Simon Bainbridge reflects on 2020

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The former editor of British Journal of Photography looks back on the year; his lockdown experience, the exhibitions he is determined to see when it’s over, and his favourite BJP covers of all time

Simon Bainbridge served as the principal editor of British Journal of Photography for 17 years, from 2003 to 2020. Under his stewardship, the publication transformed from a failing weekly trade journal into an award-winning monthly magazine and internationally recognised photography platform. A writer, editor and photo-specialist, Bainbridge has also curated several exhibitions, acted as a judge for numerous awards, including the Deutsche Börse Prize and the Prix Pictet, and is responsible for initiating the UK’s largest annual public exhibition, Portrait of Britain.

After publishing almost 450 issues of the magazine, this summer, Bainbridge parted ways with the organisation. He has since published his first book, Magnum Artists, a collection of over 200 photographs exploring the unique relationship between Magnum photographers and some of the world’s greatest artists

Here, Bainbridge looks back on 2020; his lockdown experience, the exhibitions he missed, and his favourite BJP covers of all time. 

I live in a two-bed flat in south London with my partner and two daughters. It’s pretty crowded, and it’s been pretty intense — especially when we were all home together working during the first lockdown. 

The flat looks out onto communal gardens, which are filled with trees, some the remnants of The Great North Wood. I have really noticed and enjoyed the passing of the seasons through the gardens. And like a lot of people, getting out into nature became more important. For me, it became a necessity. 

South London is full of beautiful parks, but they no longer give me the fix I need. We often escape to a place a few miles out of London, having found a ‘secret’ path where, during spring, we once counted 56 butterflies but encountered only two humans along the way. 

Many of the films I’ve seen this year, even  the better ones, seemed a little rushed, or a little one dimensional. The best cinema is immersive; it takes you outside of yourself and your familiar environment, and absorbs you like no other medium can. 

Shoplifters, a Japanese film that came out in 2018, does that. It’s based loosely on a news story, but the narrative is largely imagined, and it unfolds slowly, centring mostly on one confined space, the home of an extended family where all is not as it seems. It’s an extraordinary film, with a surprising ending. And it has moral questions at its heart. It’s both troubling and incredibly touching.

Staying on the Japanese theme, my oldest daughter has been introducing me to Studio Ghibli. This has now become a bit of an obsession for all of us. The first film I saw, Ponyo, is pretty weird. Spirited Away is a masterpiece.

© Alina Frieske.

In photography, there have been many discoveries this year, but I keep coming back to Alina Frieske [above]. She is a German artist who was part of the last issue of BJP that I edited, Ones To Watch. You can see straight away that her work references painting, but what’s less immediately obvious is that her compositions are made up images sourced from search engines. They are a kind of conversation between how humans understand images, and how algorithms interpret them. I think we’ll hear a lot more about her and her work over the coming years.

I don’t think I’ve seen a single exhibition this year. My biggest regrets as to what I missed are selfish: in October I was due to go to Hyères for the photography and fashion festival, and days later, I’d have gone to Budapest for the first time, for the Capa Grand Prize. I’d taken part in the jury for both, and was looking forward to seeing the work from the shortlisted talents, but also to visiting these fabulous places after months having not left the country.

I’m determined to see two shows before the year is up. The first is Steve McQueen’s Year 3 at Tate Britain, which my oldest daughter took part in (along with 76,145 other seven and eight-year-olds). The other is Zanele Muholi. I’m fascinated to see how the work translates to Tate Modern, having mostly been shown in smaller venues with, frankly, smaller exhibition budgets. 

Steve McQueen's Year 3 at Tate Britain has been extended until 31 January. © Steve McQueen and Tate.
Zanele Muholi at the Tate Modern will be on show until 31 March 2021 when the gallery re-opens. © Zanele Muholi.

I did around 450 covers as editor of British Journal of Photography. The best cover this year was BJP’s talent issue, Ones To Watch, featuring the work of Korean photographer Gi Seok Cho. I’d always wanted to do an issue featuring a face on the front, and the back of the same head on the rear cover. And I finally got to do it with my last issue. 

The two covers I’m most proud of were the issues following our two redesigns in 2010 and 2016. In fact, the March 2010 issue was much more than a redesign; it was about completely rethinking the BJP, transforming what was a failing trade journal of shrinking relevance into an award-winning magazine with a worldwide audience. 

It was a huge risk, but the BJP would have died if we hadn’t taken the jump. The cover, by Reed + Rader, summed up our new approach: contemporary, ideas-led and collaborative. Six years later in 2016, a redesign took what we’d learnt and came back with a bolder approach. The cover, by Reiner Riedler, made good use of the sparse new format.

March 2010.
April 2016.
September 2020.

If you love magazines, as I do, and you love photography, then The New York Times Magazine is the pinnacle. And I’m impressed with the first issue of the magazine by The Modern House, which plays into another passion of mine. 

But, having been on weekly and monthly magazines all my working life, I’m keen to pursue longer-term projects. I have also really enjoyed brief stints in higher education, working with people like the Royal College of Art in The Hague (KABK), and École cantonale d’art de Lausanne. Maybe it’s time for something closer to home?

July 2020 issue featuring Michaela Cole. © New York Magazine.
The Modern House magazine.

These have been some of the hardest months of my career, and I’ve seen the best and worst of people. But photography really is a community, and I’ve enjoyed meeting up with friends and colleagues I’ve made along the way for socially distanced walks, getting their advice and support. 

I’m most looking forward to all those social occasions that bring us together. Be they openings or festivals like Arles, where you meet old friends and make new ones, blathering about photography into the night over a glass of cheap red wine.

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.