Fit for Purpose

“There’s no such thing as a bad photograph.  Or a good one come to that.”

Photograph by Martin Parr.

I was having this conversation with Stephen Bull, the course leader at UCA.  Shortly afterwards Gareth asked if we could respond to the concern from some students about OCA tutors’ tendency to dislike, even have distain for, successfully commercial photography.

Let me introduce Stephen Bull; he is an artist, writer and lecturer in photography. He often works with found photographs and has increasingly become obsessed with the celebrity’s role in vernacular photography.  His ideal photograph is a snapshot of someone peeking their head into a mobile phone camera, next to a semi-famous actor and then having it uploaded onto Facebook.  Really?!  He genuinely loves it and he proceeded to show me his own mobile phone with his head peeking out next to some famous chap in a convenience store in Brighton… Anyway.

Are these good photographs?  Really bad lighting in a local newsagents, overly pixellated, featuring a sketchy pop-up style walk-on role of the photographer? According to some standards this is BAD photography at it’s worst.  But according to the person who took it, it is a valuable document of a ‘meaningful’ encounter, thereby making it a pretty good snap.  It is ‘fit for purpose’.

In 1998, Stephen Bull launched a little project called Camera Club.  He was acutely aware of the way camera clubs determined what made a good picture so he asked 6 well known photographers to submit work to a camera club and have them judged.  One of Martin Parr’s most famous images (teacup) only got 10 / 20 inducing the remark “It’s not my cup of tea!”

Words such as ‘beauty’, ‘skill’, and ‘on my wall’ were used throughout the judging process to determine what would get top marks and what was deemed below par (pun intended).

I found this a really interesting approach to considering what makes a good photograph.  The point is, we all have our own criteria; camera clubs, family photographers, arts degrees.  The question is what purpose are we wishing to serve?

Remember the Quality Control stickers you used to get on photographs returned from Boots?  If an image was over exposed or not wound on properly it would come back with a sticker saying ‘QUALITY CONTROL!’.  It was based on a purely technical set of rules.  I imagine these could be the same set of rules often applied to the types of photographs which feature in so many calendars.  There is nothing wrong with them but it is playing by one set of parameters.

So there is no good or bad photograph.  Just one which fits it’s purpose well or not. And once we’ve got our heads around that, well then we are just beginning.

What types of words would you use to determine your winners?

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20 comments for “Fit for Purpose

  1. 15 November 2012 at 2:08 pm

    Excellent article, especially following some of the recent brouhaha over on the forum.

    I’ll quickly add the quality control from Alamy – must fill the whole histogram…

    Anyway, for my own winners, they wouldn’t be nice, but they would be interesting. Interesting varies from day to day.

    Interesting makes you think.

    • Denise
      15 November 2012 at 3:10 pm

      OED definition of brouhaha – ‘a noisy and overexcited reaction or response to something.’

      Surely you mean discussion?

      Anyway my word to determine winners would be ‘affecting’.

      • 15 November 2012 at 5:29 pm

        brouhaha, discussion: tomahtoes, tomaytoes 😉

  2. Gareth
    15 November 2012 at 2:42 pm

    One of the original issues from the OCA flickr group which led to the discussion with Sharon was a question specifically about the work of Joe Cornish.

    Now Joe Cornish is a very successful commercial landscape photographer and with regular commissions from the National Trust, I doubt he cares too much how his work is perceived at the OCA or elsewhere. However at the risk of provoking controversy, I think there are issues with his work and these issues will present students with difficulties.

    Let’s start with just two. Firstly subject matter. Liz Wells’ 2011 review of Landscape Photography is called Land Matters – a brilliant play on words which stresses a significant point – the land does matter, there is only so much of it and it is where we live. Joe Cornish’s work is highly selective in its subject matter, presenting an idyllic view of a countryside which if it isn’t exactly untouched by mankind, is seen as a scene of pastoral leisure (a browse through the 112 pages of his work for the National Trust is instructive in this regard). Not for Joe the industrially farmed flatlands of the East of England where the minimum wage is not a living wage.

    Secondly, on the OCA flickr group Sarah Gallear says ‘I have tried to get the same effects myself to no avail’ And that for me goes to the heart of the matter. The idealised representations are not confined to subject matter, the water must be mirror still or moving like mist, the sky can be purple, blue orange or pink…but never grey. I think you get the picture.

    To answer Sharon’s question – my word would be challenging. Challenge is productive, it isn’t complacent.

  3. CliveW
    15 November 2012 at 4:22 pm

    My ambition for my students is that they discover what their work is and make it; my primary concern as a tutor is to facilitate that.

    This can often involve going through a process of making work inspired by others in order to understand how that work is made. But to cease to develop one’s own ideas once one can replicate someone else’s vision negates a fundamental property of photography when in the command of an individual. That is the ability to speak to, and communicate, one’s own experience and nature rather than being content replicating someone else’s.

    Say something authentic with your own voice instead of being content mimicking others.

    The arc of the degree is about the process of developing one’s own work to a high degree of conceptual (and that doesn’t exclude the emotional) sophistication, not about supplying the tools to replicate other people’s work.

  4. 15 November 2012 at 7:39 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with Clive.
    Many students, not just OCA students, not just photography students, have difficulty getting to grips with the difference between commercial imagery and personal work. It is even more difficult with some students of the design disciplines. The conflation of financial success with artistic and aesthetic merit is common in the wider society and takes some time to ‘correct’ on a degree course.
    One of the problems of the commercial world, and although the world of pop is probably the most obvious example, commercial fine art galleries and agents are not immune, is the imperative to repeat former success by repetition, “That sold well how about doing it again?” It’s like the three year old child telling a joke, getting a laugh and telling it again only to wonder why no adult laughs again but in the pop and commercial art world it seems there are usually enough punters willing to remain safe and but the repeat!.
    Amateur photography and leisure artists’ publications do not help, they repeat the same articles on a more or less annual basis and concentrate on process and equipment for reasons of simplicity and commerce, rarely do they even pretend to deal with contemporary aesthetic issues…much too difficult and might frighten the horses!
    Of course the distance learner has the disadvantage of not being continuously exposed to the work of their peers in a collective studio and this is why I am always banging on about the importance of getting involved with the artistic community near where you live. Most people live within striking distance of a contemporary gallery (if I do in rural North West Wales surely everyone else must be within an hour’s drive of one…no?) and going to the openings, getting on the mailing list mixing with other artists and designers can lead to all sorts of understandings and opportunities. Reading proper magazines not those aimed at the weekend artist, amateur photographer etc. is open to all and a must, trawling the internet to see what the great galleries are putting on and following up on these artists and designers should go without saying. None of these things to find work to copy (except as Clive has mentioned above as an object of study) but to contextualise one’s own practice and to search for inspiration. A hunger for this sort of engagement, a desire to find one’s own voice, a determination to make work are the hallmarks of the successful student and artist later.
    This way one learns what is fit for purpose, how it is fit for purpose and what purposes it is fit for.

    • 15 November 2012 at 7:49 pm

      you got in before me, Peter, whilst I was writing this! Great minds….

  5. Ernesta Verburg
    15 November 2012 at 7:46 pm

    What a refreshing article! Ideas about photography seem to be as diverse as those about religion and therefore I completely subscibe to the “fit for purpose” concept, which I feel doesn’t excuse us from looking outside our “purposes” and learning from them.

  6. 15 November 2012 at 7:47 pm

    Interesting blog, Sharon. Thank you for bringing Bull’s Camera Club work to wider attention.

    I share your concern over is the value systems with which we attribute value to photographs, photographers, and to be really Oxbridge about it, their oeuvres. The way one student put it in their blog recently was ‘photography as a competitive sport’, which I thought was beautifully put.

    Camera Clubs – as well as doing some good work in educating amateurs, technically, sadly promote the idea that singular photographs can be graded like racehorses. But they are of course not the only culprits. The art market itself shoulders much of the blame for attributing success to the financial value of work. If the history of photography always played out like this then there would have been no Atgets or Lartigues, who had little commercial success in their lifetimes.

    Some of these points cropped up in a great interview between David Campany and Victor Burgin in the current issue of Source, which includes the rogue article which Jose so justly criticised in his recent blog post. I read the article in the library at Newport, hoping that perhaps Jose had got it wrong, but unfortunately I was left as vexed as he was. I promptly headed off to talk to second year Documentary students about analysing images, and I was very happy to instruct them to invest as much of their own experience and personal insight into analysing other photography, and the same goes for making their work: Exactly what you are saying, Clive.

    With pocket cameras that can pick out a face, I’m sure it won’t be too long before a model comes out that automatically deletes the shots where people aren’t smiling. How long then, will it be until the photographer isn’t actually expected to do anything? We end up in a weird nineteenth-century dystopia where photography is considered exclusively to belong to the realm of the mechanical, and the ‘operator’ is even redundant. Sorry. I’m rambling.

    Looking at ALL photography is vital – commercial, amateur, high art.. even comforting landscapes… whatever… you name it. But trying to engage, and as Gareth says, ‘challenge’ yourself, with work you don’t necessarily take to is really important.

  7. 15 November 2012 at 9:13 pm

    I pondered this on the train home and decided that two things are are key for me in terms of my valuing an image – whether it is meaningful, and has integrity.

    A meaningful picture could be anything from that treasured family snap or funny photograph of your dog on the beach to something very profound and deeply considered. But it should mean something to the person who takes the photograph, or who owns it and not just be an addition to the wealth of more or less meaningless images we are bombarded with daily.

    By integrity I mean making pictures that are true to your own inner calling. An example as a student might mean not making pictures just because you think your tutor will like them, if you don’t find them meaningful to you. I fully agree that we should experiment and be open and try new things – but that we need to do so with whole hearts and not just go through the paces because it is easier than questioning things. With regard to Gareth’s point, some of us are naturally a bit challenging and that may come out in our pictures and in other ways, but some are not and will make very different pictures. Integrity for me means being open to change but also being true to what matters to you. I think Denise and Leopin’s comments on the Flickr thread showed great integrity and I applaud them for it.

    So, now I’ve played the game, and (being true to my occasionally challenging nature ; -)) I am aware that Sharon, Jesse, Clive and Peter have given lots of helpful advice to students but not volunteered an answer to the key question. So, what matters to you all in your own photography or in work that is meaningful to you? What do you value?

    • 15 November 2012 at 10:40 pm

      The problem is that the answer isn’t simple or fixed…it all depends on when, where, what for, etc. etc. In my own work it is simply, ‘Does it do what I want it to do?’ and the answer is almost always, “in part’!

    • CliveW
      15 November 2012 at 11:04 pm

      Experiment, discovery, enlightenment, recognition.

    • 16 November 2012 at 8:05 am

      I think you’ve kind of answered it for me, Eileen. Integrity and meaningfulness (whatever that might mean).

      You are also absolutely right: students must make and submit the work THEY truly want to; not show us the work they think we want to see.

  8. 15 November 2012 at 11:48 pm

    As soon as a photograph is described as a “winner” I am wary.

    There is no set formula and this is what can make photography meaningful.

  9. Susanne
    16 November 2012 at 1:58 am

    To me photography is simply a visual conversation – some conversations may be more serious like the discussion about the wetlands, others very light-hearted (or maybe ironical) like the chat about having one’s picture taken with a celebrity. Generally, I would get depressed if I were only allowed to talk about serious and problematic issues and pretty bored if I had to listen to someone talk about celebrities all day. However, to me a great communicator – visual or verbal – is the one who can make me interested in something I had not thought much about before whether this is English wetlands or celebrity snapshots. Personally, I think that takes passion and skills. Passion you will probably have to find within yourself but skills you can learn.

    That was the long answer. My short answer to Sharon’s question is: an image that starts a conversation.

  10. Sharon
    16 November 2012 at 7:27 am

    Thanks Eileen (and everyone) for your considered response.

    For me, and this is by no means comprehensive, I am fascinated by ‘the universal’.

    At the core of photography as a medium is it’s unavoidable connection to time. Even as the medium changes it will always have that ‘trace of the real’. When a photographer can use this moment in time and transcend it, I love that.

    So when I’m making work or looking at work I’ve taken and considering the editing process I ask myself ‘is it universal’? And at the other end I ask ‘is it illustrative’? If so it goes in the reworking bin.

    I read a good quote by Bruce Davidson which went something along the lines of “Don’t go looking for photographs, let the photographs find you.” I thought that was good advice.

    And Clive’s comment is imperative:
    “My ambition for my students is that they discover what their work is and make it; my primary concern as a tutor is to facilitate that.” I hope all students want to realise the work that is in them, it’s about finding it and bringing it forth!

    Anyway, I also should thank Jesse for sowing the seed of the camera club work!

  11. Phillipa Day
    16 November 2012 at 8:17 am

    Very interesting reading, I am a member of a local camera club and have submitted work which has got low marks I have then taken it to show an established photographer I have got to know who has said the photography is good,he has also offered advice on my work which has proved to be helpful.
    I now try to stay true to my own ideas and not submit photographs that ‘fit the criteria’ that camera clubs want.
    Having said all of that don’t get me wrong I am not knocking camera clubs they are a great place to meet other photographers and sometimes coem across someone who can really help.

  12. Paul
    16 November 2012 at 10:45 am

    I agree entirely with every word that Clive has said above and particularly note how he has not strayed into referencing individual photographers, artists or genres. But in defence of where I believe this discussion stemmed from, the mere mention of a particular photographer, his style and genre does seem to create what can seem like a concentrated elitist and dismissive viewpoint which does not seem to be replicated with other photographers. The fact that Joe Cornish does not seem to reflect that ‘land matters’ isn’t all that important once we acknowledge that fact, as there are many other aspects of his work that a student will find important and worthy of further study (keeping Clive’s comments in mind).

    As a slight aside, I was looking at some of the Foto8 slideshows recently and cringed every time I saw ‘leading photographic artists’ still making images of a miserable person sat on a miserable bed in a miserable bedroom looking miserably away from the camera – how many times can we learn from this?

    As a further aside, I remember reading something by Joe Cornish where he took two very different images from the same vantage point. The first was a typical ‘Cornish’ view that would appeal to his commercial business and popular audience. He then showed a second image that he seemed quite passionate about which juxtaposed the popular view against a dying area of woodland caused by man in some way. It was the only image of his that I have seen that seemed to give a real insight to his environmentalist leanings and his acknowledgement that land does indeed matter, yet, he had to dismiss it as something he could not show because he knew that it would not appeal to his commercial audience.

    I suppose that my point is that it can seem unfair, and somewhat elitist, if we become too judgemental about where (or who) a student selects to start their studies and admiration of a particular body of work. I suppose that the challenge for our tutors is to see how far, and when, they can push each student along their road of discovery, enlightenment and development. It would seem that from other discussions that some students do not want to be pushed at all whereas others are asking to be pushed all the time.

    From a student not currently going through assessment! 🙂

    • Gareth
      16 November 2012 at 11:20 am

      I suppose that my point is that it can seem unfair, and somewhat elitist, if we become too judgemental about where (or who) a student selects to start their studies and admiration of a particular body of work.

      I think this is a very good point Paul, learning is about going on a journey and being critical of the starting point is only meaningful if it helps on that journey.

  13. 16 November 2012 at 12:13 pm

    I know this isn’t strictly what we are discussing here, but when you’ve got some time to spare (!) have a look at this series of videos on conceptual photography…

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