The Yerbury’s are among the most famous and sort after portrait photographers in the UK. They combine the use of large format cameras with the latest fuji digital cameras.
Some time ago, Trevor and Faye allowed me to use some of their images for a little poster at school (aatached). They’ve agreed to do an interview in 2016 for this blog.
If you haven’t already, subscribe if you want to know when the interview is published.
Forget the job ad’, it’s too late. The comments at the bottom are really interesting and should be an eye-opener for those who have never used a large format camera (or even a film camera).
I was practicing photographing water splashing into a bowl already filled to the brim. (For the reason for this, please see below. https://bap2blog.wordpress.com/2015/10/27/a-level-playing-field/ )
The camera was set to fire at 8 frames per second. The flash was set at 1/8 power to keep up with the camera. An f-stop of f11 was used to get sufficient depth of field, which meant that the flash needed to be placed close, and at an angle to both catch the side of the falling water droplets and also reflect light back from the background. The camera was set on manual focus and pre-focussed at point where the drops of water would impact.
The resulting image may, or may not be art, but the process of its creation is the craft of the photographer.
I suppose, for me, that’s the mission; to turn my students into crafts-people.
Crafts-people who look at an image, work out how it was created, break it down into bits, use the materials available, and create their own work based upon their own interpretation of the original work.
There are those, however, who seem to feel that craft is irrelevant, as long as the image produced gets the student a good grade. There are those teaching the subjects who literally have no idea how to make images which are technically competent. They have no craft.
Craft involves the skilful process of using ones hands to produce an object. In photography, the obvious skill is using the controls of the camera to achieve the desired aim, but craft is not ‘merely’ a set of psychomotor skills. One cannot use the controls and settings of the technology (or indeed throw a pot on a wheel) without the cognitive processes that precede and inform the process – nor indeed the emotional awareness (the affectiveness) of the desired outcome.
So, to be a photographer (in my opinion), you have to have the technical skills developed to a point where the camera becomes an extension of the hand and the eye. That can only happen if you have a level of understanding of theory and technique to achieve the desired aim, but crucially neither is sufficient if you do not have an awareness of what you are trying to achieve when picking the camera up in the first place.
Whether or not you can create ‘art’ with a camera ‘phone is deeply irrelevant to me. There is no craft is applying apps to an image that you have no control over.
The result of craft, apart from producing better photographs, is to be able to reproduce what you have done at a future date. There are those who argue that chance plays a great part in photography, but chance should only play a part in some first images. Art is not a random act, so the photographer should be able to capitalise on the chance act to incorporate what has been learnt from chance into daily practice. This implies that you have got a level of skill and knowledge to deconstruct the chance event so that it can be recreated to order. Great (or even employable) photographers can produce great images over and over again.
When we get it ‘wrong’ (and we all do), that isn’t any reason to rip up the rule book – assuming we’d looked at it in the first place, but rather an opportunity to build upon our craft, perhaps to develop a distinct style which sets our work apart from others.
Equally, not all photographs need to be in focus or sharp. Vitally important, however, is the knowledge and skill to make the choice. The craft is to know when and how to apply this knowledge to a specific situation.
Most of all, craft needs time. When Mathew Syed talked of ten thousand hours and the power of practice, he wasn’t just talking about table tennis. If you want to be good at anything, you need to put in the hours. Any crafts-person knows this. I know in my head how to photograph water splashes, but that doesn’t help if I don’t know in my hands. So, I work at it. With forty years of experience in photography, ‘I was practicing photographing water splashing into a bowl’.
Try it, it’s fun.
Trust no-one. A harsh and cynical attitude.
This post is in some ways about my relationship with Olympus cameras, but much more so about my day job.
I work in a school.
In the county where I live and work we still have old fashioned grammar schools. That means that the kids take a test when they are in year 6, and if they get selected they get to go to some of the best state schools in the county. The grammar schools are all considered great schools, and their results reflect this. Parents move into the county to try to get their kids into grammar school, and are often more than happy to make voluntary contributions to their dear children’s education. Grammar schools attract support from their alumni, charities and local businesses as well. People just love being associated with these schools.
The other kids go to the secondary moderns. Yes, they still exist.
Statistically the secondary modern kids are less likely to be academic; the average pupil is, by the nature of the system probably below average academic ability. So the schools tend not to get the exam results that the grammar schools get. As such the parents, the charities and local businesses are less likely to give them financial support.
As so often, those in most need, get the least.
And that’s where I work.
And, I can honestly say, some of the pupils are the most creative kids I have ever met. Ask them to factorise a quadratic equation and you’ll get blank looks, but ask them how they would respond to the idea of ‘freedom’ in art and you’ll be overrun with (great) suggestions.
I always tell my little camera club that they are some of the best young photographers I’ve met. In a recent camera club open competition, they won six out of seven prizes. In another competition, they won five out of six. Last year in the Amnesty International Youth Awards, two pupils were short-listed to the final ten. The year before, another pupil came second overall in the same competition. In a BIPP national competition the school picked up four out of seven awards.
They are really good, but not one of them comes from a family where they could fund the sort of camera that the average entry level hobbyist would buy themselves. Add to this a budget from the school of zero pounds per year, and we’re down to begging kit from freecycle. One of my kids was over joyed to get an early Christmas present of a second-hand canon 350d, which was much, much better than the aged bridge camera she was using up to then; one where she could only fit 17 images on the only memory card she has. Actually, most of them don’t have very much kit, but they make up for this by having real passion for photography.
So, at a camera show, I was telling someone from Olympus about these kids. Apparently Olympus could do something to help. Could we arrange a session at school to get the kids some hands-on experience with Olympus kit?
Could I arrange a session at school? Well, actually I could do better than that. As it happens, another of the kids I taught last year has a mother who owns a studio. Not just any studio, but a totally brilliant outdoor, converted farm; an amazing venue used by one of the top names in British fashion to show off last year’s autumn collection. Did she know the Olympus photographer in question? Of course. Could we perhaps use her studio? Well, yes, we could.
Brilliant! After some behinds the scene self-publicity we had the use of a classic jaguar car and a much newer Aston Martin. A couple of manufacturers would give us some lighting and tripods. A magazine expressed an interest in doing an article on the project.
We were set to go as soon as the Olympus guy got back to us.
Eight months later our Olympus guy says, ‘Are we still on for this project?’
Actually, no. No, we’re not. We’d lost it all.
Oh, sorry about that.
We can do something else though – what about …..
Another month passed and …………. Nothing.
Cheers for that.
So, ….. my kids are still brilliant. They’ve won more prizes. They’ve photographed a major classic car event. They’ve been out to do some night photography. They’re experts on splash photography and legography. They’ve done a great project on the theme of ‘movement’ which they can use for their GCSE.
They’re not great fans of Olympus.
I think that’s a shame, but they feel very let down, as do I.
So, if you are ever in a position to help people, it really is better to say and do nothing, than to make empty promises. We never asked for any help. It was offered, and I foolishly believed the word of someone who is, after all, paid well to be an ambassador for a major camera company.
I will not make that mistake again, and my kids who have already been let down by an education system that regards them as second class citizens, have learnt that people cannot be trusted.
The local camera club has an annual Youth Photography Competition.
This year there were prizes for First, Second and Third place, with four Highly Commended photos. Over twenty young people entered the competition, including five of my pupils.
My pupils entered ten photographs, and got two prizes and all four Highly Commended.
That’s pretty good. To reiterate – they won all but one of the prizes – six out of a possible seven.
The same thing happened last year, where they won five out of a possible six prizes.
I’ve written before about how we tackle competitions (A Winning Formula) and if you’ve read that blog https://bap2blog.wordpress.com/2014/04/10/a-winning-formula/ you’ll know that the point I wrote it we did not know the final outcome of the competition I was referring to. It was, in fact, the Amnesty International Youth Awards, and my pupil came second. This year, two more of my pupils entered, and were short-listed to the final ten.
We’re pretty good at this.
The prize my pupils failed to win this year, and last year, in the local camera club competition was the top prize. Last year we put it down to bad judging (well, we would, wouldn’t we!). This year, well that was different. The winning shot was very, very good. So, where’s the problem?
As a brief aside, here’s a quote from Portfolio 24 of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.
“You can tell the animal’s feelings from the look in the eye, the way the fur lies and ears move” The photo, by Leon Petrinos, is a low angle portrait of a cheetah, taken on a Nikon D800 plus a 200-400 F4 lens. Leon’s camera and lens cost around £4000.
At the time the photo was taken, Leon was eight years old!
Take an eight year old child on an expensive photo safari to the Masai Mara, let him use one of the best DSLR cameras on the market, and see the prizes mount up.
The local camera club recently had a club evening demonstrating a SplashArt Water Drop Photography Kit. This a great bit of kit that allows the user to photograph splashes and water collisions by controlling both the water droplets and the camera. Set it up correctly and it simply is just a matter of time before you produce something very, very good. If you’ve got a use for one, they cost around £180 – they really are fun, but a bit out of the price range of my pupils.
After the competition judging, I casually asked the name of the kit the winning photographer had used to take his winning photo of water droplets. Curiously, he couldn’t remember.
So, two obvious points can be made. Firstly technology can make a huge difference. Secondly, in youth competitions, particularly, other people’s knowledge, experience and equipment can be used to obtain a result that the young person could not have achieved alone.
For my pupil who came third, I can honestly say that I’d never seen the photo before the competition, but it was well executed and had a comedic element that the pupil is developing very well. In the case of my pupil who came second, I had seen the image, because I was there when she took the photograph. She saw it before me, and got the image before I’d realised how good it would look, to my initial annoyance. With her eight year old camera worth £100, she nailed the shot.
I once saw a brilliant shot of an otter by the wildlife photographer Andy Rouse. Taken in light rain, but good lighting, the otter was running towards the camera across vivid green grass. At the point the image was made all four of his feet were off the ground, but his running had caused a spray of droplets to each side of him. It was quite simple the best photo of an otter I’d ever seen.
A few months later I thought I’d seen the same shot in a photographic competition, but it wasn’t – not quite. It was the same otter, the same lighting, the same spray, but taken from a different angle, and of course, Rouse had not taken it. The judge enthused about the photograph, pointing out how difficult it would have been to take a shot of such a rare animal. He applauded the use of light, the use of angle, the timing. He loved it, and it won the competition.
Knowing exactly where these photographs were taken, I can image Rouse telling the people on his photography course, ‘Wait, wait, wait ….. now!’ as the captive animal is allowed to run to its fish prize.
When I teach my pupils to write essays, I stress the importance of not plagiarising other people’s work. In an academic essay it is very simply cheating to steal the thoughts of another and pass them off as your own. In photography, it’s fine to be inspired by someone else’s work. We all learn by copying to some extent. I’ve learnt a huge amount by looking at exhibitions, attending to talks, and paying close attention to the feedback of judges. Having learnt by observing, I try it myself; to learn by doing.
On the blog below, ‘Girl on Fire!’ the pupils had to have guidance on exposure and safety, but other than that they worked independently, choosing their own angles and framing, varying their initial exposures to get different effects; learning in a experiential way. This seems to me the natural way to learn the craft of photography.
Learn as much as you can. Take from every photographic experience everything you can to make yourself a better photographer. Hang on every word and gesture of those who are teaching you, but if you’re going to enter competitions, own the work. Anyone can press a button on an expensive (or indeed any) camera. Anyone can eventually get a great image when the kit you don’t know how to use does the job for you. Anyone standing next to a great photographer, in an artificial and repeatable setting can produce something that they would not be able to do on their own.
But to actually own it, to be able to say, hand on heart, ‘I did this. This is my work’, well; that is something a bit different. Something a bit more valuable.
‘What would you normally be doing now?’
‘Sitting in my bedroom looking at Youtube or playing Minecraft.’
‘Would you rather be doing that?’
‘No, I’d rather be here.’
In this case ‘here’ was at the top of Coombe Hill in Buckinghamshire at the monument to commemorate the Buckinghamshire soldiers who were killed in the Second Boer War. In was dark. It was raining. It was mild, but getting colder.
Four pupils, an art teacher, assorted parents (some with dogs), and me.
We played music. We danced with sparklers. We burnt wire wool. We photographed the lights of the town below us. I lost my car keys!
Then we tried something new.
The purpose of all the photographs we’d taken to that point was to sort out the technical issues as we’d only get one chance.
We chucked a few things around to make sure that our ‘safe zone’ was really safe, then we moved back some more and zoomed in, focussing on a torch left lying on the ground.
So, all the kid’s cameras were sorted out. They were bolted to a variety of tripods. At 400 ISO, we’d found that about 4 seconds at F11 gave us the exposure, and more importantly the ‘look’, that we were after.
The new thing that we were photographing was someone (the art teacher) skipping. Just that, a long exposure shot of someone skipping. Of course, the skipping rope was unlikely to show up in the dark, so we doused it in paraffin and set fire to it with a blow torch. (Perhaps a strange Christmas present for a fourteen year old boy, but as that’s what his mum bought him, we fired it up.)
The resulting shot – Girl On Fire!
My last blog was on the state of photographic education in schools compared to attending workshops.
It received about 300 views in 24 hours and generated a large number of comments.
Teachers whinged and whined that I clearly do not understand photography. It doesn’t matter how the image’s produced, it’s the image that counts. Use a ‘phone, steal an image, collage other people’s work. It’s all good. Camera controls? They’re for the anally retentive train-spotters who believe that craft is superior to taking short cuts.
Equally, ‘photographers’ whinged and whined that as ‘creatives’, photographers were somehow exempt from the requirements of true occupations. Rattle off a bunch of images on high speed then play with them on the computer. White balance? Who needs to understand that stuff when you’ve got photoshop.
Modern cameras are very, very good. In real terms photography has never been cheaper.
This has led in schools to the idea that grades can be improved by taking pupils with limited talent and letting them loose with some really quite good technology.
As great cameras have got cheaper and easier, photography as a hobby has been opened up to a whole tranche of people who simply would not have had the ability or patience to learn how to use a camera half a century ago.
And yet, despite all this, I see the’ straight out of camera’ masterpieces of Bruce Smith. The Yerbury’s continue to produce, on a variety of equipment including large format film, utterly stunning work. And Damian McGillicuddy continues to amaze me with images produced with incredible technology.
And then I look at the kids I teach. Those amazing young minds full of ideas, who stop me in the corridor to ask the most random, yet insightful questions. Can we fire a flare in school? (No). Can we freeze movement to a fraction of the highest shutter speed of our cameras? (Yes). Can we try the Brenizer method? (Maybe – if the school computers can handle it).
Around me I see photography teachers who can’t take photographs, and photographers who know nothing about photography.
But I also see inspiring artists who really know what they are doing. Artists, who have the craft of photography in their very DNA.
More importantly, for me, I see a bunch of kids who really inspire me and make it worthwhile turning up for school in the morning. OK, we have a budget of zero, and no-one gets what we’re doing most of the time, and yes, we’re let down time after time, but these kids are learning about the world around them in a unique way.
So frankly, I’m trying to stop caring about the things I can’t change. I’ll let the art, media and English teachers convince themselves that by knowing nothing about a camera, they’re experts on photography. Likewise, I’ll try to ignore the sense of entitlement that last year’s hobbyists have acquired through ‘likes’ on facebook and instagram. I’ll continue to learn from those that truly know what they’re doing, and I’ll continue to teach those kids that truly want to learn.
I’ve just been given a ‘head’s up’ about a photography talk.
In this talk, among other things, the speaker will attack teaching photography in schools, colleges and universities, advocating instead the use of youtube and, of course, expensive workshops.
My first reaction to this can be summed up in one word – rage!
I simply cannot see that workshops are equivalent to actual education. Monkey see, monkey do, monkey shell out a lot of cash to someone whose only motivation is profit.
I rage because I see it as another example of the devaluing of education, and the practise of teaching. I seethe because many of these ‘university of life’ photographers actually consider themselves to be ‘professional’ without any understanding of what real professionals have to go through to achieve that status.
But on the other hand I have students who come to me and say that they are not actually learning photography in their schools and colleges at all. They’re learning art, but with a ‘camera’. The speech marks are there because not even having a camera is acceptable. as long as you have a ‘phone.
GCSE and A level specifications are, in fact Art and Design specifications. But this is a ‘painting by numbers’ type of art where understanding of the medium runs a very poor second to getting a pleasing image. And it has to be this way, because their art (sorry, photography) teachers aren’t photographers, haven’t ever shot a commercial job, and would be very hard pushed to even know there was a difference between depth of field and depth of focus, let alone explain it.
Now, of course, this is a generalisation and over-simplification. There are some very knowledgeable teachers of photography who understand the technology and the maths involved in making images.
My point, however, is that photography as a subject (at least to A level) has been stripped of technical content to the point that is no longer worthy of the name. Teachers do not have to be photographers to get students to pass, and many students that do pass, have no skills that would be useful as working photographers.
These things play into the hands of the ‘workshop’ operators. There is only so much that you can learn in a day (or even three). Yes, they’re fun and you can come away with a memory card of lovely images, but they lead to inevitable conclusions.
Firstly, you do not have to study – you just attend a workshop. Secondly, and following – photographic education is a waste of time. Thirdly, photographic teachers are useless.
I can’t blame any school which wishes to raise its exam pass rate. I can’t blame any teacher who is made to teach a subject that they know little (or nothing) about. I do have serious doubts about creating specifications that are so dumb-down that make these scenarios possible, however.
My real rage, however, is directed to anyone and everyone who does not immediately recognise the significance of √2.