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Is photography anti-social and an activity for the obsessive?


Is photography anti-social and an activity for the obsessive?

My partner is a folk musician and is continually travelling to festivals, sessions and social events held around the mutual appreciation of music. There seems to be an underground network that encourages those of all standards to meet, share experiences, skills and knowledge. However, photography seems to be the activity of the loner, not only in the production but also as a social activity. Perhaps I’ve missed out on something but group discussion seems to be lost in the fear of upsetting someone or showing our own ignorance. Perhaps photography is too easy in comparison with music, where the ability to perform live with an instrument takes many hours of practice; while we are now all photographers, with our mobile phones and latest “app”?

Photography has a simplicity about it, involving a small portable device that accurately records what is placed in front of it. But when photography was invented there was a need for assistants, the technology was large and cumbersome. Even now the likes of Mario Testino and Annie Leibovitz, who build expansive sets, work in a way that has much in common with film directors using props and actors. The simplicity that sets photography apart from other art forms is being lost to the constructed image.

The term anti-social brings into mind drunks returning from pub on a Friday night. There is a breed of photographers who follow the Friday night drinker, by forcing their presence into others personal space. However, in this context, we want to think of the photographer as a lone worker who, by the nature of their activity avoids direct contact with others. For some photographers the camera becomes a device to meet and engage with people, used as a way of opening a door but in another way, to put up a barrier. There is certainly evidence that many photographers would describe themselves as shy and, for them, the camera provides a way in.

Photographers are no different from other creative workers and certainly many become totally immersed and obsessed by their work. At the time of Garry Winogrand’s death, there were discovered about 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film, 6,500 rolls of developed but not proofed exposures, and contact sheets made from about 3,000 rolls. His three marriages may give an insight to his restless personality, as well as the total focus and prolific nature of his work. Robert Frank is another obsessive photographer who is hardly recognized for his high level of interpersonal skills. Irish born Tom Wood must represent the next era of street photographers. His focus on one location and one method of working, shows an artist that is determined not to be distracted, to fully understand his subject matter and provide that insightful view that the casual observer will miss. At his recent exhibition in Bradford, it was interesting to read his comments about how he worked towards the publication, “All Zones Off Peak”. The cabinets of contact sheets, proof prints and note books are always more interesting than the actual framed prints. Travelling the buses of Merseyside all day, he seemed to become drunk on the adrenaline of the daily commuters and Christmas shoppers, as they fought for a space on the ever more crowded buses. Like Winogrand, he would produce thousands of images, using whatever film he could find. The current breed of photographers “working on the street” seem to be driven by the need to prove they are allowed do it, rather than wanting to provide an insightful view, I find much of their work disappointing when compared to that of the previous masters of their craft, such as Wood or Tony Ray Jones. Perhaps the place of the quiet observer has been lost in the brash colour of our instantaneous digital world.

Both Winogrand and Wood are examples of the obsessive, mavericks whose lives become taken over by their art. The world is a better place because of people like them, but their focus is not only to be found in the world of the creative arts. World record breaking cyclist, Graeme Obree, who suffers from bipolar disorder, was another person who took an individualist approach; this time to the challenge of breaking the world one hour record on two occasions. Many would describe their success to be due to their dedication, while others would say it is selfish and antisocial. It is not possible to keep this level of commitment up for extended periods of time and it is noticeable how there is a short window when an individual will be at their most productive, thus achieving their pinnacle. What the great achiever fears most, is the fall from grace; the point when they stop producing work of distinction. Many athletes will say that it is the fear of losing that provides the greatest motivation.

“Photographers never want to talk about the fact that they may well be in decline”
Martin Parr – BJP June 2013

For many of us the magic of seeing an image appear in a developing tray, under a dim red light, inspired us to continue our enthusiasm in the medium of photography. The darkroom was a place to hide, the ultimate “shed” where we could disappear and not be disturbed until all the prints were in the wash. The discipline of the production of contact sheets and then their analysis was a time consuming business and this period of time was vital. It was like a cooling off period and allowed us to be more thoughtful about our selection. Returning to digital files taken some weeks previously, I see them now in a different way and a second selection is made. Time is a great learning tool and we should not rush our choices. Now the decisive moment has moved from the viewfinder to the electronic contact sheet, where the photographer can review their output, which has been created at a rate of 5 frames per second. The photographer will search through these images methodically, as they will feel there must surely be something worth printing in this large, rapidly shot collection? As photographers develop their practice, many seem to move up format. Mark Power and Simon Norfolk both started as documentary photographers, using a hand held 35mm camera, whereas their current work is dominated by large format colour images. However, few can match the quality of Chris Killip’s hand held images produced from a 5X4 camera. During a recent conversation with a friend about some of my own efforts at landscape photography, he suggested I look to moving to a large format camera. I was uncertain how this recommendation would improve my work; it seemed to have more to do with the fact he was trying to sell a 5x4 at the time! However it is not a move I have totally rejected, just something that still needs some consideration. The real decision for me is whether the camera is placed on a tripod or hand held. While Power, Norfolk and Killip may use the same camera, their images are very different.

Recently, technology has seen some move to the more compact camera, although other photographers, such as Mick Williamson, have remained working with a half frame camera and, personally, I feel he produces some of the most interesting images to be seen. However, the use of the mobile phone is exploding and is being taken more seriously. The growth of gimmicky filters and effects has certainly proved popular with some and the immediacy of mobile connections, mean the results can be sent and seen around the world within seconds of being taken. For those who become obsessed with their own blog and the need to tell us about everything they are doing and even thinking, I hate to disappoint you, but for most of you we are not interested!

Feeling the need to keep up to date, I recently “up graded” and am now the proud owner of an “i-Thingy”. It has proved to be very useful but not for photography. However, the initial excitement of the camera soon passed. I found it slow and awkward to use, suffering from camera shake, photographs of the ground and images that included my own fingers! However, the panoramic facility is great and the ease of producing those mountain summit photos is most welcome.

“Easy photography is poor photography”

Being interested just in photography isn’t really going to deliver inspiring results. The focus must be on the subject matter, which is where our attention and passion must be. The landscape photographer will hopefully have a love and concern for nature’s fight, which they wish to share with others. For many the weekend may be dominated with family life and those Sunday family walks hardly give the opportunity for the production of thoughtful work. Likewise, being a member of a large group of ramblers will only bring you into to conflict with your fellow walkers, as your desire to stop will not meet with their approval or schedule. Certainly, carrying and setting up a large format camera can hardly be described as a social activity. Along with various dark slides, filters and other spares, I was interested to read that Jem Southam also carries a packet of biscuits with him to help past the time, as he waits for the light to change or people within the frame to move. The landscape photographer’s day will be dominated by early mornings, tide times and weather forecasts, not the requirements of friends and family. Some of our best work will be at locations near to our home, as we will know the area well and be able react to changes in weather and light. There will be an in depth understanding and appreciation of a location, which will be reflected in the quality of the work.

Perhaps some of the most anti-social landscape workers are Richard Long and Hamish Fulton. Although neither would describe themselves as being a photographer, the medium certainly forms a central role in their work. Many of their walks can be seen as physical endeavors that are beyond many of us and some of the destinations can be remote and challenging in their own right. But they are artists and for them the solitude and physical challenge forms a key aspect to their work. How their experiences are shared with the viewer is what makes the art. For Fulton “No walk – No work” is the principle. However, he broke his solo experience in 1999, when working as a visiting professor in Italy. His residency consisted of fourteen walks along the same route each day for two weeks. As familiarity grew, not only with the route but also with fellow companions, an understanding of nature and its relationship with ourselves was developed. The company we keep in our daily lives, either at home or work has a profound effect on how we develop, not only as a person but also as an artist. For many years I spent my holidays travelling alone and still take this opportunity whenever it provides itself. The solo journey is a different experience, we are seen as less threatening and are encouraged to join in, welcomed to people’s homes, while the group or even couple will be left to their own devices or worst still, kept at a safe distance, seen only as a source of tourist income.

Photography is seen by many as a quick and easy way into “the arts”, for we are all photographers now. Many of the students I work with still find it difficult to understand when I suggest they continue returning to a location or rework some images again in the studio. Just because all our pictures now “come out” doesn’t necessarily mean any of them are successful. Many times you will see someone retake a photo, but without changing their view or settings on the camera, thinking the first one may be wrong or become lost. But without changing anything the photographer gains nothing, either both images will be a success or both will fail. The latter is most likely. The UK’s cycling team has in recent years achieved great success; its manager (now Sir) Dave Brailsford looks at making small changes in many different things. A one percentage improvement in one hundred aspects of the event will give a far greater increase in performance rather than looking for big gains in a narrow select area. He is clear about his focus and is obsessive about it. Parallels can be seen in this approach through the work of Winogrand and Wood. They are restless in pursuit of their art, but also display the traits of an alcoholic who has become dependent on a daily drink. Are they driven by producing the work or by the fear of a life without it, to the point where their life is the work?