Beginning his career at a photography co-operative during the political turmoil of mid-1980s London, Boot came to wider international attention as director of Magnum Photos, and later as an editor and publisher, working for Phaidon Press and then starting up his own imprint.
In 2011, he took up the role of executive director at Aperture Foundation in New York City, aiming to re-establish it as one of the foremost thought-leaders in photography.
In this month’s Any Answers, Boot reflects on his impressive career.
At school I was a rebel. And I was a wannabe punk. But serious about studying too. My passion for photography began with the idea that it could be a tool for change.
The photographers I knew at the beginning of my career were all activists with cameras. I thoroughly enjoyed studying at the Polytechnic of Central London. I signed up wanting exactly what it offered; a theoretical framework to understand the medium I was becoming committed to. But I saw good photographers stop taking pictures because of how they learned to question everything. And towards the end of the course, I was so provoked by what I experienced as the nihilism of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida – readings assigned by Victor Burgin – that it drove me in the opposite direction.
I gravitated to the more straightforward challenges of business. It’s what led me to Magnum. I wanted to know how to sell photographs. After university, I worked as a runner in film production. But it was the time of raging ideological warfare between Margaret Thatcher and the leader of the Greater London Council, Ken Livingstone. I wanted to be a media warrior for Red Ken! So I got a job at the Photo Co-Op.
We saw photography as contested. A conflict between the dominant media – its classism, racism, sexism and homophobia – and a progressive photography premised on equality and inclusivity. We, and Format, the women’s photography co-op, set out to create an alternative documentary imagery. We created stock libraries, which did well for years, because no-one else at the time was doing it.
I went to work for Magnum thinking I’d be there a couple of years. But it kept presenting new opportunities, so I stayed. They were happy years for me [1990 to 1998], and Magnum taught me a lot about being brave. We skewed the stories we placed in the media away from just being about the subject depicted, and more about the photographer and their perception.
Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency rewrote the rule book for photography. Objective narrative and the detached viewpoint fell instantly out of fashion. It heralded a new era for the photographer as artist, and coincided with a decline in the value of illustrative ‘stock’.
I think from then on, photojournalism seemed less credible. Ballad was much more influential than any digital innovation of the time.
I’m proud of getting George Rodger’s retrospective off the ground. He was an old man in failing health, and overlooked. It was a marathon two years of work, and after the Phaidon book was published, and his 500-picture show opened at Barbican Art Gallery, George and his wife, Jinx, invited me down to their home in Kent to celebrate what we’d accomplished. George had fought off ill-health to go through every picture he’d ever made to set the story straight, and that day in Kent he seemed healthier than I’d ever seen him. A few days later, he died in his sleep.
I learned a lot from Richard Schlagman at Phaidon Press. He was a marketing genius. And he taught me how to interrogate a concept, in order to sharpen it. I learned many insights from him that I have used in my publishing life ever since.
There’s a sea change going on. The most exciting thing happening in photography now is the way a young generation of women, and black and gay photographers, are depicting themselves, their peers and communities, with a tremendous sense of purpose and flair. A professional viewing class is being superseded by those who were historically the subjects, rather than the makers of pictures.
At Aperture, I jokingly refer to my job being ‘chief engineer’. It’s about adapting this old not-for-profit, in a difficult business, for new times. Right now, we are preoccupied with planning to move out of Chelsea, raising the necessary money, and ensuring that Aperture can be as bold and pioneering tomorrow as it was yesterday.
I am very aware of how we inherited Aperture from those who built it. Figures including Minor White, Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams. The most valuable thing our generation can do is leave it fit for use by the next generation of photography to inherit from us.