Positions and Practice – Week 4

Rethinking Photographers

It has already been a fascinating week, looking at what ‘non-photographers’ make of professional photographers today.

With imagery everywhere and a glut of photographers, it’s not surprising that those who study photography and make some sort of living from it can feel they are losing their identity as professionals.

I know that I recently went through a stage of calling myself a photo-artist as a means to try to distinguish the work I am interested in making from the point and shoot or “I’ve got the latest gadget” brigade.

I have no issue with talented amateurs, in fact less so than those who claim to be professional but perhaps think their camera can do it all for them.

Having learnt in the days of film and traditional darkrooms, I have always had a love for “analogue” but embraced digital when it started to steamroll those times.

But even though I have done so it is the alternative photographic arena that gets my blood pumping; yet it is mobile phone and apps that I intertwine into my alternative photographic work. I love the Impossible Project for example.

I was fascinated by the articles shared as part of this week’s reading list, and on which we were asked to write a critical argument.

When reading Steve Myers interview with Damon Winter (1) in relation to his award-winning “A Grunt’s Life” photo series, and the subsequent and numerous articles criticising the work, my first question is: “Why all the fuss?”

Is it so engrained in us to be part of a tribe/pack that if anyone dare do something different it can cause such melt down?

Winter says himself that the discussion that ensued about what camera/app he used overshadowed the content – why is it so important to be concerned about the equipment as opposed to the fact the images showed the lives of soldiers on active duty, and all the impact their presence in Afghanistan has on their own lives and those of others, including their enemy? It’s a war, not a photo critique.

Image 12 in the series shows a soldier lying in a “starfish” pose – is he resting or dead?(2). It is hazy and unclear, similar to the slightly out of focus war images of Robert Cappa (Slight Out Of Focus is the name of Cappa’s World War II memoir), who was described by John G. Morris, Magnum Photos’ first executive editor, as “the century’s greatest battlefield photographer”. (3)

So are we missing the point of photography if we become embroiled in arguments for or against equipment used?

Winter goes on to suggest that it’s the aesthetics that made many people get worked up. Chip Litherland, who describes himself as a friend of Winter, questioned in his 2011 blog “There’s an App for Photojournalism” if Winter’s work was actually photojournalism.(4).

He continued by stating that, “If the answer is yes, then what we know as photojournalism at its purest form is over and POYi just killed it”. POYI is the Photographer of the Year International competition that awarded Winter third place for these Hipstamatic images. (2).

But Litherland wasn’t so much upset that the images had been taken on a mobile phone but more that they were processed via an app that “changes what was there when he shot them”. And he made the point that when the work becomes more about the photojournalist it stops being photojournalism and becomes photography.

But I don’t agree with this. Winter’s choice only changed the style of the images, their “look”, but it didn’t changed the content. He would still be behind a G.I. holding up a gun. He’s still a photojournalist. 

Perhaps it is the comment of “at its purest form” that is the crux of the argument. The images do not represent the “traditional” photojournalism image.

World Press Photo, which celebrated 60 years in 2015, said about this year’s winning image of a man passing a child through barbed wire as part of the refugee crisis that “As was the case for the thousands of photos that preceded them, the discussion about the last two remaining in the 2016 World Press Photo Contest centred as much on the aesthetic and the technical as on the journalistic aspects of the images”. (5). The winning image is also hazy, shot at ISO 6400 at f1.4 and 1/5th shutter speed. But it is taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Perhaps this is why how this image was taken has not cause so much of a stir (6).

I have no issue with mobile cameras and apps being used as tools to do a “professional” job by a professional. I use them in my current practice and combine them with my historic process work. I actively use old cameras – my favourite is my 1955 square format – although my iPhone is increasingly becoming a go to option. Give me Snapseed and the Impossible Lab and I’m a happy,  creative bunny.

More famously, Nick Knight ditched his Hasselblad for the iPhone for his Diesel campaign collboration –http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/3169/nick-knight-on-the-changing-face-of-fashion-photography  – in this article he talks about why and about a generalist movement and the labels we give ourselves. 

I do not struggle with the idea of “the masses’” and professionals alike engaging with mobiles and apps as part of their work. But maybe the phenomenon for this accessible option to have such a predilection for a perceived rose-tinted view of vintage photo styling is also a way of escaping from the everyday. Maybe even for a photojournalist in a scary situation.

Take a CV for example; it’s an opportunity to market yourself to others. Perhaps titivating images via apps in a retro style offers a similar means of making your life seem a little less ordinary in visual terms.

Being active in what Stephen Bull refers to as a loss of popular analogue photography (7), I do not believe the ability to create an idea of retro looks via new technology is eroding the actual. As with many ‘fashions’ the old often comes around again and is reinvented for a new generation. There has been a growing movement in ‘old-school’ photo techniques, particularly in the UK in the past decade, with examples such as tintype studios opening up.(8). I even set up my own mobile vintage ‘darkroom’ company in Cornwall and a mini-alternative photography festival in 2014.

I am old enough to have used traditional photo processes when starting out but perhaps for those who only know digital, creating these projects may have been spurred on by an initial interest in retro camera replication apps. Seeing what the app can do has encouraged people to want to discover the hands-on experience, and thereby set themselves apart from the masses.

To conclude, I have always believed in the expression I use when someone ask me “what’s the best camera you use” and I reply, “the one I have on me”. Much of my recent work doesn’t even use cameras; some may argue that doesn’t even constitute being photography, much like the whether the use of one type of image-recording device over another can be said to “kill” a whole genre.

According to the Lomography website (9), pop-art icon Andy Warhol was once quoted as saying, “The idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting,”. This resonates with analogue photography and may also be a reason why retro apps are so popular as they act as a means to slow us down. While the speed and non-traditional way in which a professional photojournalist uses mobile apps makes people feel slightly cheated and that there should be more ”substance” to the work.

But it brings me back to why such a fuss? If I eat a beautiful meal in a lovely restaurant, I really don’t mind if it was made in a century’s old pot or the latest Sous Vide. It’s how it looks and tastes that matters. Surely then it is only how the image looks and feels that matters, not the means chosen to create it.

1. http://www.poynter.org/2011/damon-winter-explains-process-philosophy-behind-award-winning-hipstamatic-photos/119117/

2. http://www.poyi.org/68/17/third_12.php (Links to an external site.)

3. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Slightly-Out-Focus-Modern-Library/dp/0375753966 (Links to an external site.)

4. http://blog.chiplitherland.com/2011/02/09/theres-an-app-for-photojournalism/ (Links to an external site.)

5. http://www.worldpressphoto.org/collection/context/photo/2016 (Links to an external site.)

6. http://www.worldpressphoto.org/collection/photo/2016/spot-news/warren-richardson (Links to an external site.)

7. http://frameandreference.com/digital-photography-never-looked-so-analogue-retro-camera-apps-nostalgia-and-the-hauntological-photograph/

8. http://silversunbeam.co.uk/takeaway-tintypes/ (Links to an external site.)http://www.johnbrewerphotography.com/portraiture-demonstrations (Links to an external site.)http://tintypetrailer.co.uk/ (Links to an external site.)http://tim-pearse.format.com/about (Links to an external site.)

9.   https://microsites.lomography.com/analogue-photography-101/en (Links to an external site.)