When portrait photographer Tom Blau founded Camera Press in 1947 – one of the UK’s first picture agencies – photography’s role in the world was far more innocent than it is today.
The changing role of picture agencies and photography’s presence in the press over 70 years reveals itself in an exhibition of images from seven decades of the agency’s archives: ‘Camera Press at 70 – A Lifetime in Pictures’, at Art Bermondsey Project Space.
Blau moved to London from Berlin in 1935 and was earning a living photographing the major political figures, musicians and film stars of the day. His formal photographs keep a respectful distance from his subjects – these were official photographs that were meant to be kept, and remembered, to represent their subject’s eminence.
The first photographer Blau signed to his agency was Yousuf Karsh, and later, Cecil Beaton joined his roster, among many others in the years to come. Their first assignment was to capture Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip’s wedding – immortalised in Baron’s iconic 1947 image of the newly wed couple, smiling at the camera, surrounded by rich crimson curtain and carpet. There’s an imperfectness to the picture’s composition that makes the Royal couple look natural, unassuming, despite the loftiness of the occasion.
Film maker and visual artist Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015. © Chris Floyd / BAFTA/ Camera Press
This innocence starts to be ruptured in the 1960s, as the camera begins to probe identity more. From innocent to invasive, photographers such as Elio Sorci — among the first paparazzo — used a close-up approach, entering the private, intimate space of celebrities. A 1962 portrait of the ultimate sixties blonde bombshell Brigitte Bardot is an early example of this, oozing the savant sexiness of the era but also pushing the camera closer to its subject – whether they’re complicit or not.
As well as the extensive collection of Royal photographs, the exhibition features each decade’s best known celebrities: Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen shot by Steve Emberton at Vicious’ Maida Vale home in 1978; Kate Bush in 1980 through Clive Arrowsmith’s lens, Madonna in garish 80s garb, Public Enemy in the 1990s and the Spice Girls shot by Blau’s granddaughter, portrait photographer Emma Blau. There’s certainly plenty of nostalgia here for the people, their aesthetics and fashion, and the proliferation and style of the portraits from the 70s on reflects photography’s increasing influence within mass media, depicting a world where the private was no longer kept at a shy distance.
The exhibition is a perspective on the last 70 years through the genre of portraits, people who defined their time – but it’s also a compelling visual journey through the shifts in society and politics that have dictated what we want to see, and how we see it.