Reconsidering Amateur Photography

The Amateur State

Stephen Knott

Many of the pieces of writing in this manifestly fertile stream of discussion about amateur photography show an inclination to categorise this vast terrain of practice. In particular, the term “aspirational amateur” has been used to describe those photographers who, as Stephen Bull states in these discussions, can be placed in the intersection of a Venn diagram, “between snapshot photography” and “professionally produced art photography”.

It makes sense that scholarly attention has coalesced around the previously little-considered group of aspirational amateurs: those with a “more than average” interest beyond that of the snapshot photographer. By teasing apart a category of photographic practitioners from the broad ubiquity of forms of photographic practice that Sarah Kember accounts for in her article for this strand, for example, the amateur is easier to study. We can avoid broad-brush generalisations about the vast mass of photographic practitioners by focusing on the individual improvers. Additionally, the photography journals, how-to manuals, and periodicals with their message of self-improvement through technical tips provide a healthy stream of source material, more easily distilled and read than the heterogeneous diversity and volume of everyday practice, from photo albums to social media. The camera club with its inherent competitiveness is an endlessly fascinating sociological microcosm, a spatial construction grasped by Bourdieu’s concept of the middlebrow. And, in the camera club, debates about standards and aesthetics that punctuate all discussions about the medium are repeated at a “grass roots” level.

The everydayness of amateur photography, both in its ubiquity and in relation to the particular individual tales of aspirational amateurs recounted in this discussion strand of ‘Either/And’, is hard to avoid. If, as Ben Highmore states, states “the everyday might be more productively grasped if the propriety of discourses is refused” [1], then perhaps the everydayness of photography demands a different way of writing about it that pays little heed to existing hierarchies that are usually based on an ascending scale of skill. The will to classify the inherently amorphous category of “amateur” is reflected in Robert Stebbins’s work. Having recognised the value of the work that takes place in between work and leisure, he plunders it by deploying a set of criteria for success that differentiates some amateurs from others, according to a barely concealed capitalist notion of productivity and profit [2]. New methods and ways of writing about all kinds of amateur are needed that extend beyond such models of sociological classification.

In my research into amateur craft practice I did not cover the rich history of amateur photography, but shared the challenge of how to write about amateur practice and define what the word “amateur” means. The word has a Latin root: “amare” – to love. It is important to note that to love does not mean to be “good at”, or to demonstrate an above-average level of skill that can be placed (in photographic terms) on a scale between a professionally trained photographer showing in a gallery and a blurred image produced on a Polaroid or iPhone at a scene of a party. Therefore, “amateur” does not describe a person, or a skill level, but a spatial-temporal state where one loves the activity that is being undertaken, and would do it anyway, voluntarily, under no duress.

Although autonomous, there are certainly structures that typically characterise this "state" of amateur practice: the activity takes place in free time, it is unpaid, it takes place in spaces that fit around more important daily duties, as suggested by the title of T. C. Hepworth’s 1890 manual for amateur photographers, Evening Work for Amateur Photographers, which gives its readers tasks they can perform during the long winter nights [3]. In my PhD I paid attention to the type and experience of work that took place in these amateur "states", and how they were unavoidably linked to routines of everyday life that such activities were presumed to be an escape from.

One particularly notable example can be seen in the hobby of amateur railway modelling [4].  This hobby demanded incalculable patience – to model exact scale replicas of historical locomotives (steam, diesel and electric) and construct landscapes that replicated, in altered form, a part of the countryside or a city’s railway sidings. What was incredible was the length of time taken to create models (anything from 5 to 20 years for a good scale model), and the communality of the activity reflected in club meetings. From first glance the practice seems very different from the conditions that usually accompany work – deadlines are absent, moneymaking is not a top priority, and there is an incredibly personal attitude to practice. Yet, when I found out how many modellers were or had been railway professionals in some way, or had family in the industry, I realised the strong links between the hobby and routines of everyday life. Amateur practice in this instance allowed individuals to create a utopian version of work they could dip in and out of when they had the time, a replication of the structures that governed their lives in Western capitalism, albeit in a minor key.

The inherent freedom of amateur craft practice means that it is personal and potentially obsessive, hence the association between amateur photographers and rigorous attention to technique. The drive to know one’s camera inside out may not necessarily represent an effort of the aspirational amateur to either distinguish his work from those less skilled, or achieve a product that is on a par with well-known professionals. The amateur, in the purest sense of the term, is notionally free of the structures that determine success, which judge according to the end product. Instead knowledge may be pursued for its own sake and not according to any dictate or need, such as that of a graduating art student, to produce an oeuvre of work that shows the ways that one’s technical know-how links to wider economic, disciplinary or political issues. This explains the often-anachronistic knowledge and capabilities of amateur photographers who might focus on a particular brand or model of camera, a particular lighting effect, or a particular subject. There can be a quiet resistance to conformity and a celebration of eccentricity when one decides on one’s own chosen area of specialism. In its purest sense, then, amateur photography may allow an individualism that is necessarily tampered with when photography is practiced as a profession or artistic career.

A contradiction arises, however, in the traditional cultures of aspirational amateur photographic literature, clubs and societies, where rules and systems abound, and even in new forms of public exchange, such as digital photo-sharing sites, where common and repetitive aesthetic patterns can frequently be seen. Amateurs may appear to exist in a romantic state of resistance outside of existing structures, but their practices are necessarily shaped by existing models and institutions.  Railway modelling might seem inherently individualistic, but this would deny the importance of fairs and exhibitions where modellers gather to show their work. There is no better example than the rigorous judging criteria of the Women’s Institute to show how even the warmth and comfort associated with knitting is subject to stringent regulation and strict hierarchies that mirror the most ardent professional quality control.

The relationship between tool and user provides another productive way of thinking about the multiple trajectories of amateur practice. As Elizabeth Shove states, study of design in everyday contexts (in which we could include the practice of photography) must emphasise the important role tools and objects play in shaping practice [5]. The whole range of dials and buttons on handsomely priced cameras are precisely what many photographers interested in technical matters are captivated by. Simple push-button cameras have often become synonymous with unskilled amateur practice, who can be unfavourably described as "snapshooters".  Knowledge and mastery of complex technical equipment has often been the dividing line used to maintain the borderline between serious and casual photographic practice, but while tools may shape behaviour, they do not define it.

Analysis of the term amateur has traditionally tended to lean towards its deficient characteristics – a lack of some sort. Yet it can be an expression that is replete with the thing that everyone so desires – a temporal mode of the greatest possible freedom within structures of capitalism. The amateur photographer is often criticised for being too technically obsessed or too casual, with the professional seeming to maintain the correct sense of balance. Yet as any debate about photography will reveal, it is unclear what constitutes this balance. Perhaps these challenges to the usefulness of existing categories of will help shift the discourse surrounding photography. With the erosion of traditional divisions between high and low forms, we face the challenge of interpreting a load of different trajectories of practice, each with their specific tool-object relationships and requisite rhetoric used to police the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion.

Footnotes

  1. Ben Highmore, Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction,London, 2002, 21. back
  2. Robert Stebbins, Amateurs, Professionals and Serious Leisure,Montreal, 1992. back
  3. Thomas Cradock Hepworth, Evening Work for Amateur Photographers,London, 1890. back
  4. Stephen Knott, “Keen House: scale and the architectures of enthusiasts”, Design and Culture 4:1, 2012. back
  5.  [5] Elizabeth Shove, Matthew Watson, Martin Hand, Jack Ingram, The Design of Everyday Life, London, 2007, 7.

Image references

  1. "Stoney Lane Depot" by Grahame Hedges, on show at the 2011 St Albans Railway Exhibition. Photograph by Stephen Knott. back
Reconsidering Amateur Photography

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