Craig Atkinson

Café Royal Books

Exhibition review by David Moore

Currently exhibited at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, Craig Atkinson’s Café Royal Books presents an eclectic collection of social relics where regional pasts intermingle, and previously unseen or half-remembered social histories are vividly recalled. With a sense of relative authenticity, the exhibition invites viewers to delve through a collection of three hundred books that capture past lives through the lens of another. David Moore reflects on the display and the project’s position among the ongoing reassessment of documentary photography.

David Moore | Exhibition review | 11 Apr 2024

As documentary photography finds new form amidst recurring questions of its legitimacy and purpose, Craig Atkinson’s monumental publishing project, Café Royal Books, presents a crowd-pleasing repository of the photographic distant, that in its entirety could be understood as a document itself of a particular photographic age.

A relatively small display of CRB’s output is currently installed at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, giving a glimpse of its residual value. The project presents an eclectic collection portraying mainly British, but also international, work of previously unseen or half-remembered social histories. Without acknowledging it, CRB shows “documentary photography”. Atkinson says: ‘Documentary is just a term like any other, and really I use it to help define what I don’t publish, rather than exactly what I do.’ The project presents works, loosely spanning 40 years. Browsing the catalogue online, I found content from the late 1940s (Dorothy Bohm’s pictures of Paris) to the 2010s (Thabo Jaiyesimi’s Nation of Islam UK 1989–2018, published last year). In-between is a diverse collection of the eccentric, mundane, the archetypal and unexpected; everything really.

CRB is driven by “functional” and environmentally light economy to allow all of this. Atkinson describes his project as being ‘somewhere between craft and punk,’ which is an apt description of his stripped down, DIY, home-made ethos. Production is cheap, retail price kept to affordable rates, ‘based around the price of a London pint.’ Pre-production, the photographer is asked to provide scans, a sequence and title, then is offered a design that is tweaked, over email. The book’s release is scheduled, and that’s it. Occasionally, special editions are offered, or second editions published.

CRB shares characteristics with the larger publishing houses. The model excludes any monetary payment to the photographer, an arrangement that has become routine for the publishing of books in recent years (only a handful of very well-known artists make any profit from direct book sales). With CRB, the photographers are offered a portion of books for themselves as “payment”. The “industry” has seemingly acquiesced to such arrangements in the knowledge that publications can be seen as promotion for print sales, exhibitions and finding audiences for works that otherwise may have been left in a proverbial box at the back of the studio.

Much of the CRB project reflects a popular interest in realist photography that is not necessarily associated within the academy or related photographic learning. Nostalgia and localism play a huge part; the value of seeing the fabric of one’s past life through the eyes of another extends access to a wide audience. Although most content is from professional or “trained” photographers, we might understand that a portion of the work relies upon a relaying of the “everyday”, a photo-journalistic or “newsy” approach. There are also the more authored documents drawing upon the aesthetic legacies and concerns of the documentary genre. It is this crossover that presents a fascinating blend suggesting that content leads the way rather than any emphasis on particular sub-genres.

What is evident, looking through the display at The Photographers’ Gallery and the online shop, is that the project occasionally reads as both a celebration and a salvage ethnography of the near. London Street Markets 1960s–1970s (2020), Old Ladies of Whitechapel (2013), Sheffield Tinsley Viaduct (2013), Glasgow Steamies (2014) and so on; lives captured and presented joyously. Such works and others represent an enthusiasm for social realism that preceded (or ignored) any de-constructivist critique of documentary and held photography up as an uncomplicated social tool.

In this sense, nostalgia for the genre itself also plays a part in the appeal of CRB’s output, further defining the project, reconsidering the documentary medium itself as a particular movement at a particular time in history, alongside questions of the conditions that created such mass activity that largely involved photographing the lives of others. In this sense, one might squint and find a mass participation project by proxy, a culturally assimilated ethnography by many like-minded people who have shared similar photographic educations and happen to be born in the early to mid-20th century, figuring out their place in the world through the observations of others.

The legacies of this contribute to the enormous reach of CRB’s output, that could be easily edited and curated into larger narratives and publications of documentary approaches, based around geographical location, social thematics and so on. And with scale in mind, there are inevitable analogies and shared interests to be made with the Mass Observation Project or even the much-overlooked German and Russian located Worker Photography Movement, with, of course, significant differences regarding their origins, social histories and political contexts.

On the night of the private view, the exhibition space was continually busy, as the audience were involved in a brisk and satisfying material engagement with the works on show, handling, looking and putting back. Whilst the installation at the gallery will clearly be enjoyed, for logistical reasons it shows only 300 books whereas the upcoming show at Impressions Gallery, Bradford, will reveal 700. To see CRB’s output in its entirety would be an ideal (and conceptual) installation offering a monumental showcase to what is a monumental project.

One of documentary photography’s strengths is its ability to project social history. Arguably, a distrust of photography’s intersection with AI, for example, may embolden this, having a refreshed relative authenticity on a popular level at least (and, whatever happens, an interesting dialogue is about to ensue). The analogy with the Mass Observation Project, and its relatively low-key activities contemporarily, brings forward questions around the supply of work that CRB publishes and whether it might dry-up. I have a friend who mudlarks in the Thames, finding ancient artefacts, some of which are now in the Museum of London. We marvel at how, at each turn of the tide, new riches are given up, seemingly inexhaustibly. Photography, too, just keeps coming, but how does the production of modern social narratives, which most of us participate in with our regular uploads, fit into the documentary paradigm that is presented by CRB? The relocation of such vernacular work made continually on camera phones has similar but differing values. Enabling such egalitarianism would be a natural fit with the politics of this amazing project.♦

All images courtesy of Café Royal Books

Café Royale Books runs at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, until 2 June 2024.

David Moore is a photographic artist and Principal Lecturer at the University of Westminster, London, where he teaches on the Expanded Photography MA programme.


1-Amelia Troubridge, Motörhead, from Motorhead UK, 1997 

2-Amelia Troubridge, Urban Cowboys, from Urban Cowboys Dublin, 1996

3-From Being British 1975-2005 © Barry Lewis

4-Cover of Being British 1975-2005 © Barry Lewis

5-Chris Miles, Musical Float. From Notting Hill Carnival, 1974

6-Cover of Parfett St Evictions, 1973 © David Hoffman

7-From Burnley 1970s © Dragan Novakovic

8-Cover of Black Power Black Panthers, 1969 © Janine Wiedel

9-Cover of Football Fans, 1991 © Richard Davis

10-Cover of Early Colour, Hulme Manchester, 1985 © Shirley Baker

11-Cover of Northern Soul, 1993-96 © Elaine Constantine

12-Cover of Rock Against Racism Live: 1977-1981 © Syd Shelton

Ekow Eshun – Curator

Africa State of Mind

Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco

For the latest instalment in our Interviews series, we welcome London-based writer and curator Ekow Eshun. Eshun is Chairman of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, overseeing London’s most significant public art programme, and Creative Director of Calvert 22 Foundation, a leading arts space dedicated to the contemporary culture of Eastern Europe. He is also the former Director of the ICA, London, a position he held from 2005-2010. His writing has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Observer, Granta, Vogue, New Statesman and Wired. He is the author of Black Gold of the Sun: Searching for Home in England and Africa, nominated for the Orwell prize, and the editor of Africa Modern: Creating the Contemporary Art of a Continent.

Eshun has recently organised Africa State of Mind for New Art Exchange in Nottingham, an exhibition of 16 artists that subsequently toured to Impressions Gallery, Bradford and then the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, where it runs until November 15th. Here he speaks to photographer and writer Lewis Bush about interrogating ideas of ‘Africanness’ through highly-subjective renderings of life and identity on the continent and the need to reimagine Africa as psychological space as much as a physical territory.

Lewis Bush: Ekow thanks for agreeing to this discussion. I heard you speak at FORMAT Festival earlier in the year, and as always there is never enough time at these things to pick up on all the interesting strands that could be discussed further. Perhaps I could ask you to begin quite simply though, by talking us through Africa State of Mind, your exhibition of emerging African photographers, which opened at the New Art Exchange in Nottingham and is currently on display at Impressions Gallery, Bradford. What was the initial impetus that led you to begin curating it?

Ekow Eshun: There’s a lot of very striking, powerful, artistically ambitious work being created by African photographers at the moment. I wanted to find a way to present some of that work and also do some thinking about the ideas and themes those photographers were engaging with. So the show is both a summation of new photographic practice from Africa and an exploration of how contemporary photographers from the continent are exploring ideas of ‘Africanness’ along the way revealing Africa to be a psychological space as much as a physical territory; a state of mind as much as a place.

LB: When you delivered your paper during the conference at FORMAT you mentioned your own memories of growing up between Ghana and the United Kingdom. Were there experiences from this time that fed into how you approached this idea of Africa as something which can be as much internal and mutable as external and fixed?

EE: I lived in Ghana for a few years as a young child and what remains most telling from that time isn’t so much specific memories but sense impressions. Taste, smell – red earth, the abrupt vanishing of the equatorial sun at 6pm, the sight of the ocean for the first time, even the very intense odour of open sewers running alongside the pavement in my parents’ home town of Cape Coast. I’ve carried Ghana with me this way since childhood and I guess it’s left me with a continued sense of Africa as an almost hallucinatory condition rather than a place of fixed, ordered realities.

LB: Could you characterise the prevailing trends in contemporary African photography? What sort of themes and approaches are audiences likely to encounter in Africa State of Mind, and beyond it? And in viewing work for the exhibition do you get a sense of different photographic practices and concerns predominating in different parts of the continent?

EE: Yes, and to be clear the exhibition isn’t trying to be a wholesale survey of work from Africa I’m not sure that would be possible. It’s more an attempt to spy out some of the key thematic tendencies informing the practice of those photographers. The show is oriented around three main themes Inner Landscapes, Zones of Freedom and Hybrid Cities. Inner Landscapes focuses on photographers whose work offers a deeply personal interpretation of setting or sensibility, in contrast to say, the objective lens of reportage photography. Hybrid Cities documents the African metropolis as a site of rapid transformation. Zones of Freedom brings together photographers whose work explores questions of gender, sexuality and cultural identity.

LB: I’m interested to know why you focused on photography in particular as the main medium for this exhibition or to put it more broadly and beyond just the context of the exhibition what do you think is interesting about photography?

EE: Photography is a particularly significant medium in this context. It is the art form that, more than any other, has framed how Africa is represented in the modern era. Colonial period photographs depicted the continent as, in the words of Hegel, ‘enveloped in the dark mantel of Night’, its people only representative of ‘natural man in his completely wild and untamed state’. TV news reports have similarly reinforced an impression of the continent as defined by war and famine. But photography has also enabled the dissemination of contrasting, more affirmative views of Africa. Not least, for example, through the exuberant imagery of master portraitists such as Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita.

LB: That idea of reclaiming photography as a medium from colonialism is very powerful. Have you encountered any interesting examples of African photographers working even more directly with colonial era photographs in an attempt to reclaim or alter their meaning?

EE: Yes, there’s a considerable amount of work in this territory. An important point to consider is that African photographers are perfectly aware of how the continent and its people have been misrepresented in the West historically. So of necessity they’re grappling with that legacy as soon as they pick up a camera. You see less of a dealing with the specifics of an archive than interrogating the history of Western representation. I’ve included work in the exhibition by the very talented Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda which looks very sardonically at the role of the colonial explorer, among other issues. But there are many others exploring some of that territory either explicitly or obliquely, including Edson Chagas, Omar Victor Diop, Shiraz Bayjoo, Lalla Essaydi, Namsa Leuba, Lina Iris Viktor it’s really a long list.

LB: Returning to photography’s role in Africa briefly, I wonder if there is also a sense of modernism about photography that might be important to projecting a positive, dynamic view of the continent in contrast to those colonial tropes of timelessness and wildness? I remember hearing James Barnor speak about going to the United Kingdom to practice photography shortly after Ghana became independent, and in his words to learn and bring that up to date knowledge back to Ghana. There was something very exciting about the way he talked about photographic knowledge as something that could be as valuable to the forging of a new independent country as the expertise to build infrastructure or run a government. Do you have any thoughts on this?

EE: That’s certainly an approach you can see animating the work of the Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita their images speak of the exuberance of independence-era Africa. And that ideas of documenting a nation and its people also informed the practice of an earlier generation of studio photographers, people like SO Alonge who was taking photos of the middle classes in Benin City, Nigeria from the 1930s onwards.

Just as important to highlight though, is the work of photographers whose images create a kind of counter-narrative that runs contrary to what could be described as an officially-sanctioned narrative of nation building. I’m thinking here of someone like Samuel Fosso, whose self-portraits in the 1970s, experimenting with representations of masculinity and gender, marked an act of personal resistance against the authoritarian regime of Jean-Bédel Bokassa in the Central African Republic.

More recently, you can look at the very flamboyant imagery of someone like Athi-Patra Ruga in South Africa, and also see a critique of the failure of the post-apartheid state to live up to the dreams of liberation that inspired people during the decades of white minority rule.

LB: You are also creative director of Calvert 22 and founder of The Calvert Journal. This which interests me both because of the photographic emphasis of that organisation, but also because it seems that eastern Europe has also been subjected to a set of western European fantasies about it, particular in the post-Cold war era. I was wondering though if you see resonances across the two regions?

EE: Yes, to the extent that as you say, both territories continue to be caricatured in the Western imagination. With both The Calvert Journal, and the exhibitions programme at Calvert 22, I’ve concentrated on photography as a means to try to establish a different narrative about what contemporary Eastern Europe looks like and feels like. We’ve presented a number of exhibitions and projects on that subject, including Post-Soviet Visions: image and identity in the new Eastern Europe, which I curated in 2017. And the curator Mark Nash did a fantastic exhibition in 2016, Red Africa, that explored the legacy of the cultural relationships between Africa, the Soviet Union and related countries that flourished during the Cold War.

LB: That’s a really fascinating history, as is the US involvement in Africa and the extent to which parts of the continent became battle fronts between both powers in the Cold War. Lastly, I wonder if you could outline what’s next for you, what new projects are you currently working on?

EE: I’m finishing off the Africa State of Mind book, which will be published by Thames & Hudson next Spring, with contributions from over 50 African photographers. I’ve just recently curated a solo show by the wonderful Moroccan-British photography Hassan Hajjaj, at New Art Exchange, Nottingham. And I’m curating a new photography exhibition, Kaleidoscope: Immigration and Modern Britain, at Somerset House this June. The Africa State of Mind show is still touring and travelling to the US before returning to the UK in 2020. Then there are a couple of museum shows coming up on the horizon which are already demanding attention. It’s a bit of a busy time…

Image courtesy Ekow Eshun. © Simon Frederick