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Maintaining Standards is hard to do!

Martin kindly allowed me to post this article that was written some 6 years back. Martin is a renowned Photo Journalist and writer.

Stand First

In this months’ blog Middlebrook has a right old bitch about the state of things. If you are of a sensitive disposition look away now. Middlebrook says he promises he will be happy next month.


In the good old days (I love terms like that, so patronising to those who weren’t there), you didn’t become a photographer if you didn’t have real passion, and you did not survive financially if you were not particularly good. The passion bit is simple. It cost a fortune and it was so much harder to do. You thought twice about taking a photograph because the costs were prohibitive, but if you did not take a lot, then how could you get any better? In the good old days you never chanced upon another photographer, because they were so few and far between. That’s why you had photography clubs - a place for the few and far between to meet and learn. I remember always doing the calculation. I might have been learning about bracketing or exposure compensation, and I would come across some scene with a high subject brightness ratio. It was the perfect chance to look at 1/3rd stop increments, but it was going to use 3 shots in a 36-exposure roll. If you took as little as one roll a day it would cost £12 in film and developing. If I went away on a 10-day trip, it would cost me about £1000 in film and developing, about the price of a good body. You did not see many photographers in those days, because passion required funding, and the mildly interested found better things to do with their money.

It does not necessarily follow that if you have a real passion for something, then you will become good – you still have to have had an aptitude. But if you had come far enough to work professionally, both passion and aptitude will have got you there - the chaff could rarely make the distance. There were still those who weren’t so good, and you rarely got photographs as good as you can today, even at the highest level. But overall the standards were higher on average, because more shots had to count, for you and the client.

I have heard all sorts of scary statistics of people shooting 3,000 shots at a wedding, but if, let’s say you take 1000 shots for an all day reportage style wedding, that is equivalent to 28 rolls of film. At today’s prices, that’s £300 for the film alone, and more again for development. Nowadays we maintain our standards, not by the quality of our shots, but by the quality of our editing, the sifting of the chaff. Even a monkey is going to get something with the shutter pressed down for a few hours, and let’s not fool ourselves that that statement is not true. The result is this though; more and more of the chaff makes it to our client’s doorstep, and as each year passes, it has become more acceptable. By flooding the world with images, we have downwardly managed expectations and quality. I see it day in and day out.

There are two sides to this; photography is both a commercial enterprise and a vocation. For some it’s both at the same time, and the commerciality should drive the spirit of the vocation on to better things. It should but it does so less and less, because with tiny budgets, clients are not easily going to manage expectations back up; it is incumbent upon us to do that. Photography is one of the few ‘professional’ jobs that very nearly always begins as a hobby. I wonder if we demand more of ourselves if the work we create is for us alone, and we see our images merely as work if we are producing on behalf of a client? I ask this question because I have occasionally fallen into that trap myself. It should be the other way around of course, but because we are mostly hobbyists first, somehow it’s easier to be strict, creative, passionate about our own work, and dash of client’s images as though they were just paying the bills – like a builder building his own house! We are responsible for our own standards and those of the industry.

The other side to this are clients, or those who promote photography. More seems somehow less in the world these days, a complete reversal of the old adage. ‘Stunning Travel Images from the Last 7 Days’ – so read the title of a piece on the BBC Travel Website this week. People see these and think, well mine are like that, so mine must be stunning – therefore I must be amazing too. But they were not, they were the kind of snaps we used to take when we went on holiday, nothing more than that – it’s just a slow meandering down of standards, and those who wilfully promote such things belittle something I love. The best way to describe this attrition in standards is this: Luis Suárez of Liverpool bites a Chelsea player and there is outrage. But very soon there is a torrent vacuous follow-up stories, which are valueless in their gravity, and unneeded. The one I saw on the BBC News website was impressively titled ‘How Often Do Adults Bite?’ What an absolute load of nonsense, in what way is this telling us something that we need to know, that we don’t already know the answer too, that lends any bite to the story? Luis Suárez lost his temper, that’s it, it’s finished! But no, we have to be spoon-fed this kind of unthinking patronising drivel, because as consumers it is supposed that we are now unable to think. I once read an ironic quote that said ‘It is the editors duty to sort the wheat from the chaff, and see to it that the chaff is printed’. It used to be funny, but it’s not anymore.

I love photography. I don’t sleep with my cameras under my pillow, I haven’t built a shrine in the bathroom with a little red light hanging overhead, but it has been my life, and it has become battered and belittled, because photographers have become lazy as technology has become easier, and clients have become blind as budgets have dwindled.

A couple of years ago I used to do shoots for the BBC. One day I received a call asking if I could do a studio shoot of a couple of Radio Presenters. I asked why things had been quiet recently and this was the reply. ‘We haven’t had much budget, so we decided to use someone who was cheaper - a friend of a friend kind of thing. Unfortunately they didn’t know what they were doing, they pissed off the ‘names’ and the shots were crap. Now we have even less budget, but can you come and fix the problem anyway because we need to get these shots, and the presenters are fed up and a bit nervous about photographers now?’ Stupidly I re-did the shoot at a vastly reduced price because I wanted to maintain my relationship with the Beeb, but I was mightily offended. Every one was happy now except me of course, well, and the original photographer who had been shown up as a charlatan, uhm, and the presenters who now hated photographers, the commissioner who had egg on their face… no one was happy now.

There have been many calls for some form a professional qualification, and I do not intend to add to that argument. What it requires is those who create work, and those who are in a position to commission work, to maintain standards, by really sifting the wheat from the chaff. I would describe the process thus: I have witnessed this conversation many times over the past few years. A Size 14 woman says to her Size 16 friend, ‘I have become too fat, I just look awful’ and her Size 16 friend replies, ‘you look amazing, I’m the fat one’. The Size 16 lady has a friend who is an 18, and she says ‘don’t be stupid, you both look brilliant’, and so it goes. By this simple philosophy as far as I can see, the average person has become 4 sizes bigger over the last 20 years. It is the same with photography; we accept less and less good images and this then becomes the norm. We should all take a long hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves ‘Is this good enough?’ It’s not enough to just call ourselves Photographers, as the title of this magazine says, we should be Professional too – and some instrument or mechanism needs to exert its power to make sure we all abide by that moniker. Most industries are meritocratic, if you keep crashing a train, you won’t be behind the wheel for very long. But somehow, with its patronage system, photographers can blag their way for far too long, because few in the system seem to know the value of ‘good’ anymore.

Last week I did a shoot on Rue de Daguerre in Paris, Daguerre, the father of photography. If he were alive today he would be amazed, no doubts, things have a got a whole lot better, but in his name, and in the name of all the others who shaped this thing I love, we need to make sure it doesn’t get any worse.

Thank you Martin for your thoughts which I totally agree with. If you would like to see Martins work just

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