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…