The Sort of Thing They Like

 

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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review

“For those who like that sort of thing,” said Miss Brodie in her best Edinburgh voice, “That is the sort of thing they like.”
― Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

 

I have recently been writing quite a lot about how we could possibly set standards by which to judge photographs. It is not just a recent preoccupation; it’s one I’ve been gnawing away at for a long time. Put very simply, I recognize the absurdity of applying any one family of criteria to all photographs (and the arrogance of any one person setting themselves up to do that). But do we really have so little common ground in judging them, torn between all the hundreds of different criteria that could apply, that we have to make a profound revelation of ourselves as users of pictures before we can make even a moderate assessment of the pictures themselves ?

I strongly feel that photography should be capable of analysis and should not simply be offered and received as a mere system of visual construction, incapable of bearing profound meanings beyond its surface connection to ‘reality’. Or worse : incapable of bearing profound meanings except as the visualization of something which takes its proper, finished form elsewhere, usually in a text. If it is to be capable of analysis, then some more meaningful scale of value must apply than the old one of mere badging. “Great” and “crap” can only get us so far in sharing ideas about photographs.

Photography loses much of its point if it is treated as free-for-all, unmoored in the broader culture. A picture out of context is often not much of a picture at all – until a curator or editor or somebody acting as one of those things comes along to give a new context. Although context is not everything, I do note how difficult it is ever to treat a photograph as ‘nothing’ or ‘nothing much’ after reading detailed analysis of what it is and where it comes from. On the other hand, I am more and more dismayed by that form of photography (being practised specially by that odd subsection of photographers who are academic researchers) in which the utter neutrality of the pictures, in a style derived from late post-modern post-documentary, amounts to an admission of defeat. Those pictures convey nothing at all without the words.   Much academic photography is in fact merely the prop or scaffold for academic writing. It gives up on all the rich forms of expression in photography and falls back to its humble function of … illustration.

I suppose in my role as a critic of photographs, I spend my time trudging between the more nearly closed image (made by the photographer, distributed by publishers of various kinds, sold, copied and Instagrammed … ) and the more nearly open one seen by viewers. By the first, I mean those pictures which are doing the work expected of them, functionally. By the second, I mean that viewers come always (in theory) to every single new picture in a state of hot tension in case that picture might be the one which might bring wonderment or some kind of truth or any one of the dozens of strong emotions photographs can carry. I have argued for years that there is an imbalance between the lazy garbage that many photographers and their distributors are happy to release over their names, and the heightened alertness viewers bring to photographs for the fraction of a second it takes to see if they deserve that concentration. We receive photographs like cricketers in the slips, muscles tensed in advance, ready to move high or low. More often than not, we might as well have relaxed.

Photography is almost always an applied art first. Pictures have traditionally moved from the world of work to the gallery, where they have rested. If a small (recently, an increasing) minority has been destined direct to the esoteric (and in many regards incredibly old-fashioned) world of the collector and the dealer, that minority is still just that. The analysis of art provides many clues as to ways of making sense of photographs; but photography is bigger than art as it is bigger than journalism or advertising or police evidence files.

Pictures commonly do have jobs to do. The connotations are mildly snobbish, still today. Think of the words traditionally tied to photography: socially disparaging like craft or trade, technically disparaging, like smudger or snapper, or simply mildly contemptuous, like hobby or pastime. Don McCullin rebuked one of the journalistic colleagues he once travelled with (I think it was James Cameron) who introduced him as my photographer. It is not remarkable that McCullin had to correct him. But that Cameron could say such a thing would be incredible if it didn’t happen every day.   The disparagement exists because users of photography still, after it being so vital and so dominant for so long, have not settled on meaningful standards by which it can be judged. Or they have — but only within the tiny subsets in which they each operate. Good gardening picture. Bad wedding picture. Good picture to show how rich I am. Bad picture to illustrate the massacre that took place last night. Good picture of our logo. Bad picture for.…

We need to learn to be sensitive to disparagement of photography, maybe in the same process as we need to learn to be sensitive to photographs themselves. Because photography, whether you like it or not, is not confined to those subsets. Photography is the literacy of all those of us who are no longer ‘well-read’.

My friend and erstwhile colleague Stephen Mayes talks with fervour about how stock photography – disparaged, despised stock – can drive societal change in ways that we haven’t yet begun to codify. If the stock industry begins to show same sex couples raising children – and it does because customers are there to pay for those pictures – then that becomes the social norm whether there is a hinterland of disapprovers or not. Stock is an incredibly powerful influencing system; yet we think of it as a lowly trade practice, far beneath analysis. Popular music and film act as the literacy of those who are no longer well read, too. There are occasional outbursts of contempt for those things, yet it is rare for the industrial consumption of tunes or movies to be treated with the disdain so customarily reserved for our industrial consumption of imagery. Pictures do good or bad work, all over the place, all the time. And as a society we have simply not equipped ourselves to work out how they do what they do.

So I keep worrying away at this question of standards. One argument goes like this: If it’s an applied art, maybe the standards of the application override or overrule the standards of the art. How would that work? Is a crap photograph capable of being a good fashion photograph? Maybe it is. Indeed, I do believe that is a very fair assessment of how it can work. If – as I, following many others – have written in the past, photography changes status very fluidly as the individual image moves from context to context, then maybe the standards by which to assess it have to be fluid, too. And maybe they do. I am gravitating to (and have published in various forms) a notion that a good user of pictures, acting as an editor or curator or collector or just a kid pinning an eclectic group of pictures to a bedroom wall, can give sense and context to pictures which had none at all before her intervention.   The logical consequence of that is inescapable: that it is the user and the use to whom and to which standards of quality apply, and not the photographic raw material. The very same picture would then have different standards applied to it in the varying contexts in which it falls. That is our experience of pictures; it feels right.

 

I want to keep gnawing.

It is a truth (if not universally, then widely) acknowledged that whatever Nigel Shafran does is very good. As a matter of fact, I’m among those who acknowledge it, or very largely so. He makes sequences of compelling emotional order. A very great majority of what he chooses to release really is very well seen, very well expressed, of interest and so on. A smaller proportion is even better than that: choose your word. Shafran is certainly capable of making great images – leave aside for a moment whether that actually means anything at all in the context of the paragraph above – and has proved so many times in my view. I have long been a fan. I also know him a bit and like him very well as a person. In fact we shared a pint of beer and half a dozen oysters only the other day. I need to state all of that unequivocally here, at the outset. Because I want to take Shafran to some extent as my guinea pig. I want to enquire here into how we get our certainties about what makes or unmakes a good photograph; I want to pick away at easy words like good and great as they are applied to pictures.

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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review

 

Shafran last summer (2015) had a few pictures included in an exhibition at Somerset House which had been curated by Martin Barnes, of the V&A. Called Beneath the Surface, and drawn from the V&A’s own holdings, the exhibition (among other things) mounted a clever and convincing argument that to read pictures only for what they show is often to miss the point; that every picture in the V&A is there for reasons, and those reasons add up to a rich extra narrative intimately connected to the pictures but also stretching far beyond them. You could, if you liked jargon, refer to the metadata behind the pictures, or more plainly to the backstory of how they came to be where they are and what they are. You could talk in terms of material culture in this context, too.

A few years earlier, Barnes had commissioned Shafran to make some pictures for the V&A’s annual review, and his group of pictures in Beneath the Surface came from that commission. Shafran published those as Visitor Figures: Out-takes from the V&A Museum Annual Review 2012-13. (It’s an odd subtitle. They are not, properly speaking, out-takes. Of the nine pictures chosen to illustrate the V&A Annual Review, six reappear in the book. )

Notice that the inclusion of Shafran’s group in the Somerset House show is not neutral. It is (or it could be taken as) a vindication by the curator of his earlier decision as commissioner.

There is at first glance nothing particularly odd in the V&A commissioning Shafran – commissioning any photographer – to illustrate its own internal documents. The V&A is the national treasury of the art of photography; its collections are second-to-none and its curatorial concern has been high-level and constant for many years. Of course it should commission photographers to do stuff, every year.

Lots of organizations think they are vaguely daring in asking a photographer to work on their annual review who might not be quite limited to the awful standard annual-report vocabulary of process-and-people; suits-and-high vis; discipline-and-creative freedom — all presented in totally spurious cahoots. Not everybody who reads this will have seen an annual report. Take it from me, the majority of them are as miserably unimaginative and cheap in their photography as they are in their prose, leaden porridge of commercial cliché and caution and convention. Collectively, they add to the wholly justifiable despair one can have about the management function and the functionaries who perform it.

But consider. Shafran is not apparently a corporate photographer. It is obvious that it took some courage for Martin Barnes to commission him. Shafran is a notably independent minded photographer; one of the tribe who think of themselves as artists and not as craftsmen. He might have been disinclined to toe whatever management line was laid out for him to toe. Even worse, in corporate terms, he might have been … unmanageable. Also – much more surprisingly – the other way. It took a great deal of courage for Shafran to accept the commission. Imagine if by the mere mischance of having been mistaken for the kind of artist who could put artistry aside for the length of a corporate brochure, he had happened to sour relations with the major museum in his discipline for ever. That can happen. It has happened.

But this was not, as it happens, Shafran’s first commission from the V&A. A number of other pictures were commissioned from him in 1999 to celebrate Lord Armstrong’s completion of his tenure as Chairman of the Board of Trustees.

Nigel Shafran, After Gillian Varley's leaving party, 1999

Nigel Shafran, After Gillian Varley’s leaving party, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1999

So maybe there was considerably less risk involved than appears. Maybe Shafran — who was a high-flying commercial photographer in the youthful fashion-lifestyle end of the business before he was ever an independent artist, and who now judiciously manages the commercially-driven aspects of his work to take advantage of the energy and reputation that flows from those of his personal projects which have no very heavy commercial outcome — is a “safe pair of hands” (how uniquely British that phrase is, deriving as it does from cricket, the mysterious game which now makes its second appearance in these lines). If that’s so, we may need to rethink the pictures. Maybe getting Shafran to do your annual review pictures is precisely the corporate norm as geared to the V&A rather than a widget maker, profit taker or corporate shaker. And if that is so, in turn, then maybe we need to look again.

What does the V&A need to show? A number of its values are set. Since the Blairite formulation of culture – that it had to pay its way in societal terms – which has been wholly accepted by the Conservatives-with-Blairite-DNA who run Britain now, the agenda for national museums has been completely clear. Budgets are going to be cut every year (because the people who rule don’t really believe in culture in spite of ample demonstrations that it actually brings real benefits), but they will be cut harder if the mission statement cannot be shown to be met. Culture needs to be accessible and inclusive, to be devoted to (and a successful partner in) education. It needs to show value for the national pound spent on it, and to demonstrate herculean efforts at raising money commercially so as not to look like it might be scrounging. It needs to show high-level scholarship on the international level and leadership in as many as possible of the fields in which it operates. It needs to host blockbuster manifestations, if only to keep a profile next to others in creative industries for whom blockbusting is the only aim they own. It needs to be a considerate employer, devoted to the principles of equal opportunities, health and safety, and so on. Everybody who has ever tried to earn a living in the cultural fields will recognize that these employment ends stop short of actually paying decent wages, of course. Culture is supposed to be a great gift for the people who consume it, and the people who work at it are supposed to enjoy it so much that they can routinely be exploited for unfair or uncompetitive rates of pay.   But that is a separate question. Its political masters judge the V&A by the way in which it meets this agenda. Culture needs for ever to prove that it is paying its way, and a great museum never loses sight of that.

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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Selected for the V&A’s Annual Review

So Nigel Shafran’s pictures for the annual review had a lot riding on them. That his style is notably informal (I mean that he does not tend to use any set-up by which he has total control over his subject matter, in the matters of lighting or excluding accidental elements) should not obscure that. Informal pictures can still perform a very formal role, as advertisers, for example, know very well.   Take the Shafran pictures included in the final edit of the V&A report: we have specific views of the conservation process, of scholarship in action, of education, of the wide visitor profile, of the appeal of the blockbuster exhibitions… We even have, in the last picture used, a view of the Madejski garden crowded with visitors on a winter’s evening for some performance or event, a picture of the impact (it’s a jargon term for the number of people you reach and how you affect them) you can achieve through private funding.   This is a remarkably on-message selection of pictures for a radical photographer. They’re good or bad in other terms, and that can be discussed. But in corporate terms, which after all, are the terms under which they were commissioned, made and selected, they are very good. Or — to put in the terms I suggested above — these pictures were applied to the V&A’s purposes, and in the terms of that application, they were good.

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Pages 54 & 55 of the Annual Review of the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2012/13. The little tiny not-very-inspiring corporate portrait in the upper left (of some executives executing something or other) is, rather surprisingly, by Nigel Shafran. Are there any standards other than those of the job in hand by which this is a ‘good’ picture ?

Shafran has had, as any successful photographer must have had, a succession of relations with picture editors and editors, with gallerists and curators, with publishers and critics and commercial clients. Maybe the manner in which he has run those relations is more important than the actual content of the pictures. That is a quite shocking thing to say to people who believe that the pictures are very fine and do their work irrespective of other considerations. But it is true in every business that what one might call the ancillary skills are vitally important. You need to be on time, to be personable, to be on budget and on message, to be civil, to be flexible to the needs of the customer, to be discreet, to be prepared to put up with a certain amount of executive bullshit and so on. These are skills which we try and persuade our sons and daughters to develop and maintain, whatever business they intend to pursue.

In something like photography, where very, very few people trust their own taste in the primary activity itself — where few can really confidently tell a good picture from a bad — it may well be that the ancillary skills hold more weight in the judgment of quality than in a business where more widely shared standards apply. The crudest standard is simply money. I forget which titan of the Thatcher era said “money is the way we keep the score”, and the barbarism is quite plain. Yet there is an element of truth there, too. A photographer who earns good money must be a good photographer, no? It rather depends what you mean by good.

If coming to a judgment on the primary activity is difficult, then the same few half-judgments will be carried much further. That is certainly true in photography, where the absurd replacement of individual judgment by the crudest reliance on name checking is very common. White Cube represents him: must be good. Michael Mack publishes her: must be good. He is in the collection at MOMA: must be good.   She went to the Royal College of Art; must be good… These (although they exist everywhere) are not the kinds of judgments you hear so much in creative businesses which have a functioning shared vocabulary of standards. A properly weighty CV for a film-maker might impress you; but if the last documentary she made is crap, you have every confidence in identifying that, and if you are in a position to hire such people, you might well hire another.

In photography, where there is so much choice of practitioners, and where an acute compiler could use such a vast range of forms of expression, timidity and conservatism are the rule rather than the exception. There are adventurous and confident editors and curators and publishers and art directors; but they are outnumbered in the thousands to one by those with little knowledge of the antecedents, narrow ambition for any set of photographs, and zero confidence in their own eye. They are the ones who will keep coming back to the ancillary skills since they admit they can make nothing of the primary ones. Being able to do business with a photographer comes to be not a complement to finding the pictures strong or moving or original or well expressed, but something that stands in place of those things.

I said loud and clear: I admire Nigel Shafran and think him a fine photographer. He has (deftly understated) technical mastery, great reflexes, a powerfully original sense of what is worth noticing in photographs. He has an old-fashioned sense of beauty coupled with a post-modern feel that beauty will be found in whatever you look at beautifully. He has acute moral antennae, becoming modesty, humanity, wide-ranging curiosity and culture. But I don’t think that the judgments which brought a group of his prints to the lower floor of Somerset House in London in the summer of 2015 are really derived from any of that.

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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review

 

It doesn’t in the end matter to the V&A whether the pictures they publish in their annual report are in any profound sense good pictures. Those pictures had work to do in their original guise. Then they reappear ten or a hundred times bigger, as fine prints in a major exhibition, and it begins to look as though somebody is asking us to take them seriously in contexts beyond their original one. But that somebody is the same as the person who commissioned them in the first place, who inevitably has something invested in how we regard them. Shafran then republishes them in a self-published book, and it looks as though he is making the same transition: the pictures are moving from ‘job’ to ‘work’.   Some time in the future, somebody will start to hold those pictures up to others, to compare what they are and what they do, and will come to conclusions about their cultural weight and worth. But long before that has happened, they will have been described as good or even great pictures, and I don’t think we know that they are yet.

We don’t have the habit of assessing photographs in the round. We don’t tend to share a vocabulary by which we can agree in describing their route from ‘a good job well done’ to anything more general than that. It may be impossible to arrive at such a vocabulary. But it surely is worth trying to keep an eye for one. And maybe it starts by asking what the job they were doing was and what it is.  It’s no good being snobbish about ‘applied art’.  It’s no good being snobbish, like Miss Jean Brodie, about the sort of things people like. It’s photography : it’s working at something or it isn’t worth a damn.

 

 

Post Scriptum:

I reviewed Beneath the Surface at the time for Photomonitor:

http://bit.ly/1BQpF48

You will see that the thoughts I develop here were not quite developed there: but it does no harm to admit to thinking about the same pictures for more than the immediate purpose at hand. One of the things we don’t do, I think, is give pictures the chance for the second and third and nth reading.

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Who Says it’s Good?

Frank Brangwyn,  Preparatory study for the Skinners' Hall Murals, c.1905.

Frank Brangwyn, Preparatory study for the Skinners’ Hall Murals, c.1905.

In photography we have no or few shared standards. The camera club virtues (perfection in the craft skills of photography at the expense of any or every notion of expressiveness) are not by any means to be mapped to the virtues aimed at by the members of World Press Photo, artists working in photography, or professional wedding photographers.

It is not, in general, a very controversial thing to say that “we have standards”. It is not awkward to expect that some jobs are better finished than others.

Try to get a little more specific than that, though, and standards are fiercely difficult to apply. In photography, as in many art forms, we resort to the crude ways of keeping the score of the hedge-fund or the investment bank: numbers and particularly currency numbers. Platinum records, best-seller lists, highest-grossing film releases… The great auction houses routinely spew out press releases announcing the breaking of this or that ‘record’. Their diligence must have contributed a lot to the fashionable notion of art as an investment area. Do note that they never send out releases announcing unsold works in a sale or a price well below that expected. To get those figures calls for investigative reporting, and that, for complicated reasons, barely exists anymore.

Photography — although not immune to that kind of lowest-common-denominator boosting system (see for example the self-promotion of the Australian landscape photographer Peter Lik, who claims on his website as at September 2015 “to now hold four spots out of the top twenty most expensive photographs ever sold” ) — has not so far succumbed wholly to it. We can still see that lots of good or excellent pictures have not sold many times or for high digits, and also that lots of money continues to be made by pictures plainly junk.

Drifiting Shadows by Peter Lik.  My spellchecker unkindly offered YUK as a suggestion for the name of the photographer.

Drifiting Shadows by Peter Lik. My spellchecker unkindly offered YUK as a suggestion for the name of the photographer.

To rank any artworks higher or lower by more subtle gauges than those of the stock exchange ticker is to invite contradiction or dispute. People quite naturally disagree with rankings, propose alternatives, scoff at comparing what they consider non-equivalents… If it seems probable to me, say, that Pat Barker is a “better” novelist of the Great War than Sebastian Faulks, (which it does), am I immediately looking for a punch in the mush from some outraged fan of the opposite persuasion? I could make arguments to back up my claim – starting with the coarse circumstantial one that Faulks, former books editor, male, and fully paid up member of the London literocracy, has had a number of advantages in generating favourable attention that Pat Barker has not had. I could add a few more of these broad contextual strokes, and then dance into the texts, and so make my case.   But why would I? What does it mean to invite comparison between one artwork and another? How does the unexceptional thought that there are standards become transformed into bellicose or at least provocative dispute as to what exactly they might be or where they might precisely be found?

I don’t exactly know. But I do know that the weaselly pretence that all art in any domain must be equally good is just a flight from a difficult series of questions. Without shared standards – which some artworks must almost by definition fail to achieve – we can only be subjective. Aside from the question of all those photographs with good pretensions to excellence but no pretensions whatsoever to art, you might well feel that in the criticism of photography we’ve had quite enough of that. Subjective judgment is the rule not the exception, and no attempt to systematize that seems ever to have got much traction. My feeling is that this is not a flaw but a natural consequence of some of the central elements of the medium.

Several modes of criticism quite routinely cohabit. Which is the same as saying that a number of separate standards are in operation. There is what we might call the style of the late Sir David Frost – in which everything is “Super, Super”. By that standard, the work under consideration is always excellent. Good things that went before – and most especially better things that went before – have no place at the table. This is the standard of the press release, and the press release is a form of writing which has grown exponentially during the ‘information age’ of fast digital communication, and whose influence, I think, has grown much more in the art world than is easily realized.

I can’t say I have lived through the invention of the press release. US sources routinely credit Ivy Lee with that, for the controlled way he managed news of an Atlantic City railway crash in 1906. (Upton Sinclair, in his novel The Brass Cheque – in which Sinclair gave an account of Lee’s corrupt handling of the press on what became called the Ludlow Massacre, a mining strike in 1914 which escalated into violent reprisal ­– scathingly dubbed Ivy Lee “Poison Ivy”.)   I suppose there have been people detailed to claim the attention of the press from the art world as long as there have been mass media. But the role has grown and spread and drawn little comment in doing so. Now we’ve reached a point where even the tiniest arts organization has a PR person – or an account with a PR firm. Individual artists have PR people, all furiously spinning away. Public cultural institutions spend tax-payer’s money on PR, wads of it. There has grown up and flourished a kind of art-writing which is no more than reheating the press-releases that these people pack up and pump out, and it sometimes is pretty disgraceful.

In photography, notably, where there are very few specialist critics, one can trace press releases right through into general acceptance. As a person in the business I receive a lot of press releases and I can often see large chunks of them appear in finished articles over the name of a supposed ‘reviewer’ or ‘previewer’. Even when that isn’t quite so, even when the words are altered, I can see the point of view of the release unquestioningly reproduced with no more than a shift of expression. In an era when deadlines are tight, and when ‘content’ is so often no more than space-filling, when pay for arts journalism has barely increased since the 1980s and journalists are under more pressure to produce stuff than to make it interesting (or right), one can have a certain sympathy. What is a writer to do, asked to produce three hundred (or seventy-five!) words on an artist they’ve barely heard of in a field whose very Peles and Maradonas are all-but unknown? That’s what the press release is for. But perhaps what comes out of that system shouldn’t be called criticism. It’s something else: puffery if you’re feeling nasty, background information if you’re feeling generous. Reheating a press release may let a reader or a listener know what’s going on; but it will hardly inform her or him.

I can’t prove it, but I think one could say that there’s more writing in the information age, and less reading. People read fast, they are satisfied with the surface reading, they don’t use much detail. Whereas the production of texts rises and rises. Many of them are produced to sell something, only it doesn’t necessarily appear so in the final context.

That’s the world of press releases. It cannot be discounted in seeking to understand what standards apply. Photography is the area I know, but I doubt it’s very different elsewhere. Culture is made to fit into the system we operate, and is divided up to be sold as product. A great deal of what purports to be criticism is too close to marketing for comfort.

But not all. Some still argue that technical perfection is the only standard worth achieving. A ‘good’ photograph then becomes a well-executed exercise in doing what cameras and computers can do[1]. A lot of people sneer at that: it brings to mind camera-club contests in which producing even curves in Photoshop is more important by far than having anything to say. I’m the first to say that I’m not specially interested in ‘perfect’ pictures of ‘perfect’ drops of water falling off the very end of ‘perfect’ rose leaves. But sneering is no good. A great deal of the photography that we are most influenced by is made along precisely those lines. Much more commercial photography is made like that than perhaps we notice. Car pictures – ever so shiny. Travel pictures – no politics. Fashion – has to show the clothes. Portraiture, lifestyle, below-the-line, art, sport… The rules by which serious and experienced professional people judge photographs in their particular neck of the photographic woods are often particular, sometimes absurd, and not always tenable in the abstract.

A Weasel Rides on a  Woodpecker, by Martin Le-May, 2015.  This picture 'went viral' and one can see why.  Nobody who saw it had ever seen such a thing before.

A Weasel Rides on a Woodpecker, by Martin Le-May, 2015. This picture ‘went viral’ and one can see why. Nobody who saw it had ever seen such a thing before.

Even news photography, which you would have thought has to confirm most of all to the grim hurly-burly of the real world, is often made according to a series of arcane rules about what it is or is not acceptable to do to a photograph between capturing it and letting audiences see it. The recent and ongoing kerfuffle at the World Press Photo about manipulation is revealing[2]. I attended one of the meetings and was shocked by the almost religious inflexibility of a certain kind of working photojournalist, who really believes that his or her pictures somehow tell pure truth, and not only that, but that he can recognize such a thing when he sees it. There are still news photographers – plenty of them –who are convinced that truth is to be measured in pixels unaltered in a file, but not — say — in the editorial stance which chooses which horrors are newsworthy and which to be ignored[3]. The very notion that the in-camera and in-computer algorithms without which their pictures don’t exist might themselves build-in certain distortions away from Truth is unthinkable. Not to mention the ‘human algorithms’ of media owners and editors and marketing people…

Photography can and does deal in certain moderated versions of truth; but the virtues which aim at that are hard to reconcile with those that aim at winning hearts and minds to a sale or a belief, or making persuasive autobiography, or inviting viewers to share subtle or otherwise nearly-unattainable emotion. Historical evidence would tend to show that photographs have been asked to do many things, and that ways have been found to do all of them exceptionally well. There is not much evidence that we all recognize the same virtues when we call a picture ‘good.’

We can sneer at camera club rules by all means : the prissy precision, the lack of tolerance for doubt or ambiguity, the rejection of metaphor and wit, the preaching only to the like-minded… but if we do, we have by the same token to sneer at lots and lots of photographic activity which is usually deemed more important, more interesting, or more influential than that.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander ( The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ), photographed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino.  Famous, famous photographer.  shall we be charitable, and say simply that everybody is allowed an off day?

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander ( The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ), photographed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino. Famous, famous photographer, but the picture?  Shall we be charitable, and say simply that everybody is allowed an off day?

I continue to believe that we are less confident in arriving at shared standards (however modifiable or temporary) in photography than in any other cultural activity I know of. I don’t hear people hesitating to rank pop songs or movies or books. Yet we commonly really hesitate to say “this is a better photograph than that”. Or when we do, we fall back on absurd mechanisms to justify it. One is the one I mentioned further back: if we leave a space in applying standards because we don’t quite know which standards to apply, the whole press release industry will be quick to step in to the void.

The other is related, but slightly different. It’s the grim culture of name-checking. Annie Leibovitz worked for years for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair and so on. She has had books published by such eminent publishers as Jonathan Cape and Random House.   Good galleries have sold her prints. Does any of that make any particular picture by Leibovitz any good?   It does not. Do people cite these things as though it did? They do. This speaks to me of a lack of confidence in those making judgment.   We are too far along the many roads of photography ever again to think pictures good merely because they are sold at White Cube or Gagosian, shown at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, or written about in the Journal of Visual Culture.

From Be Bold With Bananas, published by Fruit Distributors Ltd, Banana Importers of Wellington, New Zealand .  Undated but 1970s. I seem to have come to this amazing book later than many others.  I was pointed to it by Rudi Thoemmes.

From Be Bold With Bananas, published by Fruit Distributors Ltd, Banana Importers of Wellington, New Zealand . Undated but 1970s. I seem to have come to this amazing book later than many others. I was pointed to it by Rudi Thoemmes.

Photographs are often given their importance by someone other than the photographer. I am beginning to think that a fine ‘receiver’ of photographs can make any photograph ‘good’, whatever its previous status. More than that: I find myself wondering whether I have ever known a photograph to matter at all until it has been granted the extra heft of somebody somehow receiving it and giving it its position in the world. Receiver of photographs? Well, a number of roles centre around receiving photographs carefully: picture editor, internet harvester, lawyer, curator, creative director, collector, art director, critic, historian, designer … I’d like to add photographers; but their inclusion confuses the issue.

Fundamental among them, however, are what used to be called laymen, who are sometimes now called the general public (the contempt for their not being specialists is barely concealed). It is among those who don’t make the pictures but who read them or use them with care and culture that I think the standards are set. Many of those people are not ‘image-professionals’ in any real sense. A trivial family snapshot, recovered a generation later by strangers, is not much without the simple accolade of a plain caption of place and date. But much can easily be made of it. Think of the novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs[4]. This odd best-seller was apparently written in part around the vintage photographs which dot its pages like milestones. The pictures are anonymous, salvaged. They were nothing. Now they are something. Riggs treated them as material for his book, in the same way that he treated his own memories, odd facts about places (like Wales) and so on. That doesn’t necessarily give them excellence. But it does take them straight from their pre-Riggs indifference to something which only a very small proportion of the floods of photographs ever acquire: once they’ve been in the novel, they are interesting. You could look at them in detail. You could write about them. You could start to work out stuff about their puncta and their studia.

I think this counter-intuitive idea of pictures acquiring whatever importance they have later in their existence is important. We are used to thinking the opposite: that pictures conform to a pre-photographic pattern whereby they are either pregnant with importance or not from the outset.   You are commissioned to paint the walls of one of the Scuole in Venice. The job will be important; you can depend on it that future members of the guild will ascribe to the pictures the importance that they have from the outset. Art historians and curators and others could add to the lustre, but probably not create it outright. That was the usual pattern in the days when pictures were rare, and the pattern which we thought would not change as they grew more common. But everybody is a picture editor, now. My 12 year-old son pointed out the absurdity of an advertisement on TV in which a computer-generated time-lapse medieval town growing at speed was shown on a landscape which anachronistically contained an unmistakably twenty-first century wind farm. The CGI needed a base, he said, with neither any great sense of showing off, nor any great wonder, and the base hasn’t been properly cleaned. The customer is an experienced editor, now, even when he’s twelve.

This corresponds to a wider shift. All over the intellectual landscape, mandarinate and professional specialism are having to share space with broader and unmediated access to knowledge and opinion. Interest in history has been shifted from professional historians to a wider group coming at it from angles in ‘heritage’, genealogy, town-planning, tourism, and so on.

So in photography, all sorts of people are now routinely in a position to grant to pictures a status they did not have before. We can no longer assume that pictures are important just by virtue of being pictures. Grant them a modicum of thought, of emotion, of context, however, from whichever angle, and they can be given that importance at any stage in their trajectory. Find a way to tell the story of pictures and they become more than they were. I even wonder whether the great shift towards multiple readings and alternative but equally valid positions which is such a mark of the intellectual colour of our time, at least in the more-or-less liberal West, did not in fact originate in photography .

A number of the better histories of photography consider ‘alternative’ pictures (those which had no place in the previous formal history) and give them leave to elbow themselves into contention. A fine example of this is Ian Jeffrey’s ReVisions – the magisterial catalogue of the first exhibition at the (former) National Museum of Photography Film and Television in Bradford after a major rebuild and rehang in 1999. Jeffery talks about ‘homeless’ pictures – those which don’t fit comfortably into whichever plodding conventional value system dominated at their time. But it is hard to ignore that it is his own attention granted to them — often a hundred or more years after they were made — which in fact finds them a home. The minute they found a way into the show and the book they weren’t ‘homeless’ any more. Photography seems to be cumulative in a paradoxical way: as soon as sustained attention is granted to a photograph, it becomes capable of bearing sustained attention.

A magazine sub-editor writes a caption about a topical sports picture; and the picture which was one of twenty or a hundred under consideration to occupy that particular space on a page, has suddenly acquired a context. It’s gone from being graphic ‘noise’ – we might almost call it a potential picture – to being a whole picture, with a modicum of meaning, history, value and so on. A lot of photography is recovered through the internet, edited into modern versions (or parodies) of the old cabinets of curiosities. Just as it wasn’t obvious that the stuff in the Wunderkammern was interesting until it was just there, with just those other objects to left and right, just that owner, and just that audience, so it seems that pictures are often nothing until they are given a place in the world and in our thinking. That place may be granted formally or informally, but the granting seems always to have to take place. A hard drive full of images is neither a work of art nor a research database nor a ‘collection’ until somebody says why they’re there, or why she thinks they’re there, or suggests something one can take from their being there. A single picture held to a refrigerator by a magnet may well be a more telling piece of communication; it very likely is. At the very least, somebody has chosen it over others to occupy that place where it is to be seen. The Dutch curator Eric Kessels recycles old, often anonymous pictures from flea-markets into something that matters much more than it ever did when the pictures were still part of the life-baggage of the original owners. Who then is the real source of the meaning and mattering in the pictures – anonymous and unconscious photographer, or active and deliberate curator-creator?

From In almost Every Picture No. 9, collected and edited by Erik Kessels.  A brilliant book about a family's inability to photogpraph their black dog.

From In almost Every Picture No. 9, collected and edited by Erik Kessels. A brilliant book about a family’s inability to photograph their black dog.

I look around and I see the same phenomenon everywhere. Crap pictures from stock libraries enormously enlivened by a smart context in advertising. In many books by W.G. Sebald, the pictures are a ‘source’ for the text, but even as they inform the writing, they are granted by it a status they didn’t have before. I once spent a considerable amount of time researching a carte-de visite of an unnamed young man. It remains probable (but I was never able to prove) that it was the earliest known photograph of Vincent van Gogh. The photographer didn’t particularly care: a client. The various owners whose hands it had passed through didn’t particularly care: a picture. If I had been able to join up the dots, though, it would have been a historical document and no doubt quickly a well-known one. A nothing photograph becomes a something photograph at an unpredictable point in its continued existence, and the transition from nothing to something is by no means always along predictable lines. That is the lesson we learn. The root sense of the word curate is to take care of something, and by extension, to care about it. Taking care of photographs seems to be in a very real sense the crowning element in creating them. Only occasionally is the extra mattering granted to the pictures by the same person who made them.

That throws a rather different light on criticism, of course. Because if I’m right, and pictures are more usually dead until somebody’s act of caring breathes life into them, then criticism ( in the widest sense ) makes the pictures. They may never have said or contained what the critic claims they say or contain until after he or she has written. But nothing can take that content out of them afterwards.  Seen in that light, well-known pictures are in some way the accumulation of the various intellectual and emotional positions that have been held about them; less well-known ones have less of that heap of ancillary content, but if they’re under discussion at all, they have the beginnings of it.

I understand that all this might sound like special pleading on my own behalf.  I have never been a photographer, after all, and have certainly been a receiver of photographs in one role or another for many years.  What could be more natural than that I should argue for the primacy of my role and for understating of the role I have never had?  All I can say is that I think the argument has validity notwithstanding my own position and in spite of it. Put simply, I think we all finish photographs in our own ways;  I just happen to represent that more specialised type who has tried to make a living at it.  That’s only a question of degree.

How does this get us to the question of standards in photography?  It seems that photographs are hardly finished until they are ‘cared for’ – which may be as simple as pinning them to refrigerators, as it may include writing scholarly catalogues of them. The caring does not require any special language, does not presuppose any particular purpose, and nor does it have to address an audience self-identified as having any special aptitude.   I have described this elsewhere as finding or granting to photographs whatever ‘mattering’ they might be said to bear.   It may well be that this extraordinary attribute, of being incomplete until under interpretation, lies at the heart of our historical difficulty in finding shared standards in photography. It may be mildly depressing to have to admit that there is no such thing as a good or great photograph – only a good or great response to it. But it is also an extraordinary confirmation of many of the central strengths of photography.

Photography is portable, transmissible, transcultural, available to almost everybody to make and receive. It has an intimate proximity to reality and yet is separate to it. It has always been vernacular. It is a kind of time-machine. It is capable of triviality beyond endurance and yet is the main visual literacy of all of us and many of the various truths we know we know through photographs.   If no photograph is fully made until someone confronted with it finds that it moves him or her to a reaction, then photography is even more pliable and supple a thing than we knew.   It has no standards of its own. It merely challenges us to refine our own standards in the face of it. To receive photographs well then becomes to keep one’s own relevant standards in mind, to keep them ready for revision or refinement, and to hold the photographs up to them so that the light of each shines on the other.

I cannot tell you what particular intellectual equipment must be brought to bear on any photograph. Any one of them may need historical, moral, scientific, visual, social, sexual, verbal, mythical sensitivities or others, in combination or together. But they do need some of those things to be engaged if they are to be more than dumb slices of reality on a page or a screen. No engagement (I’ve called it no ‘caring’) means no mattering. Under the system I’m describing, photographs not only remain capable of analysis – which they must do if they are to be treated as plain ordinary cultural objects like any other – they actively need it. However rudimentary or vernacular that analysis — it may be no more than the choice of a place — it is that which makes a photograph complete.

We can conclude that pictures are not made just to be seen. They are made to be thought about. The question then shifts. It is not mysterious that different people judge photographs by different standards. The question is no longer how good is the picture, but who says so, and how good are the standards that they apply?

[1] Few of us realize how far the technology is ahead of any real control, however. For just a flavor of this, cf. Stephen Mayes, The Next Revolution in Photography is Coming, Time, Aug 25, 2015. http://time.com/4003527/future-of-photography/

[2] The Integrity of the Image, World Press Photo Report by David Campbell, November 2014, available online at http://www.worldpressphoto.org/sites/default/files/upload/Integrity%20of%20the%20Image_2014%20Campbell%20report.pdf

[3] I wrote the first draft of this in the days immediately after a number of Western tourists were killed in an Islamist attack at a hotel in Sousse, Tunisia. In the UK coverage (a number of the victims were British) no mention was made of how very odd – I almost use the word provocative – it is to remove almost all of one’s clothing in public in a Moslem country. Yet that is what many of those who were killed had done. The truth is not limited to their corpses in the sand. It would have been difficult (but I insist it would have been possible – if only because so many ‘impossible’ pictures have been published before) to make pictures which addressed this question of the colonialism of mores. Selective distortion of this kind is the norm in photojournalism; don’t let any photojournalist tell you that her truth is The Truth.

[4] I am grateful for this reference to my fellow-critic Colin Pantall, who I think liked the book better than I did. But he had read it when I had not yet heard of it, and kindly passed it on.