Wendy Aldiss, Radcliffe Infirmary Hospital Oxford 1993–95, and Janette Beckman, Hip Hop Years New York 1982–1992

JTF (just the facts): Two photobooks:

Wendy Aldiss, Radcliffe Infirmary Hospital Oxford 1993–95: Published in 2020 by Café Royal Books (here). Stapled softcover zine, 14×20 cm, 36 pages, with 19 black and white reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 200. Editing/design by Craig Atkinson. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Janette Beckman, Hip Hop Years New York 1982–1992: Published in 2020 by Café Royal Books (here). Stapled softcover zine, 14×20 cm, 36 pages, with  29 black and white reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 500. Editing/design by Craig Atkinson. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The mission statement of Café Royal Books (CRB) does not mince words: “My aim,” writes founding editor Craig Atkinson, “is to create a focused and complete archive of British documentary photography.” On its face, this is a task so outlandish that it might be rejected out of hand, especially considering that CRB is a one-man show run entirely by Atkinson. But before dismissal, CRB deserves a deeper look. Against all odds, they’ve made steady progress toward the pie-in-the-sky goal. Since 2005, they’ve published over 400 titles in the form of simple zines, gradually expanding production to reach the current pace of roughly 70 per year. The “complete archive” finish line remains distant, but it’s fair to say they’ve gotten further than anyone originally thought possible. 

Not only has CRB has discovered a void that wasn’t known to exist. They’ve filled it and developed its audience. Once every 100 issues, a complete run of zines is packaged into a so-called archive box (the most recent was in April 2020). These are in turn collected by various public institutions. MoMA, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, The British Library, Martin Parr Foundation, TATE, V&A, and the National Art Library are among the regular clients. Thus, Atkinson has completed the archival loop at both ends, pulling material into physical existence and ensuring its long-term preservation. To my knowledge, no similar enterprise exists in Great Britain or elsewhere.

“I aim to make the publications affordable, democratic, utilitarian and useful, without fuss or decoration,” writes Atkinson. “The images, history and the cultural archive are the focus. Helped by, but not overwhelmed by the design.” When asked to name specific design influences, he cites The National Trust pamphlets of his youth. For non-British readers, this was a series of 1970s UK public service bulletins with all the bland swagger of an ingredients label or a shipping crate. Like those pamphlets, each CRB zine shares the same generic template. A matter-of-fact colophon squeezes into a thin white band on the cover, partitioned atop a sample photograph. The text is —what else?— black Helvetica typeface. For the interior pages, the layout options loosen slightly, but not much. Photographs are spread economically on every page, 1 or 2 per spread, against a stark white or black background. Text is generally nonexistent or minimal. 

By abdicating the many formal choices which normally separate one title from one another, CRB is an outlier amidst the increasingly design-savvy culture of photobooks. This is part of their logic, a conscious decision by Atkinson. Although he began the series before the current online photography explosion, its form is closer to streaming jpgs than traditional publishing. CRB zines are transportable, affordable, and virtually inexhaustible, with the emphasis on simple conveyance rather than preciousness. The photographic reproductions lean toward the crude contrast of Xeroxed concert fliers, favoring graphic impact over tonal detail. This approach spills over from design into content, with curatorial choices favoring straight documentary work. Clever juxtapositions and camera angles are out. Direct, honest record-keeping is in, often caught by deer-in-the-headlights flash. 

Radcliffe Infirmary Hospital Oxford 1993-95 encompasses all these facets. The birthplace of photographer Wendy Aldiss, the hospital was in its waning years when she returned to photograph its daily workings in the early 1990s. Her motivation was remedial: “Having researched the local archives I had found that there were few images of the care given and work done within the Infirmary, and far more of each new wing that had been built.” Improbably, she gained access behind the scenes at Radcliffe, photographing various consultations, surgeries, outpatient procedures, and the private machinations of cafeteria, reception, and administration. Looking at these photos now from a post 9/11 perspective—when privacy and security concerns have sealed large swaths of society away from nosy photographers—they exhibit a degree of institutional permissiveness which is unrecognizable. Alas, things change, a fact imbuing all historical photos with a degree of psychic disruption, and cultivated by CRB to wondrous effect. 

The other matter hanging over a current viewing is the global coronavirus pandemic. Oh yes, that. The greatest public health crisis in a century has driven hospital images—albeit a carefully filtered subset—suddenly into public consciousness. Medical emergencies have gained newfound tangibility for everyone, while health care workers have assumed the mantle of national heroes. Against this backdrop, the bygone clinical routines of Radcliffe seem remarkably relaxed. A man sticks out his tongue for examination. A doctor reads a pamphlet on crossed leg in the surgery room. A quiet staff meeting is held at patient’s bedside. Each procedure is calm and intimate, no masks, visors, gloves, or PPE visible. To these humdrum scenarios a curious photographer is but a minor addition, and Aldiss plays her fly-on-the-wall role to perfection, passing unnoticed even as she blasts the interiors with artificial light. She couldn’t realize at the time that such photos would take on peculiar resonance a quarter century later. Oh, to travel back a few decades to simpler times! Or at least to an age when not all societal prospects seemed precarious.

Janette Beckman’s New York of yesteryear might fit the bill. The recent CRB zine Hip-Hop Years, New York, 1982-1992 collects some of her work from the titular period. Beckman began shooting the series soon after moving to New York from the UK in 1982, her new life coinciding almost exactly with the infancy of the local hip-hop scene. Coming in on its ground floor she was able to photograph many major stars before they became celebrities. LL Cool J, KRS-One, Salt ‘n Pepa, and Chuck D flash signs and poses alongside portraits of lesser known acts. Beckman’s status as an ex-pat afforded her a degree of awestruck novelty as she captured these young explorers developing a new branch of music, the combination proving pictorially upbeat and infectious. Without exception her subjects appear proud, defiant, and cocksure of their future. And that future would later judge the photos just as respectfully, exemplified by Jay-Z’s comment: “There isn’t a piece of Hip-Hop history that Janette Beckman hasn’t touched with her camera.” 

In contrast to Aldiss, almost all of Beckman’s photos were shot outdoors, seemingly as found in situ. The vast majority of the zine shows musicians, but a decent portion captures fans, groupies, and club candids. Under Beckman’s evenhanded gaze the categories blur, and it’s sometimes a challenge sorting out the stars from the starstruck. Her photographs reinforce the sensibility of a tight-knit underground in an era when the line separating your DJ cousin from a magazine cover appeared thin, even surmountable.

Students of the genre may recognize some of Beckman’s CRB photos from her first monograph, Rap: Portraits and Lyrics Of A Generation Of Black Rockers, published by St. Martins in 1991. There is indeed some crossover between the titles, but also room for both to coexist. The earlier book has fallen out of print and is difficult to find. But more importantly, CRB’s zine uproots Beckman’s series from its New York foundation and transplants it across the Atlantic and into the archives of British photography. This is a task performed occasionally by Atkinson. When the situation merits he will stretch outside the British Isles to incorporate foreign material, so long as it’s by a British photographer. After all, complete archive means complete archive. 

Beckman’s zine is her third zine for CRB, the first two focusing on her native British music scene. In this respect she is not unusual. Sifting through CRB’s huge back catalog—archived comprehensively online by geographic region—the same names circulate regularly. Paul Trevor, Brian Griffin, Chris Killip, Homer Sykes, Stephen McCoy, and Ken Grant are among those who’ve published multiple titles since 2005, a list which includes Craig Atkinson himself. In this manner, CRB gradually builds an historical archive not just of the UK but of individuals. Some photographers have more than a dozen titles by now, each on a separate subject.

To date most have been men, so Beckman and Aldiss are welcome additions. The backlist is also depressingly white, an unpleasant fact in the context of recent BLM awareness. If societal earthquakes maintain current pace, CRB’s homogeneity may cause future viewers a degree of psychic disruption, just as any old photo does. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, these zines’ importance as historical markers should still prove invaluable.

Collector’s POV: Wendy Aldiss does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar). Janette Beckman is represented by Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles (here). Her work has not appeared in the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail likely remains the best option.

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