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EXHIBITION A welcome ‘rediscovery’

A new exhibition in Oxford restores the reputation of HELEN MUSPRATT as one of the 20th century's great radical photographers, says John Green

Helen Muspratt Photographer
Bodleian Library, Oxford

HELEN MUSPRATT was a noted photographer who came to prominence during the inter-war years yet, like so many women artists, her life and work had been largely ignored before being recently “rediscovered.”

Muspratt decided to make a career for herself in photography early in life. After completing a photographic course at the Regent Street Polytechnic, and still in her early twenties, she began working as a receptionist for the fashionable Mayfair photographic studio of Donald Donovan.
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In 1928, full of confidence, she set up her own studio in the High Street in Swanage where her parents lived. Here she utilised her newly developed skills as a portrait photographer to establish a flourishing business.

Although her bread-and-butter remained straightforward portraiture, for her own pleasure she experimented with lighting and other technical processes. After coming across one of Man Ray’s solarised photographs in a magazine, she began experimenting with this technique and others, including rayographs and multiple exposures.

But crucial to all Muspratt’s work was her preoccupation with the face — its “shape and angle” — and she became an eminent portrait photographer, recording some of the leading figures of the 20th century.

During the 1930s, Muspratt produced some of her most innovative work. Towards the end of the decade, she opened a studio in Oxford where she became established as a remarkable portrait photographer.

There, she set up a partnership with Lettice Ramsey, who was also politically close and their innovative work had begun to attract the interest of photographic magazines.

They would go on to set up an additional studio in Cambridge, where they made portraits of many of the city’s academic and intellectual elite, including a superb romantic portrait of a very young and strikingly handsome John Cornford with his then girlfriend Ray Peters. Months later, he would volunteer for Spain where he was killed by Franco’s fascist forces.

The studio also made portraits of the left-wing group of Cambridge “Apostles,” including Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, the so-called Cambridge spies.

At this time, the two photographers became closely associated with the Communist Party and it was where Muspratt met her future husband, Jack Dunman. He was one of the founders of the Country Standard newspaper for agricultural workers and went on to become a Communist Party organiser.

In 1936, shortly after meeting her future husband, she went on a visit to the Soviet Union where she documented citizens’ daily life — not heroic or idealised images but ordinary daily life as she found it.

A year later, she made a documentation of the lives of coal miners in the Rhondda Valley, demonstrating a sympathetic and keen eye for atmosphere. In one image, a group of unemployed men in silhouette collect coal from a slag heap covered in snow, while another, reminiscent of a Lowry painting, depicts several men with coal dust-smeared faces combing a slag heap, framed by the abandoned steel works of Dowlais.

Although Muspratt’s work was largely studio-based, she loved the opportunity of getting out and taking on new challenges like the one in Wales but at this time documentary work was poorly remunerated. She would later collaborate with John Betjeman, photographing significant buildings to illustrate his book about English architecture.

This free exhibition at Oxford’s Bodleian Library explores her extraordinary body of work in many different styles and genres, from experimental photography to social documentary and studio portraiture.

A rewarding and inspiring show, it marks the recent and important gift of the Muspratt photographic archive to the Bodleian Library, including over 2,000 original prints and numerous surviving negatives.

The retrospective forms part of Photo Oxford festival 2020, whose theme  is Women and Photography and it coincides with the centenary of the first woman matriculating and graduating from the University of Oxford.

Ends Spring 2021, details: bodleian.ox.ac.uk.
 

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