|A Mobile Phone photo|
Well, almost another year over and therefore a good opportunity for a rant about something that has been weighing heavily on me for the last month or so.
I am a member of a camera club, and we do the usual things, have great talks, do member trips and have internal competitions (and yes we do end up in the pub a bit as well). The camera club, like many other, is associated with a federation, and every year members of the club can send images to the federation and the best ones are judged and presented in a book and shown in an exhibition. (I am not going to name the federation here, because I believe the issue is universal)
I tend to take part. Not because I feel my images are any more worthy than anyone else's, but just because I feel it is part and parcel of being a club member that you represent your club.
Just one problem.
I almost universally hate the resulting winning images. I even hate them even if my images have been included.
This is not because the images are poorly taken. They are all superb execution of there genre, brilliantly realized, probably taken with state of the art cameras and expertly photoshopped to an inch of their lives.
No, the problem is pretty well every image is predictable, been taken a million times before and is dull,dull,dull. Reviewing the exhibition booklet is like listening to musac in an elevator. It leaves no mark on the memory, it is the equivalent of beige paint on a decorators pallette; specifically designed not to offend or excite.
They are so generic, I started inventing categories for them. See how many you are familiar with.(I use the term guy here, but I am not assuming these are only taken by blokes)
Travel portrait guy - the one who goes around India taking images of old women in street markets
Sport meet guy - 100 shots of hurdlers and high jumpers
HDR portrait guy - B&W images with heavy HDR of blokes next to steam trains
Steam Punk guy - Shots of goths or steam punks, or maybe 1940 re-enactments
Misty Landscape guy - Lots of pictures of misty Tuscany, the millenium bridge or some easily accessible area of the Lake district.
and of course how could we forget Bird on a Stick guy
Now let me state for the record, there is nothing wrong with taking these images in itself. The problem is it is basically the same image taken over and over again each year. The image got accepted last year, so we will do it again. Not only that, but other club members then starting copying it because it is seen as a short cut to success. Eventually it becomes less art and more paint by numbers.
What is also damning, is not so much what is in the books, but what is not. No images using ICM or multiple exposure, nothing that is anything other than hyper sharp perfection. Problem is perfection is death. Once achieved there is no point doing it again. It has been completed and it is time to move on.
So why is this happening? Is it that the judges filter out anything that is different or is it that people only put images that fit the perceived federation mind set? Probably a bit of both. Again I am as guilty of sometimes overthinking when entering competitions. Rather than sending an image that I like, I start trying to think what a judge would like. Unfortunately this means we end up in a sort of group think where people only show images the judge might like, and judges only see images that fit in with what other people will think they will like. Repeat.
This is not to say I am not guilty of the same.
I also have to have taken images, trying to copy others. You see an image which has done well in competition, and you think I can do that and try to re-create it. However I always had a nagging guilt that what I was doing was not art. I think my road to Damascus moment came when I visited a small photo exhibition in Bakewell. One half of it was the usual chocolate box landscape images which where as forgettable as they were pretty. The other half was a set of out of focus B&W woodland shots by some bloke called Doug Chinnery. Those images are still now strong in my memory. Its not that I then went trying to re-create the work, but it made me realise that photography could be more then the taking of pretty images.
That's not to say you have to be a Chinnery, Andrew Gray, or a Valda Bailey to take memorable images, all it takes is for photographers to reject the common found view and use their skill and imagination to find a different angle. Even places where you feel have been photographed to death, someone will come along with new way of looking at it, or break a well founded rule. It just requires photographers to try that little harder and reject the average.
Why it matters
But does it matter? Well yes it does and the reason is, is that photography is dying.
At this point you have the right to say "Whaaaaat". Surely there are more photographs being taken today than in any period in history? Today, worldwide, more images will be taken than were taken during the entire 19th century.
This is all true. However I don't think the people taking images with their smart phone and uploading it directly to Facebook consider class themselves as photographers. The kind of photography that is dying is the type with big heavy camera and lenses. The kind photography clubs specialize in.
I have anecdotal evidence for this which is the fact that I believe median age of a camera club member is getting older. Generally people in the 16-30 year old range see that type of photography as old fashioned and not relevant. As a result camera clubs generally are finding it harder to keep going as membership drops
Not only that but technology is getting better, meaning the good photos are getting easier to take. Because it is not possible to mount large lenses on a phone, they phone manufacturers have been forced to compensate with computational photography. Can't get a wide aperture on your phone, and want great bokeh? No problem, we'll do it post processing. Even better you won't even have learn about bokeh, just press a button. This means it takes more effort to impress people. I mean if anyone can take the same picture it is no longer special.
Not only that but the phone is starting to take decisions about what photo to take. Already it will take 100 portrait images and choose the best one for you, and manufacturers are working on AI to detect things like landscapes etc. I want a B&W HDR portrait? Tell the camera, point it at the subject and it will do the work.
This means that just taking a nice image is not enough anymore. A £200 phone can do that. No, you need to add something else. A computer is capable of copying something that has happened before, but it cannot make that intuitive leap that a person can.
Whats to be done?
If club photography is to survive (in fact photography in general) it needs to evolve and move away from the norms of the past.
For example my club recently introduced a mobile phone camera competition. For a long time I was pretty dismissive of mobile phones cameras, but now it is my favorite competition and I am pretty sure my next camera upgrade will in fact be my phone. Because of the phone limitations I find I have to be more expressive just because I cannot take the same photos as with my big camera. This in turn forces me out of the rut of just imitating everyone else.
Competition judges can help too. According to our federation website, these are the criteria photos are judged on
50% What the message the picture communicates
30% The picture content
20% The technical aspects of the picture
In my experience however 70% of the mark is the technical aspects, either that or I am missing what message another bird on a stick is conveying. However as cameras software take more of the decisions, the technical skill element becomes less relevant.
However the big thing missing here a mark for innovation or the "X" factor. If we don't reward innovation, even if it is not pulled off perfectly, we will be condemned to more identi-kit images, and the art of photography will remain stagnated and become even less relevant.
Photographers can help to. If you are entering a competition, don't base it on last years winner. Enter the image which pushes the boundaries of photography, even using a different technique, a new angle, or using different materials. One of the beauties of photography is that there is almost infinite variation in the art form, and we would be foolish to restrain ourselves to a small niche.
I am not saying this is easy. It is easier to follow the herd, but sometimes going the opposite direction means you are forced to walk in less poo.
Happy New Year and have a great 2019