The Radical Eye

Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection

Tate Modern

until 21st May


Sir Elton John has one of the “greatest private collections of photography in the world”. Quite how that remark is justified this show doesn’t say. Certainly his collection of photographs is better than the Tate’s own, and finer than any British gallery is now likely to assemble. Whether that justifies the sycophancy that surrounds this show is another matter. And it is unnecessarily off-putting since Sir Elton comes across as a surprisingly balanced individual, bearing in mind the curatorial hoop-la.

We should not be put off by the nonsense. This is a good introduction to one of the most interesting periods in the history of photography. With the exception of Ansel Adams (there is one minor work by him) all the great photographers of the era are represented by important works. Indeed, iconic works – Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother”, Edward Steichen’s “Gloria Swanson”, Man Ray’s “Glass Tears”, and “Noire et Blanche (Positive)” will all be recognised by the non-specialist. Then there is Paul Strand’s “Wall Street, New York”, Rodchenko’s “Shukov Tower”, Paul Outerbridge’s “Ide Collar”, Edward Weston’s “Church Door, Hornitos” and “Nude” of 1936, Elizabeth Cunningham’s “Magnolia blossom, tower of Jewels”, Man Ray’s “Ostrich Egg”, Koppitz’s “Movement Study” – the list of major works goes on and on. In terms of quality this is a show without a dud in one hundred and fifty exhibits.

And yet, as always with photography, the literature gnaws at the question: is photography art? In this period, avant garde artists who took up photography often did so because of its technical qualities. For them, the point about photography was that it was mechanical. With the advent of the Leica and its roll of film, photographs could be taken quickly and without any set-up. Reproduction was easy, too, if a little print quality was lost. This was all part of the new technology: a democratisation of art (and opening up of new markets) after the First World War.

A comparison can be made with the explosion of printmaking in nineteenth-century Japan. There, artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige produced work for the rising middle classes which today in the West is considered to be quintessential Japanese art. The photograph doesn’t have that sort of standing, partly because it is so mechanical. Indeed, the late Lord Snowdon used to show how it was possible for anyone to take pictures in the manner of the great photographers just using a photo-booth. Unfortunately, most snappers and selfie-takers don’t produce work anything like the work made by Lord Snowdon or collected by Sir Elton, so the hand of the artist must count for something. (At the time of writing the selfies taken by the Giant Panda Meng Meng had not been published; but they may throw further light on the conundrum of the artistic status of photography).

It’s best, though, to ignore the æsthetics and just take pleasure from the photos. Some are arranged as they would be in Sir Elton’s home, which doesn’t make for easy identification but does allow the photos to play off against each other in terms of shape and definition and contrast. Such principles were fundamental to the modernism of those artists on show who followed Moholy-Nagy’s advocacy of abstraction. At its most extreme this includes the rayographs of Man Ray, works which are not so much photographs but images produced with photographic techniques. They are the least interesting pictures in the show. Indeed, the experimental works as a whole have little to recommend them. Their distortions and montages and inversions are geeky without being illuminating (Man Ray’s solarised portraits of Lee Miller, for example, would be the exception; but there are no pictures of that quality on show).

Much more interesting are the abstractions photographed in the normal way, often using the new technological freedoms to take bird’s eye or worm’s eye views. Paul Strand’s “Abstraction, Twin Lakes” (1916) is one of the earliest and most satisfying of these. Toni Schneiders’s “Rail spider” is another fine example, enjoying the rhythms of new design and technology. Imogen Cunningham abstracted vegetables – not as daft as it sounds – but also modern factories in a way that crossed over into the other main theory about photography at that time, that of the photograph as a precise record of a place, or event, or person. Indeed, the photographers hired by the Farm Security Administration considered themselves to be more journalists than artists, and their record of the Great Depression contains some of the most important works of the era. Tate’s exhibition of Sir Elton’s collection is an excellent opportunity to see some of the finest results of these cross-currents of technique and theory. It doesn’t have to be art to be enjoyable.  

Owen Higgs




How the Church of England Lost the English People

Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead

Bloomsbury, 256pp, £16.99

ISBN: 978-14729-21642


This book purports to show how the Church of England “lost the English people” over the last thirty years, but for the most part gives Andrew Brown an opportunity to re-heat the choicer items from his cuttings file as the Independent’s religious-affairs correspondent from 1986 (not coincidentally the book’s starting point), and Linda Woodhead to vent her fury at things that annoy her.

The result is largely story-telling – selective and often factually inaccurate. There is little pretence at journalistic, let alone academic, impartiality: reportage tips into polemic, judgements are often simplistic, scores are settled, well-meaning people denigrated, liberal mantras uncritically parroted. There are also well-drawn pen-portraits, acute observations, and telling insights (e.g. Richard Chartres is “far too clever to be an intellectual”), but to disentangle them much prior knowledge is required.

The complacency of the tired old liberal establishment that was still dominant in the late 1980s is well described. Woodhead mercilessly dissects the patronage system, careerism, and problematic engagement with “urban theology” at Cuddesdon, where she taught from 1988 to 1992. “Clerical socialism … reinforced by the clergy’s own brand of welfare dependency”, she notes, set the clergy apart from their flocks. “Like so much of a church still wedded to the post-war settlement that Thatcherism had replaced, Cuddesdon’s weakness was its complacent sense of entitlement and its failure to grasp what was happening in society.”

The chapter on “Gays and Evangelicals” (recurring themes) begs several questions. Were the scandals of the late Runcie era as significant in the long term as Brown’s sometimes prurient reporting suggests? Was the 1987 “Higton” resolution on homosexuality, presented here as “a step on the road to self-destruction” because it “greatly hastened the Church’s uncoupling from English society”, then as out of step with public opinion as it now seems?

Woodhead’s polemical account of women’s ordination makes no pretence to academic impartiality or rigour, and contains factual inaccuracies too numerous to correct. The existence of theological arguments on both sides remains unmentioned. 414 Anglo-Catholic resolution parishes now belie Woodhead’s claim that women’s ordination brought “the long tradition of Anglo-Catholic parishes sustained by women’s devotion … to a shuddering halt”.

Brown’s chapter on George Carey and the creation of the Archbishops’ Council exemplifies the book’s strengths and weaknesses. It is funny: the Church Commissioners’ financial losses were “about as shocking as finding out that the rich maiden aunt on whom you have always relied for your monthly allowance and a fat legacy has lost everything in a drug-fuelled gambling spree”; insightful: the need for parishes to pay more resulted in “a slow rebalancing of power”; and sometimes both: “the attempt to make the Church into a centrally managed organization produced something imposing in its sheer incongruity, like a hotel carved from blocks of ice”. It is also well-observed: “The Church under Carey took refuge in a managerial voodoo. Like a cargo cult, it assumed that if you aped the jargon and waved some of the symbols, success and prestige must naturally follow”. But it is full of inaccuracies. Hostility to Carey prevents Brown from discerning – beneath many superficial absurdities – the achievement and benefits of melding the Church’s multiple central bodies into a coherent, interlocking system serviced by a single, jointly-employed staff. Partisanship precludes dispassionate analysis. The claim that Issues in Human Sexuality “assumed that clergy were distinguished from laity by virtue of their greater moral purity” lacks seriousness.

Interesting pointers to the origins and nature of the current evangelical hegemony are offered. The establishmentarian evangelical John Stott’s Christianity “had become almost completely congregational even as it thought of itself as societal”. Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades gave Anglican evangelicalism, previously rational and intellectual, permission to embrace mass emotion, thereby preparing the ground for the charismatic revival Graham opposed doctrinally. Holy Trinity Brompton increasingly diluted the Alpha Course’s original Calvinism. “Unselfconsciously posh and very wealthy, but … not entirely comfortably with snobbery”, its niche marketing directed at the affluent young differs radically from the traditional parish’s appeal to all sorts and conditions.

At the 1998 Lambeth Conference both sides’ “naked politicking” made Brown resolve “never to be mistaken for a Christian again”. His account again mixes insight with inaccuracy while failing to discern an important underlying point – that the Conference’s somewhat simplistic resolution on homosexuality resulted from a backlash against an attempted liberal stitch-up. A fairer process could have produced a better outcome. Brown rightly highlights the failure to engage with Rowan Williams’ important address on making moral decisions: “It was carefully argued, resonant, thought-provoking, and frequently comprehensible. But for all the effect it had on the assembled bishops, he might have delivered it at three in the morning to the customers in a motorway food court.”

“The Rowan Vacuum” focuses largely on Jeffrey John and Shariah law, again offering significant details while missing key points. Dr John having publicly said that his same-sex relationship had once been sexually active, to conservative evangelicals he was – unlike most clergy in such relationships – an unrepentant public sinner. Lord Williams’ real mistakes were failing to recognize that the uproar – predictable, given the identity of leading figures in the Reading episcopal area – would make Dr John’s appointment unsustainable, and failing to use his power of veto (unmentioned here) to prevent it in the first place.

For Brown and Woodhead, the Church of England is like the NHS – part of the “public sector” and accountable to Parliament. They criticize the General Synod for being unrepresentative of “the greater part of the Anglican laity” who “don’t even go to church”. When, towards the end of the book, something resembling an argument manages to break through the welter of recrimination and denigration, it is that the Church of England has “lost the English people” by failing to mirror its current sentiments and prejudices. In a more honest moment, they admit that the Church to which they look back with rather ahistorical nostalgia “is lost because the England of which it was the Church has disappeared”.

If England’s population supports women’s ordination and same-sex marriage, they believe, then so must its established church. In David Cameron’s words, it must “get with the programme”. Any idea that the Church’s stance should be shaped – or even just influenced – by Scripture or Christian doctrine, let alone Tradition or the consensus of the Church throughout the world and across the ages, is completely foreign to them.

They criticize Archbishop Welby and the Holy Trinity Brompton grouping that he represents for … “banging on about Jesus”, because “talk of Jesus sounds sectarian”: “Unlike ‘God’ or ‘Spirit’, it sharply distinguishes those who use it from other kinds of churchmanship, as well as from other religions.”

Their ideal model for the Church of England is the Scandinavian churches, whose levels of baptism, confirmation, weddings, and funerals remain high – in their view, because those churches embraced women’s ordination and same-sex marriage with alacrity. For authors who believe that the Church of England has only recently (and wrongly) expected people to go to church on Sunday mornings, the fact that few Scandinavians attend Sunday worship is unproblematic.

The authors effectively admit that mediocre liberalism empties churches. The (conservative-led) London Diocese has experienced “relative success”, whereas the notoriously liberal Southwark “despite a similar population has shown a pattern of unremitting fissiparous decline for decades”. In “a society with a low boredom threshold and high production values … only the ritualist Anglo-Catholics and the charismatics … tried to construct services which … offered something which transcended everyday experience”. Perhaps conservatives, charismatics, and catholics, who talk about Jesus and offer transcendent worship, may be better at getting people to go to church, but this is of little interest if one’s vision is of a church conformed to the beliefs and mores of “the vast life-giving penumbra of the Church: people who want its services only occasionally, and have no need for the sort of regular community experience it offers”.

Brown and Woodhead may be right to reject both congregational and managerial strategies for the Church’s future development and funding, but their hope that “if [those who want church services only occasionally] can see that the Church exists for them once again, they may well be persuaded to encourage their children that it’s worthwhile, and help pay for it” seems fanciful indeed.

Andrew Brown is an able journalist, and Linda Woodhead is a noted sociologist of religion. They are right to challenge the Church of England to reflect upon why it has lost half its active and nominal members in the last three decades. Their book is worth reading for its humour, observation, and insights; but it is marred by an often unpleasant tone, ignores the experience of other English churches, and cannot be relied upon for factual accuracy. Such argument as it offers is neither rigorous nor convincing. Both authors are capable of far better work than this.

Colin Podmore



His Life and His Times

Robin Harris

Gracewing 409pp. £20

ISBN: 978-0852448649

I am ashamed to confess that even though I hail from a country right next to that of Blessed Alojzije Stepinac, I knew nothing about the story of the former Cardinal Archbishop of Zagreb before reading the book. His story, however – as others, too, have observed – bears a certain resemblance to that of Cardinal Mindszenty, a man whose life and struggle I am much more familiar with, so the events that are described in the book with so much detail were not entirely unfamiliar.

The difference between the fate of the two archbishops is, however, that even though both Stepinac and Mindszenty seem to have suffered from their reputation being deliberately tarnished by the totalitarian regimes that they stood against so faithfully, a thorough attempt at the rehabilitation of the memory of Cardinal Stepinac had to wait until now, at least for the English-speaking world.

Robin Harris’s book is a fine endeavour. The difficulty in setting the record straight in cases like that of Stepinac seems to me to be two-fold: on one hand it is necessary to dislodge from common memory and to refute any false accusations made by the former regimes against his person, but also critically to assess and revise the more recent (and at times shoddy) scholarship that, when piled on top of lingering misconceptions and “alternative facts” pushed by propagandists of former eras, proves almost as damaging as the original fabrications. Harris, through his exemplary attention to detail and original research, offers a corrective to both problems.

The book starts by outlining the problem, and refuting the lies that were spread about Alojzije Stepinac. Harris examines a wide set of sources, pointing out inconsistencies in the web that has been spun around Stepinac’s memory. He then proceeds to provide an in-depth biography, coloured by a presentation of the contemporary political situation. It is these chapters that put the cardinal’s struggle against the Nazis, the Ustaša, and the Communists into context, making understanding his difficulties much easier for those of us who are not well-versed in the history of the former Yugoslavia.

The book contains a lot of original and painstakingly meticulous research, including many of the author’s own translations – excerpts from Stepinac’s diary or sermons, for example. It also includes a translation of Stepinac’s speech at his mock trial in October 1946, and his Spiritual Will. Such sources will beyond doubt prove useful to future researchers. To guide more ordinary readers, several appendices are made available, including a useful timeline of events and a dramatis personæ, which I found myself referring back to every now and then.

As Harris himself notes, setting the record straight has much wider importance than clearing the name of one person, as it provides a much more nuanced insight into the concerns and actions of the Catholic Church around the time of the Second World Ward. The story of Archbishop Stepinac speaks very powerfully to contemporary readers about uncompromising faithfulness to the teachings of Christ in our age, when, although with different and less frightful methods, the doctrines held by the Church throughout the ages are being pushed aside.

Remain, my dear people of the diocese, at any cost, if need be at the cost of your lives, faithful to Christ’s Church … You would not be worthy of the name of your fathers, if you allowed yourself to be turned away from the rock on which Christ built his Church … So faithfulness to the Catholic Church, to the grave!

Endre Kormos


Book of the month


In his own words

Benedict XVI with Peter Seewald

Bloomsbury 224pp £16.99

ISBN: 978-1472944672


This is the fourth book of the conversations between Pope Benedict XVI and Peter Seewald, a German journalist who returned to the Church after his first encounter with Joseph Ratzinger, published as Salt of the Earth in 1997. God and the World followed in 2001, and Light of the World in 2010. The first two are the best introduction to good theology that I have read, the third was more journalistic; in the fourth there is a mixture of both.

Like his hero Saint Augustine, what Benedict believes is to some people less interesting than establishing when he came to believe it. When did the young progressive become the Panzerkardinal? A reactionary usually responds that he did not change, but the world. The Pope Emeritus believes this about himself, and Seewald does not challenge him. We can still take what he says seriously, however, since Benedict and his detractors agree that he has not completely contradicted his younger self – only that at some point he stopped pushing for change when his radical friends were still shoving the institution he had set about buttressing.

As a seminarian Ratzinger lived under the dictatorship of a particular kind of old-fashioned theology, inspired by St Thomas Aquinas, yet he “wanted out of Classical Thomism”. His interest in the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary has never left the devotional plane; he is, intellectually, “Christocentric”.

He is also contrary. This trait is evident in a story recounted by Seewald of Ratzinger’s time in the army, of a pushy instructor bellowing at his young conscripts “who is holding out for longest, you or me?” Ratzinger, the smallest of the men, took a pace forward and said “us”. This courage has stayed with him: it is the Pope’s job, he says, to “be a sign of contradiction”.

Opposition to the Church has often morphed in Benedict’s lifetime, from Fascism to Communism, from Anarchy to Relativism, and against each he has pitted the fidelity of the Church. When it was progressive to renew that faith at the Council, he was progressive; when it was conservative to oppose the corruption of that renewal, he was conservative. In retirement, he feels “the weight of the absence of faith which goes deep into the Church”.

This faithfulness is, Benedict has been saying since the 1990s, most evident in the Liturgy; and it is at the altar that his papacy is most easily distinguished from what went before and what has come after. Discussing his general restoration of the Tridentine Mass, he says, “the continuity must not be interrupted”. To say that what was “previously holy” is now wrong is to break the communion of the Church. Not to snap it within one generation, as the Reformation did, but to cut a generation off from its predecessors. If tradition, in politics, is the democracy of the dead, in religion it is their ecumenism.

As it is for the Church, so it is for her children, even popes. The programme of Benedict’s life was the coincidence of his baptism and Holy Saturday. He prefers to live simply as he did “from the beginning of my life”. It is his hope that heaven, where he prays he will be reunited with his parents and siblings, will be “as lovely as it was at our childhood home”.

Christianity, for Benedict, is not an escape from the changes of his lifetime. As he says of his father’s discipline, “you cannot compare that context with today’s context”. Yet the world must remain just that – the context of the Church, and not its content. In retirement, as in office, Benedict is indeed a “sign of contradiction”.

Tom Carpenter