Photography: Just look what I've found

Annalisa Barbieri on the art of curating a treasure-chest of 1960s photography by the great Ron Traeger

There is a sweet poetry, although he says there isn't, in what the photography historian and curator Martin Harrison now does. In the 1960s, as a teenager, he worked as a photographer's assistant at Vogue, loading film for the likes of Helmut Newton, Cecil Beaton and David Bailey. This is a job that required no ego and the ability to work for 18 hours on the trot with no food, and to be invisible or highly visible at the photographer's non-spoken will.

Today Harrison still works with some of the world's greatest photographers but on a very different level. He gets to root around their archives, read their diaries, be told things that he can never publish ("the best book by me is the one you'll never see," he says) and decide which of their images go into their exhibitions or his books.

His latest project has been to curate the Ron Traeger part of the forthcoming Triple Exposure show at the V&A and to write the book that will accompany the exhibition. It was a poignant business: Traeger, one of the most promising 1960s photographers, died aged 31 in 1968. His widow, Tessa, was pregnant when Traeger discovered he had cancer (he died of Hodgkins's disease) and she subsequently lost the baby. Throughout the intervening years - without an exhbition of Traeger ever having taken place - she clung, Miss Havisham-like, to her husband's work. It does not take a great leap of imagination to realise that with this show, she has finally been able to give birth to something of Ron's.

"This exhibition has been very significant," says Harrison. "It's as if Tessa had been storing it all up and now she can finally let go. When the last print was made [for the V&A exhibition] she had the whole studio redecorated. It was an exorcism." Just before the paintbrushes came out, Harrison had taken Stuart Brown, Traeger's old assistant, to lunch. "We popped into Ron's old studio [now Tessa's] and Stuart said, "My God, it hasn't changed since 1968!'"

For the Traeger show, Harrison started as he always does when putting together a "project" - by going through the archives, and doing a lot of research. Once or twice a week, for six months, he would visit the studio and methodically sift through the shoe boxes that Tessa had kept, full of prints, contact sheets and transparencies. It was a little like going through a time capsule. The American-born Traeger had spent some time in Paris, and "there were these envelopes from processing labs with groovy 1960s French graphics on them." In one old box, Harrison found four frames of Twiggy wearing huge Sixties glasses (the photograph on the left). "There was nothing else like them on the rest of the film. It wasn't a picture Ron had ever picked himself. But the moment I saw it I knew I had to have it for the cover of the book. But Tessa absolutely hated it and there was a big fight for me to have it." Harrison won.

In curating a show, there are inevitably disputes along the way. With the recent Bailey show, Birth of the Cool, Harrison had "great plans" for the lay-out; he wanted the images to appear frameless - as if they were floating. But Bailey wanted black frames, and this time Harrison lost. "Bailey says: 'You know me Martin, I'm not anal about my work. Let them do what they want.' But at the crucial moment, he cares a lot."

This, says Harrison, talking of no one in particular, is what he finds most difficult about photographers. "They say they want you to curate their work, but at some stage they always want to interfere." What makes him do it? "I love making someone's work the very best it can be and I never tire of looking at pictures." What makes him think he has a right to choose the prints we see? "I think I am the best picture editor ever," he says.

Other photographers vouch for Harrison's skills. Lillian Bassman, whose work appeared in Harpers Bazaar in the 1940s and 1950s, and about whom Harrison has written a book, thinks Traeger is in good hands. "We spat a little when he went through my prints, but Martin is very astute and has great taste," she says. "He will go cross-country just to get a quote." One of the biggest names in fashion photography, Paolo Roversi, whose book Harrison is currently working on, concurs. "Martin is like a detective in discovering things about people," he says. "He really knows what he's doing."

This assuredness is a far cry from his first day as a fashion photographer's assistant, a job he got by pretending he knew more than he did. On his first day he "stood rooted to the spot until another assisted helped me". After three years, Harrison realised he was becoming a photo historian. "I would spend my spare time in the library, looking at back issues of Vogue and Harpers, analysing Richard Avedon's latest shoot, or in the basement at the Tate cataloguing whether Proserpina faced left or right."

Since then he has written more than 20 books, mostly on photography (including Appearances, a legendary tome which is now out of print), but a couple on stained glass (his other speciality) and one on Edward Coley Burne- Jones. Harrison has been in charge of the Olympus Gallery and rifled through the psyches of the world's greatest photographers. As he'll probably never write the "best book", here are a few snippets about some of our greatest photographers. Paolo Roversi: "He had a version of the World Cup made for my son to win at football last summer. That's the sort of guy he is." Richard Avedon: "The best photographer of fashion ever". Cecil Beaton: "He loved my crushed velvet trousers and would ring up Vogue requesting the boy in the nice trousers. Once I walked in on him taking a pee and he just said, 'Do come in.'" Patrick Demarchelier: "Dead easy to work with." Bruce Weber: "The photographer that wants to retain the most control."

"The rest," says Harrison tapping his temple, "is all up there".

'Triple Exposure: 3 Photographers from the 1960s. Michael Cooper, John Cowan, Ron Traeger', Canon Photography Gallery, V&A, 16 September to 30 January (0171 942 2528)

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas