An alumni night last club meeting, taken by former club member Tony Cooney covering his tour of Iraq as a Royal Engineer. It is the only time since I have been a member of the club we have actually been short of chairs for an event that became standing room only. Tony brought not only photographs but an interesting array of prints and pieces of kit that augmented a fascinating talk about his experience of, possibly, Britain’s most controversial war of the last 70 years. The Royal Engineers, “Everywhere where duty or glory lead” , have a long and very distinguished history in a role that is as old as the concept of a military. They go where the Army go. Without their skills the Army will not go very far at all. They provide and maintain the infrastructure that keeps the rest moving.
Tony’s pictures were taken at a time when digital was a “new” thing (technically nearly thirty years old but new to most of us) that was beginning to take a hold and film was the only option for “serious” photographers. We have certainly come a long way in the last decade or so. He took both digital and film cameras. At around 2 mega pixels for digital images at the time, you can see the point. Also Tony was using digital before it tipped the selling scales in 2007 which was the first time it outsold film cameras.
Tony stands in a now century old tradition, not always embraced by the authorities, of the squaddie photographer. The very first toted the Kodak Vest Pocket camera of 1912 and the Autographic of 1915, which found Their ways to war in the hands of thousands of regulars, volunteers and enlisted men and not a few women, of all ranks. The Box Brownie (1900-1934) was also vastly popular but nowhere near as robust. This everyman photography was a feature on all sides to a greater or lesser extent (A book has recently been published on the KVP in the trenches written by military historian Jon Cooksey) and its continuing significance as social record should not be underestimated.
Using average wages as a guide, the £1-10 Shillings of a 1912 model Kodak Vest Pocket bought during the Great War would take a £545 chunk out of an average pay-cheque today[i]. Mind you the average wage in 1912 was around £67 a year (about £6,905 in today’s value using inflation as a guide, but between 1912 and 2016 average wages far outstripped inflation). A Kodak Vest Pocket would take about 2% of the average annual wage to purchase, so not a huge chunk of change but substantial enough to ensure most of them, at least initially were probably in Officers hands as it represented more than a week’s wages for many – before we take out the cost of film and processing.
The British Army banned cameras that were not in the hands of Official War Photographers in 1915, for fear of the intelligence it could provide when captured by the enemy. All combatants developed a similar ban. Often it was overlooked and cameras at the Front if not exactly everywhere, were not remarkable but the subjects were and are.
This democratisation of photography, and we should not underestimate the role that the invention and mass production of gelatine based film had on this process – it was the absolutely key driver – produced an invaluable, if widely dispersed, social record of men and women at war, not the sanitised version of the official published record, nor the sensationalised one of the press, but the real lives and routines of the people who were there and the people around them. This is not to diminish the cost of this in lives lost and shattered, but is actually (and thankfully) but a small part of the whole and Tony’s presentation represented that much bigger picture. But when it’s you it is 100%. Tony spoke of the personal cost, how it has taken a long time to get not just the large amount of stories together into something he can show but also the necessary perspective to make the presentation work. Which it did.
Tony also had, not just the kids-everywhere pictures (roughly 40% of Iraq’s population is under 14, and war ranks fifth as the causes of death in the country) with their insatiable curiosity, but also the pictures from a family get together for which they were loaned a camera. For me that added more depth and breadth from what must have been, necessarily, a relatively isolated experience – even if, sometimes, as Tony related, an undeniably and demonstrably dangerous one.
So our thanks to Tony for an excellent evenings presentation, much to think about, and a very great deal to see.
[i] Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, “Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a UK Pound Amount, 1270 to Present,” Measuring Worth, 2017 . Using 1912 and 2016 data.
Former club members Rich Price and Kev Spiers gave a warmly received evening, to a very well attended meeting, based on their two trips to Iceland. As much effort went into the presentation as into the trips and it was very informative and beautifully illustrated. I recommend it to any club in the vicinity. This evening took a complete circuit of the Island and some of the alien and breath taking scenery there. As Rich and Kev said in their last presentation, it’s hard not to stop every hundred yards to take another set of images, so many opportunities the landscape provides. 1300 miles and ten days to do the circuit it has to go on the bucket list. Not so sure about the £35 burger as if someone did that to me in a restaurant I think it would be me kicking the bucket.
Last time Kev and Rich presented to us on Iceland we looked at the planning aspect such a trip demands. If we are to see a return on the investment we lay out on such expeditions, including the considerably smaller ones of a jaunt to a favourite site or a weekend away, in personal development and photographic terms, we need to know what destination we are set for before we stride out and we need to know why we are choosing to go there. Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Photography. Well it increases the likelihood that we will produce a keeper or two through something more than dumb luck. Also planning can be a source of satisfaction in itself, as long as you don’t plan everything to the point of squeezing the joy out of actually doing.
That isn’t just a matter of geography. We have investigated the ideas inherent in the technically competent yet otherwise sterile images – the camera club spectre. Let me put it this way. Kev and Rich showed us photographs that made me think about what was just outside of the frame, they made me want to explore beyond the picture. We have all seen images on sites like Flikr, Viewbug, 500px, and so on that made us pause. Most simply do not, but they obviously appeal to a number of other people. The why and wherefore of emotional reaction to an image are going to be complex and personal, might even be unique to that particular moment in time to the photographer, to the viewer. We just have to look for the constant.
So, having set the problem I should at least offer some sort of solution. Easier said than done, because we can end up with huge lists of other considerations to even a simple and tentative statement. Often we define a picture by what it is not rather than what is. This is not an either or situation, it is two sides of the proverbial coin and like any coin it’s only real value is what you can get in exchange for it. We spend the coin, rather than loose it through a hole in our metaphorical pocket, when we put the pro’s and con’s we have judged on an image into our own practice and do so again on those images.
Each and every image ever taken can be seen as a question. It is an interrogation of the photographer’s view of the world through the selection of a very small part of it and within that a single object or point of reference (singularity works best for the vast majority of images) that spins off a whole universe of inquiry. By asking ourselves what the question was the photographer is posing by taking this picture, we put ourselves in the right frame for connecting with the image. The questioning approach opens us up to an emotional transportation. It also takes time and makes our brains work on a point of reference, rather than just attending or dismissing a picture. That is something the brain has to be forced to do as it tends towards activities that take lower or actually lower the amount of energy it uses on a particular task. Learning is energy intensive and every image is a learning opportunity, if, and only if, we so choose.
This is not to say that every frame is a monumental battle between the forces of nature and art, though art seeks to impose itself over the tangle that is nature using the rules of composition. Or ignoring them, but it is rarely successful when it does. It has to be a very bold, unique and still technically well executed image to do that. The possible exceptions to that are when the events captured are momentous, or singular in human history: Phan Ti Kim Phuc, the “Napalm Girl”, June 8th 1972; The crowd in Munich, August 1st 1914 on the outbreak of war in which one Adolf Hitler is supposed to be (possibly faked by the Nazi’s); Jaqui Kennedy reaching over the boot of the car in Dallas, a dead JFK and a wounded Governor John Connelly obscured from view, November 22nd 1963; the Tank Man of Tienemen Square, June 5th 1989; the lone house on the Normandy Beach Head viewed from a landing craft, June 6th 1944 – where the connection is with a knowledge of far off events yet no less visceral because of their historic importance. The design elements within an image, the way everything fits together, or not, give the image weight, heft, soul, emotional content, the story outside the photograph is what gets us in to it. Conclusion? Use our cameras to make stories not photographs.
So we thank Rich and Kev for sharing their stories in an entertaining and relatable way and wish them well with it.
N e x t M e e t i n g
Week 13 – 24th Nov 2016 19:30 – Lighting Techniques: Hosted by Mark O’Grady and Rob Heslop.
Club member David Jones was our speaker last Thursday, taking us through his fascination with all forms of documentary photography, one that stretches back to the 1970’s. Using mainly black and white, but also some colour, David has covered both film and digital and he was not alone when he spoke of the fascination of seeing a print appear in the developing bath. Things have moved on and certainly post production is much cleaner and easier than when using film. Whether that makes the final image any better though is a matter of opinion.
Documentary photography is pretty broad term. It is joined at the hip with notions of photojournalism though is not just the preserve of the professional photographer. To some extent photography is, by and large, documentary in its essence in that it is, by and large a document of record of an event. If you stretch the definition far enough. Is street photography documentary? Is environmental? The main difference, or at least a signal difference is the amount of planning and purpose behind a shot. The documentary has a particular theme, is part of a sequence or series. There is less structure in street and the subject comes to the photographer rather than the photographer finding and interacting with the subject, sometimes over a protracted period. Street photography is all about being candid.
The literal definition of candid is truthful. Within street photography we look for the truth of the instant, possibly more accurately a truth in the instant. Henri Cartier-Bresson was the originator of the term the “Decisive Moment”, when all the different elements in a scene gel together to make something greater, something truthful. The role of the photographer is … well, to be more precise, the role of the photographer isn’t. It isn’t to interact, it isn’t to interfere, it isn’t to order. It is to read the moment and capture the truth of it at the very point where it is at the height of being one thing and the very instant, the split second, before it lapses completely, irrevocably, back into the ordinary. It is the moment of clarity, essentially suggestive and very human, very fleeting.
David showed us some examples of contact sheets to put the whole idea into some context. The final print is just that, it is the process of selection, of exclusion of the ordinary in search of the extraordinary. Look at Cartier-Bresson’s contact sheets, they tell the same story. It’s hard work not magic. Cartier-Bresson was also known to study other photographers’ contact sheets (whilst carefully curating his own) and it is still a brilliant way of getting to know how a photographer works, if little harder in these days of digital. The key to this sort of photography is to be open to your surroundings, be apart from the action rather than in the action, taking time to let situations develop and getting a good sense of human interaction and detachment.
These last two may seem contradictory, but are two sides of the same coin in two senses. Firstly there is the notion of the subject interacting with their environment and the photographer as detached observer. This is pretty much read. The documenter shall not affect the outcome, because then you are documenting the interaction with the photographer, a different story. The second is about what the subject is interpreted as doing interacting with other parts and or actors in the scene, or being aloof, distracted or somehow extracted from it whilst still being a part of it – and unaffected by the photographers presence.
So far so (relatively) purist and, it has to be said, theoretical. Does it matter? Yes and yes and maybe and no (like the Mayor of London, “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it”). Yes because it defines a genre (documentary) that is distinct through its truthfulness and naturalism which speaks to integrity. Yes because by identifying with it we borrow on that pool of integrity. Maybe because as a genre it is a start in exploring and building our identity as photographers. No if the image is the thing and anonymity is the photographer’s aim. It takes practice.
Environmental photography, more specifically environmental portrait photography, is about contextualising the subject in their world. It defines, personalises, the subject through surroundings that are familiar to them. David showed us some examples, mostly deceptively simple, but drawing their power from that (some more by club member Simon Caplan). The subject is more aware of the photographer as a rule than in street photography. This doesn’t detract from the value of the document because what we are trying to achieve is a statement of the individual defined by the environment they feel most relaxed in. To some extent they are showing that off for the photographer, so their known presence adds to the overall effect. The trade, the craft, the politics of the situation all combine to make a statement, much as the photographer is doing. Permission is a far bigger thing in environmental portraiture, in that, by and large, it is harder to do surreptitiously and often is used by business for marketing purposes anyway. It can be commissioned by the individual, by magazines, by organisations as well as proposed by the photographer.
So why shouldn’t we give it a go? Expectation can be a killer of projects and images, fear of failure or frustration at not getting the results are very real. It often comes from lack of technique or an uncritical eye and the obtainable doesn’t seem good enough. As mentioned above, the contact sheet is a good way of developing that critical eye and even if not a single one is a keeper (see last week’s blog) working out why is a huge development tool. Thinking about what makes other peoples pictures work or fail for you is a good start. We will return to this later in the year, but for a short version take an image as an example and have a conversation with yourself about what strikes you about it, how you might frame it differently and where does the light come from? Do this out loud on a crowded bus and I guarantee you will end up with a seat to yourself.
So a big thank you to David Jones for an interesting and thought provoking evening.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Three way club battle at Portishead. Be there for 7pm, starts 7:30 prompt.
Portishead Camera Club, Redcliffe Bay Hall, Newhaven Road, Portishead. BS20 8LH
Back to School this week and the beginning of the Autumn programme. OK so it is still summer, officially, but we have the makings of a varied year ahead – Just look at the meetings calendar. So enter the competitions – all of them, attend the meetings and lets improve together. It’s a members club and that means we all have to put in to make it work out. Members showed some highlights of their summer break and it was good to see contributions from so many and such a wide range of topics and the differences in interpretation and angle from some of the same views, which set me thinking.
The power of the photograph is back in the news with the picture of the drowned infant refugee, Aylan Kurdi, being recovered on a Turkish beach by an unnamed Turkish Police Officer. It went around the world, was an instrument in flat footing the Prime Minister, and has had a big effect locally as well as internationally. A picture paints more than a thousand words when the raw nerves of humanity are touched, but even so not everything is always what it seems and one of the most famous war photographs of all time, that of a falling soldier in the Spanish civil war taken by Robert Capra has been under a cloud for the last forty years. It’s not isolated. Context is all. The plain and simple truth of a tiny broken body in the arms of a Turkish policeman speaks a thousand times a thousand words because a camera was there to record it and there are means to send that picture around the world in seconds.
There is no doubting of the power of the picture to provoke the imagination, to prod the memory and encapsulate stories, but let’s be honest here, that is not the point of taking pictures for most of the people most of the time – a record is what we want when the shutter is pressed. The stories we attribute can change over time as new experiences and new memories or new evidence comes to light. The fact is that we take the picture at face value, we don’t often, especially in family and friends photographs, take the framing, the post production and so on, at anything but face value. Our emotional connection over rides our critical faculties. “We seem to reinvent our memories, and in doing so, we become the person of our own imagination” (Elizabeth Loftus). Most of the time this does not matter. Different rules apply to the family photo album for the vast majority of people, wherein the contents are more precious to us, than to the curated representations of the truth presented to us by the serious press, and, by association, the not so serious press.
A good portrait shows character. A bold statement of something generally held to be true. Portraiture is a photographic staple, even if the reason some people buy a camera is to make sure they are behind it, not in front of it. Motivation adds to the power of a picture, at least to the photographer. The difference between the family snap and the professional portrait can be vast, (and we can learn the techniques of the differences for our own purposes) then there is more formality behind the latter than the former, so is it less true? “The camera cannot lie, but it can be an accessory to untruth”, (Harold Evans). The image stays in the brain, even when the context is lost to us. You probably have no idea who the migrant Florence Owens Thompson was, but I am pretty sure you have seen her picture. The story behind that isn’t as straight forward as the photographer, (Dorothea Lange) recollected or noted at the time. The incidentals that make the picture worth taking don’t detract from the image itself, the uses it is put to, the responses it provokes, are other issues. Rarely is there one truth, mostly there are sundry truths.
So is showing more a greater aid to getting to the core truth behind an image? The environmental portrait, wherein the artefacts of a person’s life, or rather a section of it, show more of their character than the shallow depth of field and neutral background typical of the formal portrait. People are generally more relaxed in their own surroundings, more likely to be open when surrounded by the things they are familiar with. Yet we do not know them better, we just know more, or think we do. We have more information to work on, but a cluttered photograph, unless the clutter is the subject, can be distracting. Therefore we edit. We select. We make the story from the bigger picture. No sounds, no smells, more isolation and sometimes we can be grateful for that. Can the truth live in such a world?
So, assuming we are not out to change the world, though everything we do has some impact, does this matter? As creators, hobbyists, semi-professionals, professionals, it is the image that counts. We don’t really have too much to do with the notions of truth. We just take the pictures, produce the images, post them with varying degrees of public access and maybe care a little what others think, “For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2). We are not, for the most part, citizen journalists, but carrying a camera, any camera, may just make us so. We might not know when that photograph we took down the street yesterday might be of wider interest in years to come. It doesn’t all have to be based on drama, just piqued interest. The picture of Aylan Kurdi was taken by an Associated Press Photographer. His brother and mother also drowned. His home had been bombed out. These are all facts, all context to the photograph. It’s not a portrait. It’s not an environmental portrait. It’s not documentary in the way the Florence Owens Thompson photograph was (and that was one of six). If it’s within any category it lies in Social Realism which is broader than just photography. But it doesn’t draw on any of those traditions for its power in particular- and we can measure that by its effect. The photograph itself sits at the junction of time, place, mass conscience and social action. It is a trigger to bigger things. There have been others. Every photograph has a potential it just needs a context.