Saturday, 14 November 2015

The curse of the camera club

Phillip Jones-Griffiths 1936 – 2008 
A few days ago I gave a talk to a historical society in North Wales. After the talk, which was well attended and well received, I was approached by three separate individuals who asked if I would also talk to their respective societies. To the first two, educational and civic societies, I immediately said yes, but due to many past experiences, I reserved my decision on the third, a local North Wales camera club, until I had probed a bit. "Have you all been to see the Phillip Jones-Griffiths exhibition at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth" I asked, already having pretty much guessed the answer. Shocked look. "Oh no, no, too far to go." "What?" I said, "It's in Aberystwyth, not Abyssinia. Less that two hours from here to see the biggest retrospective exhibition of probably the greatest compassionate and influential photojournalist to come out of the UK and he was from North Wales. A Welsh-speaking local boy. Not just his wonderful work from Vietnam and around the world", I said, "but vintage prints, contact sheets, notebooks, and correspondence with the great magazines at the time, plus his equipment and archives are on show. A unique opportunity, all this will never be seen together again". "Hmm", he said, "we don't really bother unless it's very local". "Well," I said, "I'm afraid I don't bother to talk to people who can't be bothered themselves". So once again, history repeated itself pretty much as expected and I said no to a camera club.

Over the years, presumably because of my various national and international exhibitions, publications and academic reputation, I have been asked to give talks at camera clubs all over the UK and I almost always refuse. Not out of a sense of aloofness or superiority, as teaching and enthusing young (and older) photographers has been an important part of my life and I teach, give talks, workshops, master classes and public lectures worldwide; but due to bad memories of previous talks and attitudes towards photography such as that above.

Every six or seven years or so, (it takes me that long to get over the experience), I relent and say yes, persuaded by a seemingly enthusiastic club member or out of a sense of guilt that, just maybe, I should try again and this time it will be different. Sadly, as you have seen above, it never is. When I was a young(ish) advertising and advertising photographer in the 1960's, an acquaintance invited me as a guest to a talk in a camera club in south Wales by the late, great photography historian, editor and writer Bill Jay (1940-2009) and Magnum photographer David Hurn. The club itself hadn't invited them but they were taking advantage of a travelling lecture scheme organised and funded by the Welsh Arts Council.

Both speakers were to me at the time, inspirational. Bill’s infectious enthusiasm for photography of all kinds and from all periods, plus David Hurn showing his own wonderful documentary work, together with the work of many other Magnum members. Sadly, apart from myself, it all fell on stony ground. There was much shaking of heads, mutterings that “these photographs would never win a camera club prize”, tut-tutting and harrumphing about ‘thirds’ and ‘composition’ etc. What was being shown represented the best work by Magnum members around the world at that time. Questions later were mainly of the irrelevant, toe-curling, embarrassing, “what film do you use” variety.

I went away inspired, then concentrated on personal photography projects and within a few years had abandoned the world of fashion photography to pursue my own documentary work. One thing led to another over the years but who would have thought at the time that years later, I would be a senior lecturer and subsequently the leader of the documentary photography course founded by David Hurn a little while after he gave that talk? Certainly not me. I wonder what happened to all those camera club members muttering about grain, composition and prizes?

If you are a camera club member of a nervous disposition then I’ll give you a health warning; you certainly shouldn’t read my previous blog posts about the R.P.S., also recounting real events and personal experience. Entries for 18/03/2014 “Long haired yobs” and 19/03/2014 “Never join any club that would have you as a member......” 

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