Looking back today

Sunday 21 October, 6.30pm until 7.30pm, Fountain Room

The term ‘the Sixties and Seventies’ conjures a wealth of defining images: from iconic portraits of Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King and Che Guevara through to devastating images of the horrors of Vietnam and Cambodia. While TV pictures of war, protest and urban unrest streamed into millions of homes worldwide, innovative photographers like William Eggleston, David Goldblatt, Shōmei Tōmatsu and Ernest Cole were pioneering new documentary forms, expressing more complex, personal perspectives of the world. Whether exposing the dehumanising effects of South African apartheid, subverting Soviet totalitarianism or recording everyday reality in America’s mid-West, human experience and political struggle remained key concerns. Yet beyond reportage, many of the greatest images of that era encapsulate its aspiration for novelty and change alongside a spirited celebration of freedom. As the Barbican exhibition ‘Everything Was Moving’ shows, this new generation of photographers documenting a changing world were ‘driven to understand that world, as well as their place in it’.

In today’s digital age where Instagram and high-quality cheap cameras potentially turn us all into citizen photographers, there appears to be considerable nostalgia for the Sixties and Seventies. On a political level, young rioters and Occupy-style clicktivists drape themselves in the iconography and rhetoric of the soixante-huitards; gay-marriage campaigners claim the mantle of the civil-rights movement, and Korda’s Guevara portrait served as the inspiration for Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign. On a cultural level, critic Simon Reynolds has coined the term ‘retromania’ to describe the enduring fascination among artists and musicians for mining heritage. An iconic moment in hit Sixties-set drama Mad Men saw advertising guru Don Draper deliver a key pitch for Kodak cameras (a company which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012). Meanwhile, photography as a call for action struggles in the straitjacket of a political culture grown skeptical of authenticity, individuality and the possibility of the new.

Does our fascination with the Sixties and Seventies golden age reveal a desire to capture some of the period’s radical spirit, or does it reveal more of a conservative retreat into nostalgia? In looking back, are we evading responsibility to confront and remake the world as it is? Where do we find radical photography today? Should we be willing to let go the quarrel between documentary and art photography or is it dangerous to blur the lines? Do we need more photographers willing to change the world, or merely to explain it?

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Stephen Bull
artist, exhibited at Tate Britain and The Photographers' Gallery, London; author, Photography; lecturer, University for the Creative Arts, Farnham

Pauline Hadaway
writer and researcher

Sarah E James
lecturer, history of art, University College London; author, Common Ground: photography in Germany during the Cold War (forthcoming); regular contributor, Frieze, Photoworks, Art Review and Art Monthly

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Produced by
Pauline Hadaway writer and researcher
Recommended readings
Looking back today

‘Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s’ at the Barbican Art Gallery

Pauline Haddaway, Future Cities Project, 27 September 2012

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photoworks, 1 June 2012

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