What Is Wrong With Photography (1948)
THE BRITISH JOURNAL PHOTOGRAPHIC ALMANAC 1948
WHAT IS WRONG WITH PHOTOGRAPHY
By A. F. Bushnell
So much has been said within recent years deploring the level of photography, that it might be assumed that dissatisfaction is no longer confined to a few. But this is not so; complacency still has most in its paralysing grip. Surely, they say, there is not much to worry about; of course a good deal of bad work is turned out, mainly portraiture, but the general level is pretty good-look at the periodicals, look at the annuals, look at the exhibitions.
Well, look at them. Take stock with a refreshed and quickened spirit and what do you really see? Monotony, sterility, conventionality, mediocrity-seldom relieved by brilliance and often sinking to deplorably low levels.
The exhibitions, large and small, have little to distinguish them one from another, nor from their predecessors of the past ten years. They are pleasant shows which offend little; solid, dignified but uninspired. Set out in any one of them seeking with the eyes of an editor a dozen fine pictures and see how difficult that is. Compare their catalogues over a period of years and search for signs of progress, or even of change, which is characteristic of all that lives abundantly. Search for some reflection or expression of the spirit of the times; you will find fashions, yes, but these treatments and styles have no spiritual relation with the world around them, they are the exercises of those who live in a closed photographic world.
Exhibitions are needed, not to interest or instruct the general public, though they may well do that to great profit, but to refresh and stimulate the artist. How often in our exhibitions is such stimulation to be found? How much is new, vital, arresting; what is there to catch the breath for a moment at the first impact? The Export Exhibition organised by the Institute of British Photographers last autumn seemed refreshing and was widely praised : it had a new emphasis and a different style, but was it really worthy of the subject? How high -- or how low – was its percentage of greatness? -- Yes, the exhibitions are pleasing. But is that good enough? Is it?
Some blame the judges. They make good whipping boys and they cannot answer back, but it may be a dangerous illusion to suppose that the Judges reject the masterpieces. Before the war the prints for one annual exhibition were chosen by three independent panels of judges: one was made up of photographers, one of painters and sculptors and the third represented the general public. That was a very good idea and it was interesting to compare their choice, but it did not produce great exhibitions. Why not blame the exhibitors? A year or two ago the Royal Photographic Society, the London Salon and the Institute of British Photographers combined to make an exhibition of two hundred superb examples of British photography. There were no irksome limitations; two hundred odd exhibitors were asked to submit their best pictures, new and old: it did not matter if they had been exhibited before and they covered all branches of photography. At the first sifting of the entries the organisers regretfully abandoned the quest, blamed the war years and postponed their excellent project indefinitely.
Look at the Annuals. It is true that they derive largely from the exhibitions, but not all of them exclusively, and they have a wider range and are more selective. Are they much more exciting? Are they larded with great pictures? Would anybody notice if the date on the cover or title page was altered?
Look at the work being turned out on every side. Portraiture shall come first because its state is the' worst. Surely never since the beginning of photography has so much bad portraiture been churned out and have so few inspired portraits been made. During the war, portraitists performed a service of no mean measure striving to meet an insatiable demand born of love and fear. Most strove honourably, hemmed in by great difficulties of staff and material shortage and indeed performed miracles of output and promptness. Who would condemn the falling off in quality that such conditions imposed? There were others who exploited the situation, with no care for quality, intent upon collecting from an uncritical public as many guineas as possible while the extraordinary demand persisted. There are many still to-day callously clinging to their belief that portraiture means easy money and, very ignorant of the use of their tools, selling trash. Tens of thousands of prints produced by these persons betray an utter lack of craftsmanship and are not even approximately accurate maps of faces. No carpenter with so little knowledge of his tools, no bootmaker so clumsy, could hope to survive a few weeks; and indeed these, photographers, product of the war and the aftermath of ar, will hardly survive many years unless they are prepared to discipline themselves and learn. All who care for quality and honesty in photography should strive to bring to an end this unhappy state. This lowest stratum of portraiture does not come within the scope of this article, for it is a passing thing and what is wrong is patent; it is a complete lack of any care for the rudimentary principles of photography, made possible by the ignorance of the public and the impossibility of obtaining any redress for dissatisfaction.
Enough cause for dismay remains when this class is excluded. The pardonable deterioration in quality during the war years is an insufficient cloak. Portraiture was poor before the war and is poorer today. Frederick Robinson, speaking at the last I.B.P. Congress and at many meetings up and down the country since, has been pointing to a steady deterioration over a period of many years and he is right. Why does the. reputation of Karsh stand so very high? Is it . not because he is alone? He need not be, but how many portraits today emerge from a dull mediocrity? And how many are forced even below that, printed abominably or masked with retouching. So many portraitists are working in a narrow rut; ignorant of what is going on around them and producing stereotyped work into which they put neither understanding nor imagination.
Have other branches of photography something better to show? Yes, but not enough to escape the challenge. Advertising photography, to which one might reasonably look for evidence of originality, is in far too many cases either sweet or tricky. Photographers will blame the advertising agents, but it is a poor alibi. Can there really be any. doubt -that a photographer who displays originality, based on a real understanding of the object he photographs, and its function, and does that often, will be acclaimed? Is it perhaps the photographer who lacks vision and not his client?
Landscapes are for the most part insipid. This country is immensely rich in the variety and inspiration of its scenery, but who would think it who judged by photographs alone? So few interpret its spirit. Impatience, lack of vision, failure to understand the essential structure of a scene, these are apparent in thousands of prints. Fortunately there are enough fine landscapes and seascapes being produced to give a lead.
In photo-journalism there is every opportunity for vivid statement, for interpretation of life on the widest scale, and indeed there is some liveliness in this branch of photography, but there is comparatively little to shock and ,arrest tired eyes as they glance over the pages. One gets the feeling that the photographer is always hemmed in, his story does not leap exultingly through a series of pictures and out of the page, but is confined in a series of frames. Is there something: in our island nature which makes us too conscious of frontiers? Has the sea shut us in as well as giving us the spirit of adventure, so that we tend to think and work tidily in neat little parcels of time and space? In this are we very different from the people who live in big lands, or is it that most of our adventurers go to sea while many of theirs explore music and painting, the theatre, poetry, sculpture and prose?
Industrial photography, I think, provides the greatest crop of fine photographs. Our ships and aircraft, machines and factories, heavy industry and architecture, are often superbly presented. Quite a number of photographers add inspiration and understanding to excellent technique. But there are many who fail to rise above the dull record, missing the striking and, often, majestic possibilities of their subjects.
Many thoughtful readers will, I believe, agree that this recital of the mediocrity of the average is not overdrawn. What, then; is wrong with photography, and what can be done about it?
First there must be good technique; that should go without saying. Generally technique is either poor or is an end in itself, and both conditions are bad. There is no possible excuse for poor technique and yet it is common in most branches of photography where the consumer is uncritical. Art directors of advertising agencies, architects, executives of big industrial firms, are generally men who understand quality and demand it. Perhaps that is why the technique of so many advertising and industrial photographers is excellent. They certainly regard it as an indispensable condition, a prerequisite in every job. That is a condition which should be common in every branch of photography. Every photographer who makes photography a career, or who aims at exhibitions, should be a master of the tools and processes he employs; that is the least that can be expected. He should be so familiar with them that he needs to give them little thought. Good technique should be habitual.