I/Eye: On Photography

Ida Kar

Posted in Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on March 14, 2011


Ida Kar is an artist who until now has not been well-served by history, though back in 1960 she was the first photographer to be granted a retrospective by a major London gallery. Her show at the Whitechapel Gallery was phenomenally successful; so much so, that it was the focus of a BBC documentary that asked the hoary old question: Is photography art?

Augustus John by Ida Kar

Augustus John by Ida Kar

So muses Sean O’Hagan in his review of the Ida Kar retrospective currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The hoary old answer at the time was, of course, No. But the relevance of the question may have been side-stepped by history: what does it matter anymore whether Photography is Art? The world has undergone its bedeviled revolution vis-à-vis the lens: we are all photographers now. Our art — or whatever you want to call it — is everywhere.

Writing about the retrospective for the Guardian, the novelist Margaret Drabble reminds us why the debate mattered then — to the British, at any rate. It was money: photographers couldn’t qualify for Arts Council grants. And she reminds us that Kar herself was well aware how (comparatively) little photography was valued, yet she stuck to it anyway:

This was a hardworking freelance life with no institutional support and little comfort, at times awkwardly poised between art, photojournalism and celebrity portraiture.

Plus ça change…, one is tempted to add.

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