthma and had to get away from the industrial grime to give her lungs a chance during the week, and became foregrounds to my father’s landscapes. Winter especially, as snow looks good in monochrome.
The first decade of The Pavilion’s ground breaking work is archived as part of the Feminist Archive North, housed in the Special Collections at the University of Leeds. But I doubt either I or my sister will be featured there. For my role in this photographic family was spare camera carrier, my sister who was cuter and blonde became the splash of colour because she had a red anorak. As she grew into a gorgeous teenager, she was taken along to the portrait evenings of the local amateur photographic society to be posed and printed for the next monthly competition.
Me, well I developed into (pardon the pun) the photographer’s assistant at fourteen and when Dad photographed four weddings in one day, I was the one who kept tally of the those pictures taken and those to be arranged; dug the bride’s father out of the bar and straightened his tie before the family photo, displayed the bridal gown and flowers and changed films and cameras so fast there was barely a pause in the proceedings. There was never any suggestion that I actually took a photo… or learnt how to. The technicalities were supposedly beyond us females.
However, during the intervening years I have somehow picked up the knack of framing a photo, can see good angles, can capture marvellous tricks of light and have now graduated to DSLR (proper) camera. Which shows that nurture and maybe a little bit of nature, is a winning combination.
But I often wonder how much could have been achieved by women like me if they had known about The Pavilion; so near yet so far away. So I very much appreciate the challenges the pioneering Pavilion had, and the battles they have fought to raise the profile of women’s photography. Their success is well documented in To the Editor of Amateur Photographer and they still produce ambitious new work with contemporary artists through an exploratory process of research and discussion, across many sites and locations.
Making this film had its challenges too, for trying to show the radical shift in photography during these years using archival materials, people’s memories and old photos was not easy. However, Luke Fowler, the director, was well suited to the task. A Scottish artist who works with 16mm film, archives, sound and photography was in 2012 himself nominated for the Turner Prize for a film exploring the life and work of Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing.
Assisted by Mark Fell, an interdisciplinary artist based in Rotherham, who often works with sound and the interplay between musical traditions, including popular electronic music, house music and academic approaches to computer-based composition, the result will be well worth seeing.
To the Editor of Amateur Photography is screening tomorrow, Thursday 10 September, 7pm at FACT.