Interview with Martin Lipson
Founder & Photographer
What motivated you to set up the Photo Co-op?
In 1970, while still at college training as an architect, I moved to a flat in Wandsworth Common. By 1974 I was working, not as an architect, but as a neighbourhood development worker first in Kings Cross and then in Haringey, and had become active in Wandsworth community action – especially the Battersea Redevelopment Action Group (BRAG). I was also helping produce the local monthly community newspaper Pavement. As a self-taught photographer, and having set up a darkroom in my flat, I was actively recording life and community action in Wandsworth and elsewhere in London. My day job was focussed on developing a “voice” for local people, helping set up residents' associations, and action groups of various kinds, to secure improvements in living conditions, and by helping develop their skills of communication and argument, to make local people more self-sufficient. This “enabling role” was one that was strongly supported, and funded, by Labour councils of the time.
I think I had come across the Half Moon Photography Workshop in the East End, (a group that went on to produce Camerawork magazine), and possibly another similar photography group in Liverpool. There was quite a bit of national networking amongst community workers then. It occurred to me that photographers possessed the means to record and disseminate important social messages, but that so often they were not themselves “engaged”, preferring to remain outsiders. As I knew a number of left-leaning photographers in Wandsworth, I thought it must be worth a try to organise a new group in my own local area, that could put on exhibitions and in various ways support local and other campaigns for social justice and community good. In 1978 I was “between jobs” and had some time to work on this. I approached Abdul Choudhary, the community arts officer at Battersea Arts Centre. Together we organised a first meeting there, and invited people that we knew, who were supplemented by a few others attracted by a notice in the Centre. Early in 1979, Wandsworth Photo Co-op was formed, and the founding members agreed to work towards a first exhibition within about six months.
What was the first major project you worked on?
The exhibition was an ambitious one, drawing on the work of around ten photographers, and ranging in scope across big themes such as inequality, housing and homelessness, wealth and health. About 100 strong black and white images were selected by majority vote from the organising group (which included myself, Gina Glover, Sarah Saunders and Julian Lousada), and then printed to around A4 size.
A colleague from Pavement, Ernest Rodker – who happened also to be an expert furniture maker – designed and made a remarkable timber framed display system to hold the individual photos which were to be butt-mounted on thick hardboard to make rigid mounts. The system was designed to be free-standing and demountable, so that it could be moved from venue to venue without the need for large areas of wall space. The frame elements were held together by neoprene sockets and plugs, which snapped in and out; each photo had a batten fixed to its hardboard backing with another neoprene socket let into the batten which could be plugged into similar sockets let into the timber frames. The frames were all stained matt black, and once they were erected, standing on their own integral legs away from the walls, the exhibition had the appearance of a barely visible grid, supporting striking photos apparently held in space in a more or less random pattern. It was an original idea, and initially a great success.
The exhibition, once it had been seen at the Arts Centre and favourably reviewed, was booked into about 6 more community venues, one of which was LSE (London School of Economics). Eventually, the neoprene fixings lost their grip and failed to hold the photos straight, and it became increasingly difficult for me to take down and re-erect the frames. The whole thing went into storage in an attic, and many years later was scrapped. It succeeded, however, in putting the Photo Co-op on the map.
What happened next?
Work for local organisations began to be commissioned – for their exhibitions, booklets and other publications. At the beginning of 1980 a leaflet was produced which listed the work done in the previous twelve months by some 30 photographers – which included exhibitions (including another large travelling exhibition on Children's Rights), reporting, posters, postcards, a tape-slide show, portraiture, and an important development – advising people on setting-up darkrooms, talking to local people about use of cameras, and networking with other similar groups around the country. The outreach work was the forerunner of the darkroom teaching that became a feature of the group a little later. There is also mention of the start of an archive, which in due course became the Photofusion picture library.
What was so special and different about the Photo Co-Op for you?
What made the Photo Co-Op special was the stated aim to link photography to social action, to engage with issues affecting local people. To achieve these aims though, the photographers had, to a large extent, to provide services at low cost or even free of charge. Although this was possible for me because I had a salary (initially as a community worker and then from late 1979 a new job as an architect) it wasn't so easy for members of the group that needed income from their photography. There were some difficulties when fee levels were being set for a local client group, reluctant to pay what they perceived as near-commercial rates. The group kept going nevertheless until it was decided that the solution to securing continuity for the Co-Op was to apply for grant funding, and an application was put together to the Greater London Council.
When did you leave the Photo Co-op and why?
In 1980 my new job shifted from part-time to full-time, my partner was pregnant and we were moving house, with the result that I had to drop out of the group. I was pleased to see the others moving forward, but I became so busy elsewhere that I could only watch their progress from a distance. I felt happy that I had brought the group into existence and was content to see others take it into new territory.
What are you up to now?
I've continued to use photography in my work, and added documentary film-making to my repertoire over the years. In the 1990s my public sector architecture career evolved into an advisory role for local councils and schools on the national school-building programmes that were under way in England, and later in Wales. I remained committed to the concept of “enabling” and the demystifying of professional skills throughout my working life. I eventually retired in 2012, and now use photography as part of the archive role of the Village History Centre which I set up in our Oxfordshire village. The group that runs the Centre (of which I am chairman) works with the local school on projects, and produces an annual exhibition and publications on themes of local interest.
It occurred to me that photographers possessed the means to record and disseminate important social messages, but that so often they were not themselves “engaged”, preferring to remain outsiders. As I knew a number of left-leaning photographers in Wandsworth, I thought it must be worth a try to organise a new group in my own local area…
Founder & Photographer