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.
The first step, then, towards improvement is to make sure that good technique becomes habitual. For many that will mean much self-criticism, self-discipline and hard work, but every photographer should consider whether his technique is adequate, and if he finds it weak or unduly limited, be prepared to go back to the beginning and learn it afresh, whatever the length of his experience. What is sadly needed is a wide spread of good refresher courses for older men and women which will deal adequately with fundamentals, and special short courses in such processes as printing. In the next generation we may hope for better things, for the I.B.P. examinations are ensuring sound fundamental training and the acquisition of a reasonable technical standard.
Then we must be sure that technique is put in its place. There is among good craftsmen too much preoccupation with technique. They discuss their methods as though they were the ends and not the means. There is far too much slick talk of gadgets and tools in the clubs and where photographers meet. As though they mattered! Can one imagine an artists' club in which pencils and brushes form the principal topic of conversation? Masters of photography are masters of technique and give little conscious thought to it --- the majority of photographers are its slaves, if they recognise it at all, and worship their master with[SIZE=3] pæan[/SIZE]s of focal lengths and filters, panchromatics and soft gradation, exposure and light; but don't ask them to plot a characteristic curve-they may not know how.
This obsession with technique is for many good workers clouding the real issue. It is generally conceded that it is fruitless to teach anyone how to manipulate a pencil or a brush or a camera unless he or she is trained to observe, to appreciate and to express. What photography principally needs is a spiritual revival. Photographers must climb out of the rut and stare about them. Photographers must see, photographers must feel. They are starved through lack of contact with fine things. They need a rich and continuing draught of anything which can stimulate, revive and nourish the spirit-music, poetry, drama, painting; indeed, anything that has fine quality. Photography is starved, pinched and weak, because those who make photographs are starved. The power to see vividly must be restored.
We need culture. There is no short cut to culture. There is no text book. It cannot be taught in schools, but there are exercises which can help. Culture is no more natural than good taste.It is (says the Oxford dictionary) intellectual development, and that definition will suffice for this purpose. Development must depend upon experience. The better, the richer, the wider this experience may be, the greater will be the development. Experience must be sought. The man who is imprisoned within the narrow circle of his daily task is like the man who buried his talent and proudly delivered it to his lord intact, and like him deserves condemnation.
The first step in intellectual development is humility, for without that rather rare and precious quality it is difficult to learn. It is difficult to relax and absorb impressions, and that above all is what is most necessary. To look at a great picture for half an hour with the critical faculties dormant, making no attempt to analyse or appraise, but just allowing the picture to make a direct impression, may add a rich experience, outweighing a dozen tours of a whole exhibition gallery. To listen completely relaxed, with the mind inactive but highly receptive, is to find a completely new value in music. Unless photographers are prepared to practise such things, to seek new and rich experiences, to develop observation, to break with smug complacency and begin to see and feel, there is little hope.
Little, perhaps, can be done to encourage this attitude of mind, but a consciousness of the need, among those who have any responsibility of leadership or training, must have its effect. Some bodies with vision and taste might be induced to offer encouragement in the way of awards for originality, not stunting, but evidence of a new outlook deriving from deep springs of understanding. Exhibition juries might look for and encourage such work. But with the young-the boys and girls who are setting out to become photographers-there is a better opportunity for useful influence. The initial fault, from which so much lack of intellectual development derives, lies in our general educational system with its emphasis on the factual. The early and most impressionable years are mainly spent in accumulating facts, instead of learning to seek knowledge. But it is not too late to tell a boy or girl leaving school that learning a technique will not alone make a photographer. The sort of questions to ask such young people who are thinking of photography as a career are not " Are you interested in physics or chemistry? " or " What camera have you used?" but " What books do you read?"; " Do you like people?"; " Do you listen to music?-really listen? "; " Are your powers of observation above the average?" Such questions, and a few hints about the development of an appreciation of fine things and a clear indication that personal development is an essential part of training, are usually well received, and apparently stimulate real interest. Photographers who train young people and teachers in schools of photography have an opportunity, and a duty, in this, and may well greatly influence the future of photography.
Generally, in such considerations as these, there is much emphasis on art, and an implication that those who have no traffic with art in any form are not concerned; but indeed this extension of culture, this intellectual development, is as essential to the scientific photographer as it is to the portraitist or the advertising photographer. The wider interests of the one may be different to the wider interests of the other, though generally they will be much the same, and while it is true that no great picture can be made by one who has not learned to appreciate pictorial quality, it is equally true that no scientific photographer will adequately perform his functions if his personal experience is limited to the narrow field in which he is working.
No stimulation of intellectual development, no effort to acquire culture, will make a nation of musicians, poets, painters and fine photographers, but such a re-awakening would improve all things and produce a greater number of outstanding workers.
It should be noted that photography in the UK (and other parts of Europe) had become difficult during the war with a shortage of materials and also cameras on the open market. After WWII the British Austerity program limited imports to essential goods and very few cameras were imported, this lasted until the early 1950's.
Last edited by Ian Grant; 09-22-2012 at 02:48 AM. Click to view previous post history.
Fascinating! Thanks for sharing
"One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you'd be stricken blind." - Dorothea Lange
Ian, did you type that in or ocr/scan it? If scanned, please advise how? Thanks
It was OCR'd JJ and the paper base is like newsprint so not ideal, the OCR program is rather old 2001 but seemed to cpe remarkably well.
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Thanks Ian. It's come up very well.
I was directed here from the "It's complicated" thread in the "Ethics and Philosophy" forum.
The discussion is timeless and the need to progress and rejuvenate our work is a never ending task. Of testing our status and improving. I particularity like the idea of being immersed in intellectual and personal development - to be a poet is the live the life of a poet.
Thank you for sharing.
This article could have been written last night, it seems. How little things change!
Look at all the folks presenting themselves as photographers because their camera can do everything for them! They copy whatever the others are doing, following the herd, and creating nothing. I thought this was related to the availability of cheap and simple DSLRs, but apparently not!
Thanks for the article, I'll definitely be referencing this one!
Seems like the old saying applies: "the more things change, the more they stay the same".