Boundaries of contemporary photography

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    Ian McNab

    ‘Boundaries of contemporary photography’ was the title of a panel discussion session at the Belfast Photo Festival in June 2015. The panelists were: Francis Hodgson, Professor of the Culture of Photography, co-founder of the leading photography prize the Prix Pictet and previously photography critic for the Financial Times and Head of Photographs at Sotheby’s, London; Karen McQuaid, Curator, The Photographers’ Gallery, London; Jim Casper,  editor of Lensculture, Paris; and Greg Hobson, Curator of Photographs, National Media Museum.

    The 75-minute discussion was wide-ranging. It began with the observation that ‘serious’ photography or ‘art’ photography is only a small subset of all photographic activity. Most photography is not now done by people who call themselves, or even think of themselves as, photographers. For example, traffic wardens take accurate pictures for use in court and estate agents photograph properties they are selling, but such people would not say they are photographers. And most photographs are viewed and used by people without any particular interest in photography: court staff and jurors, Facebook users, people buying houses or cars, Ebay users, etc.

    For a large part of photography’s history, photography was not generally considered an art, but rather treated as an everyday, practical activity or craft. Consequently, scholars and art critics have not had the central role in providing an intellectual foundation for photography that they have had in other visual arts.

    The panel’s considerations also turned to the way that the now-established habit of viewing pictures on the internet is affecting photography practice. ‘Serious’ photographers, in the recent past, went to great trouble to print their digital images very big, using special printers and inks, and expensive, sophisticated papers and boards. But when viewed from a Google search or website on a computer, the work doesn’t look much better than, or even much different from, all the billions of other digital images. Some photographers have become rather anxious and defensive about this, and have retreated into arcane, old-fashioned analogue processes – medium or large format film, wet collodion, tintype, etc – to recover some sense of specialness or superiority through the exercise of the more difficult and complex ‘craft’ skills these processes entail.

    (I think there are other manifestations of this effort to distinguish ‘serious’ photographs from the flood of pictures that inundates us daily. Elevating the craft skill of printing is one ploy, though with much of this being done electronically in commercial labs, the fiction of its being a craft skill is wearing a bit thin.  Using ‘proper’, expensive cameras and lenses is another ploy; but with Magnum photographers and others using iPhones to do professional photojournalism, and posting serious work on Instagram, equipment and publishing method is less and less a distinguishing feature.)

    So the questions that the panel was left circling were: what actually distinguishes ‘serious’ photography from the great mass of photographic activity; what objective criteria support a judgement that one photograph is ‘better’ than another; how does the judgement of the quality of ‘a body of work’ get established, and how does that have a bearing on whether the individual photographs in that body of work matter.



    Thanks for posting that Ian. I had not heard about this but have had similar thoughts myself about what distinguishes “serious” photography. I think it is sometimes difficult to tell, as it can lie in the personal intensions of the photographer. The only time we are certain that a piece of art work is to be taken seriously is when it stands, framed, in a gallery and only probably then when it is a properly curated exhibition.

    The ubiquity of photography now, and the effect it is having on our view of it has some parallels in writing and music where we have a ubiquity (especially in writing) which can bury worthy stuff. We have to rely on the judgement of others to recognise special qualities and recommend them to us – not always because we don’t have the critical faculties but because there is simply so much!

    (Just musing; I suppose if Edwin Smith had been an estate agents assistant or Stephen Shore a traffic warden we may have seen some interesting qualities in their work!)


    Tom Seaton

    I viewed the discussion late last night – I need to have another look now I’m more awake.

    I find it has a stimulatingly (if that’s a word), disturbing effect on how I view my own limited photographic experience!

    Where on the spectrum – given that there is one – does club photography sit?


    Ian McNab

    Tom >>> I wonder if the start of an answer to your question might be to look at the picture that Greg Hobson describes in the discussion as having immense emotional resonance for him: Chris Killip’s ‘Boo on a horse’ from the book ‘In Flagrante’:

    Chris Killip: Boo on a horse

    © Chris Killip

    Chris Killip’s ‘In Flagrante’ is a book of international stature, witnessed by the fact that the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles has just bought prints of the complete work, and has made the photographs available via its website.

    (Here’s a review of ‘In Flagrante’.)

    Given that this is considered contemporary photographic art of the highest order, how do you think club photography compares? What similarities and differences do you see between Killip’s work and the very best that club photography has to offer?





    Super laxative perhaps.


    Ian McNab

    Ken >>> What do you mean when you describe club photography as a ‘super laxative’?



    Chris Killip’s study is a totally immersive piece of work, achieved over years of dedicated involvement with the community. There is some resemblance to James Ravilious’s work, though he did range a little wider. The qualities and values of such work is not going to come through with the six-second-view, which, as I’ve said recently elsewhere, is only sufficient time  to react to a photograph, not to properly look at it. Having said that I am sure that some shots would get a good reaction ( one might cynically suggest that a bit of dressing up, in the shape of a top notch print would help). Competitions of any sort are not a suitable place for work like this, but that does not mean it would not be deeply appreciated by club members and I think we should devote more time to such work and to  increasing members’ confidence in their own work as a form of self-expression.

    Older members may remember my talk about James Ravilious, using A3 prints produced by copying book illustrations and printing them as posters (presentation is far easier in these days of digital projection!).



    Ian I meant–Superlative—–



    See Chris Tancock’s work for a dedicated study of a natural community as opposed to a human one (Front Page).


    Ian McNab

    John >>> Yes, Chris Killip’s work was an extended project. But in the video discussion, Greg Hobson is not talking about the series. He offers ‘Boo on a horse’ as an example of establishing standards for ‘good photography’, in which he wants to include the way that we attend to photographs emotionally, not just intellectually.

    He says, of the picture, ‘It absolutely aches with melancholy’. He describes what it depicts, and says, ‘The picture is held together in the very centre of the picture by the white toggle on the boy’s duffle coat. And it is one of the most melancholy pictures I’ve seen in my whole career’.

    Then Francis Hodgson asks, ‘But is it melancholic because the series is melancholic?’

    And Hobson replies, ‘I’m talking about this as an individual picture. It has cinematic qualities. But this is me looking at the picture.’

    We have to remember that Killip made the pictures in ‘In Flagrante’ not with a 35mm Leica in classic documentary mode, but with a 4×5 view camera. He wanted to treat the subjects of his work with the artistic respect, grace, seriousness and emotional honesty implied by carefully making poetic, artistic, beautifully composed photographs with a view camera.

    So I think this individual picture is a very good starting point for the discussion that Greg Hobson is introducing with it about standards – about what counts as a good photograph. What he’s emphasising is that technical excellence is only one part (and perhaps not the most important part) of what makes a good photograph. What perhaps matters more is what it communicates emotionally (and that can be humorous, unsettling, joyful or whatever, as well as sad or moving).

    So to address Tom’s question, we have to ask ourselves, when did I last see a club photograph that mattered emotionally – either to the photographer or to me, the viewer. Now one might argue that that’s not the point of club photography: it’s really more about encouraging technical excellence. And that would be OK, as long as, as photographers, we don’t just stop at doing technical excellence over and over and over, and never get round to investigating how to make photographs that matter – to ourselves at least, and perhaps also to a viewer.

    I think you’re right that looking at  and discussing work like Killip’s is really important in helping us to make that transition from being good at operating a camera to being photographers.

    (The work by Chris Tancock that you pointed us towards is well worth a look in this regard. Thanks for the nudge: I’d not come across him before.)



    Yes, I was straying a bit. I think this picture would do well in a club competition because the atmosphere comes through so well. I think most of the judges we have would appreciate it. At the judges seminar they are asked to look  the picture as a whole first and foremost. Trouble is that the technical things, and the perceptual things are easier to comment on, easier to see, easier to use as an excuse for pulling the mark down if the judge wants to avoid giving it first place. Such things are only supposed to count 15% and may do, but they remain in the mind of the author.

    New judges in particular are likely to try to make things quantitative, which we all know is impossible. They lack the courage to follow their own feelings about a picture and try to compare the picture before them with things they have seen be successful in the past. As a judge you are also the entertainment for the evening and need  to expound on why you like the picture, what its qualities are and this is where some start to harp on about technicalities, they feel on see ground.

    That’s all for the while, the predictive text on my phone is wasting too much time!



    Ian McNab

    That’s a helpful account of how judges may be affected, sometimes adversely, by the circumstances and expectations that surround a club competition evening. And I do have sympathy with judges, not only about the difficulties of articulating and ‘justifying’ what are essentially subjective judgements about quality, but also for the problems that come with having to ‘put on a good show’ as well!

    I’ve begun to think that it’s unreasonable to expect to learn much about the quality and value of photographs from club competitions, as they tend only to take account of the very limited issues of technical competence and ‘impact’, for the reasons you explained. That’s why I increasingly feel we need other kinds of opportunity to consider photographs (our own and those of renowned photographers) in a deeper and more investigative way.

    The discussion in ‘Boundaries of contemporary photography’ suggests some of the matters that we might want to bring to such examinations: how do you talk about quality, about what makes a “good” photograph; what makes one photograph “matter”, while others don’t; how do we recognise genuine originality; etc.




    Everyone will remember how successful our little experiment was last season, based on the visit to Audlem. It gave people a chance to show more of their work in a way which articulated their particular way of taking photographs. It gave us a chance to see Ralph’s work with videos. It was very well supported, with far more stuff than we had time to show.

    For a while we were all desperate to know how to get decent print quality with digital, and how to do this and that in Photoshop. We have passed that stage now – it is rare to see a poor print and I think many have lost interest in taking thinks any further with Photoshop. We could readily help any newcomer achieve a decent standard of processing and printing (or presentation).

    It seems to me that the avenues you describe are the way to go with our “open” evenings. We have this on the agenda to discuss at the committee meeting at the end of August. Those who have views, prepare to share them now! (Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene II, (apologies)).

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