What is Acceptable Photography: Reflections by John Cogan

There are three women sitting at the table next to me. However, if I were to photograph them I’d be shooting into the light. They are what David Hurn, the famous Magnum photographer and educationalist, would call good examples of their type: fashionable, attractive middle class students; even the mother, Ugg boots and all. My interest is further peeked by the Minolta SLR resting by the condiments. The owner of the Minolta is a textile student in Brighton and the camera is her way of organizing her ideas.

Further down the restaurant two men sit and talk with the waitress. I take a photograph as one of the men sits with his hands locked as if pleading with the waitress. Now, I realize there is no reason for the man to be pleading with the young girl (unless he is full of nefarious intent and has a wicked twinkle in his eye). The photograph becomes an amusement, it tells a lie but the droll quality is sufficient to satisfy my humour.

Nearer, there is a middle-aged couple sitting, as many couples do, with the husband staring directly ahead whilst the wife talks. Three shutter-clicks later and I have enough of a spread to have at least one picture that gives the impression of a hen-pecked husband and a nagging wife.

The man with the pleading hands approaches me and it turns out he, and his companion, are from one of the local photo clubs. I have wisely forgotten which. They’re on a photo expedition to Gateshead’s waterfront.

“What you been photographing?” he asks. This, I note, is an opening gambits in an effort to discern the genre of photography I indulge in. I tell him I’ve just finished a portrait session and I like Street.  “Ah! That’s what we do!” I’ve passed some sort of initiation and they’ll feel comfortable talking to me.

“We had some bloke come to the club a couple of weeks ago and he spent the whole time talking about manipulation. Spends all his time at a computer. That’s not real photography!” There are further demonstrations of their abhorrence at the move towards “…. All that manipulated stuff!”

And then came Rikki O’Neill to Durham PS with his lecture “One Step Beyond”.

Now, Rikki is an interesting man with definite views and his own way of working and like his work or loath it you have to respect his dedication to his craft. Those images that we saw on the projector, were they photography or art? I know that when I asked Roger Coulam if he felt he was an artist he flatly denied that. He was/is/and ever shall be (for the moment at least) a photographer and his work is photographic. Rikki O’Neill, though, is a fish of a different colour and comes from an artistic background. His work, whatever it looks like, comes out of a tradition of book illustrations and you can trace his work back to Edward Lear, Arthur Rackham and others from that great age of illustrators.

We are very fortunate at the Durham PS. We have a strong and vibrant assembly who are not shy in stating their beliefs and, regardless of what the current fashion is (or because of it), they will do their “own thing.” Perhaps that’s because we have such a large and committed membership and there is no dominant leader dictating which way we should go… we are all aware that some clubs and societies have followed that particular path.

This eclectic mix of guests with their various approaches and the like is a tribute to the wisdom of Our Paul (otherwise known as our Hon. Programme Secretary). He’s a canny bloke with a knack of accommodating the widest possible variety of approaches and beliefs. For the Nature Photographers (I nearly wrote naturalists but I have a feeling that means something very different) he provides nature photographers and for the landscapists there are landscape photographers. Mention a genre and he’ll source a speaker. Over the past month or so Paul has brought us three very different photographers: Roger Coulam with his dead puffins; Ian Beesley and his photo-realistic social documentary images and Rikki O’Neill with his nightmarish Grimm’s fairy tale characters.

Knowing that I’m a devotee of monochrome you may wonder if I weep nightly over the loss of my beloved F2 and those distinctive cans of Kodak Tri-X (banned by my dear wife for causing too many obnoxious stinks in the downstairs loo)? Those cans of film used to take up shelf space in the fridge, which is another reason my wife is happy as their demise freed up room for chocolate! As a consequence of my photographic inclinations I’ve been asked how I feel about all this modern stuff? Do I have any thoughts on the current mélange of genres and styles? Might I class this competition of photographic directions as a battle for the soul of photography? If we adopt too many of the manipulation techniques will we be betraying the integrity of what photography is all about? Might the ghost of Fox Talbot haunt our dreams?

Well, by now most of you know I’m more of a photo-realist. I favour documentary photography and my heroes are of that ilk. You don’t have much manipulation with a Cartier-Bresson or a Doisneau, neither a Capa nor an Eve Arnold. Even when I’ve produced the occasional color image in the past there have been a few raised eyebrows. The recent digital night at County Hall saw me showing some of the photographs from The Portraits From The North East Project and I was questioned then about the paucity of colour images. Some have even noted when inspecting my cameras that I have them set up for monochrome. It just works for me, though I know there are “arty” connotations to using B & W.

We all use the viewfinder as a window in which we create an image and in so doing satisfy that very human urge within us to make something. I’ve heard Alan Stott talk about Fox Talbot being a poor draughtsman and a frustrated artist, hence his drive to make images with a camera. This urge to be the artist would go some way to explaining the title of his first publication: The Pencil of Nature. Whatever our initial attraction to photography there will be that basic human need to create. Talking to many of the Durham PS members we share a propensity towards visual thinking, one that relies upon our use of mind-images within the thought process, and photography is an obvious and natural extension of that mind-set.

However, I doubt whether every photograph we take/make/whatever satisfies our original idea. Our mental blue-print is one thing, whilst the reality of the print may be quite another. Is there enough contrast? Is the image sharp enough? Will it look better in HDR? What about turning it into a mono image or should I just desaturate it? It’s a constant internal monolog about a series of choices. Several people have commented upon my portrait of Sir Thomas Allen, the famous baritone and Chancellor of Durham University. The setting for the photo-shoot was the office of the Master of Trevelyan College. Light flooded in from the windows and lit up Sir Thomas’s left side. Behind him was a coat stand with the Master’s gown and bonnet hanging there. Beyond that was a full bookcase. The digital file was Raw and in colour, none of which produced a satisfactory image nor rendered Sir Thomas as he was when talking and interacting with me. Therefore, work was needed and my final print was heavily adjusted… and in mono.

Sir Tom operatic sized

This is as far from the original as I felt able to go. Working in my own clumsy and limited way, it was produced without the aid of layers, merely extreme contrast and dodging… old timers like myself might remember the grades of paper we had at our disposal. Back in the day, we had a choice from Grade 0 to Grade 5… So, is this print more in line with an Ilford Grade 5 paper. It certainly wouldn’t have been printed on Grade 2, which I was always told should be the starting point as G2 was the balanced grade. Personally, I like contrast and favoured Grade 3 for most of my prints.

So, I’ve come clean and admitted that I manipulate my images. And, yes, there are times when I go well beyond old darkroom practices and use an imported filter/layer… what I believe is called a “plug in”. Basically, I’m just a lazy sort of a guy… though my excuse is I haven’t a clue as to how to use layers or even make my own filter so, to achieve the results I want, I use a commercially produced package. I know it’s cheating but I’m after a specific result. How could I have achieved these images without help?

Drax worked upon _2

Drax Power Station from the train window….

Or this one?

Tulips processed

You may argue: Why would I want to? The answer to that is simple (but it is one that lies at the complex heart of any image)…. It’s an attempt to explain a different TRUTH!

Drax plays a mysterious part in my family’s narrative. My Grandfather, Joe Wilson, came from Drax and his Grandmother was the local healer and “wise woman” back in the early part of the 19th Century. Some regarded her as the village witch. When I look at the power station it occupies a physical space that was once clean and agricultural and domestic and the home of ancestors; hence the antique quality of the image. My Grandpa Joe could never imagine the size or scale and imposing nature of the power station. York Minster was the largest building he ever saw. He was a child growing up with oil lamps and horse power. Even for me, photo-realism wouldn’t be sufficient for this type of memory. Granted, there is a place for the photo-real images of Drax, the Ian Beesley images! But the dimensions and the lighting of that particular day lent themselves to manipulation and a romantic narrative that placed the power station in an environmental context.

Tulips are magical flower in that they offer elegance and subtle colour in Spring. Their tones and textures are often brash especially when placed against snowdrops or the blowsy yellows of daffodils. They have allied themselves with man allowing us the chance to manipulate their colour and shape. Offering us a dash of an exotic palette that transcend the mundane. Their delicate petals and the single, smooth stem are Brancusi-like and sculptural. However, this history raises the question of their antecedents: our involvement in their development. By treating them with some arcane filters I made a statement and that statement is, for me, another element of the multiplicity of their truth.

So, where do YOU stand in this debate? I have come to the conclusion that photography is a very broad church and there are many variations when we come to the often unnecessary classification of our work into genres and styles. To be fair then neither one nor another is the right way. We can use whatever we need to use when we have an objective in mind.

Digital photography is not film photography… by its very nature. Though we use the same terminology (dodging, burning, negative, contrast etc) and the same basic tool (the camera) we are achieving photographic-like results without chemicals or a darkroom (and here Angela Cogan shouts hurray!). Whatever we might think about life before Digital I was never able to achieve the sharpness with Tri-X that I can with my high-spec Nikon set at ISO 100. Even setting the ISO to 400 (the original Tri-X speed) the results can still be clean and sharp. Transferred to the computer any number of manifestations can result.

But even sharpness can be self-defeating. Where would the speed enthusiasts be if every image was sharp? Sometimes blur is an advantage, especially if you are trying to evoke a little emotion or tell a story. The careful use of blur or being just a little out of focus can provide the right statement, the appropriate comment on a particular subject. Here, I’m thinking in particular of two of my images… the girl who is walking away from her rejected lover, and the portrait of Godfrey Worsdale (CEO of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art).  The fact that neither face is sharp has given rise to comments from some people who have found it a problem; but I maintain that by not being sharp the emotional impact is greater and the narrative more evocative… for Godfrey, the fact that he is CEO of the Baltic allows a wee bit of license to distort and be creative… artistically!

I was looking around the National Portrait Gallery when they had an exhibition of Hollywood cinema icons. There, in all her gory glory was a studio portrait of Joan Crawford at her 1940s apogee. Smoothed to glossy perfection and purring like a Siamese cat she was all set to vamp her leading man. Next to this was the original photo prior to the work of paintbrush and cosmetic paste. Complete with freckles and crow’s feet she was real. There is a record of her “going ballistic” when she saw the original and demanded it be destroyed or “worked on”. Far sexier with the odd blemish than with her paint and paste covering each and every blemish… somehow, we still cling to this distortion, even to the point of having programs allowing skin to be smoothed and anything that might hint at reality banished to cyber space.

Spending time in Northern Canada I was given a piece of wise advice by a Cree elder. It concerns the judging of a person. “In life’s journey,” he said. “We are all at different places and should accept that. It is part of our journey to look back and to look forward and to accept this. A person is where they should be! We do not know that person until we have walked a mile in their shoes… Respect them for what they are and where they are. One day they might catch up with you or you might catch up with them…”

In the great debate about what is acceptable photography and what isn’t I’ve come clean about where I stand. I’m pragmatic! It’s not a question of the end justifying the means but one of how to strive to go beyond my skill level and try to produce something that, to me, is a statement of a truth! And all this with the understanding that what I see as a truth may not be A. N. Other’s.

What of you? I’d welcome your comments and thoughts; your ideas and proclivities. I always like a proclivity now and again. If you feel willing, why not write a piece to go alongside this article… even if it’s just thoughts on Rikki O’Neill or Ian Beesley or whatever… I’ve been told by outsiders that we have the most enterprising of Northern Societies; we have the most eclectic and welcoming and we have the most dynamic…   I know this is so. Therefore, your ideas and thoughts will be MOST welcome…

Thank you

John Cogan ARPS

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