Photography vs photography

Photo by Fiona

This is one of my “working shit out” blog posts, if you’re wondering why it rambles with no coherent point.

One of the things that’s often interested me in the time I’ve spent in the orbits of “creative” folks is the distinction, sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, between those who primarily identify as a practitioner of a medium and those who identify with the tribe of their tool reluctantly. Sometimes this maps to the degree of depth and wisdom they display, with the loudest cheerleaders for “the community” not being the best practitioners. The latter tend to be those who, while they respect and have mastery of their tools, know that they are merely tools and a means to a higher end.

Or at least that’s how I’ve come to see it, and my prejudices which follow can be understood on those terms.

I recently had a chat with Karen Newman, currently of the Open Eye gallery in Liverpool, who is looking to do something in Birmingham involving a building or space for photography. I liked Karen. She seems to be on the spectrum of Arts people I can work with, and with any luck I hope to do so should things pan out that way. And if they don’t, it’ll just be nice to have her around the place.

One of the things she wanted to talk about was the photography community in Birmingham, whose in it, how do people communicate and share ideas, what people and organisations should she be talking to, that kind of thing. And to my surprise I didn’t really know. Thankfully my Photo School compadre Matt was also there and he has a better sense of such things, but it did get me thinking.

Of all the arts scenes in Birmingham I’ve been involved with over the last 6 years, Photography has probably been the main one. From starting the Flickrmeets through to Photo School, my gradual mastery of the art form has come directly from those I’ve known and worked with in Birmingham. If I hadn’t moved back here in 2003 it’s extremely doubtful I’d be the photographer I am today.

And yet when it comes to The Photography Scene in the city I feel I’m an outsider. I know people in it, but, Matt aside, I don’t know them that well. This doesn’t worry me. It’s not like I have any animosity towards my fellow photographers. I’d consider a load of them to be friends even if I don’t see them that often.

I find myself disagreeing with a lot of the received wisdom that commercial photographers hold, particularly over copyright and the relative value of photographs. While I occasionally get paid to take photos I’ve never tried to make a career out of it (even I can spot how absurdly crowded the market is) so for me photography is something else.

But I also find myself alienated by the Art photographers, mostly because I don’t really get how it works within the Art world. I get how a photograph can be great art – that’s easy. But I don’t get how the gallery system works. In short, while I love Stuart Whipps‘ work, and like him as a person, I don’t understand how he functions as a photographer in that world.

Then there’s the hobbyists, like the Yardley Photography Society for whom I did a very enjoyable talk a couple of years back about my TTV work. They’re old school, looking for the “perfect” photo, and I don’t really see the appeal of their motivations. You can throw the vintage camera aficionados, darkroom freaks and expensive kit junkies in here too. Nice folks, but not for me.

As I work through all the photographers I know it seems I don’t really identify with any of them. Even Matt’s approach to photography is quite distinct to mine, which is the primary reason we teach well together. Whatever it was we clicked on when we became friends it probably wasn’t photography.

So, here I am, an active photographer in Birmingham with a history of being involved in “photography community” stuff at some level, who doesn’t feel any affinity with people who use the same tools as him. Is this a problem?

One of the things that jumps out at me as I type this is I might feel a connection with my fellow photographers if I wasn’t such a part-time dilettante. Even within my photography I haven’t developed a narrow style or approach. I’m pretty scattershot and reactive in my style, letting the subject dictate my composition rather than controlling and guiding it. I’m also deeply ignorant of The Canon (something which is being rectified with each new class Matt devises) and the giants I’m climbing on the shoulders of. I think I do have a personal style which you can see across my work, but it’s not a deliberative thing, merely something which has evolved. It could be that other photographers have a hard time figuring me out, particularly as I spent five years waving a tube of cardboard around, though I can’t speak for them, obviously.

This all doesn’t stop me calling myself A Photographer though. I take photos and I think some of my photos are good enough to say something to people, to make them think about the world in a small way. I have a fair degree of mastery of the camera, my tool, and can work its inherent restrictions to my advantage. And I use photography as a discipline as a way of seeing and understanding the world around me. To photography something, for me, is to exercise a deep and thorough understanding of that thing. The camera defines and informs how I engage with the world. If that’s not a photographer I don’t know what is.

And I think that’s what worries me about concepts of “community” and “scene” that might emerge around a tool like a camera. The camera is a dumb tool, like a carving knife or paint brush or a computer. We all know that a fancy camera won’t make you a fancy photographer, so why does taking photos automatically put you in the same community as other people who take photos?

And there’s a massive elephant in the room here. Nearly everyone is taking photos these days, tapping the apps on their pocket computer phones and showing them to their personal world on Facebook. If our concept of a photography community is so vague as to let the likes of me in, then why not bring all 1 billion Facebook users on board? (Which reminds me, I really should write something about why Instagram is so much more interesting than people obsessed with the aesthetics of the situation can possibly conceive, but that’s for another day.)

Where am I…

I think the communities and scenes that emerge around different uses of photography are healthy and important. I think enabling these to grow and develop is a good thing, socially, economically and culturally. (Are socially and culturally the same thing now? I forget.)

And I’m certainly not a joiner. For better or worse I instinctively rebel against cosy commodification (or I get bored). For me, once something is given a label that the mainstream can understand it get swamped with tedium. I don’t have a problem with this and I know it can make me an insufferable elitist hipster, so I try to move on to something new and let people enjoy the stability of a thing I know from experience is worth doing.

I am a photographer. I take photos. I don’t know exactly what it means for me to be someone who takes photos and how that informs the way I live my life, but I’m keen to try and find out.

But I don’t really see myself as a member of Birmingham’s photography community. Maybe no-one does. Maybe I’m kicking at straw men.

I do know I’d like to meet more photographers, to learn from them and take the experience of knowing them away with me so I might develop my practice in interesting ways. Maybe that’s the level of “community” and “scene” we’re talking about. People who share a degree of knowledge of and skill with a tool. I can probably live with that.