Libby Smith and Alan Brown – an Appreciation by John Cogan

Libby Smith MPAGB EFIAP from Carluke CC and Alan Brown from Sunderland PA were guest speakers at Durham PS 5th and 12th September 2013 respectively

Laughter, imported mist and being a photographer

The evening was over and the chairs stacked. From amongst the mass of homeward-bound members one emerged to bow from his lofty height and murmur; “I can feel an article coming on!”

Yes, how can you refuse the second in command when he has such expectations. No need to worry… I was already planning how to set it all out and what could be included and Joe was not dropping hints… he’s too much of a gentleman for that.

Now, we all seemed to enjoy Alan Brown’s evening and found ourselves mulling over ideas or coming to some conclusion about condoms and inside-out images. What had occurred to several of us was the sharp contrast between Alan’s evening and Libby Smith’s. The planning and consideration Programme Secretary Paul Ritchie has given these two evenings turned out to not only satisfy two contrasting approaches but allow the one to stimulate thoughts about the other and vice versa.

There are those of us who will find a need to satisfy that deep creative urge with images à la Smith whilst others amongst us will tend to lean in a Brownian direction. Both are exemplars in their specific fields and neither is so inclined to proselytize their own approach to the detriment of the other. No, it’s up to us to follow whichever path we think suits our needs… to find elements of both that can help advise a third way.

From deep within the imagination of each of these guests came their personal vision of what constitutes (for them) a satisfactory image. Libby revealed her patient and methodical approach, the slow drip-feed of techniques and the final realisation of her creation which amazed many of us. Some may have found the export and import of elements hard to square with their idea of what a photograph should be but one of Alan’s opening statements gave the game away: With digital imaging there is the expectation of perfection! No longer are we left to the vagaries of choosing wrong ASA (oops! Sorry, ISO) for the light conditions or whether we need to push a process or …… whatever. With this flexibility comes a different variety of expectations. This revolution in photographic technology has shifted every facet from being able to realise those demands and dreams emanating from our imaginations to the taking of an over-exposed colour image and turning it into a noir nightmare. In some ways we have never been so free to do what we want, and in others we have never been so en thrall to fashion and expectation.

In many ways both Libby and Alan were preaching the same message: be ourselves and hang the consequences. That is probably the biggest challenge we have to meet and the one that will define our work into the next ten years or so: judging and judges are desperate to use absolutes yet there are none anymore. Once, when film was all we had, it was a more comfortable era. We could work in zones and sharpness and feel reassured by the way our work fitted into genres. I could never have conceived of taking my work into the realm of a Libby Smith or a Hunter Kennedy. Yes, it may come as a surprise to you to learn that I was more comfortable with Alan’s session and could relate closely to his work. However, what is evident is that the brother and sisterhood of photographers now have fewer boundaries. Whether we are shooting fashion for Vogue or doing a “Jed” at a sports event, wandering the streets of Newcastle hunting for “characters” or desperately hoping for mist to drift in from the North Sea to turn the Lindisfarne Castle into an object of mystery, doing a “Margaret” with ice-cold water lapping around our thighs hoping the dragonfly doesn’t flit off whilst we adjust our aperture or become the doyen of bus photographers as we cross the Tyne Bridge… It matters little now, we are all caught in that no-man’s-land where little is fixed.

The third element of this article is a book recommendation. Rather than being about a book the recommendation is more about the work of one particular photographer: Paolo Pellegrin. Paolo is a young photo journalist, a reporter in the traditional mould having taken as his inspirations such greats as Josef Koudelka and Gilles Peress. But, when looking at any of Pellegrin’s images you see not only the reportage but his “slant” upon the event. I will say no more, only that some of his choices are stark and have a visceral quality that challenger our perceptions.

In conclusion, I would like to thank Paul for his excellent planning, Libby and Alan for their thought-provoking sessions and Tom for his wonderful question to Libby (and I hope this is as near to what he said as possible): “When the time comes for someone to look through the shoebox of photographs we all keep under the bed, will they ever know where Libby Smith went on her holidays?”

Disregarding Libby’s answer, I would suggest that what you might see would be the places her imagination took her. With Alan’s portrayal of life as he witnesses it and the visual jokes the gods of the lens play on us mere mortals I have a feeling that the future will be richer for their joint presence.

Thank you and good night… I’m off to import some mist!

John Cogan ARPS

Comments are closed.