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Is contemporary photography for constructed images only?

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Is contemporary photography for constructed images only?


The recent British Journal of Photography’s competition for street photography and the campaign “I’m not a terrorist” has highlighted that there is still a desire by photographers to take their cameras out and record the world around. Martin Parr speaks about having five years left if you want to photograph in public. I bought the recently published book “Street Photography Now”, which show cases the best of this genre. However, when looking through the pages of many journals so much of the work is what could be classed as a constructed or even contrived images, which then need to be explained. The rise in academic study of photography has also seen an equal growth in the critical writing, including perhaps over analysis and deconstruction of others work. Has this in turn led to over constructed work? Have we lost our desire to go out collect views of the world, its events and people? Have the authorities won or have we lost the desire to look, have we become lazy? It seems now that we all have stories to tell about being stopped or challenged and if we aren’t we feel like naughty children who have got away with stealing pick n mix from Woolworths. We all look back to when we feel times were better. Who will take the baton from our photographic hero’s, such as Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank and Tony Ray Jones, who looked at the things around them.

The constructed image is not new and the work of Boyd Webb, Cindy Sherman and Sandy Skoglund is well known. However, is this now becoming the norm? Another simpler way of describing this genre is that of Staged Photography, where the photographer controls everything in front of the camera, as a film director would. Hannah Starkey will use actors to create the tableau seen in her work. Other workers such as Calum Colvin and Helen Chadwick could be described as artists who have used photography, as is Hamish Fulton, rather than being photographers. The work of Duane Michals is without doubt constructed but there is also a simplicity about it. Perhaps we have overcomplicated what photography is all about. In the past photography was about showing the truth, now is has moved to show a fantasy.

Some will argue that all portrait work is constructed and to an extent this is correct but the simplicity of Brian Griffin’s early work has been lost, as has the skill of Arnold Newman. The current crop of portrait photographers seem to have to over stylise and move to elaborate sets. A former colleague would say that we should teach students to construct their image in the camera frame, but he was talking about the photographer’s viewpoint, rather than the actual scene in front of them.

There was an interesting article by Diane Smyth in October’s issue of the BJP, titled “Paper, Rock, Scissors”, where she explores the recent growth of the constructed image within contemporary photographic practice. In this she describes how the photograph has moved from the pages of a newspaper to the galley wall. The fine art venue is now the aim of current photography students. She also notes the more cynical take by Peter Kennard, who points out that the images are taken slowly and of high quality, so they may be reproduced to a large scale, as the old masters made their paintings. A visit to the Walker Gallery in Liverpool will leave the viewer in no doubt about the skill that was needed by the artist of previous generations to produce their work. Now we seem to use technology to try and create contemporary versions. This issue is further explored in issue 64 of Source, with an interview with Sarah Dobai by Mark Durden. Like Hannah Starkey, Dobai uses actors to create her scene and acknowledges the influence of the cinema in her work, in fact she has also used 16mm film in her recent work Nettlecombe. The current development of DSLRs’ that can capture both the still and moving image has certainly led to a change in the way current photojournalists work. Another recent approach, is the “late photography” movement, where the photographer visits the scene some time after the event to record the aftermath, see both Paul Seawright’s and Simon Norfolk’s work in Afghanistan. Although we can not all be there at the time this growth area has led to more work moving to the walls of the fine art gallery. The tool of the fine art photography is now either a 5X4 camera producing a large technically high quality image or Holga style toy camera, where the image will suffer from distortion and uneven exposure. This latter approach seems to be a rebellion against the growth in pixel counting reviewers and manufacturer’s who central aim is to get us to buy another camera, rather than more film for the one we already own. The technical difficulties and cost of running a large format camera hardly opens the world of photography to the masses. However this did not stop Chris Killip from producing In FIagrante. I remember attending a talk by the Vietman War photographer, Tim Page, who asked how many of the audience were actually carrying a camera, very few raised their hands. “So how do you expect to be a photographer, if you don’t carry a camera” was his reply.

While many will keep a written diary, this now has become public through the growth of online Bloggs and Twitter, but I hate to disappoint those of you who use such technologies, we are not really interested. There are those who keep a visual diary, Mick Williamson perhaps the best known. We could all work towards this, even if we don’t have the dedication he shows. Another interesting piece of work is shown by Chris Steel Perkins, in his book Echoes. Perhaps the most recent exponent of the use of pure photography is Trent Park’s black and white work, his ability to use the photographic image and his skill to control this, shows that there is still room for real photography. If there was a forerunner to his work then we should look at the colour images by Ernst Hass, who’s work still inspires. The growth of quality digital compact cameras and print on demand books such as Blurb, leave us with little excuse. But success relies on us being prepare to initially carry a camera, to be brave enough to use it and then actually to do something with the results. Actually taking the photographs is the easy bit, a good photographer is also a good editor. The ability to share our ideas with others and open ourselves to criticism, however constructive, requires us to be brave and for our fellow viewers to be understanding. But this can not always be easy when egos may jostle for position. The desire to be recognised and acknowledged is within us all. Perhaps if we could leave some of these contemporary ideas behind and return to the simplicity that many of us found so appealing when we started out on this adventure. It interesting to see in the same issue of BJP as Smyth’s article, Fuji announced the release of a new high quality portable digital camera, designed with the professional and keen enthusiast in mind. It promotes itself as returning control to the photographer and has all the features that we have all been looking for, so the publicity explains. Perhaps camera manufacturers may help more of us rediscover why we picked up a camera in the first place, prompting us to look in our bottom drawer for that simple to use camera that we enable us to provide a view on the world. As a photographer, our job is to open the viewer’s eyes to the world that surrounds us.

Andy Biggs

“Photography can be a mirror and reflect life as it is, but I also think that perhaps it is possible to walk like Alice, through a looking-glass, and find another kind of world with the camera.”

Tony Ray-Jones