Month: April 2014

Red Jumpsuit Apparatus believes digital art should be free

I believe that if I own something, I can give it away. If I choose not to charge for my time or services, that’s entirely up to me. It’s a completely different thing to appropriate someone else’s work, alter it, refuse to give credit and then claim the right to give it away. The recent controversy is a case in point. From Peta Pixel.

Not so GREAT for Photographers

Another side of the same story. I can’t believe that David Bailey was asked to work for free on this campaign,

Photo This & That

The UK Government’s GREAT Project Cons Photographers

Campaign Pleads Poverty Even Though

It Has £55M To Get Free Pictures

Three prominent UK press photographers were contacted by the marketing assistant of the government’s UK Trade and Investment office to supply photographs for the GREAT Campaign. In her email to one of the photographers, Isabel Bustillos goes on to say “The GREAT campaign showcases UK excellence in a variety of sectors”. The photographers contacted, Glenn Copus, Shaun Curry and John D McHugh, have with their work shown excellence and as a result were contacted for the photograph needed by the GREAT campaign.

So far, so good. Sadly, the GREAT campaign and the UK Trade and Investment office, showed absolute unprofessionalism and utter disrespect towards the photographers and the value of photography, by initially saying they had very tight budgets so were after a collaboration, asking for the pictures for…

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A winning formula

Some of my pupils like entering photographic competitions. They are all competent enough, but one is doing a lot better than the others.

At the time of writing, the more successful pupil has reached the final three in her age group in a major photographic competition attracting nearly three thousand entries.  Her friends tell her how lucky she is.

A few months ago she entered her first photographic competition.

The questions arising from this are, what makes a winning photograph?  How do you catch the judges’ eye and separate your work from all the others?

Some time ago we ran a workshop on creativity in relation to being a successful artist. What we concluded that the most of the successfully creative artists have a number of characteristics in common.

Firstly, they have a level of talent that sets them apart.

Secondly, they have a depth of knowledge which allows them to formulate a response to the subject that sets them apart.

Thirdly, they are able to realise their idea in a skilful manner.

Fourthly – timing.

Successful talented people are able to read the semiotic messages of the audience that they are presenting their work to. If you’ve ever looked at a piece of art and wondered why that is considered to be good, or valuable, then perhaps you are not the person it was created to impress. Although that may seem elitist, or patronising, it is nevertheless true. If you can’t see why an art collector might pay a substantial amount of money for an installation that requires its own gallery to simply to store it, then you just aren’t the market it was designed for.

The same is true of prize winning photography.  You simply have to give the judges what they are looking for, in the manner that that the judges expect.

How many times must a semi-competent photographer hear the phrase, ’you were lucky to get that shot’? Although there are times when it does seem that luck plays a part in the image, it’s a much smaller part than most people would imagine. In the summer of 2013, on our family holiday to Scotland we saw thirteen Minke Whales, three Orca, numerous dolphins, a few porpoises and many, many seals. Had we seen any of these things from our home in Buckinghamshire, then it really would have been lucky, but as we were on a mission to see cetaceans, it reduces the ‘luck’ element substantially if you go to the place, or places, that you are likely to see them. Once in the right place, patience places a far greater role than luck.

If I wanted to enter a landscape photographic competition, Buckinghamshire is probably not the most dramatic place to take vast sweeping vistas, so perhaps I would go somewhere else to take the photo, or concentrate on the small details of the landscape that I can do more easily from home. On the other hand, perhaps I could select a landscape from my own collection which I had taken previously, and (the rules of the completion allowing), submit that. Luck doesn’t enter the equation. Rather it is knowledge, experience and resources that lead to success.

In the case of my student, the path to her first competition success seems very clear with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight.

It was a local competition for young people and my student fell into the young end of the 15-18 age group. As a small club competition the number of entries for her age bracket was about forty, each competitor being allowed to make two entries.

The first shot was of some model soldiers, shot very close-up, with very limited depth of field, dark vignetting around  the edges and with an out of focus poppy in the background.

As a shot this was a clear development of an idea that we had been developing in class, carried out very well. Not only did it show talent, but it grew directly out of the knowledge she’d gained studying her subject. So here we have points 1 and 2 above.

The realisation of the shot (point 3) was done, not only in a technically skilful way, but in a way that an experienced camera club judge would recognise, and respond to. With the photograph, she was ‘speaking’ the same language as the judge, a point lost on many of the young people in the competition (including others that I taught!).

And for point 4, above, the competition was held just before remembrance day!

This photograph placed second.

The second entry was of a model walking away, down a path in the woods. Taken at a slight angle, again with limited depth of field and vignetting, this was converted to monochrome.  Again it spoke directly to the photographic preconceptions of the judge.

The realisation and editing of the shot made it stand out starkly against the backdrop of the others in the completion, including the shot that came second.

This photograph placed first.

Creativity is a skill. It may come in bursts of inspiration, but for the vast, vast majority of creative people, it is the result of hard work. This work results in a body of knowledge, skill and experience that brings success.

My fifteen year old pupil might seem an exception to this. How can she possibly have the experience, or the time to have put in this hard work. There are two points that are relevant here. The first is that she is picking (or being guided to pick) her competitions carefully. Just as you would never put a novice boxer (no matter how strong, talented or committed) against an established and experienced champion, it would be wrong  to encourage her to enter high profile competitions at this early stage of her career. Even if there was a good chance she would do well, the more sensible and long term route is to build up over a series of events that are designed to bring success and build confidence, competence and experience.

The second point leads from the first, but first an aside. To be clear, this pupil’s work is her own work. Anyone who has visited the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition will have read a caption under a photograph that reads something like this, “It’s been my ambition to photograph capuchin monkeys for years. This shot was taken from our hide, with a Canon 5D m111, and a EF 200-400”, says Michael, aged 9.

It would be really easy to say to any young person, ‘just press the button now!’ It would also be completely dishonest if they were to claim credit for the shot that you had created for them. Around the year 2000, I had the opportunity to bring into the studio a young boxer called Michael Sprott. After setting up the shot, I supervised the processing of the film and then the printing of the final image.

A month or so later a student announced that ‘his’ portrait had won a prize in a local camera club competition. When asked, he could not point to any part of the process that had been his work and not mine.

So, the second point that I’d make is that of the role of the mentor in the creative process.  There are those pupils who show exceptional talent in a particular field. Talent in itself is no guarantee of success, but often is just one of three aspects. The second aspect for young people is a supportive home background. To bring out talent in any field requires a lot of financial and emotional input from the home. The third aspect is that of mentor. This is different from teacher: more akin to personal sports coach. The mentor is the person with the expert knowledge and experience that the pupils, no matter how creative needs to direct effort of the desired outcome.

For her current competition entry, my pupil has made it to the point where, at minimum, she will achieve local press attention, she gets a trip to London to the Awards ceremony and gets an achievement to put on her CV that makes her  really standout, no matter which direction she wants to go after school.

Her photograph builds directly on work we have been doing in class for the last eighteen months. It is the clear synthesis of the work of two established artists, but made her own and very much in keeping with the theme of the competition as well as a direct tie-in to current events and changes in UK legislation.

At the time of writing I do not know how she will do. For the next week or so, I can’t even name the competition or mention the organisation running it.

Whatever the outcome, it’s a great achievement, but one where luck has played no part at all.




Lego Photographer takes shocking photo!

Lego Photographer takes shocking photo!

So, my little friend struggled with the wind, and I struggled with the focus point of my ‘phone, but he got the shot of the daffodils, and I got the shot of him. Imagine my surprise to see a young couple holding themselves in total panic and staring at me in horror.

It was only looking at the ‘phone photo a few seconds later that the reason became clear – their child had stumbled into my shot. It’s a sad day indeed when a legographer can’t go about his craft without small children trying to ruin his art!

A Crisis in Photography?

GCSE Photography

There is a (allegedly) Chinese curse; ’May you live in interesting times’. For many people    involved in photography, particularly people trying to make a living out of it, these are  indeed interesting times!

Photography is going through immense changes and the figures to support these changes are simply staggering. By November 2011, an estimated 100 billion photographs had been shared by social network sites, and by April 2012 Facebook users alone were posting photographs at the rate of 300 million a day!

These are numbers so vast that they are meaningless. We live in a world saturated with   images. Through sheer weight of numbers nearly every conceivable photograph has been   already been taken, and often taken very well.

At the same time, however, the level of photographic literacy and technical knowledge within the picture taking public  continues to fall. Not only do people not need much  technical expertise to take…

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Portraits of Reconciliation

“Last month, the photographer Pieter Hugo went to southern Rwanda, two decades after nearly a million people were killed during the country’s genocide, and captured a series of unlikely, almost unthinkable tableaus. In one, a woman rests her hand on the shoulder of the man who killed her father and brothers. In another, a woman poses with a casually reclining man who looted her property and whose father helped murder her husband and children. In many of these photos, there is little evident warmth between the pairs, and yet there they are, together. In each, the perpetrator is a Hutu who was granted pardon by the Tutsi survivor of his crime.”


A quite amazing account from the New York Times Magazine

The Rise of the Selfie

Self portraits have never been more popular, and certainly never cheaper. As soon as mobile ‘phones had cameras installed into them, the selfie exploded in popularity. And as soon taken, shared with friends in the virtual world. It doesn’t matter where you are (although toilets, bathrooms and their mirrors are surprisingly popular), nor really what you are doing. ‘Look at me! Look, I’m here. This is what I’m doing right now!’

Naturally celebrities are in on the act a well. Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Madonna; all are enthusiasts of the form.

Of course self-portraits are nothing new. The earliest recorded self portrait is probably that of early photographic pioneer Robert Cornelius in 1839, the very same year that Fox Talbot developed the negative-positive process. This shot was probably taken with the help of an assistant, but as early as the 1880’s cameras were available with self-timers to allow the photographer time to press the shutter release and then get into the shot. In addition, the development of long cable releases which enabled the photographer to operate the camera from a distance allowed further opportunities to take self-portraits.

These early self-portraits relied upon long exposures and therefore tended towards formal, posed portraits. They were also expensive and time consuming to set up, so generally not taken on a whim.  Early self-portraits were serious affairs.

Not so selfies. Even the name implies a flippancy that would have been unthinkable to the early practitioners of photography. The selfie allows us to show ourselves as dynamic, evolving individuals, on the move, leading interesting lives and sharing those lives with other interesting people.

There is a deeply egoistic element to the selfie. Affirmation from friends (both real-world friends and social media friends) builds and reinforces a sense of worth. The selfie taker says to the world (or the tiny fraction of the social media world that includes their ‘friends’), ‘Look at me now. Look how interesting I am. And I think you are important enough to share my important life with you.’ When the ‘likes’ flood in, the self-importance of the selfie taker is reinforced, and even the ‘haters’ comments’ mean that you are important enough to warrant a comment, even if it an unpleasant one. Either way, you are important enough for people to respond to and the selfie allows the taker to actively express their online identity, with total control over which images are to be uploaded, and which are to be rejected.

Again, there is nothing inherently novel about self-centred, self-edited self-portraits. The most famous self-portrait photographer in undoubtedly Cindy Sherman, and certainly her massive commercial success speaks volumes about the appeal of the genre to collectors of her work. The Sherman approach is very different from the contemporary selfie. Each image is a carefully crafted piece of art, with a huge amount of preparations needed to create her unique and often disturbing images.

The selfie seems a rejection of seriousness, a rejection of the conventions of photography. The selfie taker is largely freed from the conventions of the traditional photograph, the genre creating its own rules as it goes.

It’s also effectively free. In the days when the only option was film, taking each photograph could have been a deeply considered process. With only 24 or 36 exposures on a roll of film, that put an effective limit on the amount of experimentation a photographer could play with. As cameras required manual focus (not to mention considerations about exposure control), Waving the camera around in front of your own face in the (largely vain) hope that you would get a useable image was not something that most photographers would do. Then, of course there was the expense and wait to get the film processed to see what the result of your efforts have been.

The selfie allows control (although not usually of the camera itself) and an immediate, often silly snapshot of the events of our lives. The fact that you can immediately view the results means that most shots can be reproduced over and over again until the taker gets the desired result. As soon as selfie perfection, although that may only mean a duck-faced pout, has been created, then it can be shared, and reshared.

Art it may not be, but the selfie represents an iconic representation of our times. Future historians and curators of the early twenty-first century will have a wealth of self-generated images to build a picture of our lives in a way that has been rarely captured in the past.

2013 has undoubtedly been the year of the selfie. As a term, it has been officially recognised as a legitimate word and included in dictionaries for the first time. It is also indicative of the way photography is changing and perceived (see XXXXX chapter). For the spontaneous selfie taker, quality is of minor importance compared with convenience. The best camera in the world is the camera you have available at the time, and a vast number of people who would only dig out their ‘real’ camera for holidays and special occasions have access on an immediate basis to a mechanism for recording the world – both in still images and in video.

As such the use of mobile ‘phones as cameras can been seen as a great democratising force in society, but that force can one of ‘lowest common denominator’. As more and more people are using their ever present ‘phones, it’s perhaps inevitable that photographs are taken of people taking selfies.

While it is one thing to see photographs of President Obama’s daughters duck pouting and grimacing into their ‘phones, it is jarring to see Obama and Cameron grinning inanely either side of the Danish Premier, Thorning-Schmidt as the memorial for Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Perhaps forgetting that there might be other cameras pointing at them, the selfie led to inevitable criticism.

This however, was a minor social gaff compared one in the USA a few days earlier. As police tried (successfully) to talk a suicidal man down from the Brooklyn Bridge a sizeable crowd gathered on the banks of the river to watch. After approximately twenty-five minutes a member of the crowd produced her ‘phone to snap a quick selfie with the potential jumper in the background. The irony of this action was, of course, that she was photographed in the act.

Although the anonymous selfie taker has been demonised as the most selfish selfie taker to date, it has also been noted that she did not gain any financial advantage from taking the shot – unlike the photographer that photographed her and sold his photograph. The story, in the New York Times, is not one of the potential suicide, but of the selfie taker. A minor incident in one person’s life is considered more newsworthy than a major calamity in another person’s.  We might even be led to question if the ‘real’ event would have got more than a by-line if a New York Times freelance photographer had not been on hand to record, well, not the potential suicide, but rather the perceived social gaff of the selfie taker.

In a much more calculated way, the Tumblr group,’ Selfies at Funerals’ deliberately seeks out those who have  taken selfies in the most inappropriate of settings. Grinning and pouting, there seem to be a large number of (mainly very well dressed young people) who are more than willing to share their grief with the social world. This groups seems to have run it’s natural course; as the founder of the group posted, with Obama’s selfie at Mandela’s memorial concert, their  ‘work here is done’.

This begs the question of the future of selfies. As the Tumblr group is seen by its originators as having run its course, will the same be true of selfies? Inevitably, the answer has to be yes. At the same time as selfie is being printed into dictionaries, the most prolific of selfie takers, teenagers, are declaring to the world that social media such as facebook is now officially dead. Facebook is now the social norm, and teenagers are abandoning it in favour of cruder social media that does not have the user-friendliness of facebook.

Remember Myspace?

In an increasingly fast paced technological world it would be unwise to assume that any form of media or communication is safe from the march of time. As users turn away from established social media, the content that they have invested in heavily in terms of time will be lost. Will they be able or willing to replicate that on a different social platform?

Probably not.