Gray’s Anatoly: Call me a bad loser…
I recently received the catalogue from the Taylor-Wessing Portrait Prize exhibition through the post. It includes all the winning photos currently being shown in the National Portrait Gallery. It doesn’t include any of mine, which weren’t selected. The voice in my head as I write this is that of Charlie Brooker, who is one of the subjects in the exhibition. Which brings me to my first gripe. It seems to me that you have a very good chance of being chosen if your portrait is of someone famous (or even just fairly famous, as in Brooker’s case). If it’s The Queen of England or the Head of the United Nations, you can pretty much guarantee you’ll get in, even if your photo is underexposed, out of focus and has a coffee cup stain on it. Celeb faces will get the punters in the door and they also mean the photographer must already be relatively well-established, which means the judges are on safe territory if they pick them.
So to my second gripe. At the risk of revealing myself to be embarrassingly out of touch with high-end photographic intelligentsia, this collection of photos exhibits a very narrow range of human emotion. Seriously, people just aren’t that serious. Even if you ascribe to the questionable blank-expression theory (I don’t: in my view, a blank expression is still an expression), the fact that 90% of the photographers exhibited do makes for a monotonous visual and human experience. Especially in the pictures where you just know the subjects have been told “Stop smiling!” by the photographer, the resulting images become so cliched as to be laughable (well, we would if it were allowed).
And finally, and speaking of cliches, here’s a bit of a cheap (though irresistible) shot. The red-head thing was already a massive cliche (according to the Portrait Salon, a group of photographers that celebrates the 99% of submissions rejected by the official Taylor Wessing jury), yet the judges seem to have gone the other way, as if to spite the mockers. This year’s exhibition is not only peppered with red heads, there are no fewer than three sets of red-headed twins. Are they doing it on purpose just to make people laugh? Say cheese!
Gray’s Anatoly: Fishy Images
I wonder if anyone said “Nice capture!” or “Awesome catch!” to Cartier-Bresson. These days they’re comments you see a lot on the photo-sharing platforms. A while back, I didn’t really like the terms “capture” and “catch”. For me, it sounded too much like fishing. I much preferred “nice shot”, like golf, or clay-pigeon shooting. (I’ve never been fishing or clay-pigeon shooting). But I’ve seen the comment so much that it’s grown on me and it got me thinking about the similarities between taking photos and fishing.
I was thinking about it more when I started using the new iPhone 5S. Its new burst function takes around 10 frames per second. If normal photo-taking is like fishing, this feels like trawler fishing, I thought. The first time I used it was in a crowded Portobello Road market. I held up my phone, walked forward into a sea of people, and kept my finger on the button. With the 4S, I’d have got 4 or 5 frames, by tapping repeatedly. Now I can get 40 or 50. My net comes up full of fishy images. I don’t think Cartier-Bresson would have approved.
So is it too easy to get good catches now? Well, you still have to decide where a good spot will be to lower your photographic net. And you still have decide to what depth to lower it and when. And you still have to decide what your best fishy image is, when you sift through the many sometimes infinitesimally different pictures that you capture, looking for that killer one, that decisive image, or “moment”, as Apple are calling them now. Come to think of it, that’s one modern term Cartier-Bresson might have liked.
Fishing for images in Portobello market
Gray’s Anatoly: Make a calendar and force people to look at your photos for a whole year
The other day I was reminded of that line in the Smith’s song, Frankly, Mr Shankly: “Sometimes I feel more fulfilled, making Christmas cards with the mentally ill.”. Snapfish have this really excellent online tool for making calendars out of your photos and I’m getting a worryingly large amount of pleasure from it. So far I’ve done a calendar for my golf club (now in its second edition), one based on my music photos and I’ve just finished one of my mobile photos. I say “worryingly” because it feels like it’s not a very professional or creative thing to do. It involves a lot of sorting and classifying. Yes, going through old photos, putting the best ones into folders, choosing a certain number of portrait ones and a certain number of landscape ones, trying to choose some that match a particular month on the calendar (ie a sunny picture for August and a snowy one for January), putting two or three that go well together on the same page. So, worrying, because it’s a slightly mechanical thing to do. If I wanted to present it as something of greater value, I might say I was curating my photos. Are there other examples of photographers or artists who have applied their work in very practical ways? Come on, help me out here.
Calendars are a great way of forcing people to look at your photos for a whole year. The aim is that the recipients will feel so touched that I have thought of them at Christmas, gone to all that effort of wrapping up a real object, writing a little note and then going down the post office to post it, that they don’t immediately throw it in the bin. I’ll be very pleased if about 10% of them end up hanging on walls. I will put a copy of each on walls around my house - I find it’s good to live with them a bit. You learn what works and what doesn’t. And I think it’s nice to give those otherwise purely digital images some corporeal existence, a new purpose in life.
The cover of the 2014 rugfoot mobile photography calendar (signed copies available).
No such thing as a free lunch in photo-sharing platforms
Yay! I set up my own website! That’s the third one I’ve created in my lifetime and the experience is always exhausing. My head craned towards my screen, my eyes strain to check the brackets and the commas in that tiny little font that they use. One little piece of punctuation out of place and the whole thing can come crashing down. And you have to scour blocks of code to find where the problem is. There’s no undo button so you can’t just automatically reverse the brainless error you’ve just made.
My new website is a simple shop window for my mobile photos. I’ve curated the photos into subjects, so it’s a place where people can browse the best of my work without having to see my family snaps or be distracted by a third-party photo-sharing platform’s ads or branding. Each time I’ve gone through this process, I realise how much human resource, expertise and money must go into those slick photo-sharing platforms, which are a thousand times more than a shop window. They are incredibly complex and powerful machines. We take them for granted and we never expect to pay for them. And we are outraged and dismissive if there is even the slightest glitch. Yet we can’t ask for our money back because we didn’t pay any to start with. But as we all know now, we still “pay”, just not with money. We pay through our personal data, we licence our photos to be used in ads and on some platforms now we will be exposing our eyes to ads. But this is the new economy. There’s still no such thing as a free lunch: we just don’t pay for it in luncheon vouchers any more.
Setting up a website can be exhausting
Gray’s Anatoly: Taking photos doesn’t have to be offensive
I went on a photo walk around Southall with the excellent Click London meetup group on Saturday. This area of London has a large Asian community and our walk took us inside the local Sikh temple and to a music shop, where we were given a workshop in tabla (Indian drumming). I learnt (or was reminded of) a couple of things about photography, and specifically about mobile photography.
1) People are generally OK with being photographed. On entering the temple, we asked if it would be alright to take photos. Sure, said one of the magnificently bearded and turbaned temple officials. He designated a guide and we were shown around. Having a guide was good because it gave us an outward sign to others that we had been approved. Some people worry that the act of taking a photo is offensive to people. But if you go about it in an honest and respectful way, there isn’t usually a problem. In fact, the opposite is often the case. As I wandered around the dining area unabashedly looking for photo opps, a bride who had got married that morning invited me to take a photo of her. Already clearly in the marital driving seat, she called over her groom from the other side of the room for the shot.
2) Although we had permission to take photos in the temple, I’m sure we were bolder and more successful with our photography because we were using mobile devices. We simply wouldn’t have had the courage to take the photos we did with larger cameras and people would have been more aware of us. We weren’t hiding our photo-taking, we were just less obtrusive (and so more successful) because we used mobiles. And sometimes it’s the way you take your photos, or how indiscrete you are (and that involves the size of your camera), not the fact of taking photos, that people object to. If they can’t see you doing it, they don’t mind about it.
Check out some of the brilliant images our group created here.
Already in the marital driving seat
Gray’s Anatoly: Death, birth or survival? The psychology of converging lines
It’s a classic compositional technique. Have your lines lead your eye to your subject. Or if you don’t have a subject, just have lines that converge to a point in the distance. And if you want, put that point in the distance slap bang in the middle of the picture. A lot of people do. And it never seems to fail. If you live in a city, there’s an opportunity at almost every turn. Lots of lovely corridors, buildings and tunnels to get those lines converging.
So what’s the fascination with converging lines? I’ve heard a few theories:
1) We like to know where our means of escape is. In the same way that our primeval subconsciouses like to have us sit facing a door, could it be that we like to be able to see the point where we can escape from a predator?
2) Many people talk about going down a long passageway when they experience a near-death experience. They are floating down that corridor of uncertainty towards an end that is uncertain but which keeps on getting closer. Are we drawn to pictures that presage that moment? What Freud called our “death drive”?
3) Speaking of life and death, some people have said to me we are drawn to converging lines because it reminds us of the moment we were born. When I heard this I paused, thought about it, and replied: “Shouldn’t the lines be going in the other direction for that?”. Or does it depend if you were born feet or head first? I can’t remember, what’s the usual one?
Anyway, like photography generally, we can analyse it til the cows come home, with some photos we just have to say, I like it because I like it. Or not, as the case may be.
Why do we like them so much?
Gray’s Anatomy: Music and photography (part 2)
A while back I drew some comparisons between photography and music. And I included a section in my advanced class where I asked my students to produce a photographic response to some music I played them. Today on my favourite BBC 6Music station I seem to be hearing a lot of music by “producers”. Until recently, producers were anonymous characters who “twiddled knobs”. Yes, some were quite famous but they usually stayed out of the limelight. But then artists like Streets and Moby emerged from their darkened bedrooms and proved that all you needed was Garage Band to produce (in the sense of “make”) music. You didn’t actually need to be able to play any instruments. So the producers probably thought: if these kids can get in the charts with their digital doodling, surely we should be able to, given the technical wizardry at our fingertips. And hey, you don’t need to be able to play instruments. No, you don’t, but you do need to think up something good, in terms of melody, narrative, drama, emotion, so the really key ingredients that make up good music. The technical barriers have lifted, but the really hard stuff, the stuff that requires raw talent, remains.
This levelling of the talent field in music reminded me of mobile photography. It’s now a lot easier for people to perk up a photo by adding a filter, or even taking full control of the editing with some pretty sophisticated apps, like Filter Storm or PS Touch. You can photoshop in things from other photos, you can change colours, textures, or even go completely crazy with some left-field transformations. The apps that allow you to do this cost next to nothing and you can do all this on the go if you’re short for time. But, just like music, although the technical barriers are now lower, you still need the same key ingredients as you always did to make good photos. For your harmony, you need to understand composition. For your tune, you need to tell a good story. For your musical emotion, you need photographic emotion. And in the same way that talented bedroom DJs are emerging as successful music makers, so many of today’s mobile photographers will emerge and become tomorrow’s leading photographers.
DJs coming out of their bedrooms
The followocracy fallacy
I read recently that a hotel in Australia will give you a free night’s stay if you have more than 10,000 followers on Instagram. The idea (we suppose) is that you will take some photos, post them on Instagram and give the hotel some PR.
But it’s another example of how having large numbers of Instagram followers gets you free stuff. We might call it a “followocracy”. The more followers you have, the more doors open for you. As a power user, you have power. Over the last few years, we’ve seen how enough followers will get you all-expenses-paid trips if you agree to post pictures of their hotels, handbags or mineral water. Or free tickets to some cool events. Or even just good old-fashioned money. This followocracy is sustained by the belief that power users have some advertising influence through their follower numbers. But don’t advertisers wonder whether power-user value is a bit like a junk-mail delivery service? Yes, they can push things through a lot of people’s front doors, but most will go straight in the rubbish without being read, or there’ll be no-one home or they could start to annoy the recipients.
Some people still labour under the delusion that the quality of a power user’s photos is the reason they have so many followers. Of course, the power users themselves like to believe this too (who wouldn’t?) - this is how Instagram ensures they stay loyal to their platform. Some do happen to be quite good, but that’s not why they have lots of followers. Look closer and you’ll see most have got their follower numbers through Instagram’s suggested user list. Sometimes Instagram gives out large followings in this way to its pals (ie good old-fashioned nepotism), most other times they want people who they think will do good PR on their behalf. And if they weren’t already really a key influencer, in a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy, because Instagram annoints them as such, the world believes they are.
The democratising force of mobile
Mobile photography has been heralded as the new point of entry for photography. Here in the UK, some of our most respected photography institutions (eg The British Journal of Photography, The Photographers’ Gallery, etc) have embraced mobile as a fresh new genre that is attracting new talent to photography. I’ve said more than once that I reckon the Photographic Canon should be grateful so many more people are now doing photography thanks to mobile. And I think many of tomorrow’s Annie Leibovitzes and David Baileys will have started out with mobiles. And since more people are doing photography, standards will be higher too.
When we talk about the democratising force of mobile, we’re usually thinking about kids in baseball caps who are now trying out photography when they wouldn’t have 10 years ago. But here’s an initiative that stretches the reach of photography even further, putting cameras and photography skills in the hands in people who aren’t wearing baseball caps, who because of their marginalisation in society would be unlikely to pick a camera. It’s a project called Heart of a Woman and its aim is to empower women on the margins of South African society to take photos with mobile devices. Not only might they be able to sell their own photos, but the project will do for them exactly what mobile photography did for me, and for many others - give them a new and exciting means of creative personal expression.
Wasn’t it great for us when we discovered mobile photography? Well, you can help Heart of a Woman allow many more people experience that same buzz. You can make it happen in many ways, by doing your own blog, by tweeting, by donating your old iphone and, of course, putting your hand in your pocket. If you really believe in the democratising power of this new photographic genre, put your money (or efforts) where your mobile is.
Not just for kids in baseball caps
Gray’s Anatoly: your Instagram picture-track
(WARNING: slightly self-indulgant blog post)
Love em or hate em, Instagram provides a useful picture-track (I just invented that term, it’s like a soundtrack but in pictures) to our lives over the last two or three years. When my wife asked me: when did we go to Corsica? I reply, well it must have been after March 20, 2011 (the day of my first Instagram) because I’ve got Instagram photos from there. With each photo, I remember what we were doing and often the process of taking the photo that I went through.
So I decided to map my1,652 Instagrams in chronological order (more for my own benefit than yours) to date. I know you can get a map of all your Instagrams but that doesn’t map the “when”:
March 28, 2011: Lisbon; April 25: Brighton; May 1: Bruges; June 18: Auntie’ Maggie’s 70th; June 30: Arcade Fire in Hyde Park; July 9: Corsica; July 15: Latitude festival; July 31: Brighton; August 9: London riots; August 26: Rock en Seine festival, Paris; September 3: End of the Road festival; September 18: the apple crop; September 24: David Graham NPG workshop; October 10: Grayson Perry exhibition; October 22: Instagramers exhibition; October 29: Almeria; November 18: Norwich; November 29: Pixel This exhibition; January 1, 2012: Isle of Wight; January 7: Brighton; February 6: Bristol; February 15: Apple Store talk; February 19: Morzine; February 27: Aunty Maggie’s funeral; March 31: Highgate Cemetary; April 15: Dubrovnik; May 2: Other Cinema; May 6: Torrevieja; May 14: iphoggy launch; May 21: Luton playoff at Wembley; June 3: Applecart festival; June 9: No Direction Home festival; July 6: St Albans, J’s birthday; July 14: Latitude festival; July 26: Olympics; August 16: new season at Luton; August 23: Campus Party Berlin; August 26: Brighton; September 1: End of the Road festival; September 9: V’s birthday; September 29: Madrid, Vejer, Jerez; November 7: KCC exhibition; January 23, 2013: Snow in London; Feburary 1: San Fransisco, New York; March 11: Jura; April 6: Brighton; April 23: Wake Fest; May 5: Surf Savers; May 15: Ostend; May 31: Field Day festival; June 3: Berlin; June 26: Galaxy experiment; July 14: Latitude festival; August 3: Holi Festival; August 10: Brighton; August 18: Greenman Festival; August 30: End of the Road festival; September 7: Bordeaux.
Between these noteworthy events are pictures from various football matches, concerts, wanders around London, business trips to Zurich, cycle commutes, museum visits, rounds of golf and train journeys. What a life we lead.