The Photographer as Reader: The Aspirational Amateur in the Photo-Magazines

Peter Buse

Reconsidering Amateur Photography deposits us on the edge of a precipice.  Its fundamental question induces massive vertigo, asking, ‘who are amateur photographers and how might they be defined?’  Later comes a lifeline and harness: it is no longer the dizzyingly capacious category of the ‘amateur photographer’ at stake, but rather the ‘aspirational amateur’.  It is the first time that I have encountered this felicitous term, but the category it seeks to capture is immediately recognizable to me. I take it to refer to that class of photographer passionate about the medium, deeply knowledgeable about its mechanics and methods, but not living from its products.  Sometimes called the ‘hobbyist’ or ‘serious amateur’, the aspirational amateur is the middle-brow camera club devotee of Bourdieu’s famous study, who ‘frees’ photography from its ‘family function’.[1] The more familiar labels are far from satisfactory. ‘Hobbyist’ sounds quaint, implies crankiness; ‘serious amateur’ unhelpfully, if deliberately, suggests a complementary category of ‘frivolous’ amateurs.  ‘Aspirational’, on the other hand, points to two aspects of this figure often overlooked at the expense of questions of taste, aesthetics, distinction: this passionate amateur’s ethic of self-improvement, and more generally, his or her desire

It is one thing to find such a promising name, quite another to locate the person to whom it is attached.  If we leave aside the vast field of industrial and commercial photography – its varyingly ‘useful’ applications – the photographic is generally valued for either its aesthetic or its mnemonic force.  In the former case, it ends up in galleries or expensive art-books; in the latter in family albums, or other storehouses of treasured memories.  In both instances, there is a distinct body of material for us to turn to for analysis and assessment.  The products of the aspirational amateur are not so readily available to the historical researcher though, possibly because they do not fit comfortably in either of these categories of value, and do not benefit from such established protocols of enshrinement as those which greet the art photo and the family snapshot alike.  What traces, then, does the aspirational amateur leave behind?  Where is the archive of aspirational amateurism?  If we are to answer the questions set out by Reconsidering Amateur Photography, we need first and foremost to locate these resources, if indeed they exist.

One approach to this problem is empirical.  It surely would not be too difficult to make contact with a sample of self-identified aspirational amateurs, gain access to their photographic collections, and interview them about their attitudes to creativity, aesthetics, new technology, and so on.  An obvious point of entry would be the camera clubs which, in the UK at least, continue to prosper.  This was the way into the question of the aspirational amateur for the research team behind Photography: a Middle-brow Art.  Bourdieu’s study is still unmatched, but it is almost fifty years old and addresses a very specific French context.  What is more, for the non-sociologist, such empirical studies can be disquietingly partial, especially when they seek to generalize from their very particular findings.  This is a problem which plagues the study of family albums and the family snapshot in general: they necessarily must focus on a tiny sample if they are to carry out any kind of detailed and systematic reading of the form, a necessity which inevitably leads to questions of how representative any such study can be.  Some such work admits at the outset to being strictly autobiographical – a kind of memory-work – but others cannot resist extrapolation from individual cases to broader conclusions.  Meanwhile, in the background lurks the mute but overwhelming heterogeneity of snapshot practice, the ‘ceaseless tide’ of images that cannot be reduced to any tidy formulae.[2]

In this short intervention, while attempting to avoid such hazards, I’d like to sketch out another approach to the aspirational amateur.  I will suggest that in the search for the traces left by ‘serious’ amateur practice we would do well to start by considering the aspirational amateur not as a photographer, but as a reader.  What follows, then, is a very preliminary exercise in showing how the practices, identities, and ideologies of the aspirational amateur can be detected in popular photo-magazines.

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I have recently completed a long research project on the cultural history of Polaroid photography in which I made heavy use of (mainly American) popular photography magazines of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s such as Popular Photography, Modern Photography, Minicam Photography, and The Camera.  They were a tremendous source of information about the reception and understanding of Polaroid film and cameras by those in the know, as well as a vital window onto the wider photographic culture of the period.  There is no way of knowing what proportion of aspirational amateurs reads such popular photography magazines, either now, or in the past; but it is quite clear that many of these monthly magazines make the aspirational amateur their primary addressee.  And as Margaret Beetham has argued, the periodical form itself is particularly suited to aspiration:

Serial publications have to secure purchasers/readers who keep returning regularly every day, week or month.  The periodical must, therefore, offer its readers models of identity which they can regularly recognize and indeed occupy and which they are prepared to pay for again and again.  These identities may be aspirational as much as actual.[3]

As Beetham suggests, if we assume that readers return to a magazine because it offers them a picture of themselves that they recognize or an ideal that they aspire to, then models of identity can be ‘read off’ the pages of the magazine.  However, there is no guarantee that the ‘target reader’, the ‘actual purchaser’ and ‘the reader constructed in the text’ coincide.  Instead, Beetham argues, we should think of the ‘historical reader’ as the dynamic result of a negotiation between these different positions.[4] In most magazines it is possible to see this negotiation at work, because readers so often become contributors – through letters pages, advice columns, competitions, and sometimes even guest copy.[5] In the case of the photo-magazine, we can add to this list pictures, since many photo-magazines solicit photos which are then displayed in ‘readers’ galleries’.  The magazine teaches its reader how to desire then, but this is not a one-way street, and through different modes of contribution, the reader engages in a dialogue with those forms of desire offered up by the magazine.

During my work on Polaroid I had not yet come across Beetham’s analysis, but if I had, I would have been able to make much more of one of my favourite discoveries: a terse note in the letters pages of Popular Photography in July 1973 from one A.L. Odle of Elkland, Pennsylvania:

Thanks to the ‘damning with faint praise’ of the SX-70 by Messrs Goldberg, Rothschild and Kirkland in the April issue, I state without hesitation that I wouldn’t touch one of those things with a 40-ft barge pole.[6]

Odle was writing in reference to an earlier issue in which staff writers Norman Goldberg and Norman Rothschild, and photographer Douglas Kirkland had devoted nearly twenty pages of the April 1973 issue to an assessment of Polaroid’s newly released SX-70.  Polaroid had been making ‘instant’ photography since the late 1940s, but the SX-70 represented a new breakthrough in optics, electronics and chemistry: a single-lens-reflex camera which delivered a developing print directly into the daylight.  It was widely hailed as a technological marvel, and its cheaper versions (the OneStep, or in Europe, the Polaroid 1000) became bestsellers, shaping most people’s idea of Polaroid photography.  As Odle’s letter suggests, though, the SX-70 was not greeted with universal delight.[7] Quite the contrary, this reader of Popular Photography expresses a quite visceral revulsion at the new device, reaching for his barge-pole.

Odle is clearly a reader who identifies himself with the outlook of Popular Photography.  Whether he is right or not, he positions himself in his letter as the recipient of the ‘true’ message of the magazine’s reviews of the SX-70, as a reader able to discern the negative sub-text.  He can look beyond Goldberg’s hailing of the ‘wizards at Polaroid’ and his gushing over the camera’s battery; Rothschild’s description of the film’s ‘brilliant reds’; and Kirkland’s praise for Polaroid’s advances in camera design.  Perhaps he seized upon the skeptical sounding title with which the magazine framed the entire special section: ‘Polaroid SX-70: the facts behind the ballyhoo’.  Or more likely, he recognized a sort of manifesto for the aspirational amateur in this striking statement with which Rothschild finishes his section:

Although the SX-70 is a true SLR, it lacks certain features that could make it a fully creative tool for some advanced amateurs and pros.  The lack of any control over depth of field, due to practically idiot-proof exposure automation, is one problem.  This can be particularly nettling in extra-close shooting, where depth of field is a major image-quality determinant [….] The other is lack of control over shutter speed, an absolute ‘must’ when trying to stop fast action. One would actually hope for a ‘professional’ Polaroid SLR in the not-too-distant future.  This is said with no malice intended.  The Polaroid SX-70 appeals to, and is eminently suited to, a mass market.  And it is the ability to stay in business via this mass market that eventually lets manufacturers give us ‘enthusiasts’ the specialty merchandise we want.

It does not matter so much if Odle is an ‘advanced amateur’ or a pro, to use Rothschild’s terms, but rather the placing of these two designations on a shared continuum of ‘enthusiasts’ that separates them from the ‘idiots’ against which the SX-70 has been proofed.  Aspiration, after all, is the possibility held out of a movement between categories, and the ‘advanced amateur’ is aspirational precisely insofar as he aspires to produce photographs of a professional standard. 

Rothschild’s summing up gives us other clues about the defining qualities of the aspirational amateur.  The writer twice uses the phrase ‘lack of control’ to describe the full automation of the SX-70.  Why does the advanced photographer want ‘control’ of exposure and shutter speed?  In order to make the camera a ‘fully creative tool.’  For Popular Photography then, creativity and control are what separate its kind of photography from the unskilled snapping enabled by the SX-70.  The title of the magazine may signal an ambition to democratize photography, but technological advances that made photography even more popular were clearly considered a threat to the identity of their core audience.  The aspirational amateur: popular but not too popular.

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I am aware that I have been assuming A.L. Odle is a man, when the initials give nothing away.  It is a leap I have made on the basis of a number of features of the photo-magazine format of the period.  With notable exceptions such as Cora Wright Kennedy, regular staff writer for Popular Photography in the 1960s, the named contributors to the magazines are almost exclusively male, as are the figures represented in images illustrating photographers.  In addition, as the obsession with ‘control’ in Rothschild’s review indicates, this is a heavily masculinist discourse.  The same thing goes for the visual material of photo-magazines in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, with the ‘glamour’ photo very much to the fore.  Whether the ‘actual’ readers were women or men, these magazines consistently elicited a masculine gaze.  Finally, as the meticulous and comprehensive review of the SX-70 demonstrates, there is in these magazines a stereotypically masculine preoccupation with technology, or what is now simply called ‘gear’.  In common with the earlier periodical press, which was given over in large part to reviewing, the photo-magazines always dedicated a considerable portion of their pages to this function, as befitted their role as arbiters and mediators of new photo-technology.  This much has not changed.  One of today’s inheritors of the format, Photography Monthly, every issue devotes its final twenty or so pages to ‘Photo Gear’.  In this final section, then, I will examine a single recent issue of Photography Monthly to see what traces of the contemporary aspirational amateur can be detected in it, and what, if anything, has changed in the past 30 or 40 years.

The Photography Monthly of February 2012 is the 131st issue of the magazine, which means that it has been publishing for just over ten years.  Its beginnings therefore coincide more or less with the introduction of consumer digital cameras onto the market, and its emphasis is almost exclusively on digital rather than film photography.  At £3.99, it is at the cheaper end of a market in which the establishment British Journal of Photography sells for £6.99.  Like most magazines, it is heterogeneous in content, mixing together images, advertising, news stories, reviews, competition pages, interviews, round tables, features and tips sections.[8] There is no letters page, but the magazine does dedicate a column each to comments from its ‘fans’ and ‘followers’ on Facebook and Twitter.  In the former case, readers respond to prompts from the magazine both jocular (‘Anybody else had too many mince pies’) and serious (‘What local landscapes encourage you to get creative’).  Readers are most prominent in the text in the seven-page ‘Readers’ Gallery’, where we find the ‘best’ images which have been uploaded to the magazine’s web-site in January, and includes an ‘Image of the Month’, in this case a motocross racer spraying mud.  The other notable reader contribution is a book review by Adele Carne, a 24-year-old ‘photography graduate with big dreams of running her own fashion and music portrait business.’

There could hardly be a clearer statement of the ‘aspirational’ dimension of the magazine than Carne’s description of herself.  In fact, aspiration runs right through the issue, from the reviews section on the latest desirable and expensive photo-products, to the envy for the contents of professionals’ camera bags (‘Brad’s Gear’; ‘Inside Ezra’s Kitbag’) and the emphasis on exotic travel, both in the features and in the advertising for ‘safari photography’ trips.[9] There is also plenty in the way of tips and advice ‘to help you become the photographer you want to be’, as the strapline for the ‘Photo Technique’ section puts it.  Some of this advice might have come straight out of the amateur photography magazines of an earlier epoch.  Not in the detail, of course, but in the assumption that the reader is looking for ‘challenges’, for technically difficult photographic situations.  As one of the interviewed pros insists, echoing Norman Rothschild forty years earlier, ‘you have to take the camera off AUTO’ if you want to be creative.  In fact, the words ‘creative’ and ‘creativity’ are touchstones of value running right through the magazine, just as they did through the magazines of earlier generations.  To judge by the images in the readers’ gallery, and the magazine as a whole, creative challenges include stopping motion, experiments with depth of focus, and the inventive use of light.  The overwhelming emphasis is on landscape and nature photographs, with a large proportion of sunsets and sunrises.  With images of animals the next largest category, there is no real departure from the conventional subject matter of the aspirational amateur of forty or fifty years ago.  In sum, the serious amateur combines an interest in technical innovation, a curiosity about new methods, and a conservatism of ‘content’.

At the same time it is apparent that the implied reader of Photography Monthly aspires to more than releasing this ‘creativity’ so familiar from the old discourse on the ‘serious amateur’.  Carne’s guest review is part of a special section devoted to ‘Turning Pro’, which is in fact a magazine within the magazine, with its own front and back cover and editorial.  As well as pragmatic counsel on setting up different kinds of photo-businesses, it includes a review of degree courses at Middlesex University.  Meanwhile, in the Facebook letters section, the magazine asks readers if they are doing or have done a photography degree, and if the tuition fee rise will affect them.  This sort of formalized training is of a different order from the workshops and short courses advertised at the back of the magazine.  It suggests that the non-professional photographer addressed by Photography Monthly is more than a ‘hobbyist’, who, as the term suggests, separates the enthusiasm for photography from some other daily non-photographic activity.  The vocabulary of the magazine may be as it ever was – creativity, challenges, the ‘difficult shot’ – but there is also a steady expectation, or at least a hope, that the amateur’s passion for photography will translate into sustained financial reward.

One of the respondents to the Facebook prompt about degree courses is none other than Adele Carne, who therefore appears in two different places in the issue.  Should she be taken as the representative of today’s aspirational amateur, as the A.L. Odle of 2012?  Certainly, if we look at the list of paid contributors on the editorial page, Photography Monthly is not the male-dominated forum of the past.  Five out of nine writers are women, including one who describes herself as ‘a gadget girl’.  In the Readers’ Gallery there is a slightly different balance, with photos by men outnumbering those by women by approximately three to one.  As for the overall visual regime of the magazine, a gendered logic is still at work.  Glamour or fashion photos make up a smaller proportion of the overall image count than they might have in the past (approximately seven out of 140 images, with no ‘tasteful nudes’), but they are still there, while their counterparts, the ten images of sport, are all of men.  However, the most telling fact is the following: in this single issue, fifteen professional photographers are profiled or interviewed in one form or another.  They are presumably featured in the magazine as ideals for the aspirational amateur to strive towards, and they are all men.  Is this a result of editorial bias, or simply an accurate reflection of the conditions facing the would-be professional photographer? Either way, it would appear that one of the greatest challenges facing the new breed of aspirational amateur keen to move into the profession is a familiar obstacle that has not changed since the 1960s.

Like any magazine, Photography Monthly is a complex assemblage of different kinds of text and image which surely caters simultaneously to a number of distinct audiences.  Even within the too narrow limits of examining a single issue, I have barely scratched the surface.  A more rigorous study would have to analyze much more closely the codes and conventions governing the images in the magazine, with special reference to the Readers’ Galleries.  Any such analysis would require a comparative dimension: we would need to ask at the very least how these images relate to equivalent images in earlier photo-magazines, as well as how they differ, if they do, from photography in art magazines. A good starting point would be Photography Monthly’s online gallery of approximately 50,000 images submitted by readers.  This is a daunting number, but miniscule in comparison with the gargantuan storehouses of Flickr or Photobucket, and at least Photography Monthly does some of the work for us, by asking readers to tag their images according to a manageable number of pre-determined categories.

I started by suggesting that the ‘amateur photographer’ cannot really be considered, never mind reconsidered, as a single entity, but that the ‘aspirational amateur’ constitutes a more coherent set of interests and activities.  Here too, though, we need to be careful.  I have written as if the single issue of Photography Monthly is a unity, when in fact it is well known that most readers of magazines do not treat them as such.  Magazines are rarely read in linear fashion from ‘beginning’ to ‘end’, and even more rarely does a magazine reader examine every word and every image, as I have done.  The photo-magazine can give us insight into the ways in which the aspirational amateur is called into being and guided into a range of practices, but there is no question of reducing the evident plurality of photographer-readers to a neat formula.

 

 

Footnotes

  1. See Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middle-brow Art, trans. Shaun Whiteside Stanford, 1990, 39-46. back
  2. The phrase ‘ceaseless tide’ is Graham King’s, and similar acknowledgements of the multitudinous nature of amateur photographic production can be found in most works on amateur practice.  Graham King, Say Cheese!: The Snapshot as Art and Social History, London, 1986, xi. back
  3. Margaret Beetham, ‘In search of the historical reader: The woman reader, the magazine and the correspondence column’, Siegener Periodicum zur Internationalen Empirischen Literaturwissenschaft, 19: 1, April 2000, 89-104, 95. back
  4. Beetham, ‘In search of the historical reader’, 96. back
  5. For more on letters pages in magazines see Margaret Beetham, ‘The reinvention of the English domestic woman: Class and “race” in the 1890s’ woman’s magazine’, Women’s Studies International Forum, 23:3, May-June 1998, 223-233. back
  6. A.L.Odle, ‘Thumbs Down,’ Popular Photography, 73:1, July 1973, 4. back
  7. See Peter Buse, ‘Surely Fades Away: Polaroid photography and the contradictions of cultural value’, Photographies, 1:2, September 2008, 221-38. back
  8. On the mixed content of magazines, see Margaret Beetham, ‘Towards a Theory of the Periodical as a Publishing Genre’, in Laurel Brake, Aled Jones and Lionel Madden, eds, Investigating Victorian Journalism, Basingstoke, 1990, 19-32, 24-5. back
  9. The photographic object of these trips is wildlife.  In a tacit recognition that safaris may be out of the reach of many of its readers, the issue includes a feature on techniques for photographing pigeons in town centres. back

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