Reconsidering Amateur Photography

The Relational Amateur

Karen Cross

In his book, Each Wild Idea, Geoffrey Batchen proposes that “the vernacular” - a category that encompasses all “ordinary photographs” - is “the abject” of photography.[1] Batchen is right to point out that there is yet to be an adequate account of this category of photographs. That they have been wrongfully ignored, or actively excluded, from the frame of art history, may also be correct. But Batchen’s aim is to do more than simply point out how negative meanings have become attached to “ordinary” images, or how they have been classified as the wretched or shameful of photography. Batchen’s intention is to show this category of images to be an oppositional force.

Borrowing from Julia Kristeva’s description of horror, Batchen defines vernacular images as that which “disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.”[2] But seeing family snapshots in such terms is to deny the value they are attributed in their original contexts of use, before entering the shadow of art’s judgement. Family snapshots are not objects of psychological disturbance of the kind that Kristeva meant.

Even if they sometimes carry with them repressed content, snapshots mostly function as reassuring presences, that uphold boundaries rather than objects that threaten to fracture or dissolve identity. Earlier feminists were keen to show this and sought to challenge the family album as a dubious ideological construct.[3] But now what has become more prevalent in photography theory and practice is a defence of family photographs as placeholders of memory, or as that which Pierre Nora terms “sites of memory,”[4] against which social historical consciousness can be upheld.

No doubt the defence of family photographs and snapshots has rested upon the belief that they are of cultural value. But maybe there is no need to argue the point. Most people would acknowledge that within the context of family life, and in even broader public terms, that family photographs are greatly significant. Maybe the desire to include family snapshots signals something else, then. Labelling family snapshots as “the abject” serves to do more than simply rationalise the need for their inclusion. The term works, rather, to provide such images with an oppositional or belligerent quality. Thus, they are taken to be dangerous supplements that serve to undermine the institutions of photography and Art.

Thinking in terms of oppositions reproduces, however, the very polarisations—between history and memory, amateur and professional, artistic and banal—that theorists and practitioners have been at pains to deconstruct. To argue in terms of challenge is also to overlook the many and various ways in which photographic practices are founded upon the basis of relation, rather than opposition, or the upon the basis of a politics of distinction.

Considering the amateur as one who seeks to relate to, or with, the professional, creative or artist, opens up the opportunity to better understand what defines amateur practices - the “serious” or “aspirational” - that have been dismissed, or only lingered on the margins of debate for so long. The amateur has often been thought to be either not good enough or too good, desiring, but, at the same time, failing to reproduce artistic or professional vision. Seeming to exist in a limbo, the amateur appears to hover between the legitimate and the illegitimate. And, maybe this is the most interesting thing about the amateur, for this oscillation in meaning signals a wider cultural process of judgement and value to be at play.

Arguing for the value of “serious leisure”, Roberts Stebbins claims that, by existing in a space “between leisure and work”, [5] the amateur identity offers one the chance to feel productive and, also, integrated into a social community of practice. Having developed a recognised skill, one’s leisure might also function as a kind of insurance in times of economic crisis, or it might keep one occupied during retirement.

Stebbins views are supported by Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller in their government report for Demos,[6] in which the term “Pro-Am” is used to describe a class of amateurs who are commercially orientated and business minded; new entrepreneurs, resisting out-of-date professional institutions and ethical in their actions. But this produces an illusion of separation. As a “post-work” identity, the amateur, especially a professional amateur, serves state and commercial interests. Configured as an autonomous being, the amateur also offers to remodel an out-dated economy and interpellates participation in an economy of contribution. [7] 

Amateurs, some argue, can sustain culture. But viewing the amateur as a kind of saviour, or guardian, suggests they have been somehow above or out of culture. But the amateur is, and has been, implicated within the flow of cultural life as much as the professional or artist. Together, each has served to legitimate and sustain photography as a recognised and widespread practice. This can be mapped in specific ways, through the development of the amateur market but also through more specific environments for participation in photography.

Camera clubs and photographic societies became one arena for the outlet of photography and are mirrored today by online forums. These are beginning to be documented, not least in the context of this Reconsidering Amateur Photography project. But for too long it has been assumed that the amateur photographer is one who is self-taught rather than one whom engages in formal kinds of learning.

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In May 2004 I began a research project on non-accredited adult photography education courses. I participated for just over a year, attending during evenings and weekends. I found what, in many ways, I expected. Courses provided a basic training in technical skills. The photographic exemplars being used were familiar by virtue that they represented what are known as “the masters” of photography. Images were looked at in terms of their aesthetic appearance rather than being viewed as part of a larger body of photographic work, or as part of a broader intellectual project. Bill Brandt’s social documentary concern in pictures of Halifax, for instance, was short-circuited in favour of a focus on the surface of the image; “its grainy and constrasty tone.”[8] This is not to suggest that course tutors were not aware of such information, but that there was an unwritten agreement in this context of photography education that the focus would be on technical and creative skills, without recourse to intellectual or conceptual concerns.

In addition to this, any personal responses to images were often circumvented in favour of a discussion of techniques. In response to Martin Parr’s photograph of pink pig cakes,[9] for instance, one student said that she would like to be able to take pictures like this at one of her niece’s birthday parties. The tutor ignored this, talking instead about the illumination of the cakes with flash. The point of personal interest was not taken as an opportunity to explore a personal relationship to photography, or to explore the particular politics of representation being enacted by the photographer. But rather than feeling challenged by this, students understood that they were there to adopt the particular languages being promoted, which might involve adapting, or denying, their own concerns.

Group critique sessions, where students looked at each other’s images and described the techniques they had used to produce particular effects, provided a space for the performance of knowledge. It allowed students to show that learning had taken place. Images were understood to be either successes or failures of experiments, with the focus of tasks being to eradicate the errors and mistakes that would normally be associated with snapshooting. This is not to say that the familiar intimacy of the snapshots was not understood to be a creative approach that one might consciously adopt, but the emphasis was on “controlling the camera rather than letting it control you”.[10] 

Composition and focus are of paramount concern. In making portraits, the close-up was preferred, which is a filmic technique classically associated with Hollywood cinema. However, bringing the subject closer was not simply about manifesting a “gaze,” or constructing intimacy. The close-up is understood, in this context, to be a key way in which to clear away any inappropriate background distractions, making way for a more “intelligible” image. But at no point was reflection on what this might mean encouraged. Little consideration was given to the particular “politics of focus”, to adopt a phrase from Lindsay Smith,[11] that the active exclusion of space might involve.

In the close-up, people become extracted from time and place. And although a sort of intimacy may be created, disconnection also occurs whereby subjects are severed from their social-cultural locations. Such an approach is commonly promoted within “how to” training and skill manuals. Michael Langford’s 101 Essential Tips on Photography[12] was recommended reading on a course I attended, along with another of Langford’s well know books Basic Photography.[13] Such texts aim to train vision and encourage students to “see”, not just in any old way, but in a heightened and “sharpened”[14] way.

Readers of 101 Essential Tips are encouraged to think about framing and composition. They are given tips on lighting subjects and capturing them at best angel. In addition, they are asked not only to look beyond their usual environments of picture making but also to envision the mundane in ways that they might not ordinarily. In capturing something as common a scene as people sitting at home on the couch, drinking wine and playing board games, the reader is told that it is best to “clear away any inappropriate objects”, removing “distracting clutter”[15] from the scene.

‘Before’ and ‘after’ shots are in place to prove to the reader that an image is more successful with the removal of objects such as a pot-plant, a coffee table with empty bottles of wine upon it and the board game, Taboo. But in another framework it could be argued that the removal of these objects makes the image less intelligible. Objects constitute valuable visual evidence, telling us something of the particular historical-cultural milieu in which the couple sit. But in an approach that favours “clean” looking images, traces of domesticity are effectively relegated to the unconscious of the photograph.

To this couple and their friends and family, either of the photographs could serve as a personal snapshot. This is because, as Pierre Bourdieu argues:

The taking and contemplation of the family photograph presupposes the suspension of all aesthetic judgement, because the sacred character of the object and the sacralizing relationship between the photographer and the picture are enough conditionally to justify the existence of a picture which only really seeks to express the glorification of its object, and which realises its perfection in the perfect fulfilment of the function.[16]

The “function”, for Bourdieu, being the sacralising of the life lived. With or without clutter, the image would be acceptable for family viewing, and would be justified as having confirmed the social relationship of photography to which Bourdieu attests.

Bourdieu may be right to point out that there is less concern for the appearance of the image, than for what it depicts, in the context of family photography, but this is not to say that the practice entirely evades recourse to aesthetics. Family photography does not actively suspend aesthetic judgement. It may be something that gets downplayed in the absence of skill, and the desire to foreground function, but it is a harbouring of a concern for the surface of the image that prompts, in some instances, the desire to improve technique.

The students that I observed on the course may not be considered “serious” amateurs in any particularly committed sense. Many probably left their courses to return home to place their cameras on the shelf to gather dust, and may never have made a full transition to a digital SLR. Nonetheless, their desire to engage with photography beyond the familial frame, and their aspiration to understand photography, should not only be treated seriously but also understood as potentially productive. No doubt the structure of aspiration associated with photography training and amateur practice involves practices of distinction. And this provides the basis for the contract between the amateur and professional, but photography education might also provide the situation for the working through of this relation.

Footnotes

  1. Geoffrey Batchen, Each Wild Idea; Writing Photography History, Cambridge, MA, 2001, 57. back
  2. Batchen, Each Wild Idea, fn. 1, 199. back
  3. See, for example, Judith Williamson, “Family, Education, Photography”, Ten. 8, 14, 1984, 19-22 and Jo Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture: A political, personal and photographic autobiography, Camden, 1986.   back
  4. Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire”, Representations, 26, 7-24. back
  5. Robert Stebbins, Amateurs, Professionals and Serious Leisure, Montreal, 1992.  back
  6. Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller, The “Pro-Am” Revolution: How enthusiasts are changing our society and economy, Demos, 2004. Available at http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/proameconomy back
  7. Bernard Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy, trans. Daniel Ross, Cambridge, 2010. Or see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnOvftNL2ig for an interview on the subject. back
  8. A student’s description during a class I observed, London, May 2004. back
  9. Martin Parr, Common Sense, Stockport, 1999. back
  10. One course tutor’s words at the start of a class, London, May 2004. back
  11. Lindsay Smith, The Politics of Focus: Women, children and nineteenth-century photography, Manchester, 1998. back
  12. Michael Langford, 101 Essential Tips for Photography,London, 1996. back
  13. Michael Langford, Basic Photography, Oxford, 2000 7th Ed. back
  14. Michael Langford, 101 Essential Tips for Photography. back
  15. Michael Langford, 101 Essential Tips for Photography, 48. back
  16. Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: a Middlebrow Art, trans. Sean Whiteside, Cambridge, 1990, 90. back
Reconsidering Amateur Photography

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