Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Peter Goldfield

I discovered today that Peter Goldfield has died. I imagine this sad event will be marked on many British photo blogs, perhaps to the mystification of readers in other countries. Peter, though a photographer in his own right, and an early advocate and pioneer of what he liked to call "digital on the cheap," was best known and much loved as an educator and enabler through the residential photographic workshop he established at Duckspool, a converted farmhouse and barns tucked away in the Quantock Hills in Somerset.

Others are better placed to describe Peter's progress from pharmacist to photo-materials supplier, through the Damascene experience of a Charles Harbutt workshop at Paul Hill's Photographers' Place in Derbyshire, to the founding of Duckspool. If there's not a proper obituary in the broadsheets then quite a few of us will want to know why. Because anyone who attended a workshop at Duckspool knew they had found a place where all the photographic ley lines converged. Peter knew, and was known by, everyone who mattered. And everyone knew that, at Duckspool, nothing much mattered more than photography.

The workshops, which lasted at least several days, always had a major practitioner in residence. I stumbled across a Duckspool prospectus for 2000 just the other day: for that one year it lists 26 workshops, including Fay Godwin, Judy Dater, John Blakemore, Mari Mahr, Lewis Baltz / Slavica Perkovic, Charles Harbutt, Pradip Malde, and John Davies, to name just the international "faces," plus such names well-known in Britain as Steve Pyke, Eamonn McCabe, John Goto, David Gepp, Mark Power and Andy Earl. And by 2000, things had already started to wind down, as (I think) the sums had stopped adding up, and Peter was increasingly looking to his own work (Paul Hill's pioneering venture also came to a close in the late 1990s). In its 1980s heyday, a list of Duckspool workshops was a Who's Who of contemporary photographers.

I used to tell Peter that Duckspool was my art school; long weekend workshops with Thomas Joshua Cooper, Jem Southam, Martin Parr, Zelda Cheatle / Sue Davies, and Paul Hill taught me what I eventually realised was the same lesson. That is: Stop imitating bad models and learn from good ones; look for your "personal truth" but be ruthlessly self-critical, and get into the virtuous circle of "fail again, fail better." Above all, keep making new work. As George Clinton of Funkadelic would say, "Free your mind, and your ass will follow."

Time at Duckspool was something special. Sleeping (for men) was on a communal mezzanine in a converted barn, above the main workshop (after a couple of workshops, however, I was banished to a caravan, as my world-class snoring had become notorious). The food, often prepared by the assistants Peter took on as "interns" and eaten communally at the farmhouse table, was always astonishingly good. A suitably-lubricated session could go on into the small hours. I remember Zelda Cheatle sitting up drinking and talking with us until 3 a.m. or so, then getting up at dawn to drive to the Bristol Channel for a swim before breakfast.

Some workshops could approach the intensity of a therapy session, especially in the portfolio reviews. I recall Thomas Joshua Cooper's stinging and prolonged assault on a camera club type who had foolishly brought along a portfolio of slick club competition material. Sometimes you wondered what people had been expecting: I still remember with bafflement discovering on a Jem Southam workshop that I was one of only two participants who had actually seen his work before. Most people soon learned to shut up about their lenses, though, and even actually started looking at each other's work. Peter would often sit in on sessions -- usually, it seemed, for the simple pleasure of it, though he could be quite a diplomat, steering some of the flak away from his paying guests.

When the story of British photography comes to be written, the years between the late 70s and the turn of the century will be seen as a high point, one marked by the glory years of the journal Creative Camera, the Photographers' Gallery, and the photography course at Trent Polytechnic, and one which saw both the culmination of craft-based black & white (Fay Godwin, John Davies and John Blakemore), and the British discovery of colour (Paul Graham, Martin Parr, Jem Southam). I think the residential workshops in Derbyshire and Somerset have an important place in this story; not because any major photographers will have come to prominence through learning their art at a place like Duckspool, but because any developing art requires a bedrock of practitioners and appreciators who have been educated to recognise good work.

Peter Goldfield was able to bring artists and audience together in a creative exchange that had ramifications way beyond "a nice way to spend four days". In common with the many other photographers who spent time at Duckspool, I felt Peter was a friend even though I hardly knew the man. That is a gift, and we have reason to be grateful that he chose to use it in the cause of photography.

[When I can find them, I will scan some Duckspool pictures and add them to this page]

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