In praise of amateurs

For many of us who engage seriously with photography, we are unavoidably amateurs. We practice photography in our spare time and fund it through our main mode of employment. Without earning a living from photography, we lay no claim to professional status, although we may have ‘professional’ aspirations, and may even make a modest dividend from selling prints or similar.

For some, the term ‘amateur’ will have negative connotations. In this little post I want to argue that it is something we should embrace, a title that conveys significant dignity and, in some senses, status.

The latin root of the word points towards ‘lover’, and so we may think of an amateur as a lover of the medium. An amateur is someone who is able to pursue his or her interests unfettered by the needs of a client, or the conventions of an organised group. Indeed, many amateurs gain considerable expertise in niche areas of photography, simply because of the freedom to pursue exactly what they desire, and to direct their resources to such an end.

There is a tendency for a great many amateurs to look longingly towards professional status. Quality photographic equipment is marketed on the back of these desires. Ironically, much gear that bears the ‘pro’ label is in fact sold to an advanced amateur market. Professionals don’t have it easy. They are shackled by the demands of work and the necessity to marshal resources to make the bottom line pay. They cannot indulge in frivolous purchases, nor can they alter a work schedule to follow an experimental whim. In many ways, they are a lot worse off than those who would aspire to be them.

There is another, more subtle, reason why one might not actually want to aspire to professional status. To be a professional means to speak a very particular aesthetic language. We teach ‘professional’ methods and outcomes to our photography students, but what this really means is ‘make images like this’. Professional images look like, well, other professional images. This is a problem that is well recognised in the visual arts, a problem for which the term ‘academicism’ was coined. We can trace very precisely how the language of fine art developed from the French 18th century academies through to contemporary art today. For the painter in the first academies, to be an academician meant precisely to follow a set pattern of working that very much determined how the painting would turn out. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t any innovation, but the parameters in which you could work were highly codified.

So, for me as a practitioner, the label amateur has a number of attractions. It reminds me of the considerable freedoms I enjoy, both in what I do with photography and how I do it. The medium itself has a special place in my philosophy of photography, and so I find the idea of a lover of the medium to be a description of great dignity. As an amateur, I am free to be as idiosyncratic as I like, an idiosyncrasy that has the potential to lead to aesthetic innovation.

The recent rise in the popularity of analogue photographic media may well be a case in point. I can’t help but wonder whether a key attraction of film is precisely that it frees the photographer from so many of today’s picture making strictures and technical processes. This isn’t to say that film is somehow ‘not technical’ (it is, of course), but there is a directness and rawness that comes from an engagement with film that gives the user a sense of oneness with the medium. Additionally, film demands a commitment in time and inconvenience that a large majority of photography professionals have long turned their backs on in the name of working expedient. I don’t think it’s far fetched to say there is a relationship between the analogue resurgence and amateurism in my qualified sense.

Today, I am indeed happy to be an amateur.



The art historian under the dark cloth

The other day I came across my copy of T.J. Clark’s book Farewell to An Idea. It is a splendid work of art history, one that positively crackles with the most detailed and painstaking descriptions of Modernist artworks. As I flipped through the book, I remembered in particular the passages on Jackson Pollock’s paintings. Looking back, I had read and re-read these passages, almost as one might enjoy a novel.

Clark is an intellectual heavyweight in the old manner. He set up a masters degree in the 1970s called the Social History of Art, dedicated to a Marxist approach to art history. I studied on that programme in the late 1990s, under the tuition of Jasper Johns expert Fred Orton, amongst others. While Clark’s book is hardly light reading, it does repay the hard work it demands of the reader.

Now, I write that Clark’s descriptions stand out, but it isn’t just that these are careful and rigorous, which they are. There’s something more. They are object lessons in how to read a work of art. Clark makes every effort to convey the richness of the works he grapples with; it becomes a time consuming process of looking and looking again, a process that demands equal care with writing. The writing is not an afterthought, a means to an end in the descriptive enterprise, but a poetical analogue of the condition of paying close attention. This is perfectly in line with Clark and his ilk, who believe that canonical works of art repay that kind of close treatment. Unlike so many art historians though, Clark has learnt the figurative and rhetorical potential of his prose, and I can’t help feeling that his search for the ‘right’ phrase (a mirage of course) is a figure for our search for meaning in the painted and other material forms.

As is the tradition in so many of these blog posts, I make a recommendation to the photographer. Spend some time with Clark (or a Clark equivalent) and see how he describes the artwork. Think about how such a careful approach might be applied to a photograph - a canonical one, of course, but perhaps yours or a friends, too. Photography is so often a descriptive business. I’ve written on these pages before that there is much to learn from carefully looking at the work of others, and an analysis of composition, tone, mood, and so forth is the nuts and bolts work to be done.

This not only helps us to appreciate the finished image, but sharpens our skills of looking and in turn informs our visualisation. Indeed, as I continue to grapple with learning large format photography, I’m struck by how that format offers up a picture to be read right at the start. Under the dark cloth one has time to survey the flickering camera obscura image as if it were the final print. The Clark pacing to and fro in front of Pollock’s paintings in MOMA would be a wonderful mental guide to critical and rigorous decision making at the time of exposure. I can envisage him asking us to trace a line here, shift a little there, re-think depth of field, interpret a tonal shift. You would be right in thinking that this is not unlike the procedures recommended to us by experts like Ansel Adams, but the point here is that our resources stretch much further than the discipline of photography alone. And there are riches out there indeed.