Worth a Shot? Photography as Matter of Life and Death

How do we measure the importance of a life? Who or what is worth remembering? These are some of the questions raised by photographs such as the ones on display in Matter of Life and Death, an exhibition on view from 16 May to 9 September 2016 in the gallery of the School of Art at Aberystwyth University in Wales.

Today it is easier than ever to produce and share photographs.  Subjects diversify.  Perspectives broaden.  We no longer have to deal with precious materials or finite rolls of film when determining who or what is worth a shot.  Yet images are also more readily manipulated.  Realities are filtered and faked.  The black-and-white photographs in Matter of Life and Death predate our digital age.  Fragile and bold, these infinitely multipliable images of singular moments and individual lives were intended to live and matter as prints.
Looking at images of people and places can make us aware of our cultural differences.  But it is not difficult to find universals in photographs produced worlds apart.  Struggling farm workers in 1930s Alabama are shown alongside striking miners in 1980s Sardinia and South Wales.  The town of Aberystwyth, where the exhibition is staged, is featured next to Palermo and Bangkok.  Visitors to our gallery will see the faces of children.  But they will also face the aged, the dying and the dead. 
All of the photographs are from the University’s collection.  They were chosen by School of Art students who then debated how to exhibit them and create a narrative.  Only the medium and the title had been decided beforehand by me, the instructor of Staging an Exhibition, a course in curating that each year culminates in a show like this one.   Previous exhibitions include Queer Tastes, Untitled by Unknown, and Face Value.

The selections students made for Matter of Life and Death are journalistic and surrealist, propagandistic and personal, mass marketed and private.  Some photographers – Walker Evans, Mario Giacomelli and Angus McBean among them – are famous.  Others are unknown.  Learning about the identity of a photographer may well influence the way we look at the work that photographer has produced.  A child may look less innocent once we know that the man behind the camera was Erich Retzlaff, a photographer who supported and propagated fascist ideals.

There is no particular order in which these photographs should be experienced.  Themes such as dying traditions or endangered environments are suggested, but there are no conclusions.  As in life, material circumstances limit our choices.  The paths we forge are our own.

Matter of Life and Death is open to the public until 9 September 2016.  Admission is free.

Curators: Megan Evans, Rebecca Fletcher, Suzanne Fortey, Emma Game, Emily Griffin, Elizabeth Kay, Kirils Kirijs, Michael Kirton, Maria Lystrup, Kate Osborne, Amy Preece, Georgia Record, Emma Roberts, Samantha Robinson, Emily Smyth, Bethany Williams,  Gemma Woolley; with support from Harry Heuser (text) and Neil Holland (design)

“… a companionable thing”: Catching up with Stanley Anderson


Purbeck Quarrymen (1936), engraving

A “companionable thing.” That is how the English painter-printmaker Stanley Anderson (1884 – 1966) summed up what “art” should be. His work reflects this sentiment, even though much of it was produced in solitude – slowly and studiously. Staging the exhibition Unmaking the Modern: The Work of Stanley Anderson, I was glad to have had another chance of giving my contemporaries an opportunity to get acquainted with Anderson, who died on this day fifty years ago, and to have a conversation with him as he, through his work, continues to communicate his beliefs.

I say “another chance,” as I had previously co-curated an exhibition of Anderson’s prints at the Royal Academy, London, in 2015 and, getting to know Anderson through his prints and correspondences, written about him with my better half, Robert Meyrick, in a book that was released to coincide with that show.

Staging this second exhibition, Unmaking the Modern, a year later, I concentrated on Anderson’s efforts to bring about the conversation he hoped for – a conversation about the disregard for a generation of men like him who saw their lifetime commitment to traditions threatened by so-called progress.

A Mayfair Backwater (1930), drypoint 

Much of what Anderson chose to engage with and bring to our attention has disappeared: traditions gone and skills abandoned, rural communities destroyed and urban neighborhoods demolished, lives lost and often forgotten. This may well evoke a sense of nostalgia. But that nostalgia is ours, not Anderson’s.

Anderson observed those changes as they took place: the demolition of buildings, the erection of shrines to profit and temples devoted to the exchange of money. He responded concretely and in no uncertain terms to what he saw going on in his lifetime. His works are not so much a lament as they are public outcries and displays of solidarity with those who, like him, where threatened by a demand for speed and expediency.

Objects of visual culture, especially prints, are a way of reaching out to others and of creating a community of artists and collectors. Anderson’s works are the products and tokens of fellowship. He took careful note of how others around him carried out their jobs of making furniture, of working the land, and of serving the community. He understood their labor and honored it with the work of his own hands. Each print bespeaks a communion, a faithful, generous and sustained engagement with his subjects.

Exhibition view, Unmaking the Modern

Long before Pop Art, Anderson bridged the divide between high and low culture that modernism had created. He united what modernity insisted on separating: the heart and the hand. This was a conscious decision, as his correspondence bears out, not a lack of awareness of Modernism. After years of studying and using a variety of printmaking techniques, he returned to engraving, which he had long associated with trade. With those later engravings, he devoted himself to documenting the workaday activities of others – be they craftsmen or farmhands – who, like him, made a living from performing manual work for the benefit of others.

Anderson also looked at – and insisted on making us see – the forgotten men of his day: the homeless, the destitute and the aged. He cast a light on individuals that society had turned into outcasts, misfits that could not or would not conform to the dramatic changes that progress demanded.

Anderson was not opposed to commerce; indeed, market scenes were among his favorite subjects. Born in Bristol, he had trained for seven years as a professional engraver in his father’s workshop. He was already in his mid-twenties when he was awarded a scholarship to study printmaking at the Royal College of Art in London. Art – and the teaching of printmaking – were jobs to him. Being a Royal Academician, meanwhile, was a privilege to him that came with the responsibility of making or promoting art that was not removed from the everyday but that brought people together and that got them looking at each other.

Anderson did not refer to himself as an “artist.” He rejected the idea that makers of cultural products should create such works for art’s sake or as a means of self-expression. Making art, like doing any other meaningful work, was to him a social act – a “companionable thing.”

Unmaking the Modern: The Work of Stanley Anderson was on show at the School of Art galleries, Aberystwyth University, Wales, from 1 February to 11 March 2016. An online version is currently under construction.

The catalogue raisonné Stanley Anderson: Prints by Robert Meyrick and Harry Heuser was published in 2015. Still online are a couple of short videos, produced for the Royal Academy exhibition An Abiding Standard, in which my husband and I talk about Anderson’s works and views.

For a comprehensive archive of Anderson’s prints, visit www.stanleyanderson.co.uk.

Queer Tastes: Works from the George Powell Bequest

George Powell
Poster design by Neil Holland

Queer Tastes is an exhibition I curated with students of my undergraduate module Staging an Exhibition at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University. Each year, the module culminates in a student-curated show on a given theme. 


This year’s exhibition, which is open to the public from 18 May to 11 September, explores the identity of the Welsh-English dilettante George Ernest John Powell (1842 – 1882) through the collection that he bequeathed to Aberystwyth University. The objects were selected by students of the School of Art, which holds part of Powell’s bequest.  

The exhibition includes works by Simeon Solomon, Rebecca Solomon, Edward Burne-Jones, Richard Westall and Hubert von Herkomer as well as artefacts and curios ranging from a plaster cast of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s hand and a glass casket that allegedly once contained a splinter from Robert Schumann’s coffin.

The Powell family owned the Nant-Eos estate a few miles inland from Aberystwyth. Educated at Eton and Oxford, George Powell spent little time at Nant-Eos, which he would inherit in 1878. It was an unhappy place for him. His parents were estranged. His mother and younger sister died when Powell was a teenager.

Powell was a dreamer, much to his father’s disappointment. Instead of going hunting, the boy wrote poems about death, loss and betrayed love. Eager to get away, Powell travelled to Europe, Russia, North Africa and Iceland. In the company of the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, Powell spent summers on the Normandy coast. There, he entertained writers and artists in a cottage he named after a bisexually promiscuous character in de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom.

Powell has been called ‘eccentric’, ‘sinister’ and ‘sad’. He has also been labelled ‘homosexual’, a term not used in his day. ‘Queer’ suggests something – or someone – strange or at odds with our views. It asks that we trace our responses to otherness in ourselves.

A man of the world, Powell wanted to be remembered back in Wales as a patron and benefactor. He offered parts of his collection to Aberystwyth Town Council, on provision that a public gallery be created for their display. When the deal fell through, Powell gave the objects you see here to the University of his ‘dear but benighted town’.


Making our possessions public is in a way a ‘coming out’. It invites others to wonder about our past. It also means saying ‘I matter’. Collections like Powell’s encourage us to question how a person’s worth is determined.

Curators: Danielle Harrison, Kayla McInnes, Alice Morshead, Jenny Skemp, Valerija Zudro, with support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design).

Powell’s life and collection are the subject of my essay “‘Please don’t whip me this time’: The Passions of George Powell of Nant-Eos” in the forthcoming anthology Queer Wales (University of Wales Press).

Stanley Anderson: An Abiding Standard

This is a speech I prepared for the private view of “Stanley Anderson: An Abiding Standard” at the Royal Academy of Arts in London on 24 February 2015. Mindful of the assembled party ready to mingle and enjoy the evening, I decided to cut my talk short. Here it is in its entirety.

Stanley Anderson’s move from London to Oxfordshire coincides with – and made happen – a body of work for which he is now best known: a series of thirty or so prints on the subject of traditional farming methods and rural trades. They are on view in the Council Room.

Anderson’s move to the countryside was not a retreat. Despite their nostalgic appeal, his works are not escapist. Like his London scenes, they engage with the here and now. His here and now.

Anderson’s prints do not glorify England’s past or gloss over what he perceived to be its problems. It took me a while to appreciate that. As someone interested in the 1930s and 1940s and the impact the Second World War had on civilian life, I was disappointed not to find any overt references to the conflict, any depictions of the homefront, or images of disabled soldiers. After all, Anderson himself lost his London studio during the Blitz.

But they are there, those references. Or at least, Anderson’s commentaries on the human condition are there.

It is telling that so many of the men whose activities – or inactivities – he portrays are old. Anderson himself was in his 50s and 60s when he created these line engravings. The young had gone to war or else were working in the factories. It was war that turned men into machines and that, like other crises before it, had thrown the fragility – or the speciousness – of modern civilization into relief.

Anderson said that, when he moved to the country, his ‘mind and feelings became clearer, more definite in their reactions.’ In the countryside, alive to the seasons, he ‘seemed immersed in a sense of stability’ that was ‘not static. He called it ‘a sort of ordered growth’. Ordered growth in the face of chaos. And what he set out to do in his prints was to remind others of what they were in danger of losing or forgetting: the traditions that, he feared, would die with the men – the friends, neighbours and fellow craftsmen – whose work he commemorated in his prints.

Anderson did not want to be called an “artist.” He did not consider self-expression to be the highest achievement or chief aim of visual culture. He saw himself as a craftsman in the medieval tradition.

He aligned himself with anyone who derived his living – and his satisfaction – from the work produced with his or her own hands, just as Anderson did (with the support of his wife Lilian, a trained nurse).

Trade was not a dirty word for Anderson; nor did he mind getting his hands dirty. He not only related to his working men subjects – menial labourers and skilled craftsmen alike –he befriended these men, at a time when England turned its back on their traditions and forced the hand of many who were pushed into assembly line work or else were made to operate the machinery of war.

Moving to the countryside was not a getting away from mankind but a getting closer to his fellow man. Anderson called fellowship the ‘only currency’ that truly mattered. The ‘pleasure and interest’ of others in his work was what he deemed ‘ample repayment for all [his] labours.’

The hours he spent creating these prints were a time of contemplation; he abhorred speed and distrusted work produced quickly and, he believed, thoughtlessly. His works are spiritual, and the Zeitgeist they capture is that of an age in which spirituality was fast disappearing.

Anderson did not work or live fast. As [co-curator Robert [Meyrick] said, he spent seven years as an apprentice in his father’s engraving workshop, an experience on which he would draw and which he would not regret. His career is a continuum that anyone banking on instant fame might find hard to comprehend. His aim was to live by an abiding standard and his career was the reward of biding his time.

‘My life has been a quiet, studious one,’ the sixty-year-old Stanley Anderson told an American friend who wanted to write a biographical essay on him. There had been ‘no exciting experiences immorally, no amazing lights and shades, no boisterous contretemps; just a steady, sustained effort to express clearly and as well as my ability will allow, that note, in the main, I feel so deeply in life and nature – the plaintive note […].’

‘I often wonder, Anderson added, ‘if this is the reason I crave the friendship of sympathetic folk; why I feel that the arts are a social, or sociable act; why I abhor the bigotry, the insufficiency of self, and fear the exclusiveness of ‘success.’

Before we continue enjoying the ‘sociable act’ of this private view, I would like to express my gratitude to the man to whom everyone seeing this exhibition is indebted: to Stanley Anderson himself.

Anderson reminded me, again and again, how rewarding – how necessary – it is to keep at it, to keep looking, beyond the first glance in the search for novelty or the reassuring instance of recognition.

“In all matters of execution his work is highly disciplined,” a 1932 review in the London Times declared “and, if he seldom thrills you, he never lets you down.” If by thrill we mean the quickening pulse in response to the flashy and sensational, then the reviewer was certainly right. But there are thrills in Anderson’s work that are the rewards of anyone who keeps looking: discoveries of social commentaries – cultural references and sly observations – in which Anderson’s prints are rich.

We have not provided object labels for each of the 90 or so works on display here because we want to encourage you to look for yourselves without being told what to see. Anderson will tell you much about his attitudes toward modernity – and toward modernism – in these prints. These are not works that are open to a myriad of individual interpretations. His intentions become clear, his message, which often appears in fine print – in signs, fictional newspaper headlines and literary allusions – is consistent. His prints are essays on modern life and traditional labour, for the appreciation of which every line counts. So, stay a while …. and keep on looking.

"Untitled by Unknown"

Every spring, the students of my “Staging an Exhibition” class are doing just what the title suggests: they curate a show at Aberystwyth University’s School of Art galleries. And every summer, I have to come up with another idea for another spring. This year’s exhibition, on show now until 12 September, poses a particular challenge. As stated on introductory panel, most of the works on displayed “have no official title. The identity of their creators remains unconfirmed.” This opens the debate as to their value and relevance: “Do their uncertain origins mean that these objects are unworthy of our time and attention?”
Untitled by Unknown: Curating ‘Hidden’ works from the School of Art Collection investigates the effects of doubt and mystery on our estimation of visual culture. The thirteen curators not only researched the objects but also needed to think of ways to interpret in the absence of verifiable facts.
Viewers are “encouraged to reflect on the ‘hidden’ lives” of the objects chosen by students: they include photographs, watercolours, prints and miniature paintings. Each work is identified only by the number by which it is filed and can be accessed in the School of Art collection’s online database.
The idea was to let visitors of our exhibition in on the curatorial task, to suggest that while a “lack of facts can be an obstacle,” it “can also be an opportunity for personal engagement.” Visitors may well question our interpretations and uncover alternative stories. Perhaps, they know more than we do about some of the mystery objects in our collection.
Untitled art works by unknown or anonymous artists often have no chance of being displayed—at least not until their mysteries are solved. Still, public museum and galleries have a responsibility of sharing the works in their collection.
Untitled by Unknown is not intended to show astounding works from exceptional artists. It is here to open a debate about what should be on display and how it may be shared.
My thanks to the students involved in making the show – and my class – possible: Jessie Davis, Karolina Hyży, Justyna Jurzyk, Kate Largan, Charlotte Raftery, Laura Roll, Elizabeth Salmon, Melissa Sarson, Belinda Smith, Julia Steiner, Stephanie Troye, Veera Vienola, and Eleri Wood.
Our thanks also to curator Neil Holland for all his help and expertise.