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Please note: RPS House is closed for our exhibition install. We will be open again from 10am on Friday 9th August 2024.

Pise Corridore Del Camposanto
CREDIT: Alinari Family, Richard King Mellon Foundation, National Gallery of Art Washington DC

A sense of perspective

Contemporary Home | Events | News

This is the fourteenth blog in a series on COVID-19 and lockdown, edited by and

Looking back over the past year

We can all look back and consider what a difference a year makes. I have been your President for just over a year now I have been considering this from the perspective of some images I was viewing just one year ago. They all have history but it is the contemporary relevance that continues to resonate with me.

Let's start with the trigger for these thoughts. In addition to being RPS President I lead the UK group on International Standards for Photography. I have spent a lot of time recently on (virtual) meetings with delegates from around the globe. In that respect it seems very similar to the recent RPS.

It seems like a world away now but this time last year we were meeting in Washington DC. The topic was photographic image permanence and one of my colleagues, Sarah Wagner from the National Gallery of Art suggested I visit their Eye of the Sun exhibition. Awesome display that sent many thoughts rolling but let me share one of the themes in four images.

Liberation Photography

Above is the first image, seen through the Eye of the Sun. It was taken in the 1880s by the Florentine Alinari family photographers of an area in Pisa subsequently destroyed by war. Photography depicting art in stone, with a conflict overtone. Sarah was conserving art, here was conflict destroying it.

I left the gallery as it closed as I had another artefact to view. I walked past the city monuments and on my journey an image on a war memorial captured my attention. It depicts documentary photography of a significant event recorded in metal for future generations. Art depicting photography, again with a conflict theme.

Jefferson Memorial

The conflict theme worked with me at that time. I had suddenly ascended to the Presidency prompted by a resignation after six weeks in office. There was significant conflict within the RPS that would be my job to sort. I remembered a quotation from a previous (US) President that I was considering and there was the opportunity to do it within his memorial. Here is the third image, taken within the Jefferson memorial. Emblazoned on the wall was the thoughts I was seeking. Jefferson before me had recognised that there are times when change is necessary to break with the past and move forward.

Past Is Prologue

The Jefferson memorial was covered in scaffolding when I visited which had another message for me. The roof was leaking and the writing on the wall was being damaged. Fine words only go so far - understanding the issues and making a suitable response is important. To move on we had to resolve the conflict.

We were meeting that week in the building of the National Archives and more letters carved in stone had the solution for me. I will not be the last to be inspired by the writings of Shakespeare but it must surely be unusual to go all the way to Washington DC to receive it.

The National Archives use this quote extensively "What is past is prologue"; the idea that history puts the present in context. This took me back to the full version of the Shakespeare quote. "What's past is prologue; what to come, In yours and my discharge". My interpretation is that the past informs us; what we do next is up to us.

On my return we set this in motion. An election review. A governance review. And then the pandemic.

We can choose to break with the past and move on. The response to the pandemic has shown us new options to engage with a wider, international audience through on-line offerings. The future is indeed in yours and my discharge.