I have recently been watching the Sky television photography competition series Master of Photography. I’ve only just had Sky installed at home, so I’m late to this particular party and have found myself with four series of this programme to catch up upon, thats a major ‘binge’ watch! But actually its been an interesting process to watch the series progress from one season to the next as the ‘photographer-competitors’ similarly progress and are systematically discarded by the panel of experts.
In essence it is no different from any other talent competition from the X Factor upwards. Each week the competitors are set a series of tasks often out of their comfort zones specifically designed to provide ‘good television’ not necessarily to allow those competitors to shine or demonstrate their particular talents and skill sets. But that’s okay because surely we are all wise to that format as both entrants and viewers. Jeopardy is all, it’s what keeps us on board with the concept and therefore multiple episodes. Master of Photography gets its jeopardy from placing photographers in uncomfortable positions, both physically, emotionally and from a photographic perspective technically.
I have cherry-picked episodes across all four seasons of Master of Photography currently available and in doing so one aspect of the programme becomes obvious. Apart from the photographer and creative director Oliviero Toscani, no one series has retained the same judges to sit beside the opinionated and highly experienced Italian.
Isabella Rossellini was the high profile ‘host’ for the first series rather awkwardly traversing the over stylised set, and clunky ‘small-talk’ with the contestants. That first series saw film maker, photographer and broadcaster Simon Frederick and German photographer and Royal College of Art tutor Rut Blees Luxemburg sit alongside Toscani as fellow judges. By series two they had been replaced by American photographer Darcy Padilla and The Guardian Weekend magazine picture editor Caroline Hunter.
Darcy and Caroline also lasted just one series as series three saw British curator and cultural historian Mark Sealy and former photo editor and now curator, writer and teacher Elisabeth Biondi arrive on the raised dais with Toscani. This team have stayed in place for two series now so I guess the programme makers are finally happy with their panel of judges.
That’s the history but what is the reality? Well having watched quite a few of the episodes I can certainly see that there are some interesting aspects within it if you can dismiss the competition format. There is an emphasis on personal visual language, taking creative risks, the importance of storytelling, meeting the brief and the importance of getting the technical aspects of an image ‘right-in-camera’ rather than relying on solving problems in ‘post’. It correctly describes the choosing of the images to be submitted for judging as ‘editing’ and photo shop as ‘post-production’. Although I have yet to see anyone use a light-meter!
Not all bad then! However, even with the more settled panel of judges around the central figure of Toscani and an obviously money saving decision to scale the set down from Cecil B DeMille to a low-cost interiors make-over show ‘studio space’ the same problem remains. That problem is with the quality of the critiques each contestant receives in response to the images created to the tasks set.
Toscani is always on point, pushing the contestants to take more risks, his informed eye bringing useful and experienced challenges to the photographers thinking. Never afraid to say what needs to be said, even if that means disagreeing with his fellow judges. Toscani is the real deal and the tutor every young photographer needs, with a body of work to back up his opinions.
This is a problem for the other judges because Toscani makes them look weak, ill-informed and overly subjective based on wafer-thin arguments that support their statements. It is no surprise that their has been such a churn of judges.
Each week a visiting judge – an expert on the area of work featured that week – attempts to add their experience to the editing process and final judging. These have included Martin Parr, Bruce Gilden, Lois Greenfield, Alex Webb, David LaChappelle and Sebastião Salgado amongst others. People who have interesting things to say and I would suggest important views to share, however rarely are their comments acted on. The final judging remains with those – excepting Toscani – who are not experts in the field that they are passing judgement on.
This is a situation that seems to have infiltrated so many aspects of photographic engagement today. Don’t get me wrong I do not believe that only photographers are in a position to critique, review, feedback-on or offer opinions on photography, in fact Steve McCurry’s weak and uncomfortable feedback session in the final episode of series three is the perfect illustration of how this that cannot critique should not be put in a position to do so. This was particularly uncomfortable watching when he was placed in a position of commenting on the undisclosed manipulation of a photographers ‘documentary’ image.
However, we have to remember that young photographers, students and enthusiasts all over Europe are watching this programme to gain knowledge and inspiration. To gain an insight into how the photography industry works. The fact that it exists and that Sky are investing in such a format has to be applauded, the fact that Toscani has stuck with it and not jumped ship is amazing but if they really want to create a programme that has credibility within the broader photographic community they have to get people alongside the straight-talking Italian who are similarly informed, opinionated and respected, even if that means new judges for season five!
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019. He is currently work on his next documentary film project Woke Up This Morning: The Rock n’ Roll Thunder of Ray Lowry.
© Grant Scott 2019