There is a rather glib assumption that London has photographed less well than other cities. We Londoners don’t acknowledge our Brassaï, William Klein or Atget. We don’t even particularly associate our big moments with great photographs: Eisenstaedt’s “V-J Day in Times Square” has no London equivalent.
But that old assumption will be challenged by a new donation to Tate of more than 1,000 photographs of London from Eric Franck and his wife Louise Baring.
Franck, who has been a distinguished collector of and dealer in contemporary art in Geneva, Berlin and London for decades, has long associations with Tate and other London institutions. Photography has been at the core of his practice for a number of years, and not merely because his brother-in-law happens to have been Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Over the years, Franck has contributed to the careers of a wide range of photographers and artists who use photography. He was an early and influential supporter of conceptual artist Tacita Dean (he previously donated works of hers to Tate), has been a long-term patron of British documentary photographer Graham Smith, and has held and promoted a number of estates in photography, a slow process that demands patience on a grand scale.
Franck puts his motivation for the donation to Tate very simply. “When you’ve been lucky enough to be successful in a field, it’s right to give something back.” In addition to the ones donated, Tate will buy other photographs from the collection, and the total acquisition will double its holdings in photography. Tate has come late to photography but it is to the credit of Simon Baker, its first curator of photography, that he has managed this volte-face so ably. Another London: International Photographers Capture City Life 1930-1980, the first tranche of the Franck donation, will be visible from the end of July at Tate Britain. It is a carefully judged exhibition of pictures of London as seen by outsiders, well calculated to appeal to editors and visitors around the time of the Olympics.
It is no exaggeration to say that this donation will change the way we think of the British capital in photographs. Another London concentrates on the mid-20th century and many well-known names are represented. But Franck has not just collected autographs: the pictures have always been the thing.
The show is an invitation: small groups of strong photographs by less familiar names will surely act as a stimulus to publishers, researchers, writers and organisers of future exhibitions. Among the least seen I would list Neil Kenlock, a British Black Panther who became a civil rights photographer in the 1970s, and Al Vandenberg, who worked as a commercial art director as well as a photographer. These, among several others, scream for further publication.
Wolfgang Suschitzky is hardly unknown after a long and decorated career as a cinematographer but his photographs stand up with the best. The same is true of Sergio Larrain, and Markéta Luskacová looks a better photographer with every passing year. Hans Casparius, Lutz Dille, James Barnor ... there are great riches here beyond the more obvious big names.
There is no particular theme but almost all of it is street photography (a couple of studio portraits by Irving Penn are obviously not) and we all know that street photographs vary in the amount of pre-arrangement that they involve. And a broadly chronological order allows us to see certain periods in the life of London more clearly than before.
Every single photograph is black and white. Given London’s reputation for grey weather, and the grey austerity of many of the years covered by the show, this is appropriate, even moving. But Tate will not feel grey about this remarkable donation, and nor should we.
‘Another London’, Tate Britain, London, July 27-September 16, www.tate.org.uk
On these pages we have often reported on the proliferation all over the globe of private museums, with collectors setting up their own spaces rather than donating work to public museums and galleries.
So it is especially good news for hard-pressed institutions that rich troves of work can still come their way. Recent announcements include the generous gift of 130 works by New York gallerist Michael Werner to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and Swiss sinophile Uli Sigg’s huge gift of Chinese contemporary work to the new M+ museum in Hong Kong.