Reconsidering Amateur Photography

Reconsidering Amateur Photography: An Introduction

Annebella Pollen, Juliet Baillie

AP: As part of Either/And, we are reconsidering amateur photography, clearly because we think that the subject, as it stands, has not been dealt with in an adequate way. So, what would be your particular take on this, Juliet, from your research? Why does amateur photography need reconsideration to incorporate the study of the aspirational amateur?

JB: Well, I think to date, the literature on amateur photography – which is, of course, a vast subject, being probably the most common place kind of photography that there is – has tended to focus on a couple of key areas. The first is family photography, and the role of such photography in forming identity as well as memory and nostalgia. The second is the glorification of the hapless snapshot photograph, which has quite often been exhibited without any real consideration of its origins. I suppose the point that we have come to, is that we want to look at aspirational or serious photography from the amateur perspective. My own research is on camera clubs in London in the 1920s and 1930s, looking at both their activities and the photographs that they produced. In that context, the photographers were skilled amateurs, not only taking photographs, but also developing their negatives to make a final print themselves. It’s a much more serious and involved activity than the snapshot has generally been deemed to be.

AP: Yes, I think the thing about ‘seriousness’ is really interesting, because that is the area that some people seem to find slightly embarrassing about amateur practice. Those who are in quite elite positions – to write, publish, and exhibit on photography – are aesthetically knowledgeable, to say the least. From their positions of judgement, the family photograph – especially the ‘bad’ family photograph – has some kind of charm to it, but the ‘serious’ amateur photograph is seen as embarrassing because it is not good enough, not aesthetically ambitious enough, not ground-breaking enough to make it to the gallery. It tends to be seen as somewhere between the cherished photograph that is so-bad-it’s-good and the kind of ‘proper’ aspirational photography of the professionals. It ends up in this position in the middle, where it is neither one thing nor the other. Julian Stallabrass has described these kinds of photographers as “the despised middle”, and it does seem to be very much connected to a middle-brow aesthetic or a middle-class ambition.

JB: Absolutely. The kind of photography that I am looking at in my research stems from turn of the century Pictorialism, a kind of practice where photographers were trying to emulate traditional artistic styles. It has long been considered problematic for photography to try to ape other art forms. By doing so the photographers that I am studying are doing something that falls between what art history considers ‘real’ art or artistic drive, and a kind of craft activity.

AP: What you say about craft is really interesting. These photographers may not make their money out of their practice - they may do it after work or in the spare room - but a lot of them do value their practice very significantly in a way that other craft practitioners might share. In a way, it has similar position, culturally, and has shared similarities with, say, women who knit very seriously and produce the most exquisite garments, but whose work will never end up in a gallery. It’s the same thing with DIY or gardening, or other domestic crafts! These hobbies share a similarly low status – slightly unfairly, given the amount of skill that some of these people have, and sometimes life-long passion.  So people may produce incredibly skilled photographs and print them and exhibit them, but they exist in a separate sphere, if you like, in their own, very closed spheres of their clubs, their societies, their locale.

JB: How does aspiration in photography fit in with your research?

AP: I’ve done a couple of research projects that have touched on aspirational photography, in part. A few years ago I was very interested in analysing some found photograph albums. I wanted to find a way of putting the photographs into social and cultural context. That was when I first became familiar with the literature, and it was then that I realised that much was written about found photography to the exclusion of other aspects of amateur photography. That is surely because found photography is alluringly open-ended, and whoever is doing the interpretation has a free rein to apply whatever reading they like to these sometimes very evocative photographs about which almost anything can be said. The photographs I was examining were, as far as I could ascertain, taken by a man – unknown to me, at that point – during the 1920s and 1930s. In order to understand why he took the photographs he took - I wanted to see whether they were somehow expressive of his personality or fitted in with common image templates – I looked at Amateur Photographer magazine of the period. I looked at the advice that was given about suitable subjects, and I looked at the technical advice that was given about framing and composition, along with developing and printing, and so on.

It was through that project that I became aware that there is a specialist literature that addresses the serious amateur separately from the ‘snapshooters’ and ‘button-pressers’, as they are sometimes called and, similarly, separately from those who might wish to make money out of photography. For example, in that period, the British Journal of Photography might address the professionals or the aspiring professionals, and Amateur Photographer magazine was but one example of a magazine that sought to speak to amateurs on their own terms: to those who wish to be a better photographer than someone who merely presses a button, but who also want to still keep it as a pastime. So I became interested in aspirational photography through that project – that idea of pictorial betterment, for want of a better phrase.

In a later project, I examined a very large archive of amateur photographs, all taken for a charity fundraising competition in the 1980s. When I started examining those photographs, I began to realise that the fact that they were sent in to a photographic competition meant that they attracted the kind of people who also had aspirational ideas about their photographic practice and their aesthetic. Clearly, people were taking what they thought of as a ‘good’ photo – one that could win. A lot of the competitions, clubs and magazines are about making a picture that is beautiful, atmospheric, technically correct and even painterly. So a lot of those ideas about Pictorialism from the turn of century are still perpetuated, all the way through the 20thcentury and into the 21st. And Pictorialism seems to be another subject that has also fallen out of favour with photographic historians and theorists.

JB: I have definitely found that in my research. Looking at photography from the First World War onwards, there hasn’t been any substantial investigation of what Pictorialism in photography means. And given that what it means doubtless changes dramatically over the 20thcentury, it is definitely ripe for investigation. It would be a bit of a mistake to assume that what applied to the very impressionistic Pictorialism at the turn of the century applied even thirty years later.

AP: Additionally, a lot of writers look exclusively at the aesthetics of the amateur photograph – and usually find them lacking in one way or another. So people may look at snapshot photography and find it aesthetically naive and technically wanting, with fingers in the lenses and so on, or they may look at camera club photography and find it too technically perfect or too emulative of a picture on a calendar or a greetings card. In my research on amateur photography, I found that what was important to the photographers was not so much the picture alone. It was more the whole practice of photography: their participation in a competition or a club; their enjoyment of the activity. The end product and the aesthetic of the photograph mattered, but it wasn’t the only thing. There does seem to be a gap in looking at what photographic practice means to people as part of their leisure activity and as part of their self-identity. An analytical overdependence on the inadequacy of the resulting image has meant that what amateur photographs look like has been foregrounded over what amateur photography means.

JB: I absolutely agree. A scholar whose work comes to mind here is Elizabeth Edwards, whose recent work on the photographic survey and record movement at the turn of the century has carefully examined the social side of photography and the significance of documenting the historical landscape as a group activity. In many cases, however, the tendency is very much to look at the aesthetic of the photographs rather than the significance of the cultural practice.

AP: So it will be very interesting to have Elizabeth’s contribution to this Either/And project. There is also some useful work that has been done about early photographic amateurs, for example, by Grace Seiberling and Carolyn Bloore on the Victorian amateur photographic imagination. These mostly gentlemen amateurs, in the mid-1800s, the men of science and business who had the interest and the means to invest in the equipment and technology, have left a fascinating historical legacy for aspirational amateur practice. This is where Michael Pritchard will fit into our project, as his research has examined advertising and literature aimed at amateurs in the nineteenth century. Of course, the amateurs then held a particular place in photographic practice that was perhaps clearer before the 1880s, when the coming of Kodak changes the amateur into someone who is commonly despised. The amateur becomes harder to interpret after this time because so many amateurs appear, with so many different agendas and so many different forms of practice.

So the role of technology in shaping amateur practice is very interesting, and this is something that Peter Buse has a lot of very interesting things to say about in his fascinating work on Polaroid.  Sometimes people talk about aspiring amateurs as being technologically fetishistic. That’s another way in which they have been dismissed – as obsessed with technology and technique at the expense of innovation in imagery. Certainly those few people who have looked at the amateur photographic market – I’m thinking in particular of Don Slater here – have looked at the way that the aspirational amateur is addressed as a consumer of very expensive photographic equipment. He and others have seen that getting in the way of what photographic practice should be, or what it could be. He’s less interested in photographic art, but the potential political power of photographic self-representation. So the role of technology is key.

JB: There is a tendency to assume that all aspirational amateurs are blind consumers but there is a lot of evidence to show that the magazines – usually read as being predominantly a space for advertising – are also used as a space for the exchange of ideas; tips on saving money; advice on how to make your own equipment. So I think it’s really important to address of the role of the amateur in relation to their technology and the market and to realise that it is not perhaps as straightforward as it might be assumed.

AP: Yet those magazines do seem obsessed with selling. I think it was Dave Kenyon who did an analysis of how many adverts you get in Amateur Photographer magazine and he said that if you look at other magazines to do with, say, cycling, as an example of another hobby, you don’t find the same density of advertising. Amateur Photographer has about the same percentage of advertising as fashion magazines like Vogue! [laughs] Especially if you count the articles themselves – they often discuss what to buy and where to buy it. Even when they are not advertising, there is often discussion about consumption as part of the editorial.

JB: There are regular columns called things like ‘In the Shop Window’ that foreground the newest technology, all the time. It’s hard to know how much such things have related to those advertising in the magazine and whether there have been covert agendas.

AP: I think there tends to be an overemphasis on the agendas of the market, which assumes a causal relationship between what is being sold and what is being used. It is not automatic. I’ve been doing some research recently on Boots the Chemist and the way that they have sold ideas about photography on the British high street for a hundred years, and I’ve also looked at a lot of the literature about Kodak. A lot of people assume that just because commercial institutions sold film and cameras in a particular way, people necessarily practiced photography accordingly. That assumes a level of prescription and adoption that is very linear. So more investigation of serious amateur practice – whether through ethnographies or through analysis of consumption – is a necessary corrective.

Juliet, one of the things that we are seeking to do with this project is to examine the demographic of the aspirational amateur photographer, to establish who the amateur photographer might be, both historically and in the present. Certainly there are quite fixed ideas about the amateur photographer of this kind being usually male and usually middle-class, with some money to spend on this technology and with some leisure time to engage with the practice. Would you say from your research that you have found that to be true?

JB: Where is has been possible to trace these people, I would say, in many cases, it is true. As well as being male and middle class, it can often be the case that aspiring amateurs can work in jobs that aren’t terribly creative and have a drive to create something in their spare time. I think it is important to think about the sense of community that is a big part of aspirational amateur photography. Something that has become apparent to me is that, in art history, the famed photographers that we look at tend to be held up as these lone figures working in the field. What I have found is that the social side of photographic practice, interacting with photographic magazines and also in clubs and societies – the interchange of knowledge, and the chance to share and reflect upon the techniques of photography and the aesthetics of photography – has also been very important.

AP: It’s really interesting, because there are perhaps two main ways that the amateur photographer – whoever he or she might really be – has been characterised. On the one hand, as you are saying, there is this important club aspect. So there are photographic societies and the regular, weekly community of practice in camera clubs – that separate sphere, which Stephen Bull has examined. On the other hand, there is also the amateur photographer as a strange loner, as well. [laughs] That is where Graham Rawle comes in to this project, because his characterisation of the amateur photographer is of someone who is not working as part of a community. He is rather furtively, under the stairs, getting into his own rather illicit activity in his private darkroom. In the case of Rawle’s brilliant Diary of an Amateur Photographer, the photographer is trying to use photography as a meaningful activity to legitimate some dubious practices – in his case, securing photographs of naked women under the cover of art.

JB: [laughs] There’s definitely two stereotypes there; two extremes. One of the things that has frustrated me in my research is that I’ve been trying to get away from the big names who are well known in the networks that existed around clubs, in the Royal Photographic Society, for example. It’s harder to try to find the person who doesn’t come to every meeting, but turns up once in a while, who doesn’t quite match up to the standard that is expected in the club; I want to find the photographer who is between those two extremes!

AP: It’s interesting that you mention the Royal Photographic Society, because that’s another link to Michael Pritchard. We will be very interested to have his contribution as both an academic historian of amateur photographic practice and in his current role as the Director General of the RPS. The metropolitan world of, say, The Photographer’s Gallery, which is where the art world might locate the centre of British photographic practice, hardly intersects with the photographic societies. Yet there is so much shared interest! So it will be interesting to bring those areas into closer connection.

JB: When studying amateur photography, in many ways, you are without a discipline. Art history has often dominated the history of photography, but it will be interesting to get people together who are coming at it from a range of perspectives.

AP: Photography itself, of course, cuts across so many disciplines - science, technology, sociology, history, anthropology - but the art history approach has certainly dominated. Many of the people we have aimed to get on board with this project come from a range of different backgrounds. For example, Jonas Larsen’s interest in cultural geography can shed new light on understanding tourist photography that art historical readings could not provide.

JB: Tourist photography is an area where what might be considered to be casual and what might be considered to be aspirational is perhaps even more complex; the agenda is different when there are public and private dimensions to the practice. It will be interesting to find out more about Martha Langford’s ideas about this in light of her recent work, where the tourist intersects with politics.

AP: Increasingly, too, in the 21stcentury, the boundaries between casual and aspirational, amateur and professional, private and public photography are changing. There’s been quite a lot of discussion around citizen photography as a form of aspirational amateur photography – with quite a lot of utopian hopes pinned to it as the marriage of the public and private spheres. But also, the changing ways in which people consume photography; the ways in which photography increasingly intersects with privately owned, public information technologies; even the increasing publicising of private life – all of these things have changed the way that amateur photography must be understood. I know that this is something that Stephen Bull is interested in; looking at the ways that Web 2.0 technologies like Flickr and Facebook have shaped photographic communication and education. Sarah Kember, of course, is also very interested in how these new technologies shape us as bodies and people as well as shape our photographic practice – to sometimes quite sinister ends.

One of the things I have always thought was interesting about serious amateur photography is precisely its emphasis on continuity – so what constitutes a good photo can be very similar in the 1930s, the 1950s, the 1980s, the 2010s! There are points of great disruption – and the so-called digital revolution would be one of those points – but many historic ideas about photographic amateurs don’t seem that different from the 1850s, if we go back to Seiberling and Bloore again. Discussion about photographic subjects and what is photographically appropriate is rather similar. So one of the things we are hoping to do with this subject is to bring together people who are looking at amateur photography past and present to look at what is different and what has stayed the same.

JB: Another thing we want to look at is photographic education: how people learn what a good photograph is; how people learn to use cameras. I am very interested in the idea of knowingness. There are so many different levels in how we are educated in photography; in what a good photograph should look like. That comes from images we are used to seeing – the kinds of images we might call ‘chocolate box’ – that are drummed into us without us really realising. And then there is photographic education in terms of reading magazines, being part of clubs, but also more formal education, which Karen Cross has looked at, for example, through evening classes. How might that impact upon the kinds of photographs that serious amateurs are producing?

AP: Frequently that kind of practice positions itself far from the family photograph. In fact, it uses everything that ‘common’ photography might be as a point of departure.  By removing pictures of babies and other photographic clichés from the frame, that is one way in which these separate fractions in photographic practice are reinforced. The ‘serious’ photographer may want to remove all reference to ordinariness, and this is frequently what is emphasised in the clubs: taking everything away from a photograph that might make it look like it has been taken with a press of a button, and applying, instead, photographic effects, filters, treatments and techniques. So yes, how photo-literacy happens, in each of its locations, is something that is elusive to capture but important to study.

Art photography often has to separate itself from serious amateurs in order to carve out legitimacy; in order to charge a high price. Photography is fundamentally quite democratic; it does not require much skill. There is always this argument that anyone can take a good photograph – you don’t have to have a special camera or training to do so. But there is also the idea that not everyone can create a ‘body’ of photography that can communicate ideas and concepts; and that not everyone can create photography that is expressive of vision. So these ways of creating strata in photographic practice are often ways of maintaining hierarchies, and trying to trace where they have come from and how they continue will be really interesting. Additionally, value judgements about professional and amateur photographers have definitely shifted. The amateur photographer used to be the person who did it for love and the professional photographer was the person who did it for money, so the amateur photographer had the moral high ground for some time.

JB: The level of skill seems to be key. There is a sense, emerging from the nineteenth century but continuing in the twentieth, that aspirational amateurs might even have a level of skill that professionals do not possess, because of the kinds of photographs that they produce.

AP: They might also have more freedom; if you are working to commission, then that can seem very prescriptive. For some of the people who are part of photographic societies, it’s not about making money in the sense of, say, becoming a commercial stock photographer. It’s about self-expression, artistic development and furthering technical expertise.

JB: Many camera clubs are not, in any case, wholly amateur organisations. Such clubs can have professionals within them who are working on a variety of projects. They may be involved in many different sides of photography, from portrait photography to advertising. The kind of work that they produce in camera clubs may in fact be the work that they consider to be creative, so this further complicates where the boundaries between professional and amateur may lie. Aspirational photography can be a spare time activity for amateurs and for professionals.

AP: There’s such a large grey area around professional and amateur territories - it is certainly not as delineated as many have assumed. There’s much scope, then, to examine these ambiguities and to challenge assumptions and oversimplifications. The ‘Reconsidering Amateur Photography’ strand for Either/And can provide precisely the place to begin this work.


Reconsidering Amateur Photography