Stathatos, John. (9 of 9). Oral History of British Photography.

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    Interviewee's home, nr Finsbury Park, London, United Kingdom

  • Interviewees

    Stathatos, John, 1947-, (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Read, Shirley, (speaker, female)

  • Abstract

    Part 1. John Stathatos (JS) born in Athens June 26 1947. Large, close Greek family. Mother's family from Egypt. Fathers family from Ithaca but great-grandfather and two great-uncles had moved to Rumania. Cousins in England, France and Italy. Father an army officer who fought for 13 years during WW2 and Civil War. A gentle man, well known for his adventurous war record. Mother a beauty, studied painting, nursed in Alexandria in WW2. Shock to return to Athens at the end of the war, appalling suffering. Family were royalist and conservative but not reactionary or very right wing. Father stayed in army till about 1951-2, then joined family shipping firm, travelled a great deal, then to British Petroleum. JS has a sister, younger by 5 years. Travelled a lot as a child, Alexandria, Barcelona, Switzerland, New York. Had a Scots/Swiss nanny. Remembers ferocious sulphur fog of London. Returned to Athens permanently at 8 or 9. A multi-lingual family, everyone spoke Greek, English and French.;Part 2. John Stathatos (JS) had a strong interest in the natural world, as a child he wanted to be a naturalist, about a century too late. Read Gerald Durrell, met Julian Huxley. Then thought about becoming a scientist but realised that he wouldn't have time to do other things he was interested in - like writing and poetry. His family had many books and knew writers. JS published his first piece of translation at 18, the first of many. From 13 to 17 was a weekly boarder at the American School in Athens, enjoyed it and met more people of his own age there. A happy time, read a lot, felt he wasn't a good student though good at avoiding organised games. Went shooting game with his father. Went spear fishing. Has given both up since stocks dwindled. Would drive all over Greece and explore. Went motor rallying, long distance endurance. London to Munich via Nigeria and London to Sydney. It was great fun, wrote a book about the London to Sydney rally which paid for it. Family lived in a flat in central Athens though moved away much later when the centre became polluted. JS left school and went to London and Oxford to cram for Oxford Entrance but went to McGill in Montreal to do biology. Loathed it, went to New York all the time, decided to give up biology. On April 21 1967 there was a military coup in Athens, he left Montreal for Paris and then overland to Greece but became liable for military service by leaving university and was in the Greek army by June. Difficult because his father was something of a legend and had been at Military Academy with senior military figures so it was assumed JS would become an officer. He made asthma an excuse to avoid this.;Part 3. Escaped being an officer and became a translator though still had to do infantry training. Sent to Thessalonika area. Crisis with Turkey over Cyprus in December so battalion moved to near border. King Constantine's failed counter-coup, John Stathatos (JS) interrogated by military intelligence, escaped a court martial. Left for England in June 1969 to study, had decided to give up biology because he wanted to write. Took Oxford Entrance again and passed but the Master of Christ Church pointed out that he was now too mature for Oxford. Went to the LSE instead to study philosophy and international relations. Felt he wasn't cut out to be a student, became involved in London literary life, in student politics and in practical planning and making things work so organised occupations during the student upheavals. Became very interested in archaeology and travel, went to sites in Iran and Afghanistan, started to photograph intensively. Left college, applied to SOAS, a very conservative college, to do Iranian and Central Asian archaeology, the Professor was delighted but he was rejected because of his student activity at LSE. Wanted to be in London because he wanted to write in English and didn't like N America. Wanted to be in a big metropolis and knew English writers. Started to get free-lance work for Fleet St. London remained his base. Lived in digs in N London, a flat in Maida Vale and then Crouch End Housing Association flat. Ran the student newspaper while at LSE.;Part 4. Affection for the Middle East. Concentrated on third world issues, national liberation movements. In N Sahara with the Polisario. A sense of invulnerability when looking through rangefinder. Had been given a camera at about 12, developed a pedantic interest in classification and photographed every variant of wrought iron lamp standard. 1975 first professional assignment, took camera to support journalism, worked for Camera Press. Not particularly interested in photography or technique at that time but took some images he is still proud of. Went to Iraq with Kurdistan Democratic Front. Picked up a Sunday Times correspondent's story. Got an interview, an international scoop, with the leader of the Kurds. Covered stories in the Spanish Sahara, with the New Peoples Army in the Philippines and was able to get into Teheran because of his Greek passport - no-one could imagine a Greek war correspondent. Neither a career path nor profitable. Needed to be very fit, walking uphill for 17 hours with hill people who could walk in snow in flip flops. Started work using b&w, had to move to colour with syndication. Did this till the mid 1980s, shifted away from it for a number of reasons including that his interest moved on from war photography;Part 5. Went from photo-journalism to a documentary and much more personal work e.g. spent two months in the winter of 1982-3 photographing the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, sites, buildings and remains of small Greek community there. It was a personal project aimed at exhibition and shown at Cambridge Darkroom. Was trying the waters, had started looking at photography more seriously in the late 1970s when had started using it with poems. By 1981 BJP was publishing less photojournalism. 1981 visited Ian Hamilton Finlay, having written about him and reviewed his book for Telegram, and started photographing the garden. About ten of these pictures were published in Creative Camera in 1983. John Stathatos (JS) was fairly clear by the early 1980s that he wanted to work more with photography. Was giving up poetry, felt it was connected with youth, had had fifteen intense years but didn't want to become an academic poet and felt it was time to stop. Photography has the phenomena of the ten year span. Two kinds of photography - head and heart. Robert Frank and Josef Koudelka both worked from the heart, produced brilliant work and then had a fallow period. Ones who think, like Kertesz, remain interesting. A whole generation worked instinctively. You need a mix of emotion and intellect. So made a deliberate decision to stop writing poetry as photography became more interesting in the 1980s, though both are hopeless careers. Susan Butler was editor of Creative Camera, its short period of intellectual glory. She'd heard JS speak and asked him to write for Creative Camera. He did this virtually on a monthly basis so was thinking about photography and wrote for a number of publications. Was interested in landscape and portraiture. Saw Mari Mahr's work, bought a print by Fay Godwin. Discovering European photography rather than American. Exhibited in his local library and then at the Photo Gallery in St Leonards, 'City Light', fascinated by the combination of natural and artificial light. Took part in a couple of Greek shows at Cambridge Darkrooms. In 1983 had met Mark Lumley, who started Cambridge Darkroom and worked hard to keep it going. A vital venue, regional galleries very important in the 1980s but died with the YBA (Young British Artists) in the 1990s. Weakness of British art system is its lack of infrastructure and professionalism, still very personalised. 1986 in Israel to give a lecture at their first Photo Biennial. Quite a large British contingent, met Martin Parr and Roger Palmer. Was asked to curate the third Photo Biennial in 1991, one large museum show and others in smaller venues. Had started curating in 1986 - 'Multiple Originals' for Zelda Cheatle at the Photographers Gallery Print Room. Then curated in Greece 'A Post Classical Landscape' which toured to Britain. Curated Metamorphosis of the Image: Recent Photographic Strategies in Britain for the British Council, shown in Athens in 1989. Enjoys curating. Max Kozloff lecture.;Part 6. British photography increasingly Americanised, Saatchi exhibition depends on shock value and the abject. Comfortable with the mix of photography, writing and curating, does bits of teaching but doesn't want to do more. Wrote less and less for Creative Camera when Susan Butler left. Wrote for Artscribe from 1987 and for European Photography from 1988 and for Art Monthly from 1988 till 1990. Wrote for Portfolio from 1993 and sometimes for Art News. Started Untitled magazine in 1993. Gave it up in 1998. Co- published with Mario Flecha, they had met for dinner and discovered how cheap it was to print on newsprint using a tabloid format. Got an ACE grant. Had distribution problems. Wanted to avoid jargon and to involve people who were active in the arts and to get artists to write. Wanted reviews because they're first generation discourse. Interested in the politics of the arts. Didn't ever quite break out of the ghetto. A wide range of contributors included Susan Butler, Sacha Craddock, Clifford Myerson, Rob Kessler, Emmanuel Cooper, Mark Currah, Kate Bush, Jeremy Millar, Ian Walker, David Thorpe and many artists. Proud of encouraging young writers and artists - like Jonathan Jones who now writes for the Guardian. Involved a lot of editing. Never really viable financially, grant never increased much, a lot of time spent on paperwork. The YBA phenomenon at its most intense, started to take a sometimes critical or oppositional stance. Questioned whether it was healthy to concentrate on a small group of artists. Also had more writing on photography than most periodicals. Taking about half of his working time by 1998 so considering retiring from it if the grant wasn't increased. His 'unfashionable' stance, especially on design, being questioned so increasing tensions within the editorial team. So dropped out after issue 15. Now writing for Portfolio, European Photography and catalogue essays and a great deal on Greek photography. It wasn't always easy to find people who could write knowledgeably about photography, Susan Butler, Ian Walker, Clifford Myerson became fascinated by it. Britain could use another photographic magazine which would publish longer essays, be quite eclectic and provide an outlet for good new writing. A shortage of good writing on photography, both reviews and longer pieces. No complete research library. Colin Osman had the single biggest collection of photographic books. British Library's holdings on photograph are dismal and exhibition catalogues appear under gallery names rather than the photographers. With Untitled wanted to promote various photographers like Roger Palmer or Susan Trangmar who were not producing fashionable work. Fashion played a major part in the British art world in the 1990s and suddenly everyone was promoting the same people.;Part 7. The YBAs became a brand name because this then is easy to promote and suited everyone. It became the cool, fashionable image. Part of the trend towards celebrity and branding. Personally quite pessimistic about this, thinks the late 20th century & British art of the time will be seen as rather poor. Rather like the Victorian museums which are full of uninteresting work. After the critics mistake with Impressionism no critic wants to make the same mistake now. Had had the usual educated European's interest in the visual arts but it developed more professionally through photography. No grounding in the history of photography and art history courses are sniffy about photographic history - little familiarity with the history of photography. Quite a lot of writing John Stathatos (JS) did in the 1980s was about removing photography from the ghetto, an attack on the separateness of photographic institutions. That battle long since won. The question is now 'is photography a medium worth considering in its own right' and the answer is yes. Its a far richer and more extensive medium in terms of the issues it raises because of its vast range of disciplines and activities Some photography is part of the discourse of the visual arts, some is and isn't and some definitely isn't so it makes a viable discipline. A problem of arts institutions here as opposed to North America and Europe is a resistance to using outside or free-lance curators. The Photographers Gallery doesn't know what its role is anymore. Sue Davies has been under recognised. It achieved what she set it up to do. Two ugly and difficult spaces, it needed to move and expand ten years ago. Increasingly unfocused. Historical problems. For instance that the V&A rather than the Tate has the national photographic collection. The Tate is still able to ignore photography and, as the previous Director said, photographs by artists are acceptable to the Tate but not photographs by photographers. The V&A doesn't have the resources. We don't really have an institution which deals with photography in a really serious manner. Bradford is into the spectacle of photography. A collection of national importance has to be in the capital. Exciting exhibition by Ian Jeffrey. Exhibitions don't tour enough in Britain. In Visible Light also didn't tour. Involvement with Greek photography. In 1997 curated a survey exhibition called 'Image and Icon, the new Greek Photography' a survey exhibition, commissioned by Greek Ministry of Culture. Has had a long tour, a large exhibition. Interesting 19thC Greek photography and from pre and immediate post war period then in 1950s and 1960s there were no photography schools or infrastructure and it was dominated by an old fashioned pictorialism. Then a group of young photographers appeared who had studied abroad, founded the Photography Centre of Athens, a gallery and centre, like the Photographers Gallery without a subsidy. Its sociologically a movement rather than ideologically, currently successful. Has curated 5 large exhibitions in Greece over the last 8 years. Curating a show for the Salonika photograph festival, it will tour in Greece. No time to do the work to make it tour abroad.;Part 8. It's a show of new work. Based in Britain to do this, email has made this a lot easier. His own work has been concerned with the reading of landscape and, more recently, with the real and unreal. Just completed a collaborative piece with two French artists on images which are half photographs and half pencil drawings and text. A complex three part work. Will then do another collaborative piece called the Ruins of London. Also working on some almost unmediated, large format, colour images of light. Also working with an old Polaroid SX70, the first time for nearly 20 years he has been taking snapshots. Quite strange and pleasant to do it, unexpected results. Works from home. His wife is a sculptor and he sometimes uses her space in an ex factory building. Sometimes work has an emotional impetus, sometimes intellectual most of it is fairly carefully planned. An interest in landscape, it traces and processes of development because of the historical process. Making art and writing the most important things. Most photography has no commercial value. It does depend on being taken up by a particular kind of gallery which sells. Has British residency but still feels Greek. Easier to move between London and Greece. Greece a part of Europe, Britain may not recognise its own European-ness. Has a home in Greece and goes back often. Doesn't feel like an immigrant in Britain. Not part of a Greek community here as its either students or shipowners. A lot of Greek artists and students come through. Influenced to some extent by Roger Palmer, admires the work of Susan Trangmar. The abiding interest of photography now lies in the nature of the medium and its connection with reality, which hasn't been affected by the digital age. Gerhard Richter. Photography is multi- faceted and can simultaneously be a descriptive photograph, an historical document and a work of art. Believes digital photography a useful tool, uses it himself because of its convenience.;Part 9. Digitising photography means you can do more with them and can store them. Doesn't believe it's the death of photography or a very radical change. No-one believed photography was a reliable index of reality. Is digitising b&w negs and using them to see what a print would look like, a way of saving paper, chemicals and time. Ink jet prints are getting better and could overtake silver and chromogenic prints. A photograph by its stillness gives you time as opposed to the fleeting impressions of video of film. Has always made work out of an interest and not been inhibited by a critical sense. Perhaps the freedom of being outside the commercial circuit. Has never worked to order and is not sure what his attitude to a commission would be, starts with a fairly good idea of what he wants to do but it may change during the process, usually to simplify. This year marks the end of a period of very intense period of curating and writing so will have some time on his own work. Would like to do a large international survey of landscape photography across Europe. Would like to write some sort of defence of photography, he feels that writers from Susan Sontag to John Tagg or John Taylor have an attitude of anything from repulsion to mistrust. Finds psychoanalysis & post structuralism closed fields which perhaps shouldn't be applied to photography. Photography is so endlessly fascinating. There are virtually no photographs which he cannot look at with a degree of fascination and that has to be accounted for somehow. Ian Jeffrey, the most interesting writer on photography, has been sidelined. End of interview.

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