Poor old Photographer B

There is a heated discussion about the winner of this year’s Taylor Wessing Portrait prize on a photographers’ forum at the moment. Some people love Spencer Murphy’s picture and other’s don’t get it – which makes it a perfect demonstration that personal taste is a major factor in “liking” an image. One thread of the debate is the winning photographer’s use of large format film and The Guardian having quoted him as saying “I chose to shoot the series on a large format film, to give the images a depth and timelessness that I think would have been hard to achieve on a digital camera.” Hard to achieve? Hard for whom?

All of this prompted me to expand a little on something that is happening in photography right now that frustrates me: To make myself clear – I applaud photographers who find ways to make an overcrowded and homogenised market work for them and I applaud the way that they are using different methods to enable them to “see” better.

The idea is gaining momentum that just because something is shot on film it somehow has greater validity and greater truth. This really angers me.

If Photographer A likes the way that they work with film and that there is a market for that work then Photographer A has found a niche and I’m happy for them. Photographer B on the other hand creates great work without resorting to film but potential clients who have bought into the myth about the validity of film are already starting to question why Photographer B isn’t going with the fashion and using Photographer C who is happy to take the money but doesn’t work better on film. Basically, we are in a situation where the means of production could overtake the end result as the goal of the commission. Nobody wins – especially photographers D-Z.

The place where this is most frightening is in our colleges and universities where the small resurgence of film is being leapt upon by lecturers who are miles out of their depth in the digital world supported by managers who are desperate to validate their investments in silver based facilities and avoid having to spend on up-to-date digital ones. We have a generation of students being equipped for professional life in the 1980s based on the achievements of a tiny number of photographers achieving critical acclaim by “seeing differently” and then talking nonsense about it to a small clique of art lovers who lap up all of this stuff so that they can repeat it at Islington dinner parties and sound as if they know what they are talking about.

I come from a newspaper background where there is a good deal of nostalgia for shooting film. Happily most of us who wish to can indulge in this kind of work as part hobby and part self-expression. Each to their own and vive la difference and so on. We owe it to ourselves and each other to take the utmost care that our professional lives are not going to get hijacked by a notion that film – or “heritage media” as I quite mischievously like to call it – is better. After all, there’s a lot of truth in the old saying “be careful what you wish for.”

For the record I like Spencer Murphy’s work and I don’t blame him for mining the niche that he has helped to create. Portraiture should be about telling the subject’s story and not about how we shot the picture. I’ve been guilty on many occasions of shooting pictures where you notice the “how” before the “who” and the “why”. Photographic portraiture is as difficult as you want to make it. Spencer Murphy suggests that he has made a virtue out of simple by shooting with what is in truth a complex medium. My head hurts…

12 comments

  1. Its what you see and how you interpret what you see that counts, and has absolutely nothing to do with what film, or cameras, or whats in or out of fashion. And thats the way it always should be.

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    1. I agree – the thing is that there are too many people who rely don’t know what they are talking about saying the opposite and inferring that film has mystical properties.

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  2. Giving an image more depth in my opinion depends more on the kind of lens you use and how you use it than on the substrate the image is captured on. If someone loves and labours over his/her images more in the darkroom, than that’s fine, but it’s a personal preference and nothing primarily to do with whether the image was captured on film or digitally.

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  3. This is a good riposte to what I take to be a slightly careless remark by Murphy, who is, like many portrait specialists, a film user (and I like his work and the winning image). I would take issue with the assumption that at universities across the land, tutors are celebrating or perhaps privileging film as a medium above digital. I teach on a photography degree course and know many other tutors at other universities teaching photography at degree level. Not only do I, my colleagues and equivalents at many other universities keep up with current technology, we have to embrace it as part of the job.

    It would be fair to say that photography at degree level is one of the last places where teaching of traditional skills is still available and, to an extent, encouraged. In so doing, students are presented with a choice. Much of this has to do with the diversity of practice amongst the students; they often come to us because they want to explore film-based and darkroom practices and these skills are useful and transferable when working in the digital environment. I think a student is in a better position doing say, a digital black and white conversion in Photoshop, Silver FX or Lightroom and then printed on baryta or photo rag paper, if they have first struggled and then achieved decent results with fibre-based printing in the darkroom. But then, maybe I’m a sadist.

    Many of the students are looking at the gallery market when they graduate and are often admirers of photographers in that market who use film – primarily medium or large format (Thomas Struth, Alec Soth, Simon(s) Roberts or Norfolk etc.). Equally, we have very good and expensive digital facilities. Most of the students that shoot film, scan it (on Imacon/Hasselblad scanners) and print digitally. We closed our c-type darkroom this year as a response to underuse and will continue to expand our digital facilities in compensation. We are entirely pragmatic and switched-on about what our students need, not hobbled by a romantic attachment to film and the traditional darkroom. I mainly used film myself until about 7 years ago, now I shoot digitally pretty much exclusively.

    So the students are encouraged to work in the medium that best suits their work. They all have DSLRs, can borrow from our extensive digital Canon equipment or Hasselblad digital medium format cameras and get workshops in digital workflow to prepare them to work as photographers (in addition to all the other skills in, for instance, marketing and presenting their work). Not only are they assessed by us, but also by high-end industry figures, and they have to work with external clients (often, even the ‘film users’ will switch to digital for this, depending on client expectation/requirement).

    But of course, in the end, to restate your point and Homer Sykes’s, it is about the pictures, the ideas and the preparation the student/graduate/photographer has; to present themselves and their work to those who will ultimately publish it, commission it and/or exhibit it. So, some universities may be living in the past; we and many others aren’t.

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    1. Thank you for your intelligent response and I welcome the news that digital technology is being taught and even emphasised on your course. I spent a lot of time last year looking at photography degree courses on behalf of Creative Skillset and got under the skin of quite a few. This is where my comments come from. I’m happy to say that there are an honourable few that put the use of film into the industry context but I would maintain that they are still a minority.

      My knowledge of the gallery market is not as good as it might be but my knowledge of the editorial and corporate markets are both very good. I also spend a lot of time fielding inquiries from graduates and other newcomers to the profession on behalf of The BPPA and I would say that there is still a distinct disconnect between what recent graduates believe they will do as they attempt to make their way in the industry and what the market is looking for.

      It would be wonderful for this debate to be more public and I’d love to think that what I wrote on this blog would make every course in the country re-evaluate the emphasis given to traditional skills and to re-assess the percentages of commercial work being done on film compared to digital. I believe that we are currently in a “film bubble” rather than seeing an across-the-board resurgence of the medium. I worry that in an attempt to give equal weight to every argument that we find ourselves quoting the few photographers who make a living shooting some film rather too often and failing to quote the colossal numbers who don’t shoot film and who don’t want to.

      There is a part two to this blog and I hope that it gets the viewing figures that part one did.

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  4. Thanks Neil. I think that the comments you get from graduates and your own survey gives you a fair idea of what’s going on but not the only idea. There are a few important issues here: the varied levels of interest in subject area, the levels of commitment of individual students, the history and ethos of the course itself and the specialisms of the staff.

    Many courses come out of an art school background and the university is not considered a teaching environment as such, but a reflective space where they can develop their ideas and work over time, complete projects, get feedback and establish a practice. The emphasis on skills is often not always medium-specific but concerned more with transferable skills with an aim to equip the graduate with the requisite skill-base for a graduate job, not just a photographic one. While I think this generic skill acquisition is useful (and for photographers as much as anyone else: business practice, research, group work etc.), I think students more than ever need to learn photographic skills.

    About 8 years ago, I started teaching an elective workshop in lighting because I, and my colleagues, felt that although many students had good ideas, and good compositional skills, they were neglecting lighting. This included studio, location lighting and even their understanding of how ambient light, whether in regard to time of day or shooting angle, contributed or not to the meaning and visual quality of their work. Equally, we have faltered by making the assumption that young people growing up with digital technology will know what they are doing and they often don’t. Digital technology can make people impatient and look for quick solutions when care and knowledge are required to process digital files well. And knowing how to do this is a skill built up through continued experience and a repeatable method. So we, as educators continue to learn by running into unanticipated issues.

    I have long assumed that although we do workshops in photoshop and file preparation for the various outputs we have e.g., printing on professional Epsom pigment ink printers, I have left workflow to them as I know many use Lightroom, Aperture et al. However, this year I got feedback from a graduate that had started working for local newspapers and magazines in South Wales and, when he started, didn’t know about metadata, specifically adding IPTC, captions, keywords etc. Now last year I started to do a workflow workshop, realising that one shouldn’t assume knowledge in this area just because we have a generation of digitally savvy students and just because workflow is also specific to the practitioner (we don’t have Lightroom on university computers because it is designed as a personally configurable programme for individual photographers). They can file-sort in Bridge, batch process in ACR and process at pixel level in Photoshop. But many don’t. So I will be including all this in my workflow workshop and talking about the various options (your own preference, Photo Mechanic, ACR, Capture One/Media Pro, Aperture, Lightroom etc.) and the importance of IPTC metadata, key wording, captioning etc., because they shouldn’t leave university unprepared.

    And finally, university is a starting point and not an end. I studied at Brighton. Great course but I knew more than my tutors, technically. Another student a year above me, Julian Benjamin, who now does editorial fashion, commented in an interview with BJP that in his final year he was shown the studio, how the lights worked (in a ‘this is off, this is on’ sense) and learned about lighting on the job. A student of ours studying art photography wanted to be a sports photographer. She enjoyed and valued the course, graduated, signed up for the one year NCTJ in Sheffield and now works on local papers doing both press and sports photography. Rowena Carr at Up To Speed (the NCTJ I believe you teach on) contacts me to advertise this course to our students. And I will.

    Studying at university is entirely valid: we hope to turn out students who can work in various sectors of the industry (our graduates work as photographers but also in picture research, editing, retouching, assisting, curating, teaching etc.), but it is also a time to indulge and enjoy and learn all sorts of stuff before facing some of the realities of a tough business. And that is no bad thing. Apologies for prolixity but this is a subject I have a great interest in; we are always learning so thanks for bringing up these issues and making thought provoking points.

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  5. It is only a matter of time before there is a Big Scandal involving someone’s portfolio of what is ostensibly wet plate, or large format film or whatever actually being shot with a DSLR and photoshopped a bit. This will fix some little red wagons but good — suddenly that ineffable look that can only be obtained blah blah such incredible blah couldn’t do it digitally all kind of goes out the window.

    See also Han van Meegeren.

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