“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?