The Best of BritishIn a fit of madness, I entered an image into the APOY (Amateur Photographer of the Year) 2018 competition that I had taken years before joining a camera club, before subscribing to the magazine Amateur Photographer, before having had any photography lessons, before knowing anything about the rule of thirds or why I should take my camera off the P mode. And I took the image with the camera set to picture-of-mountain or "landscape" (it was the only way I knew how to keep the damned flash from going off!). It did extremely poorly.
I entered it because the theme, Best of British, was supposedly about “people, culture, and places” according to AP, although the accompanying promotional image was of an English coastal landscape. To me, British culture is, by definition, a product of human social behaviour by British people. Excuse me for having once been an academic of cultural history, but I still reckon, by extension, British places are where British culture is or was practised (I think of bingo halls, bowling greens, seaside resorts, chip shops, university quadrangles, bus shelters, football terraces, post offices, swing parks, and in sleeping bags outside department stores awaiting opening for the New Year sales). Geographically, the tops of Scottish mountains only really see the enactment of British culture when walkers, sitting on a man-made cairn of stones, take sandwiches and a flask of tea out of their rucksacks.
Of the top 30 images from the Best of British APOY round, 26 could have been Landscape Photographer of the Year entries (if you include the Urban section). A whole third could have been in the Classic View section (that is to say, well, classic landscape views, like, you know, mountains and sea stacks and more mountains). Only a third (10 images) of the top 30 APOY images included a visible human, while one tenth (3 images) depicted Britons dressing up and pretending to live in a bygone era. Actually, come to think of it, that probably does reflect modern British culture (yes, I am thinking of you, Jacob Rees-Mog).
Don’t get me wrong. I think they were almost all wonderful images. But they don’t say much to me about Britishness. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this lengthy treatise of 30,000 “words” mostly explains that the UK is unpopulated and contains some spectacular modern and some ancient and quaint but ultimately uninhabited architecture. A sixth (5 to be precise) of the images depict forms of transport that no Britons actually use today. And that is not including the Red Arrows’ Hawks which have just been consigned to history.
The Old Man of Storr and Glencoe may say “Scotland” to me but they don’t say “Scottish” (far less “British”) and I am an enthusiastic supporter of Scottish independence! Mostly, they just say “geology”. I looked at every single image uploaded to Photocrowd for this competition (yes, every single one of them!) and was dismayed by how little photojournalism was in evidence. I felt my image was one of those that most paid homage to Martin Parr and it was taken years before I knew who he was. Britons are supposedly naturals when it comes to queueing. What is more British than queueing at a village gala in summer wearing a winter jacket? My best-of-British image was taken in Scotland. Perhaps it shows Scots to be more British than I care to admit. I suspect my favourite Skye landscape image would have done better, but what does a grouse in some heather by a pristine loch devoid of humans below the granite, jagged-topped Red Cullins really say about the best of British people and culture? Well, sadly it says that the best of British, photographically speaking, is precisely where we British have left almost no trace of our existence.
Black and White Saves the DayMany, many years ago, a letter was sent to Amateur Photographer from a reader who claimed that his heart sank when the annual black-and-white issue came through the door. Imbecile! I hope such an annual issue still exists, but if not that’s fine by me, I subscribe to Black+White Photography.
When it comes to black and white photography, most magazines and introductory books limit themselves to one question: when should you shoot in mono? Broadly speaking, the answers to that question place images into one of three thematic and aesthetic groupings: graphic images; when colour is “too distracting”; historical/vintage subjects.
The idea that black-and-white photography suits graphic imagery is spot on. Ink, applied to paper from a pen or inked-up plates (engraved copper or carved wood) can be any colour. But black predominates. And with high contrast (achieved by computer software “sliders” or in the developing tray with hard grade 5 paper) black-and-white photography lives up to its name with blocks of black and white and very little grey.
We all know what is meant by colour being too “distracting”. But logically this is surely no different from advising to shoot in mono when it looks better. Turn the tables and what would you make of my advice to shoot in colour when colour really adds to your image? What distresses me is that this common advice implies that colour comes first and should only be abandoned when it does not work.
Historical, vintage, period, call it what you will, shooting in sepia to give an image a Victorian feel makes sense. While I never feel the need to create a mock Edwardian portrait, no national photographic contest is complete without at least one mock Brief Encounters style image of posed silhouetted figures upon a platform surrounded by the steam of an old locomotive. The images are always in mono. And I dislike them. When organising a Meetup shoot of jousting at Linlithgow Palace, I mockingly suggested that we shoot mono because black-and-white was all that was available to medieval knights. Biting satire it was not, for I had seen Civil War re-enactors photographed in mono because, as the magazine piece said, it was “more appropriate”!
Finally, there is the advice that one can “save” an image by converting it to mono. This just makes me depressed. Again it assumes that colour images are preferable. Worse, it assumes mono is a last resort. But even more stupifying, it is illogical. If a bad colour image can be made okay by desaturating, then presumably an okay colour image would look great in black and white. Thus, a great colour snap could become competition winning in mono. Hey, come to think of it, this is great advice.
If you wish to improve your colour images, simply convert them all to black and white!
Some Home Truths"Many a true word spoken in truth", Zena said to me 30 years ago. I had never heard that said before and have never heard it since. Except when I say it myself. And I say it a lot. It appeals to me because it suggests that many an untrue word is spoken “in truth” and that sums up what I feel about so much learned pontification. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of photographic “rules”.
It is often said that “rules are made to be broken”. Not true. Rules are made to be followed. As if recognising the fallacy of the statement, the speaker/writer usually adds that before you can break the rules you have to master them. While spoken in truth these words are not true, not true on almost every level. Photographic rules are not made. Not by man, not by god. They do not have to be followed or mastered or broken or even understood. They are not even rules.
They are largely generalisations that have been observed by those who study photography academically. But generalisations can be exceedingly general. True, people generally prefer photographs that are sharper, more focussed than those that are not. Except when less focussed looks better (motion blur, depth-of-focus blur, artistic blur). In short, the sharp bits should be sharp and the blurred bits should be blurred, BUT, the sharp bits shouldn’t be oversharpened and the blurred bits shouldn’t be too blurry or, indeed, insufficiently blurry, but just the right amount of blurry.
Many a good generalisation makes a poor law.
The success of some compositional constructions, like the rule of thirds, was recognised centuries before photography was invented. Some rules, on the other hand, have been invented based on unproven assumptions about the human mind. The left-to-right reading of images is, I believe, no more “correct” than is the eating of boiled eggs from the small end. But all photographic “rules” have one thing in common. By repeating them over and over and over, people come to believe their truthfulness. People obey the rules. People notice when others break the rules. Club judges cite the rules and club members nod knowingly. “Too much space, crop it closer.” “Too little space, don’t crop so closely.” “Right amount of space but behind the subject instead of in front.” The last constructive criticism was aimed at an image of mine that I purposefully cropped so all the space was behind the subject. My intention was to convey a disapproving glance thrown at me just as the subject disappeared from view (through a door literally, out of the frame figuratively). It is a universal truth that the photograph’s edge can suggest a physical barrier or an exit. But saying that a photographic subject “needs” space to move in to is just untrue words spoken in supposed truth. The frame’s edge can induce a sense of claustrophobia or of boundless freedom, it can make you fearful of what lies beyond or utterly indifferent to its presumed monotony. It is from such nuanced, even contradictory truths that some people attempt to derive “rules” and pass them on as advice. But not all good advice is good advice.