Photographic Expertise

I was reading a blog post yesterday by education leadership theorist Matthew Evans in which he took apart the idea of The Expert. He goes into a fair bit of depth, and I really urge you to read his post, but essentially he says there are two kinds of expert. Those he calls K Experts, who are experts in complicated systems. These are the folks who fix your boiler and make sure the trains don’t crash. They deal with situations and systems which, while complicated, have ‘right and wrong’ answers and definable solutions; you’ve got hot water, your train isn’t on the news. These are the people we think of as experts. Then there are X Experts who deal in complex situations and systems, like Economists and I’d suggest meteorologists and military strategists. They are experts in situations in which possibly there are not ‘right and wrong’ answers, where things are fluid and they’re making choices against that background. They’re the ones we get angry at when they make wrong predictions or choices because we’re confusing them with K Experts. I think I’ve summarised that correctly, but by now you’ve read his blog and will know: if not go and read it.

So this got me thinking about what an expert photographer is.

I’d say that to be a photographer requires some, in the case of good photographers, a lot, of K Expertise. You’re not going to get far without a grasp of the exposure triangle, lens choice, possibly film stock, processing technique (wet or dry, dark or light room), and the rest of it. The more you understand all this the better technically your images get because, ultimately, there are ‘right and wrong’ choices to making a photograph. Right choices give you a nicely exposed and in focus image, wrong choices give you ones like your dad took of you when you were on the beach as a kid. You can get a hell of a long way in photography and never stray for K expertise, you learn more, you practice more, you get more expert.

But what is it that lifts some photographers, Michael Kenna, Walker Evans, Lee Miller, Robert Capa, The Westons (all of them), Bailey et al above this and into the realm of not only making photos which stay with you but make them over and over again? I’m going to tentatively suggest it’s because they’re X Experts. Sure they can understand all the complicated stuff and do it in their sleep but they can also operate consistently when it’s complex. Because the environment around making an image is complex, the light is changing if it’s natural light, if there is a model they’re moving, the environment is subtly altering. Maybe they’re working out of the studio doing reportage, or more dramatically conflict, photography where everything is an unknown. There isn’t a ‘right’ way to make a great photograph, because that transcends being nicely exposed and in focus, it’s about the composition, the light, possibly the colour, the tones, the mood. It’s about making a choice which works in the situation you have in that moment, frequently actually in that split second. They can be as patient as a cat in front of a mouse hole waiting, and then utterly decisive when the moment appears (see what I did there?).

All of us, however little experience we have as photographers, can nail an amazing photo now and again because sometimes we all just get it right by luck as much as judgement. The great photographers get it right over and over again because in the highly complex environment just before the shutter clicks, they’re experts.

What’s a Photograph Worth?

I’ve just been watching a great video by Erik Wahlstrom, a man who produces consistently good, if occasional, Youtube content on photography. In it he’s posing the question of what a photograph is worth, both in monetary terms and personally. I’m not going to recap, go and watch it, then come back…


…okay, so now you’ve seen it. I don’t know about you (feel free to comment) but I think he’s spot on, especially in his comment about ‘country club bragging rights bidding wars’, not just photography but what you might call significant art sells for sums of money which are ludicrous. The effect of which is frequently to put art in the hands of collectors from where it never sees the light of day at prices public galleries can’t afford. The prices don’t reflect the art, they reflect the identity of the artist; prove it’s not ‘school of xxxx’ but ‘by xxxx’ and the price rockets. It’s the same art, it looks the same as it did when it was ‘school of’ but somehow it’s worth a whole load more. I always in a way think it’s sad on programs like Antiques Roadshow when somebody finds the photo auntie Dot bought at a jumble sale in the 70s for 25p is a lost masterwork valued in the hundreds of thousands..because now they’ll never be able to risk leaving it on the wall of the living room because it’s going to be a theft magnet and they can’t manage the insurance, so it’s going to be sold and they can’t enjoy it any more. If I had a painting I thought might be valuable which I enjoyed there is no way on earth I’d get it assessed and appraised, I just enjoy it.

So, you’re reading my _photography_ blog, and Eric was talking about _photography_, so where am I going with all this talk about great art and school of somebody or other? Well, I think super-value photography is a particularly ridiculous idea, far more so than a painting really. Because, at the end of the day, the huge difference is that there is only one Mona Lisa, or Bar at the Folies-Bergere, or Seagram Murals; the one the artist created. Okay, so they might have returned to the subject multiple times but the results are all that bit different. With photography, as Fox Talbot rather intended, multiple reproductions are not only possible, but desirable. With a photograph you’re not seeing the unique hand of the artist in the finished work. Okay so Ansel Adams printed his own negatives, and the Weston family are a dynasty of printers, and there are others, but generally for a photograph the act of creating the image in the camera is the ‘thing’, not creating the finished product. I’m not saying that’s not an amazing skill, it really is, but when you look at a photo on a gallery wall generally it’s not the name of the printer you’re celebrating.

So, where does the worth of a photo derive? I’d say from two places. The first is the creative mind behind it and the second is the actual work taken to secure it; we can marvel at the sure eye of Bailey photographing Shrimpton, or marvel at the nerve of Capa on bloody Omaha. Both of these photos have ‘worth’ for that…but I’d also say the worth should go to Bailey and Capa because they were the people who put their minds or well being into the images. A print of one of the photos should, I’d say, be worth far less even if it’s done in a real darkroom from the original negatives. Not worth-less, worth far less, you’ll notice, a skilled professional went into a darkroom and used all that skill to produce the print but the worth again should derive from the labour power of the artisan, not because of the original photographer or subject. Obviously, if you could find a print of one of Capa’s D-Day series, which you could guarantee was actually printed by Capa, then I’m not dumb enough to argue that wouldn’t be worth more!

Cost of Film v Digital – and what it tells us about the change in shooting styles

I was watching this rather good video on Youtube yesterday by Jamie Byrne Photography, in which he was explaining why he was giving up shooting film and concentrating entirely on digital work. He’s got good (one might say economically unassailable) reasons for so doing and I’m not arguing with him. He has good points and he makes them well. He also stresses that it’s not shooting film he doesn’t like per se, for him it’s just an argument of economics. I’m lucky in that as an amateur I can shoot what I damn well please and if I choose to spend the money on a film shoot then I can. It’s my money and I don’t need to balance a bottom line for it. I’m not going to argue, for one moment, that the future of commercial photography is overwhelmingly digital for both cost and convenience. I’ve seen videos with people arguing that if you look at the ‘real’ cost of both then film is much cheaper than digital; you factor in the cost of cameras, processing software, etc etc. You know what, they’re wrong. Let’s get this out there: digital is cheaper. You can put one image on a memory card, or fill the card and the cost is the same. Heck given that you can reuse the card over and over and each card costs pretty much peanuts for what it is, they’re damn near to free.

But then an idea bubbled up from my subconscious: they way we shoot has changed, and the way people expect us to shoot has changed with it. Digital has changed the way we think about making images, and the way we now think about image making has changed to suit that.

There’s a lovely quote by my personal hero, David Bailey, on photographing Jean Shrimpton:

“She was magic. In a way she was the cheapest model in the world-you only needed to shoot half a roll of film and then you had it.” (quote found here)

Now I’m going to allow this having a degree of Bailey’s famous humour here, but having looked at film of him shooting in the 60s (just watch some of the many films about Bailey on Youtube) it’s clear he’s not taking that many images. He’s spending a lot of time looking and directing but there aren’t a huge number of clicks compared with what you see now where you see the same level of model direction, but taking far more images from which they can select the best. Sometimes they’re even shooting in burst mode. This is what you can do with digital when the individual image costs nothing. You can take lots and just accept a high number of substandard ones along with the good ones. To put it simply the modern digital photographer can afford to be wrong far, far, far more often than their film predecessor could be. To be deliberately, and rhetorically, tongue in cheek as Bailey might be: you can afford to be far more sloppy and careless with digital.

I’ve realised that I have a genuine personal example of this change; our wedding photos. We got married in 1980 and our photographs were taken by Studio Norwich (who may or may not still exist). The album contains 86 images – that’s all we were offered because there are blank pages where we opted to reject a couple. They are slightly rectangular so assuming the wedding photographer’s tool of choice for the time, the Mamiya 645, then they were getting 15 on a roll. Do that maths and this is a bit under 7 rolls. Let’s assume that that they had only a 50% success rate of getting decent photos, which may be worst case, they shot about 15 rolls of film. This may mean they went and did a fairly big wedding and came away with 225 images. Can you imagine a wedding photographer today taking only a couple of hundred shots and giving the client 86 photos back? I randomly searched for a wedding photographer in Norwich today and their super-budget package gives the couple 175 images, with most offering 200 plus.

I reiterate. I’m not knocking the modern way of doing things. If you’re photographing an event which is one of the most important in the lives of your clients and is unrepeatable, then you’d be a pratt not to make sure you’ve got more insurance images then you ever think you’d need. Modern high end cameras record each image onto two separate memory cards just in case. This is brilliant. I knew a wedding photographer once who had to tell a couple that the lab had stuffed up and lost all their photos and he remembered it as the most ghastly experience of his professional career.

The same is true of the commercial fashion photographer. If they’ve paid for a model, and a stylist, and a makeup artist, and a hairdresser, and there is a photo editor wanting a double page spread in some fashion glossy, I can understand they taking advantage of the low cost of digital go make sure they’ve got the shot. I’m going to risk saying that there are no commercial photographers who would put a model, however good, in front of the camera, get them to pose, take half a roll (Bailey shot a Rolliflex, that’s 6 images) and then move on to the next setup. Especially as they’re not going to have seen the images as they shot them.

Did that mean they were more confident, or planned more, or just were in some way ‘better’ in the days of film? I have no idea and I’m not going to speculate, though I suspect not. I suspect that the truth is that if they’d had the low costs they’d have shot more. Mind you I’d welcome the opinion of Bailey on the matter. I’m sure he’d have views, probably very funny ones.

August Sander, and photographing the future.

I read an article the other day in Black and White Photography Magazine about August Sander, who photographed the people of Germany between the wars.  There’s lots of biographical information about him online, and lots of his images too, so I’m not going to go over it here, though I’m going to link to one of my favourite Sander portraits to get you started. I can’t help but see him as an inter war german hard man: but on the left or the right?

Bricklayer, by Sander, on the Tate Website

His photos are very good, but what for me (as somebody who is interested in history) is that these very ordinary people are the same people who lost everything in hyper-inflation, broke the windows of Jewish shops on Kristalnacht, fought in the streets against the brownshirts, froze at Stalingrad or died in Auschwitz.  We have no idea of the fate of any of them, and of course when he took the photos neither did Sander.

Some of his later work does clearly mark the subjects out for what they were, his SS Officer from 1938 is particularly striking, though of course we have no idea what became of him or what he did or did not do.  He also produced a number of photos of Jews in the late 30s, and these are particularly unsettling; did they leave Germany for safety, somehow survive or not. What happened to this young woman with freckles for example? Do I really want to know? Probably not, I prefer to think of her laughing and joking in New England than being pushed into a gas chamber; really, who wouldn’t?

This is the thing we don’t always think about when we take a photo, that we are photographing without knowledge of what is to come and that the future may look at our work with a completely different eye.