Note, this blog post is based on watching series one, I’ll do a second once I finish series two. Please don’t post comments which spoil series two for me till after I post that!
I watched a show on Adorama’s Youtube channel called Top Photographer, just a few episodes where 4 people competed in a few photo assignment challenges. I really enjoyed it so when I found there was a much bigger thing called Master of Photography I really wanted to watch that. It’s only on Sky and we don’t have Sky; but I found it was available on Now TV so I shelled out for a couple of months access to the relevant package on that so I could watch it.
Now I suspect you think I’m going to make some sarky comment along the lines of ‘I wish I hadn’t’? Well I’m not going to because I’m really glad I did and I have to fit in watching series two before my couple of months is up. The contestants were (for the most part) engaging and were (entirely) interesting and capable photographers; far more capable than I am beyond a doubt. I loved watching how they went out and tackled each of the assignments, and I’m using assignments rather than the term challenges, for reasons I’ll get to later. The results with which they came back were all really interesting, didn’t ‘like’ them all but I could see where they were going. Again, I’m coming back to ‘like’ later. I personally also agreed with the eventual choice of winner (no spoilers if you’ve not seen it). I turned off after the final rather dismally thinking that nothing I’d ever taken was worth the time…
However, I found myself increasing frustrated by the judges, if I couldn’t work out what the hell they wanted I don’t see how the photographers could and I think this showed each week as their work was critiqued. The judging panel consisted of Simon Frederick, Rut Blees Luxembourg and Oliviero Toscani all of whom are photographers of undoubted major talent, and there is no doubt they know what they think a good image is. But one week they’d say that a photographers work was too generic and not enough about themselves, and then the reverse the following week. One contestent threw her entire soul into her self portraits using mirrors and a camera because that’s how she felt about herself only to be told that her work wasn’t exposing enough and was ‘narcissistic’ because she wanted to portray these mirrored reflections of herself. Other photographers went out and took photos of refugees any picture editor would be more than happy to put into print and were told their work was too representational or journalistic, as though somehow that’s not the right way to respond to photographing Europe’s refugee crisis: and given that the photographer in question is a photo journalist with a history of working in war zones seems rather to ignore his core talent. I wonder, in retrospect, if they’d agreed a criteria for what they wanted among themselves and communicated that to the photographers? My guess is that they wanted work you might get from a student on a post graduate degree fine arts course and were working to that criteria as though they were critiquing students: though Toscani’s habit of just saying “is boring!” might be a little to brusque for such a course. What really hacked me off was when two or three photographers came back with similar images independently and were then all slagged off because that showed they weren’t creative enough as though somehow they’d telepathically copied off each other. It ultimately, I think, came down to what they ‘liked’, not in some ‘I dunno much about art but I know what I like’ sense but because ultimately even the greatest critics have work of a sort they just respond to (aka ‘like’). There is a Tom Wolfe idea in ‘The Painted Word‘ that with a lot of modern art the idea is more important than the work itself (and however much I love modern art in a lot of cases he’s right) and I think the judges were too interested in ‘the idea’ and not interested enough in ‘the image’. The photographs had to have ‘an idea’, which was then frequently criticised for not coming through well with that idea. Though on one occasion the judges told a photographer to stop explaining his work as his explanations weren’t adding anything (his reaction the following episode is wonderful).
I think it would have been significantly fairer, and perhaps more interesting, if they’d accepted that they had people who came from fine art, commercial and photojournalism backgrounds and created a judging panel around that. Maybe by having somebody like Karl Taylor or Don McCullin as two of the judges who could then comment that a photo wasn’t particularly good as fine art, but was a bloody good piece of photo journalism, or would really please the client. And that’s where I’m coming back to assignments rather than challenges. Few photographers are lucky enough to carve out fine art careers where they create work for themselves and get gallery shows and book deals out of it. Most of them either have direct clients such as picture editors, art directors or advertising managers who are going to not want the photographer’s personal response to a bottle of shampoo but an image which is going to sell the product, or rely on producing prints which the public want to buy and put on the wall. Some work was criticised for being like a postcard. Well selling your image to a postcard company puts money in your bank however artistic it isn’t.
Ultimately, it’s a good show and worth watching. I learned a lot from seeing how photographers better than I am approached things and even more from the comments of each week’s famous expert. I’m sure if I got one of the judges to sit down at my kitchen table and discussed my work with them I’d learn a lot from that, though I’m not sure I learned much from their judging comments. If you don’t have Sky, I’d even say a month or two of Now TV, or whatever your local ‘watch sky on demand if you don’t have sky’ equivalent is.