Issue 227 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Five years ago I had the heartbreaking experience of trying to rehouse the archive of a community photography project which had been forced to close following council cuts. A phoned around, confidently offering libraries and colleges a chance to take over this unique resource. I soon found that no one wants a homeless photo library and so a pictorial history spanning 20 years of social documentary simply went into the dustbin.
Those memories returned when I watched Shooting the Past, Stephen Poliakoff`s three parter screened in January on BBC2. In it a vast library of photographs, collected over 100 years and housed in an English stately home, is under threat when a US property developer buys the building in order to open a business school. There's no public campaign to save the collection--it's not that kind of drama. The battle is actually fought through the competing wills and wits of the seven main characters, each of which represents a 'social type' in the author's picture of the changing modern world.
The Americans are twofold: Anderson, the clever developer, who regrets 'there is no alternative` to closure--and his single minded sidekick who constantly number crunches on a laptop or barks into a mobile. Pitted against them is a divided workforce. Marilyn, the unworldly director, who first attempts to change Anderson's mind, begs for a short reprieve, does a deal and regrets it. 0swald, the eccentric but acute archivist with a photographic memory who substitutes for a lack of computerisation. The 60-something typist, Veronica, who'll never get another job. The last two play out stereotypes of 'the youth of today'. Nick is a tongue tied teenager whose thoughts must be greater than his words. Spig is a glam rock-ish young woman, clued into cool adland hype and hooked on images like a drug.
At the heart of the action is the collection itself: a dazzling mesmeric catalogue of 20th century experience which the audience sees from Anderson's point of view as he permits Marilyn, Oswald and Spig to display its fascinations. Sometimes its treasures are revealed in sequences of apparently unrelated chaos; women in Edwardian clothes saunter past a field of huge hot air balloons; a child swings upside down from a 1940s lamp post, grinning; naked children run along a seafront, chased by a uniformed figure wielding riding crop. Is history really this surreal? At other times chronological stories emerge like graven tablets on an archaeological dig. Individual characters, photographed by chance or design over a period of time, bear witness to the catastrophic world events and human suffering.
At the climax of the action Marilyn pieces together a sequence of images which, quite scarily, point to the endless hidden histories we all share. On the surface we think we know something, at least about our own families. But if much of human experience is forced below the surface, what could photographs tell us about the reality of our parents' and grandparents' lives? And what does this tell us about our own potential?
It's delightful to watch the corporate clones confounded and confused as the beleaguered staff attempt to bewitch their way to victory. The drama plays to a widespread disgust at profiteering and appeals to anyone who is sick of rich business people trampling on everything that gets in their way.
However, mistaken ideas about economics and society pervade and often get mixed up with genuine critiques of corporate capitalism. Often these are rooted in the misconception that British capitalism is fundamentally different from US capitalism.
There is little connection made between Marilyn's willingness to sack Oswald, which is portrayed as the misguided betrayal of a friend, and the Americans' intent to close the collection. No mention is made of the fact that England's past and present are built on commerce, or that the US ruling class simply won the competition for money and arms in the 20th century battles over wealth and power which are so movingly depicted in pictures.