PCL Days

May McWilliams wrote her doctoral thesis on 'British Photographic Education, 1965-1980'   Below is an edited transcript of a telephone interview she conducted with John Goto on 30th April, 2007.

The interviewed started with a brief description of the research.

McW;   What were you doing before you went to PCL?

JG:     I'd studied painting in the late 60's at St Martin's.   Although I started making photographs then it was a very unstructured course, and so I just had to find my own way, as best I could. The facilities were there but there was never any formal teaching. So the first time that I came across PCL, or anything that resembled photographic education, was in about '71.   I knew I needed more technical knowledge so I enrolled in an evening class at Regent Street Polytechnic, which was later to become the Polytechnic of Central London, and more recently the University of Westminster.   So I had a taster of what they offered, which I think might have been characteristic of a lot of photo-education at that time.   It was very boring.

McW;   Was it quite technical?

JG;    Yes, technical after a fashion, that would have been the justification.   We used plate cameras and shot photos of objects, that kind of thing.   Well it wasn't for me... it was dull and so I got myself a job as an advertising photographer's assistant.   I wasn't wrong; the quality of technical work in the advertising studios was far above anything they could simulate at Regent Street Polytechnic.   This is something I have felt ever since... that courses that attempt to be vocational really can't replicate what happens in the commercial world because they don't have the resources, or the quality of operators.

So I quit Regent Street Poly after a term.   As I said; I worked for a very good advertising photographer called Martin Thompson.   He'd originally studied sculpture at Goldsmiths and was interested in the photographic zone system, which Ansel Adams and Minor White had developed. So we worked our way through that between commercial jobs. Then I worked as a photographer at the British Museum.   Following that I went to Paris on a British Council scholarship and then to Prague the following year. Although both of these scholarships were attached to photographic institutions, once again I didn't get any formal teaching... but by then I didn't really need it.

When I came back from Prague I saw an advert for part-time lecturers at PCL. I had been out of art school by then for about eight or nine years and I thought it was time I started teaching, because that was traditionally the way in which artists supported themselves.   The artists who taught me were nearly all part-timers, doing a day or two a week and getting on with their own work the rest of the time. That was the model, and I've pretty much followed it throughout my own career.   The School of Communications at PCL had moved to Riding House Street by then. I went for an interview and I got offered a day a week.   Have you spoken to other people?

McW;   The only person I have managed to speak to is Deborah Baker.

JG;   Yes, Debbie started just after me.   I began at the same time as Jan Turvey. Jan was the picture editor of the British Journal of Photography.   Through her I got a contact at Oxford Polytechnic and I started teaching there as well.   So I was doing two jobs... and then I got a third teaching job at Camberwell School of Art.   I was running round like a blue-arsed fly!

McW;   Was this in 1979?

JG;   Yes '79, and just to give some kind of comparison - at Camberwell I was teaching fine art students photography, which was an optional course they could take. To complicate things, there were some influential photo-realist painters there at the time.   Then at Oxford Poly, which was the first modularised university in the UK, photography was one element within a Visual Studies degree course. But students from any discipline could take the photo modules. So, two very different situations.

PCL would have benefited from an art school context, but nevertheless it had transformed itself from the place I'd had encountered on the evening classes at Regent Street Poly.   It had developed an innovative structure for which it became well known. The course was fifty percent theory and fifty percent practice.

McW;   Do you think that was due to Victor Burgin?

JG;   Yes, he was very influential in the place.   Burgin had been there a few years; you'll have to talk to somebody else... I think he came from Derby or somewhere like that.

McW;   Yes, Nottingham.

JG;    This particular configuration of theory and practice was new and PCL was a very challenging place to be in... for everybody concerned.   Nobody had an easy time of it there.   It was a difficult place.   In many ways it reflected the condition of the British left in the late 70's.

McW;   Would you say there were strong Marxist leanings?

JG;    There were many different factions, both in terms of ideology and practice.   Although people always equate PCL with Burgin, there were in fact others who exerted influence there as well. The factional in-fighting was a characteristic of the British left at the time.

McW;    Was the theoretical framework underpinning the course influenced by the French philosophers in ascendancy at the time and who were quite left in their thinking.

JG;   Well, what constituted theory... a lovely unified term... theory... as if it was a given, but in fact it was quite a ragbag of bits borrowed from here and there.   From what I could see some of it came from semiotics... some of it was influenced by French philosophy... some was taken from psychoanalytical theory and other elements from the practices of conceptual artists.

McW;   Was John Tagg around at the time?

JG;    I didn't meet him.   The other person who taught theory was Simon Watney.   His background was, as I remember it, more that of a traditional art historian. He was a nice open person.

McW;    He has subsequently written quite a strong revisionist paper.

JG;   I didn't go to the recent symposium on Photographic Education in the '80's, but I heard that many have since recanted.   It's odd really - I was more marginal but seem to have better feelings about PCL in retrospect than the central players.

McW;   Was Simon Watney at PCL before' 79?

JG;   He was there when I arrived... he was interested in gay politics and eventually left to work for, I think, the Terrance Higgins Trust.   I admired that move.

There were other factions. These are just sketches from memory and might not be entirely accurate.   There was a documentary group around John Sturrock.   He was a reportage photographer whose best-known pictures were made during the miners' strike.   And Maggie Murray, who was a feminist documentary photographer.   Steve Whaley was the course leader and a councillor on the GLC. He was also involved with Amnesty International. He was interested in campaigning photography, along the lines of John Heartfield's agit-prop posters.   Around Burgin there was a cohort of students who gained recognition within the institution (PCL) and later further afield .

Then there were other lecturers who never get a mention but who were actually quite important to the place.   There was Gus Wiley who worked within a humanist documentary tradition.   He also taught colour printing, and was a great rock n' roll aficionado. There was Derek Drage, a lovely fellow who gave the place a human face and held things together.   Especially there, you needed someone the students could go to and cry on their shoulder. He had taught in Liverpool... he taught John Lennon. Derek had come from an art school background... of the old school.   The head of department was David Faddy. There was a connection to the film course, which was more commercially orientated, but I didn't have much to do with them.   Oh, and Richard Greenhill taught studio lighting in a very inventive way.

So it was quite a diverse place in reality... but the staff were all more or less on the left. Their own work ranged from various kinds of art practice through to hard left campaigning and documentary.   Then there was Burgin's overarching influence. In some ways the shame of it was... it ended up being known for a caricature of itself; as the School of Image and Text.

McW;    That's interesting because I believe he will not talk about it now.

JG;   Well, the image/text thing became the house style. I think it was a rather clumsy way of resolving the relationship between ideas and images, theory and practice. In retrospect it sells PCL short as it was a more interesting place than that.   [...] However, from the students' point of view there was a characteristic problem in the middle of their second year when they felt the weight of theory to an extent that they couldn't make pictures any more.  So that was difficult but [...] the students really did get a good education there... because it was a taught course which had been thought through.   Where as now, photo education is mostly project-based, which probably places too much emphasis on the student's individual and often limited experience, at PCL there was firstly an agenda, which was then developed into a syllabus.

McW;   How was the syllabus put together? Was it influenced by the CNNA guidelines or was it developed within PCL?

JG;    You'll have to ask somebody who was there full-time but it was my impression that [...] all though there were checks and balances in the system, they put it together...much as they wanted.   They started with the idea of fifty percent theory and in a way you can see why they did that.   In my own limited experience the kind of photography course that was around before that [...] was really not very reflective... The focus was more on style and technique.   There wasn't any critical inquiry going on. It needed to happen somewhere and it happened at PCL. (PCL) went on to influence photographic education everywhere. Although it never produced any great artists it produced a lot of very good teachers because as students they had been through this syllabus and they knew what needed to be taught [...].  

But it was like the Wild West there sometimes. During the 'crits' the factions would tear into each other... and these were really rough occasions.   The students were encouraged to be... um...

McW;    Gladiatorial?

JG;   yes absolutely... that covers it. There was a lot of anger around in the place. Margaret Thatcher had just got in to power and I remember a member of staff saying to me, "They would close us down if they knew what we were doing here." On the one hand it was an overestimation of its subversive value, but it does characterise the rather clandestine feeling PCL had about itself.... they thought that what they were doing was really on the edge.

McW;    Radical?

JG;   Radical, yes, for the era. But nowadays most of it wouldn't surprise you; it has become pretty standard, maybe to their credit.

McW;    Going back to the syllabus... what topics would be included on the practical side?

JG;   On the practice side... in the first year there would be a technical element and some assignments. I was interested in Moholy-Nagy and Bauhaus photography at the time and I taught some technique in the first year... through consideration of form, dynamics, tonality... breaking it down in the manner of the Bauhaus. What was rather good... was in the second year the students would have a theory/practice module.   I remember doing one with Simon Watney.   We did something on landscape together, with a series of theoretical and historical lectures on the subject, followed by a field trip.

McW;   Did the history of photography come into the theory?

JG;   There was a well-known photographic historian, Margaret Harker, who was still there in '79 as I remember. She was part of the old team and the way the history of photography used to be taught.   From my recollection I don't think it was any longer taught in a chronological way; much more characteristic would be someone putting up one slide and talking about it for the whole lecture. These days students tend to be force-fed the so-called canon... which actually only consists of a handful of contemporary hot-shots .[...]   PCL would have someone put up a Delacroix painting ...and talk about that for an hour... which I am all for.

So you were asking about the syllabus [....] there was a real attempt to bring together theory and practice. But maybe the division was spurious in the first place. Artists have always dealt with ideas, and dividing them off from practice was a conceit that came out of conceptual art. By prioritising ideas over making, they missed the creative dialogue between the two. It was a fundamental error.

McW;    And when the students got into their third year, what was the syllabus for them?

JG;   That was mostly where I taught. In the third year the students were developing their major projects and were writing a lengthy dissertation.

Some notable students came out of there but they weren't always the ones you might associate with PCL. Jo Spence was; she was a mature student and she was a very interesting person to have in the place. Quite clearly she should have been on the teaching side of the divide. She was not as ideologically driven as many of them. She was a more rounded person... in her work there was more about her life and who she was [...].

There was another student... Shuka Glotman, who was from Israel. He has recently written a book and in parts of it he talks about his experiences at PCL. He gives an example of one of the theory-driven projects about 'the family'- after a couple of days of being told about the horrors of the family somebody put their hand up and said, "What about love?" (There was a sharp intake of breath) [...]. It was those kind of human qualities that were decidedly lacking... compassion, love, tenderness, joy, beauty... all these things were purged.[...] As with all these things it consolidated into...um

McW...Often what is radical becomes mainstream, doesn't it?

JG;    It is that but... very quickly after I got there they started hiring their own graduate students back as tutors. I've seen it elsewhere, before and since - and it is always a bad sign. In a way it is a sign of a place giving up on itself.

McW;    Becoming a bit complacent?

JG;   Or just tied of conflict.   But that was what was good about the place.   A group of diverse and committed practitioners locked in intellectual and personal struggle, challenging each others ideas and beliefs on a daily basis.   It still seems a good model to me, but not many people have the stomach for it these days.

McW;   You have an amazingly clear memory of how it was.

JG;    Mm... but it wasn't the only show in town [...]. After a day at PCL I used to have a drink with my friends in a pub nearby...Craigie Horsefield and the Brothers Quay. Dave Lewis, who was a student, used to come along sometimes. He is another guy who went on to do interesting things. After a day at PCL with the...ideologues...the theoreticians, I used to go and see my friends who were coming at it from a completely different direction.   We talked about cinema, literature, jazz and art, about Europe... about history... and Belgian beers... all the things that count! That was actually the world I came from and which I inhabited.[...]. For me PCL was just a call-in once a week. I had the right temperament for it because I was combative as an individual. I would have gone under there, for sure, if I didn't have that streak in my personality. I think everybody there, other than Derek Drage who was a gentle man... was up for it... intellectually and creatively.[...]

Timothy Quay, John Goto, Stephen Quay and Craigie Horsfield; early '80s. Photo Keith Griffith

McW;    I was going to ask you about the selection of the students? [...]

JG;... I was never on an interview panel. [...] so I can't answer that. It was full of big personalities... among the students as well as staff. I don't think the system tolerated wilting violets. You couldn't get through the course if you weren't prepared to stand your ground.   There were some very bright and interesting students there; I particularly remember Francis Charlton, Tessa Boffin and Leah Gordon; all one-offs.

McW;...   In hindsight what impact... if any... do you feel your experience at PCL had on your teaching, or on your work?

JG;   ...I was pleased to have worked there when I did. I left in 1988 when I started teaching at the Ruskin in Oxford, where I'd moved to. I was pleased to have been there, but I don't think it changed the course of my own work very much at all.

McW;... Or the way you teach? [...]

JG;     The idea that there should be a taught syllabus and [...] there should be some rigour brought to the way it is taught, that has stayed with me. I regret that many courses these days don't have that element. I don't think it is the fault though of contemporary lecturers... the whole culture has changed. It was possible back then to be more certain... and it was possible to get away with things that you can't do now. Photography has, unfortunately, lapsed back into its former polite conservatism.

McW;   Is there less autonomy now?

JG ;   Probably. We live now in a very different era. Socialism has collapsed and theory, in the sense that it was taught at PCL, has more or less disappeared from the curricula of most courses. That particular configuration hasn't held up. We live in different times and the kind of student we have now is very different. At PCL, if a student came from a well-off background or had financial ambitions, they kept it to themselves. I remember one student for his degree show did a piece called, A Marxist Deconstruction of the Number 6 Bus Route. I said to him at the private view, "Well, where are you going now... to the barricades?" He said, "Nah, I'm going back to Canada where I can make more money in advertising than here." I said, "You scoundrel!"... but you know... there were students who knew how to play the system. I think some of them were a bit sharper and more cynical than the staff! 

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