Speech by Ian Macdonald delivered at the Press Conference for the launch of “Art of Photography” Exhibition
at the Royal Academy of Arts on 20.09.89

“To me the single most important purpose of this exhibition is the opportunity it presents for people see real photographs. Much of our daily visual culture seems to be increasingly dominated by the presence of photography.

“Many of the images which photography spawns and which are common to us all are either to report an event or to sell a product. All the material we see is mechanically reproduced. We are fed it in dollops between dramatic headlines, advertisements, sport, fashion and a whole host of other things. This imagery varies in size from postage stamp to giant billboards, each designed for a particular purpose essentially to capture and hold our attention for some ulterior motive which in so many cases has little to do with the actual image. This bombardment gives the art of photography an indifferent name, the images are cropped, manipulated and mutilated which discredits the photograph. Such material, being so unavoidable, can only precondition the ways in which people look at and consider photographs.

“If the art of photography is to receive the status it deserves then it is important that the debate about its quality and potential is constantly raised. As a practising photographer I applaud the Committee of the Royal Academy for their wisdom and foresight in bringing this very comprehensive exhibition of photographs to this country, thereby raising even higher the level of debate.

“Two of the most obvious things about photographs intrigue me, their stillness and silence; these are for me also their major strengths. Photographs, being silent and still, preclude reality other than in that most superficial sense of the representation of an apparent likeness. In precluding reality they fall into the realm of myth, where everyone is free to invent by association as they see fit, for the meaning of each photograph is conditioned by those personal experiences the onlooker takes to viewing each image. This makes many types of photograph universally accessible. It follows that it is close to impossible even to contemplate the irrelevant notion, which is, are photographs Art? As Paul Strand so succinctly stated “All painting is not art”.

“It is the viewing of real photographs, which is singularly important. The actual photographic print, from the negative, as the artist made it is very particular. Each original print though made from one negative is, in fact, unique. The size, tone and surface of the print and not least the image, which is what it is all about, are all specific to the artist. To be of any real value it is better for the artist to have made the print. Considering photographs need to be given both time and space, and like any other “good” piece of artwork the “good” photograph will grow with viewing. It will develop, freeing the mind, as looking and reflecting will inevitably raise other notions, associations and feelings and so a process of enrichment goes on.

“The sponsors of this exhibition who are Midland Bank and Logica in association with the Independent newspaper are, through their backing, allowing a marvellous opportunity for photographs to be viewed as they ought to be, as single images, as the artist intended, exhibited in spacious surroundings within an ample time span.”

(Ian Macdonald – 18 August 1989)