The Audience Provides the Measure of Worth

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 215, May 2018

Not every photograph published or printed by Henri Cartier Bresson was great. But it is certain that every offering that made it to a public stage from the great man of photography has been written about positively and intelligently just as every artwork credited to Rembrandt is the subject of many great essays and academic theses. It is simple to dismiss the ‘reach’ of an image by ascribing to each work the measure of fame of the photographer or artist who made it but there are lessons for every practitioner here when evaluating the force and depth of their own work. The audience itself is the key to discovering the power of an image.Images for On the Value of an Audience by Alex Scheideman

Tired arguments still persist around the validity of one form of photography over another. The number of times a conversation still occurs in which someone wonders (aloud) whither photography is going when everyone on the planet has a camera, is inumerable. This persistent rumination manifests only insecurity – it is the plaintiff cry of the photographer who doesn’t know who his or her audience is. Where does this particular photographer’s work fit in when all that seems to sell in galleries is massive, blank-faced colour portraits of adolescents or photographs of young people doing drugs and having sex? The irreducible fact is that almost every living photographer finds him or herself to some degree at odds with the mainstream and ignored by the world in general.Images for On the Value of an Audience by Alex Scheideman

To complain that we live in an image saturated era is to ignore how important imagery has become in the digital age. Imagery is now the mainstream of mass communication. Words are being edged out. Media outlets and major brands are finding new ways to communicate with people quickly and meaningfully. In the New York Times there is a piece by Nellie Bowles entitled ‘Welcome to the Post Text Future’ (9th February 2018). The article is a text-lite, image-rich disquisition on the way that images are being appropriated by all manner of agencies; from tech giants to political parties, as we leave words behind.Images for On the Value of an Audience by Alex Scheideman

Every single picture must compete in this new era of image-soup. On the one hand, for example, Instagram is an excellent resource for photographers – it allows for the construction of networks of like minded artists. However, to cope with the vast number of images being posted daily the mechanism for viewing work is necessarily breezy and superficial. Networks on Instagram are not critical ‘forges’. They are more akin to the backslapping communities of traditional camera clubs where little is risked, little is tested. Because of this Instagram is not an effective environment for artistic growth.Images for On the Value of an Audience by Alex Scheideman

Or perhaps work can be placed on a photographer’s own website with the hope that people stop by and spend time getting to know the carefully selected and presented work, allowing the balance of composition, tone and subject to wash over them in a shower of undiscovered talent. It won’t happen – it doesn’t happen. Google Analytics spells it out and it makes pretty grim reading. Bounce rates of close to 90% (a ‘bounce’ happens when someone lands on a homepage and then exits before going deeper into the site) are normal. Even when someone doesn’t ‘bounce’ and looks a little deeper the important word here is ‘little’. The time spent on photography sites is typically under 60 seconds. How much of an impression can a photographer’s work make on anyone in that time?

Images for On the Value of an Audience by Alex Scheideman

So there is a choice; the photographer either has to make pictures more immediately proposessing in order to garner more ‘likes’ on Instagram and Facebook and benefit from the capricious algorythmic rays of attention that result or, alternatively, choose very carefully to whom work is shown and, when it is, to make the viewing a more visceral, intimate and potentially risky experience.

Increasingly photographers are reacting to the ‘Age of Insta’ and choosing to show their work in smaller groups. For example, London’s Photographers Gallery runs a monthly workshop called Portfolio Friday. Participating photographers spend the first half of the day presenting their prints to each other and discussing their work. Then, in the afternoon, each photographer is allocated a small white desk behind which each sits and sets out their prints. The doors are opened to the public who are invited to sit with each photographer in turn and discuss the work on show – table by table. This is a very popular event and you can see why. It offers participating photographers the opportunity to turn the visiting public into knowledgeable experts of their work; a happy or perhaps very depressing experience. The risk that a photographer takes in baring their soul to another human being in such a naked and potentially uncomfortable way will add greatly to the artist’s relationship with their own work.Images for On the Value of an Audience by Alex Scheideman

Seeking the accolades (or perhaps aprobrium) that work deserves is the first commitment any photographer needs to make who wants their work to be relevant and worthwhile in a world already drowning in imagery. Criticism is the lifeblood of artistic growth. Trusting others with work is the only way to evaluate artistic development. The question that every photographer has asked themselves – why do I take pictures? – will be answered only when work is appraised by an intelligent, inquisitive and potentially critical public. It is up to photographers to seek that connection. Cartier Bresson was not born great. We did, the viewers of his work, made him great.

EP29 – PHOTOMUSE on Ian Berry and The English

This episode and Photomuse is on the importance of the work of Magnum’s longest serving photographer, Ian Berry and, in particular, his 1978 book, The English.

I also outline my hope for a review of English documentary photography about the English. Ian Berry’s work has inspired me to attempt to start a conversation about the need for a new look at the value and unique properties of the work of English documentary photography.

Recording note – I taped this monologue on my phone. I think the quality is ok. I’d be very pleased to hear what you think about this as it certainly speeds up the process!

As ever I welcome your thoughts and comments. Please contact me at alex@flowphotographic.com.

I hope you enjoy this episode.


Check this new episode of Photographica


A Return to Film Confirms an Indelible Human Need for Connection with the Medium

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 214, April 2018

Images for On the Enduring Value of Film

The maxim goes that the most expensive thing the average person buys, after a house, is a car. Well, in my case, that ‘next most expensive thing’ is a film scanner. We (at the Flow printing studio) decided last year to bite the bullet and respond to the growing demand for film scanning and dive headfirst into very expensive and very old technology. In B+W 211 I argued that, through the prism of the change from film to digital we are at a fascinating nexus between the beginning and the end of the beginning of photography – this argument sits roughly on the same timeline (but not exactly) as the shift from film to digital. But in the last couple of years we have seen a 200% increase in the number of rolls of film we are processing and, subsequently, the scans we are making. What is driving this technological reverse and what does it tell us about the medium?

Images for On the Enduring Value of Film

Please allow me to belabour you with a couple of personal details which are essential in laying the groundwork for this month’s polemic. I have two occupations beyond writing; proprietor of a photographic printing studio (FLOW) and photographer. When I set up my first commercial darkroom in 2004 the world was film. Digital was insurgent but for most photographers who hadn’t yet invested in a ‘Leaf back’ the unthinking default was whichever film you favoured. For my own work I chose, with little thought or variation, Tri-X (which I rated at 200 and developed 3:1 20C 7.5 mins in Perceptol since you didn’t ask – a great scanning recipe incidentally) and for clients’ work I would develop film in D76 ‘deep tanks’ unless requested to do otherwise. Negative colour (C41) films like Kodak Portra and Fuji Pro (a personal favourite) were introduced in the early noughties to a booming professional photography market. And then came the ‘great switch’. Kodak released a digital SLR and virtually paid photographers to use it. The software was there and Apple made computers capable of easily coping with large file sizes in a way that non-computer type people could enjoy.

Images for On the Enduring Value of Film

By 2005 the great switch was underway and unstoppable. I invested in my first Canon 5D and, at the studio, we bought our first Epson inkjet printers which now carried pigment inks in ten colours. The creative energy was now digital. By 2008 we had stopped processing film and had all but closed the darkroom. Digital was here and it was fully backed by every major player in the market. For a company like ours that existed on commercial terms we had no option but to go with the Flow, so to speak. And, personally, I loved the new medium. Less messy, more dependable for assignments, more latitude than film – and for me – an untechnical photographer at best, a massive benefit in the loss of sleepless nights hoping that the photographs I had shot latently existed prior to development on some polyester rolls in a bag somewhere. Had I counted the rolls properly and had I argued hard enough to not have them X-rayed on my way back to London? Digital fixed all of these insecurities and led us into the endlessly mutable world of bit depth and pixels where anything was possible given access to processing power and skills.

Images for On the Enduring Value of Film

But we humans never make houses on shifting sand. Because that is what digital photography is – a permanently shifting base on which nothing can be built to last, nothing can be relied on to not have been changed. We humans are endlessly mutable ourselves – we are free to change our minds at will but it is in our nature to settle. To photography the digital era has represented a great unsettlement. What is the enduring value of anything if it changes from what it is today? Digital photographic technology, for all its wonderful benefits, is not a human medium. It is essential to humanity that we have the technology but it is an alien form that we humans can never truly own because we can never directly engage with the technology that makes the pictures and we can never call a digital photograph ‘finished’.

Images for On the Enduring Value of Film

And so, as I report from the ‘coalface’ of the photographic world where my business has watched the comings and goings of photographic technology I can now tell you that film is back. And in a big way. Shot mainly by younger photographers who have grown up in the Photograscene era (see B+W TP210) film is making a huge comeback. I would say that C41 processing of colour film (Kodak Portra 400 and 800 in particular) is where most of the resurgence can be found but we handle a lot of Tri-X, Plus-X, FP4 and HP5 as well. For these photographers who enjoy the quality of film there are many more reasons that they are eschewing digital. They love the restrictions, or immutability, of the analog medium. They love that you need to be careful with your exposure; how many and how shot. They love that they get a physical rendition of the light that they experienced at the time of exposure. They love that a sense of place comes as standard with an exposed negative, they love the grain that tells that story of the chemistry that has made their image. They love that an exposure can be wrong. And for this new understanding of photography we have digital to thank. For how could we have been forced to re-evaluate film if it weren’t for an attractive interloper encouraging us to look with new eyes on the long held object of our hearts’ desire.

Images for On the Enduring Value of Film

And so we bought a big Imacon scanner which monthly payments make me shudder. We can’t deny all that digital has bought us. Scanning film is, if you will, a very happy medium. But we invested in response to a new appreciation of photographic process. A new acknowledgment, consciously or not, of the essential, immutable human particle that is present in film and of which, digital is utterly devoid.