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.
Tony Worobiec FRPS made welcome return as guest speaker at the last meeting and spoke on the subject of composition. Tony’s opening was to challenge the idea of “Rules”, not in an attempt to throw them over, but in order to put the ideas of “The rules for composing a photograph” into a useable perspective.
A rule, as we generally perceive it in a photographic sense, can be defined as: “An authoritative, prescribed direction for conduct, especially one of the regulations governing procedure”. In the photographers case this means following what books and tutorial videos tell us to do with the objects within our frame. For frame read viewfinder. Mostly these carry the caveat that “Rules are meant to be broken”, but as with most clichés it is one that is too often lightly worn and frequently lazy – especially when not referenced with analysed examples. What we actually mean by rule is “A generalized statement that describes what is true in most or all cases”, emphasis on the most.
As there are at least a half dozen different interpretations we can put upon the idea of a rule, Tony put forward the sensible suggestion that we should, like an image that is not quite working in the viewfinder, reframe. He offered “Principles“. We can define that as “A basic or essential quality or element determining intrinsic nature or characteristic behaviour”. This works better for us as photographers, because it carries a useful hint as to the nature of a photograph that has a lasting impact. It has interest in the subject. We talking directly of those photographs that are “Technically proficient but subject deficient”. You can follow every rule in the composition handbook and composition is simply the arrangement of objects within a frame, remember, but if the subject is soulless, if there is no hook, no emotion, then it’s just a record. A colonoscopy image may have an emotional hook, especially if it’s your colon and even more so if there is something there that says “Get your affairs in order”, but to the general viewer not imbued with a morbid fascination, it’s just a record.
If the “First Rule of Photography club” were “Do not talk about photography club” then this blog would be a lot shorter. You might consider this a mercy. If there is a first rule of photography club, aside from pay your subs, then it is, possibly, The Rule of Thirds. Tony hinted that it has an interesting if, relative to the golden ratio and so on, short history appearing sometime towards the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. Actually 1797. I don’t know about Tony’s assertion that John Thomas Smith was a “Failed artist”, (he was an engraver for at least part of his career) conjuring as that does the slow death of the young Chatterton, but “Antiquity” Smith wrote a book “Remarks on Rural Scenery” that included the following:
“Analogous to this ‘Rule of thirds’, (if I may be allowed so to call it) I have presumed to think that, in connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion; for example, in a design of landscape, to determine the sky at about two-thirds ; or else at about one-third, so that the material objects might occupy the other two : Again, two thirds of one element, (as of water) to one third of another element (as of land); and then both together to make but one third of the picture, of which the two other thirds should go for the sky and aerial perspectives ….
…. This rule would likewise apply in breaking a length of wall, or any other too great continuation of line that it may be found necessary to break by crossing or hiding it with some other object : In short, in applying this invention, generally speaking, or to any other case, whether of light, shade, form, or colour, I have found the ratio of about two thirds to one third, or of one to two, a much better and more harmonizing proportion, than the precise formal half, the too-far-extending four-fifths—and, in short, than any other proportion whatever.”
If Smith’s view from posterity is that of a failure then he certainly got his revenge in first, a revenge that is built into every modern DSLR/CSC even if we can turn it off. As a precept, “A rule or principle prescribing a particular course of action or conduct”, it has certainly got a hold.
The basic fact of the matter is that the Rule of Thirds works, as Tony amply and beautifully illustrated. Tony’s point is that it works to the point where we allow it to dictate contrary to what the viewfinder is telling us. The best is the enemy of the good, especially when the good is good enough, and pursuit of perfection comes at the price of other missed opportunities. Not just the rule of thirds, of course, but this blog would be about the length of a PhD thesis if we examined all of the possible principles and Tony has already written a book on the matters of composition (and a good few others on different aspects of photography). What we are looking to deliver, in the words of Steve Schapiro, is an image that gives us “information, emotion and execution” (see link immediately above). Time to rewatch “Crush the Composition” I think.
Last words (yeah, right) on this blog at least, go to Antiquity Smith:
“I should think myself honoured by the opinion of any gentleman on this point; but until I shall be better informed, shall conclude this general proportion of two and one to be the most picturesque medium in all cases of breaking or otherwise qualifying straight lines and masses and groups.”