Ovenden, Graham. (2 of 5). Oral History of British Photography

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    BL, London, United Kingdom

  • Interviewees

    Ovenden, Graham 1943- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Lau, Grace (speaker, female)

  • Abstract

    Part 2. Refers to British Museum's collection of photographs, scattered amongst their general catalogue where he discovered Hills & Adams' album of 100 calotypes in beautiful condition. Early photographs are fragile, onlyin terms of the condition they are kept. Now we use non-archival processes, paper with plastic bases. Full rag bromide paper is not around now; "technology marches on but in the act of advancement, actually acts as an impoverishing process." Refers to Lewis Hines as "the real McCoy who ended up impoverished, Americans neglect their own artists because Hines was an embarrassment to the Americans in his work on child slavery." In 1950, he was virtually valueless. But Americans did understand the importance of photography and their museum collections started in the 1930's. It didn't happen in Europe. Graham Ovenden (GO): "I believe if people did understand the potency of photography it would have been sucked up by commerce, and the art market. I don't mind that. One still equates the importance of artwork by how much money it fetches." (ref. example of Burne-Jones whose sketches fetched thousands after his death in 1910. But by 1930 they were unsaleable) Believes judgement of the art market is totally ephemeral, more fragile than the work of art. It is not curators of museums, but dealers who promote photography; immediately Sothebys and Christies started to take photography seriously in their auctions, everyone did the same (GO had advised both of them). Early dealers did great service to photography, such as Harry Lunn. He was part of the CIA network; all the photo dealers were CIA operatives. GO had taught them the history of 19th century photography. The photography market in England is very modest; 90% of antiquarian work goes to USA & Europe. GO collects arcane material; pornography is one of the greatest documents of social history (ref. recent TV programme 'My Secret Garden' and the British Museum's scandalised case of the destruction of the 1910 Ashby collection.) GO returns to his childhood: "I was a child protege" and went to co-ed Grammar school in Southampton in the early 1950's. He had a very good art teacher who directed him. All his photographs were secret to himself, "I never exhibit, never show to anyone. It was something very precious and important. My East End photos lay dormant for nearly 35 years, they only resurfaced the last 5-6 years. Half the images were never printed. They were so precious to me, I hardly dared print them." GO went to Southampton Art College; his tutor James Sellers taught him an immense amount about art and music. Literature and music were equally important, GO was reading Dickens by age 9-10. Photography was a process of wonder, magic and alchemy. "I wish I kept all my negs. I thought I had sorted out all the negs, unfortunately I burnt the wrong pile by accident when we moved to Cornwall in 1972. Lost lots of my first nude photos. Anything prior to 1964 is very rare." (ref. Constable who said you have to look at your work without self-love.) GO was totally emotionally committed to his photography, can remember moments of joy and ecstacy during his East End photography. Loss of his golden age which was important in terms of sensuality and sexuality, and of image-making as well. "Art which progresses must first look back." Renaissance is based on a return to the golden age, to Eden, to regaining one's state of true innocence which is not devoid of knowledge. Refers to the neurosis of child nudity in Anglo-Saxon culture. Confusing naivity and innocence as the same quality. Innocence is state of grace. Naivity is lack of knowledge and understanding. Art is about dark and light. Refers to Frances Bacon and Goya who is everybody's darkness but always gives you a perspective of human compassion. Horror is a sensuality which also activates the light in you. But Bacon onlyactivates negative qualities. Bacon is the Devil's court jester. GO went to the Royal College of Art in 1965, and met Peter Blake "one of the nicest human beings, my teacher and my friend." The RCA painting school was housed at the V&A Museum, perfect environment. Met John Bellamy, Ian Drury (rock fame). "After 1964, my nude photographs took over but one has to be respectful of the subject;" At the RCA he had models for the book 'State of Grace' which was not published here. Once he moved to London, the glamour of the East End faded.

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