Reconsidering Amateur Photography

Photography in the Middle

Stephen Bull

Aspiring Amateurs and the Global Camera Club

 

At the centre of the schedules of most amateur camera clubs is the competition. Regularly held throughout the club season, these events usually involve each of the members anonymously submitting photographs to the competition, which are then assessed by a judge (usually a high-ranking member of another camera club). In front of a room full of club members, often within a village hall or community centre, the judge comments on each image, discussing its merits and making suggestions for improvements. Generally, a mark - usually up to a maximum of 10 or 20 - is assigned to the photograph to conclude the judge’s comments.[1] The tradition of these competitions appears to be as old as camera clubs themselves. In the UK, early examples of camera clubs were established in the late-19thcentury, although the 1940s and 1950s seem to show a proliferation of new clubs forming.

The historical and critical analysis of camera clubs remains somewhat vague. Compared to many areas of photography, the critical discussion of amateur club photography is relatively sparse - although there are a small number of useful studies. In the 1980s, Dona Schwartz considered the distinctions made between amateur and art photography in her essay ‘Camera Clubs and Fine Art Photography: The Social Construction of an Elite Code’.[2] Schwartz argues that, since the early-20th century, fine art photographers have sought to differentiate their practice from club photography by associating art photography with such ideas as self-expression and innovation, and by making links between photography and other media, including painting and sculpture. The art photographers interviewed by Schwartz see camera club photography as impersonal, traditional and insular in comparison.

Similarly, camera club photographers also aim to differentiate their practice from other forms of photography. In the first part of Pierre Bourdieu’s influential book Photography: A Middle-brow Art, Bourdieu contends that snapshots (which, arguably, represent the majority of photographic production) play a key functional role in recording and reinforcing social integration, particularly through reproducing the institution of the family.[3] In the second part of the book, Robert Castel and Dominique Schnapper suggest that the ‘aesthetic ambitions’ of club photographers reveal an aspiration to distinguish their work from the mass of snapshot photography, through, in particular, technical development.[4] Amateur club photography is therefore positioned somewhere between the mass of technically basic snapshot photography and the ‘elitist’ art photography that has become increasingly visible in galleries and publications since the 1960s.

This sense of amateur photography occupying a middle ground is underlined by the original title of Bourdieu’s book. Photography: A Middle-brow Art was originally published in France as Un Art Moyen in 1965. As Michel Frizot has argued, ‘Middle brow’ does not fully convey the more explicit double meaning of the French ‘art moyen’ as being both ‘average art’ and ‘art-medium’.[5] Rosalind Krauss has extended this line of reasoning, noting Bourdieu’s application of a sociological approach, where such aspirations are linked with a desire for the lower class to assimilate bourgeois values.[6] Annebella Pollen and Juliet Baillie have pointed out the problem of the positioning of amateur photography as being ‘neither one thing nor the other’ – and the description of this kind of photographic culture as being an object of disapproval from both sides, or, in Julian Stallabrass’ words, as representing ‘the despised middle’.[7]

If, at the time of the publication of the English translation of Bourdieu’s book in 1990, a Venn diagram were to have been drawn to convey the positioning of amateur camera club photography, then it would be placed within the small overlap between the large circles of snapshot photography on one side and professionally produced art photography on the other: a squeezed middle that is neither the technically basic snapshots of the masses or the ‘challenging’ art photography found in a gallery context.

However, things have changed for photography in the past two decades. Within a few years of the turn of the millennium, most snapshots were being made on digital cameras. Within a few more years, most mobile phones incorporated digital cameras, resulting in a culture in many parts of the world where the majority of people have a camera with them most of the time. Public events tend to be digitally documented by a large section of the audience, often to the extent that to see the event itself requires the negotiation of a view between mobiles held aloft. In the last five years, it has become a virtual certainty that many of the images made will end up being distributed, instantly and widely, via online social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter. Here, the photographs are not just viewed, they may well be ‘liked’ and commented upon. Rather than being evaluated by one judge in a dusty village hall before a group of club members, these images are approved of and critiqued by friends and followers across the world: a camera club on a global scale.

More recently, the accessibility of apps such as Instagram (bought by Facebook for one billion dollars in August 2012) has encouraged users of cameras on mobile devices to apply a range of filters and effects to their photographs. Often, these apps are designed to mimic the look of analogue photography,[8] but there are hundreds of other apps available either freely or cheaply that allow users to do a seemingly infinite range of things with their photographs, from turning colour pictures into black and white, to creating 360 degree panoramas, or even to add stock shots of horses to their images.

It used to be the small squeezed middle of amateur photographers that desired to improve their photographs to make them distinct from snapshots. The idea of attaining a high level of technical achievement via the use of additional equipment and collective critique was shared only by a relative minority. The first few years of the second decade of the 21stcentury has seen that wider circle of snapshot photographers become increasingly fascinated by filters and effects, transcending their status as snapshooters and resulting in a much greater mass of aspiring amateurs in the middle of photographic culture. Amateur photography is in the midst of a kind of photographic ‘embourgeoisement’, as it expands to become increasingly central to photographic practice as a whole.

Footnotes

  1. Stephen Bull, ‘The Aprés-Garde: Camera Club Photography’ in Creative Camera, 357, April/May 1999, 10-13; Dona Schwartz, ‘Camera Clubs and Fine Art Photography: The Social Construction of an Elite Code’, Urban Life, 15: 2, July 1986, 178-9. back
  2. Schwartz, ‘Camera Clubs and Fine Art Photography’. back
  3. Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, Cambridge,1990,13-39; Stephen Bull, ‘Pierre Bourdieu’ in Mark Durden ed. Fifty Key Writers on Photography Oxon, 2012. back
  4. Bourdieu, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, 103-128. back
  5. Michel Frizot, The New History of Photography, Cologne, 1998, 719. back
  6. Rosalind Krauss, ‘A Note on Photography and the Simulacral’ in Carol Squiers ed. The Critical Image: Essays on Contemporary Photography London, 1990, 15. back
  7. Annebella Pollen and Juliet Baillie ‘Reconsidering Amateur Photography: An Introduction’, 2012 back
  8. http://eitherand.org/reconsidering-amateur-photography/reconsidering-amateur-photography-annebella-pollen/ (Accessed 2/1/13)

  9. Stephen Bull, ‘”Digital Photography never looked so Analogue”: Retro Camera Apps, Nostalgia and the Hauntological Photograph’, Photoworks, 18, Spring/Summer 2012 back
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