Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Reserving Judgement

There has been a mini-furore of reaction, almost entirely negative, to the announcement of the winner of the "single image" category in the British Journal of Photography's International Photography Award. The announcement, and the winning image, can be seen here.

Something interesting -- possibly good interesting, possibly bad interesting -- is going on here. I was very struck by the force and unanimity of the reaction -- not so much a debate as a public hanging. Even the usually reliable Mike Johnston saw it as an opportunity for a caption competition, not for reflection. I posted this comment on TOP (which I may live to regret):


I'm not immediately impressed by this image myself, but aren't you -- as a professional contrarian -- even a little bothered by the strength and unanimity of the negative response to it?

Think back to the reactions to f64, New Topographics, John Gossage, Paul Graham, Alec Soth... Almost always "Why, these aren't proper photographs! They're so banal!!"

For sure, I'm not saying this is an outstanding photograph -- it looks very ill-considered to my 56-year-old eyes -- but it is very typical of what some thoughtful young photographers are producing, perhaps in reaction to what us oldies hold dear about our photographs.

I think it's wise to try to stay open to the "Hendrix Moment" ("Coltrane Moment", if you prefer) -- when something new arrives that trashes certain expectations of a previous generation. This may or may not be such a moment.

I hope not, personally, but I'm reserving judgement until I understand what is really going on. I don't know about you, but my instinct is always to head in the other direction to the baying of the Flickr crowd...


I know, I can be an appalling elitist when it comes to photography, but why not judge the things you love by the highest standards? It doesn't seem to trouble football fans.

That "Hendrix/Coltrane Moment" is a precious and rare thing, worth looking and listening out for. As I've written before, if there's one thing I have learned, it is that -- unless you are living on the cutting edge yourself -- your eyes and ears are never ready for the genuinely new. You have to learn to learn from your discomfort.

You always have to ask, "Why don't I like something that someone else thinks is well worth my attention?" Sometimes arriving at an honest answer to that question will just end up confirming your own beliefs, but sometimes it will radically change your mind. "Free your mind and your ass will follow", as George Clinton would say.


Steve. said...

Have you visited the photographer's website? Her work is far more orthodox than this winning image. Perhaps it is a challenge to received wisdom, perhaps it's about testing a new direction. Either way, I think the uniformity of condemnation shows she's doing something right.

Mike C. said...

Yes, I did, Steve, and I have to say I wasn't impressed -- endless standing portraits in the current fashionable manner. I'm never very encouraged when someone refers to their "practice", either, as if they were a doctor. I think it's something they pick up in college.

But my point is not about her work in particular, but about the smugness of the reaction -- as you say, you have to be doing something right to piss off the Flickr crowd so royally.

I'm surprised at Mike Johnston, though -- he seems to be pandering to a lowest common denominator at times, recently.


Frank M. said...

But I actually like that photo! It is disturbing how the plastic-wrapped package seems to replace the man's face. But that gives the image a strangely well balanced composition: the body seems to form a slightly sinusoidal wave that ends in the package. I actually thought about posting a comment on TOP, but that place is a bit too crowded for me.

Would I still like the image if I didn't know it had won the prize? Well, now we'll never know...

Pitty that, as Steve pointed out, Michelle Sank's body of work is quite less interesting than this single image.

Anyway, your post is a beautiful reminder on how open-mindedness can be enriching. Thanks for that.

Mike C. said...


Yes, it certainly has something -- I see him lying on a map of Africa, for example, and I think the immediate "crime scene" association is an interesting one to pick up and play with.

It would be interesting to see which way the comments went if Mike J. has said "Wow" rather than "Yuk"... People are very easily led.

For me, it does have technical "faults" which I would have "corrected" -- colour cast, contrast, etc. -- and which make my eyes see an "incompetent" photograph. But that's when I have to say to myself: Stop! She may have *intended* those faults -- why?

The alternative is to end up like one's father, declaring "But this isn't music, it's just noise!" ... I don't think my dad ever really liked any (new) music made after 1950...


Tim said...

Sometimes bad is just bad. One can struggle too hard to find redeeming qualities, probably out of the innate goodness of one's heart, or perhaps an insecurity that says "Must be something here, or BJP wouldn't have awarded it the prize. What am I missing?" If you hear hoofbeats, like for horses and you will, generally, not go wrong.

Mike C. said...


Sorry, but bad is never "just bad", any more than good is ever "just good". I accept "bad" is a useful shorthand for a more complex assessment, but I'd want to see your own work, and know the artists you admire, before deciding whether I thought your "bad" matched my "bad". I, for example, think Ansel Adams is "bad" but William Eggleston is "good".

To figure out whether someone's judgements and/or work was worth any attention, I'd also want to know whether they had kept up with contemporary work, and at least made the effort to understand the stuff they didn't immediately like, or whether they were just relying on the instinctive reactions they've lugged around unquestioningly for 20 years.

Precisely what I am saying is that your question "Must be something here... What am I missing?" is the one we should all constantly be asking ourselves. No-one stands any hope of advancing their own work until they do.


Tim said...

Guess we'll have to agree to disagree. Your definition of "art" is broader than mine, and that's fine. That photo may be "art", but if it is, it's too obscure for me. BTW, I'm a big fan of your blog and not trying to start an argument.

Mike C. said...

"I'm a big fan of your blog and not trying to start an argument."

Shame... I was just getting in the mood! I like a good back and forth, it helps me figure out what I really think.


Steve said...

Looking at the photo a bit more, there's a sort of dusty/dirtiness about it that makes me feel uncomfortable. Not so much the subject being dirty but more like the colours being a bit 'off'. Makes me feel like if it was a print I'd be wiping it down.

Mike C. said...

"more like the colours being a bit 'off'"

Steve, yes, if it was mine, I'd certainly adjust the levels and colour curves, but that's part of my point -- I think it's a basic principle that (initially) one gives the photographer the benefit of the doubt, and accepts that they *meant* everything as a conscious aesthetic choice. So, muddy colours -- what's that about? Why would someone choose that approach? Does it work?

Of course, a certain level of simple incompetence can't be ruled out(!), but (as I was saying in a comment to a previous post) it's often surprising quite how shoddy good work can be. An obsession with "fit and finish" to the detriment of pictorial effect is a besetting vice of the hobbyist.


Frank M. said...

"An obsession with "fit and finish" to the detriment of pictorial effect is a besetting vice of the hobbyist."

Wise words! If Frank Capa were too concerned with motion blur, a lot of his work would have ended up in the trash bin.

Everyday I struggle to analyse my photos beyond the lacquer of technical quality. Still, everyday I get excited with the sharpness of mediocre flower close-ups and spend too much time correcting perspectives on street photography images...

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Frank -- though I suspect you may be confusing Robert Capa (D-Day) with Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life)?

Actually, most of Capa's D-Day work *did* end up in the bin --

"a staff member at Life in London made a mistake in the darkroom; he set the dryer too high and melted the emulsion in the negatives in three complete rolls and over half of a fourth roll. Only eleven frames in total were recovered"

Stay away from those flower close-ups -- the world would not be a poorer place if no-one ever took another one, ever.


Frank Harkin said...

'I like a good back and forth, it helps me figure out what I really think' Ok Mike you have time to consider the photo and look at the photographers web site, what's your judgement on the evidence available. I presume that's as much as the original judges had available to them. Or do you need to know more about the taste and preferences of the judges? On what I have seen (photo and website) my jury is close to bringing in a negative verdict!


Mike C. said...

This gets confusing -- how many Franks are there out there??

Well, as I've already said, this particular image doesn't grab me much, and neither does the work on the website. And, as I've also already said at various times, I'm not terribly interested in competitions -- sometimes they can be a useful stimulus to get work done, but usually competitions merely reward "competition friendly" work. At its worst, people tailor their submissions to the perceived tastes of the judges.

What is interesting / troubling (to me) is that so much similar work to the images in question is being produced by the same art-school kids who, not so long ago, would have been producing Martin Parr-alike colour work, and before that classic 35mm soot 'n' whitewash work. As it happens, one of them works for me in my office, and I found her recent exhibition pretty baffling.

But it's not easy to ask, "So, the crappy production values, the unvarying composition, the exaggerated size... What's that all about? Are you doing it on purpose, or don't you know any better? No, really, I need to know..."


Bronislaus Janulis said...

The back and forth here, and some at TOP has been ... enlightening.

That image has generated an enormous amount of blatheration ... maybe there is something there. I like it for it's disturbing "undefineablity". I've never been impressed with technical perfection in art; imagery; the R. Capa D-Day images are actually technically perfect, for me, in that they very much capture the mind-numbing chaos of that day. All of that stuff about focus, grain, composition, is not relevant if the image has no emotion. In painting, J.S.Sargent, in my opinion, is the greatest alla-prima painter ever; some of his portraits, his personal paintings, dominate a gallery; but they often display technical deficiencies, and have some serious problems now. PFUI! And, more seriously, they don't have a lot to say, but are so beautifully painted.

Technical proficiency is important; one needs to master the materials and techniques; but the image should never be subservient to that proficiency.

So, we have this image, technically deficient, so sayeth the mavens, but it is generating a lot of interest, negative, but still, interest ... and I have blathered on enough, and it seems, often at cross points.

Mike, your original point is very important ... don't jump .. to conclusions.

Over the course, I've actually come to appreciate Cy Twombley, Jackson Pollock, Eggleston, Winograd, et al, having learned to shut my mind a little, and let the image before me ... speak.

Bron, who is very technically proficient at photography, B&W darkroom, painting, woodworking, carving, gilding, but doesn't mind the happy little mischance if it works, as snafu is the name of the game.

Mike C. said...

Thanks for this comment, Bron, there's a lot of content there. Two things I'd pick out:

"we have this image, technically deficient, so sayeth the mavens, but it is generating a lot of interest, negative, but still, interest"

I think that's an aspect of contemporary "practice" that escapes a lot of people -- sometimes what is needed is a nice big pebble thrown in a pond that is danger of becoming stagnant; it's the ripples that count, not the rock.

"very technically proficient at photography, B&W darkroom, painting, woodworking, carving, gilding"

There is a real tension between the desire for the fulfilment of "craft" (which I share, though I'd pretty soon cut my arm off using the tools you use) and the desire for the "democracy" of photography (anyone can do it). There, in a nutshell, is the issue. My suspicion is that the Young Folk are "refusing craft" and favouring "democracy", if I can put it that way, in a way that we find baffling -- mainly because we "embraced craft", perhaps at the expense of the democracy of the medium -- it was very much the flavour of our time (Whole Earth Catalog, etc.).

We'll see how this pans out. I think (a) they'll get bored and (b) will find they need "craft" to stand out from the crowd...