Monday, 11 May 2020

The Curse of the Photo Competition

My posts about the ludicrous antics of the typical British amateur camera club have been well received. Possibly one of their 'activities' that has caused the greatest stifling of any improvement in the quality of the work they produce, (I'm not talking about technique but about ideas and contemporary imagery) is the cult of the competition. I have always loathed photo competitions of any sort as they serve no useful purpose other than providing sponsors with cheap advertising, (demanding the copyright of entries for tawdry prizes) and hoodwinking the gullible competitors that winning somehow equates to you being a good photographer. An artificially, temporarily inflated ego does not equate to an improvement in your work. 
'Innocence of Eye' a new book by Pete Davis

You only have to look at the ridiculous divisions, sub divisions and sub, sub divisions of the typical camera club competition list to see that they are existing in a photographic world that, thankfully, passed on in the real world generations ago. 'Best large monochrome pictorial print - with impact'. Yes, they still talk about 'monochrome' and 'pictorial' and what on earth is 'impact?'. Come to think of it, what's a 'pictorial' photograph? The opposite of a non pictorial photograph I suppose. The very term is a throwback to victorian terminologies that have long since been extinct in the real world of photography but they linger on in the Jurassic wildernesses of the British amateur camera club. Presumably then you have the  'Best small monochrome pictorial print - with impact'. and the  'Best large monochrome pictorial print - without impact' etc. etc. At least that way I suppose everyone wins a prize - usually a much coveted (by camera club members) but extremely silly and meaningless  tiny silver cup. Well, not real silver of course.
Narberth, Pembrokeshire, Wales, 2019
That anyone thinks that this ludicrous charade has anything to do with contemporary photography is laughable. At the same time, British camera clubs wonder why young, educated and visually sophisticated young people stay away from them in their droves. The only glimmer of hope is that in another generation maybe the camera clubs, if they continue to operate as they do today will die out completely. 

We also need to examine the folks who sit in judgement in these competitions, who are they are what are there credentials? Even if we think, and we don't, that there is any value in them. Sadly, some are just opinionated older camera club members who have self-appointed themselves to this role. Their notions of 'good' photography hark back to traditions that died out in the real photography world aeons ago ago but they still waffle on about things like 'pictorial' and 'composition'. Possibly worse are those who, having bought a few worthless, so-called 'distinctions' from the RPS actually believe in their authority.
Leon, Spain, 2018
Collectively, what British amateur camera club judges know about contemporary photography can be written on the point of a pin. 

The saddest part of all this is not necessarily the pointless antics themselves but the long-term effects. These have been the smothering of any spark or glimmer of hope that anyone in a UK camera club might produce any work of merit within the contemporary photographic world. This would have been stifled by the outdated, narrow and now irrelevant ideas that linger on in British camera clubs. The embarrassing and irrelevant competition culture only serves to perpetuate this sad state of affairs. 

Monday, 24 December 2018

How limited are 'limited editions?'

As someone who sells prints to serious and discerning collectors, the vexed question of 'is this a limited edition' crops up now and again. I say now and again, as most people understand that photography is not a medium that should be a natural home for artificially restricting how many prints of a particular photograph might be printed. As we will see, this is all a bit of a red herring in photographic terms anyway.
Iris No.9, 2018 Platinum print

Limiting how many prints can be made from a particular image came originally from fine art printing such as etchings, lithographs and silk screen prints. In these examples the editions were inherently limited anyway, due to how many prints might be pulled from a screen or etching plate before it began to wear and the image deteriorate. It is also a tradition to deface or destroy the screen or plate so no more can be made. To destroy a negative would, for 99% of photographers be an unthinkable act of creative, photographic and social documentary history vandalism. I don't know one photographer who would ever contemplate such a thing. Most photographers embrace the aspect of the medium which makes it possible, in theory anyway, to make multiple prints over many years from a negative making photography a very 'democratic' medium. How often this actually happens in practice however, is very much another matter. 

Iris No.8, 2018 Platinum print
When I print a new photograph for the first time I might make two or three prints at the time and unless they are destined for exhibition somewhere right away, are stored in my archival print boxes for possible future exhibition or sale. In all the years that I have been selling original, archival gelatin / silver and platinum prints, (over fifty), through galleries, directly to collectors and public art collections, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of one particular image that I have made more than four or five prints of for sale. This just happens to be a feature of much photographic print sales, it's extremely rare for any photographer to sell that many copies of a particular image. So-called 'limited editions' don't get much more limited than that!

Artichoke No. 3, 2017 Platinum print

It's true however, that some galleries make a point of or even force the photographers whose work they handle to stipulate that prints are part of an 'edition'. Here we discover that this is a bit of an artificial ruse to inflate the price, (not the value, they are two different things) of the prints. Firstly, serious professional galleries know their client base and the relative demand for individual photographer's work very well indeed. An 'edition' then - and this applies to all galleries selling paper-based artwork, will be set at a number that can reasonably be expected to sell, plus a few more 'just in case'. This can be five, ten, twenty five, 100, whatever. Yes, the 'edition' might truly be 'limited' but in reality the gallery will ensure that it's in line with expected sales, so in effect, not limited at all. In the unlikely event of a so-called 'limited edition' selling out, the gallery will more than likely re-issue the same image in another form or size and call this yet another 'edition'. Not illegal, not really 'sharp practice' and it would only apply to a tiny minority of photographic works but it does underline the nonsense of so-called 'limited editions'. Even then, the total numbers of photographic prints made is tiny as compared with other works on paper.
Globe Artichoke No. 2, 2017 Platinum print

When you see something described as a 'limited edition' you do need to take this with a pinch of salt. However, when you buy an original, hand-made, archival silver / gelatin or platinum print from a reputable gallery or photographer, you can be certain that it will be a very special artefact which may even have been especially printed to order for you and not a mass-produced item. Also, as a hand-made print produced in a darkroom, even if there happens to be more than one or two in circulation, you can pretty much guarantee that there will be subtle differences in each print making them all truly individual.
Pete's original prints can be seen and purchased at Ffotogallery Y Gofeb

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

To Sign, or not to Sign, That is the Question....

On a photography forum recently, someone asked what pen he might use for signing the front border of his prints that are for sale. Now I have an aversion to signing the front of my photographic prints as I consider that it completely spoils the aesthetic of the presentation of a fine print, even though I know it can, if you wish, be covered by the mat when mounted properly. However, I do recognise that for serious work and serious collectors, the authentication and subsequent traceable provenance of the work is important. It may not matter that much if you are just buying a low-cost digital inkjet print for mainly decorative purposes. You know the things I mean; ultra wide-angle, over filtered and over photo-shopped sunsets etc. These also tend to be the worst offenders for the flamboyant signature in the bottom right hand corner of the white border. 
Morvan, France, 2018

When we are dealing with 'artworks' that might, in the future, retain or hopefully gain in value and become 'collectable' within a particular market, it is important that the work and the artist are clearly identifiable and the object has impeachable provenance. Painters sign their work, most usually on completion of the work using the same paint as for the main work so in future years the signature can be identified as not only being by the artist but made at the same time as the painting. If a sculptor is making an edition of bronzes from one of their works they will almost always sign the clay model that is the basis for the subsequent moulds and plaster investments to make the finished bronzes. In that way the signature or makers mark is transferred to each cast. Printmakers who made 'editions' will sign and date each one with the edition number and quantity, 3/25, 15/250 or whatever the edition maybe. Each edition will be logged with the artist or gallery and traceable, plus many printmakers have a unique embossed stamp that can be used on a blank border of a print. 
Dijon, France, 2018

Over the years I have sold many prints and continue to do so to serious collectors of my work. Prints that I made many years ago, due to my long career of producing work have become 'collectable'. Therefore it's very important that these prints are clearly identifiable as being not just my photograph but printed by me. (Important for many collectors). At the same time I loath the scrawl across the front border which is less authentication and more 'celebrity' autograph. Just having a signature on a photographic print provides little other relevant information. Serious collectors require a number of pieces of information and I ensure that these are on each print before it goes out. 

My name and copyright symbol, vital. The title of the work, the date the photograph was taken and the date the print was made. (For some collectors a print made closer to the time that the original photograph was taken becomes more 'collectable'. This applies mainly to 'vintage' work). I also include the negative number as in future years this will be traceable within my archive and support the provenance. All this information is written within my stamp on the reverse of the print. I then also sign in a space within that stamp. So all the information to authenticate that print is provided but in a way that does not interfere with the aesthetic of the image. A fine print should never be mounted in a way that makes it permanently attached to a mount so this information should always be accessible. I also keep a record in my archive of every print sold to further support the provenance and authenticity. The flamboyant scrawl across the front of a print spoils the aesthetic of a fine print and serves no really useful purpose other than inflating the ego of the photographer.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The return of the curse of the camera club

'The return of the curse of the camera club' sounds like the title to a bad horror movie. However, a horror movie is usually bad fiction while the typical British camera club is, unfortunately, all too much bad fact.  This post is the sequel to a horror story I related here in an earlier blog post. (see 14/11/2015).

That post resulted in a large number of views and many messages agreeing with my assessment of the British camera club world. Please note that I say British, my many experiences of speaking to and conducting workshops for, photographic groups in other parts of Europe and the USA are very different. 
Mechelen, Belgium, 2016

I have been involved in a number of exhibitions in north Wales over the last year which resulted in several organisations asking me to speak at their meetings. In addition, the spin off from my retrospective exhibition also resulted in a number of speaking engagements to groups who wanted to hear the big talk I gave at the National Library of Wales as part of that. None of these were camera clubs, just organisations that have an interest in art, culture and history generally. The talks were all well received. Over thirty years as a university lecturer has given me the skills to deliver quite a decent talk. 
Helsinki, Finland, 2016

I have ended up giving the same talk, one about the history of 19th. century photography in north Wales three times in a fairly short period, including twice in a month in the same town. So, when the local camera club contacted me and asked me to give the same talk to them I had to think about it. After all, they had the opportunity, twice in one month to attend the talk at other societies meetings as they are open to all and did I really want to give the same talk, in the same small town, all over again? So, despite my long-standing aversion to and refusal to talk to camera clubs, I relented but offered instead to give my 'big talk' about six decades of my work and if they agreed to that, I would give the history talk to them at a later date. An offer you couldn't refuse one would have thought, two talks for the price of one. (Actually, probably no price at all as I tend to speak for free to societies that I think are genuinely interested and worthy and just charge my usual fees to larger institutions). 
Rievaulx Abbey, north Yorkshire, 2016

In my e mail to them offering to talk I also suggested they might want to visit an exhibition in a gallery only twenty minutes from their town by a prominent, long standing, (Welsh) member of Magnum. The gallery is run by one of my ex-students and she had pulled off a coup for north Wales in getting the work there. I only mentioned it because this was the camera club who have told me in the past that they don't bother to go to see exhibitions unless they are very local. As they hadn't seen this then, even twenty minutes away is obviously too far for them. Knowing that British camera clubs are also blinkered as to what goes on in the real photography world I suggested visits to the National Library of Wales to see their fine and important photography collection and a visit to Cardiff to see David Hurn's 'Swaps' exhibition where they can see the prints he has collected from some of the worlds greatest documentary photographers. My suggestions were obviously a bit too radical for them and they suspected that my talk might be about photography, not cameras or technique. They were not having any of that, oh dear me no and they refused my offer. 
Betws y coed, Conwy, north Wales, 2015
Rather like the woman in the photograph opposite, they sit in their meeting rooms with their heads buried in the club rule book and their eyes blinkered to all the real, great photography that surrounds them. All very sad and yet predictable I'm afraid and another example of the strange attitudes that seem to pervade British camera clubs. As I have said here before, I do try, I do offer to encourage, enthuse and educate but when they are clearly not really interested in photography, only playing with cameras and gimmicky effects, such as producing grotesque, over-photoshopped sunsets etc., there's little I can do. Just don't say I didn't offer.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Past work given a new life

Having to review a lifetime's work for my major retrospective exhibition, gave an opportunity to re-look at bodies of work made many years ago. This gives a chance to re-appraise this in the light of my own changing opinions and sufficient time having passed from making it to be detached and possibly more critical.
One view of Pete's major retrospective exhibition at the
 National Library of Wales, 2017
The beauty of contact sheets is that you can look over almost everything at a glance almost as if they are new work and sometimes discover little gems that have been missed previously. The downside of reviewing old work of course, can be that you re-appraise some of it and wonder why you printed 'that one', or 'those', in the first place. 
Another view of the exhibition

There are upsides to this process though. Re-looking at older work with fresh eyes can reveal themes and juxtapositions of images that may have been missed on first looking, editing or printing are revealed. Also, from a distance of many years, the new, historical context of work  alters the way in which you view it and suggests a new way to present it.

In my case the bodies of work in question were first seen as exhibitions and apart from very slim catalogues, no permanent printed collection of the work existed apart from the exhibition prints. While interest in some of this work has been maintained over the years, there has never, until now, been an opportunity to sit down and look hard at them and put together permanent collections in book form.

Editing and sequencing work for a book is very different from laying out an exhibition. You need to bear in mind scale, viewing distance, size of images and the differences between the space of a gallery and the relative intimacy of the book. It's a challenge and many hours are spent moving images about, re-ordering sequences and groups and playing with size, themes and juxtapositions. Stimulating and frustrating but ultimately, rewarding.
'City Stories - Photographs of Cardiff 1969-1977'
I chose to review two bodies of work from the past, 'Photographs of Cardiff 1969-1977' and the 'Great Little Tin Sheds of Wales' and publish them in book form. The necessity of looking closely at these revealed themes and individual images that were passed over for the original exhibitions. In so doing they have a very different 'feel' to the original exhibitions and the opportunity to now see these works newly sequenced, with images never printed before has given the work a new life in a more permanent form than the exhibition.
'Great Little Tin Sheds of Wales'
They were both published to coincide with the opening of the retrospective exhibition and are well-produced hard-back books that do justice to the photographs and have re-invigorated older bodies of work and given them a new life. 

Both books are available from the National Library of Wales shop and from the Pen'rallt gallery bookshop:

Sunday, 27 November 2016

"How do you get that effect?"

Long time ago, in the days when I used to, very occasionally, give talks to camera clubs when requested, (I don't any more, see previous blog posts), this was one of the more facile questions I used to be asked. It ranks alongside the popular and equally irrelevant, "what film do you use" or "is burning and dodging allowed?" This would be after I had probably poured my heart out for an hour, explaining how I devised my projects, what photographic influences I called upon, why I chose a particular strategy to make the work and what research I had done. All this illustrated profusely with my images. Then I would invite questions and hope for the intelligent but wait, poised for the inevitable. My heart would sink. 

Buttermere, Cumbria, 1991, from the series 'Northern Light'
However, "how do you get that effect?" was probably the one question that irked me most due to the shallow reading of my images. Probably this would be in response to a picture like the one here. "How do you get that cloud effect?". Me; "Um, it's not an effect, those are real clouds". Puzzled looks, shaking of heads, "no, no, really, is it a secret?". "No, they are real clouds, try looking up sometime". "But what if you go out and there aren't any clouds, how do you make them"? By then I had probably lost the will to live. 

Over the years I sort of began to understand the camera club mentality and how it had little or nothing to do with a knowledge of, or love for, photography or the representation through the medium of the world about us. No-one seemed to be interested in serious projects or significant photography, only making photographs that corresponded to some dubious system of rules. This is why the questions were always about  it being right or wrong to do this or that. As if you ticked a list of boxes when making a photograph it would, as if by magic, become a relevant image with some merit. Of course, it never does.
The Great Stone of Fourstones, N.Yorkshire, 1993 from the series 'Northern Light'

There also seemed to be an obsession with the time of day that photographs were taken, this question came up a lot. I was puzzled for ages until someone let slip that there was some unwritten, dubious, nonsensical 'rule' that it was frowned upon to take photographs around midday! I never quite figured this out and really don't want to, something to do with the light apparently! 
Seatoller, Cumbria, 1991 from the series 'Northern Light'

Then of course, there was the infamous 'rule of thirds' about which I have written before. As my photographs almost never corresponded to the camera club rule book, and I had real clouds and real people doing real things in my images and no 'special effects', my talks would go down like a lead balloon.  I would inevitably leave behind some very disappointed club members who had expected me to confirm all their false illusions about what photography is about and the various myths that are perpetuated within the club world. So to the question "how do you get that effect" my answer is - open your eyes, take in the wonderfulness of the world around you as it is. It's all there already if you can be bothered to look up from the 'rule' book... And don't even get me started on the ludicrous titles that camera club folks give their photographs..............

Sunday, 19 June 2016

How we view the world

I am often asked if I mind the fact that almost everyone has instant access to some kind of camera and that there are more photographs taken now, at every possible event and occasion and do I feel intimidated? The simple answer is no and I actually welcome the ease of image making today which makes photography much more democratic. 

This is not a new debate or phenomenon, it has been a long, gradual process ever since the invention of photography. First the province of the well-off upper middle class who could afford both the time and expense to devote to the new medium, then with almost every development in the process it become slightly more democratic. From the wet plate process which demanded high levels of technical skill combined with expensive chemistry and apparatus, through to the dry plate and then Kodak's 'you press the button, we do the rest' making photography available to almost all. 

My Dad's camera - a six-20 Kodak Junior
It was the relative ease of obtaining affordable cameras that prompted my own interest and made it possible for  me. My Father owned a reasonably good camera, acquired when he was an apprentice painter and decorator before WW2. Even on his low wages at that time he was able to buy a folding Kodak and it was with him all through his extensive service in the Royal Navy during the war and recorded his travels and was with him through a lot of action.  After the war it was used to record family life just like everyone does now with their iPads and phones. Not quite as portable and quick and easy maybe but it was still accessible to most and gave us a valuable record of our family life at that time. Having your photograph taken was still an event though, it did cost something to get the film processed at the chemist and prints made so they were treasured and not 'throw away'. 

A family friend, me and my Mother by Caernarvon Castle, 1950
He was even taking colour films and they had to be sent off to Kodak in Rochester New York to be processed at printed, there not being many places in the UK available to amateurs for this just after WW2. Luckily for me, my Dad treasured his photographs, possibly because of the trouble he took to get them in the first place and he kept the negatives safely. They are still in good condition as you can see from the scan above.  This careful preservation of photographs  seems to be in stark contrast to the 'quick delete' of the majority of images today. I do wonder how much social history will be lost, especially as even those that are saved are never printed but end up on transient social media sites. 

My first camera - Kodak Brownie 127
My Father's interest in photography sparked mine and he encouraged me. By then, simple cameras had become even more affordable  and were owned by even more families. There was till the expense of commercial processing and printing but my Father encored me to learn so for us it became slightly cheaper. While photography became more democratic  the resulting images were still treasured and kept safely.

Mantes-la-Jolie, France, 2014
There was also a slightly different relationship between a photographer and their subjects due to the effort and expense, although minimal by then, it took to make photographs. The making of photographs was a reaction to observing something that was special to you and wishing to keep it. 

This added to the memory and the experience rather than just recording a special moment, unlike today, when for most, seeing and experiencing an event or place is done through a cameraphone or iPad rather than just using it to record a special moment. The real event itself is not experienced, only seen through a digital interface to be relived in two dimensions later then probably discarded or consigned to a corner of a hard drive or disappear into the 'cloud'.

St. Petersburg, Russia, 2016
Of course, we photographers are obsessive gatherers of imagery and the accusation is often levelled at us that we see the world through our cameras. Not true of course for most of us as the cliche makes clear; the camera is an extension of our eyes, not a replacement for them. We have learned to absorb, appreciate, understand and revel in the many facets of our life and world and choose to record and interpret this in our way, for others.