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.
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.
And so the season is now officially over with the presentation of the trophies, but not the events, this Thursday Weston-Super-Mare, get there early as there is lots to see, not least because Thursday night in the summer is Weston bike night. Two weeks ago there must have been a couple of hundred bikes and not a few trikes of every shape, size and paint job, so lots to look at. Starts getting busy around 6pm and there are the other, more permanent attractions to look to as well. This being the summer break from Wick Road, I thought I would use this opportunity to look at just how much is actually going on in our hobby from a quick snapshot of the photographic headlines this last week or so.
Starting, of course with our social evening. I have drawn up a table of winners which you will find in this linked document 150716 Reflex Award Winners 2014-15 and will let that and the strong forward looking feel and commentaries from the AGM speak for the club, and a special thanks to Mark O’Grady for pulling all this information and for all the behind the scenes work. There is a lot of it.
It has been quite an important ten days or so, no, strike that, a very, very important ten days or so for your rights as a photographer. The European Parliament, as I have written about elsewhere held a vote on the European Commission’s proposals, a lot of them as it turns out, for harmonising copyright across the European Union. In itself that is important for the future of photography and photographers among the 500 million EU citizens covered by such an agreement. One of the proposals was to adopt the system whereby public buildings – including furniture like statues that form part of the designed space – should have the copy right of the designers protected and thus photographing them without the architect/copyright holders permission would constitute an offence (civil rather than criminal as far as I can work out). Half a million people signed a petition against this clause which was withdrawn on the day of the vote in face of this opposition. The Freedom of Panorama as it has become known has been maintained, though you should still check what the local laws are on these things because any necessary changes have to be enacted in national legislation (and that can take years). Still, three cheers for democracy.
A triumph for UK photographic technology this week, the sensors that recoded the Pluto images were made right here. It took four and a half hours for the information to get back from Pluto and another 1 hour at Boots to get them developed, but scientists seemed very pleased with the results. It’s a fantastic achievement. OK, you can print them quicker at home, but you have to buy all the kit and have somewhere to put it, not to mention the exorbitant cost of ink and paper.
You wouldn’t want them to all be out of focus like those from the Hubble Telescope, but as of next Year that won’t be a problem for owners of the shortly-to-be-released Panasonic GX8 when a 2016 firmware update will allow the user to “Post Focus” an image – something we talked about a month or so about. The firmware update will also apply to the FZ-300. The capabilities of consumer electronics companies cameras being released now represent a step change from that being evolved by Canon and Nikon, who still have 85% of the market between them. Of course there will be arguments about whether bells and whistles are what are required, but if you’ve been around photography long enough be sure that you can save a lot of time and ear ache and get on with your photographic life by substituting the words “Film” and “Digital” with the words “Proper” and “Toy”. For those of us longer in our remaining tooth we can substitute the brands “BSA”, “Triumph” and “Norton” with “Honda”, “Yamaha” and “Suzuki”. That ended well for market leaders, didn’t it?
There again “You don’t need all that technology to make a photograph”. We’ve heard it and seen it from Justin Quinnell back in March and it’s an idea that has momentum. Pinhole photography is practical, simple and gives you time to think and reflect. The very opportunities that digital gives us can also work against us – especially the “I’ll fix that in post”. There has always been a post and there has always been fixing but there is no substitution for time and care spent on understanding then composing your subject. The idea that the image represents more than what you see because you invest in one that has a connection with you is pretty much as old as art and we’ve been over the whole Gestalt thing elsewhere. Taking time when time is what you’ve got pays dividends.
Finally, if you think that grain is a problem in your images, take a look at this adaption from the film days ….
W-S-M. Thursday 23rd. Be there!
A decent turnout at the Langton Court Hotel for the annual social and awards event. The skittle alley thundered to the sounds of skittles standing resolutely in place. For a camera club there were remarkably few in evidence, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, less clutter to fall over and I don’t want to think of the consequences of joining consumer electronics with liquid (says he typing this with a cup of tea in one hand). Next year’s calendar was distributed, and I must say that it looked really interesting, and awards were bestowed thus:
Reflex Camera Club Overall Competition results for 2013 – 2014
|1st Place||82 Points||John Pike|
|2nd place||43 Points||Pauline Ewins|
|3rd Place||26 Points||Wendy Goodchild|
|1st Place||43 Points||Pauline Ewins|
|2nd place||30 Points||Mark O’Grady|
|3rd Place||26 points||Wendy Goodchild
& Angie Wallace
|1st Place||64 Points||John Pike|
|2nd place||55 Points||Mark O’Grady|
|3rd Place||35 Points||Alison Davies|
|John Hankin Shield
(Best Print of the Year)
|Stan Scantlebury Shield
(Best Projected of the Year)
|Photographer of the Year
(Overall Points Winner)
|85 Points||Mark O’Grady|
Thanks Julie for the table.
And the winner of the game of Killer in the Skittle Alley was —– Julie Coombs.
We have had a successful year in the number and variety of events, speakers and activities and a big club thank you to everyone who made that possible. The new website looks excellent and new members are joining. With the move to new premises everything seems set fair.
To a point we participate in the club in order to determine what makes a good photograph, so that we can go and take good/better photographs. Practice based learning. There are as many opinions on the “Good” as there are photographers. One of the reasons that there are competitions and judges is the idea of some sort of standard around the rules of composition, the exposure triangle and leave room for the imagination of the photographer. This year – and it is not very different year to year, nor I fancy, from club to club – we have had many different examples, from different sources. We have had competitions – the best source for individuals for what is known as reflective practice – speakers and practical evenings. We have had the benefit of the WCPF travelling show. These have also allowed us to look at wider issues too: planning, doing and reviewing, taking the opportunity, making the opportunity. We have also had the chance to talk about the giving of constructive feedback with one of our speakers and to practice it (and don’t I drone on about it every competition round?).
So, what have we learned this year? The point is the picture not the gear, Canon, Leica, Nikon, Pentax, Sigma, Sony anything else, not whether it’s a RAW or a JPEG or a TIFF (note that argument, not so very long ago was about whether it was film or digital, an argument that has just gone away) or any other format that counts. If there isn’t a basic structure to grab the attention then all of the above is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter about what it is you are taking a photograph of , it is how it is represented in the frame, what is included and, frequently as important, excluded that makes it so. Vary the angles, up, down, left, right (it’s not about your comfort it’s about the shot!). Keep the viewers eye engaged in the frame – this is why a vignette sometimes helps by keeping the eye from wandering to the outside of the frame on their way out of the picture. It should tell a story, a good one, with a punch-line. That the lighting is everything.
So, looking forward to next season? “F8 and be there”. See you next week.