The Two Worlds of Photography

What do I mean by two worlds of photography? Well, what I am talking about here is intention and expectation. I spend most of my time in one of these photographic worlds and probably speak most often to photographers who similarly exist within the same world in which I find myself in. That is the world of photography that is interested in narrative, storytelling and documentation. Now that does not mean that I am defining one of these photographic worlds based upon documentary photographers. I see the importance of this holy trinity of photographic practice in many photographers work. From sports to contemporary art practice, from fashion to interiors, from social documentary to dance.

The world in which I find myself is focused on creating bodies of work, engaged with the work of other practitioners and informed by stories. The resulting work may be self-initiated or commissioned, the platform of dissemination is not important, it is the instigation and expectation that define the process and subsequent reflection of the finished artefacts. The photographers creating this work will have studied the history of the medium and see themselves and their work as being part of the progression of that history. Not in an egotistical way but as part of an evolutional process.

The other world of which I speak, is less concerned by these considerations. This is a world of technical perfection, the single image and the demonstration of proficiency. Subject matter is often repetitive, chosen to facilitate process and mastery, rarely if ever to tell a story or develop a visual narrative.

The world in which I exist is that of the professional photographer, the second, the world of the amateur or hobbyist. My world often likes to think that it is the dominant photographic community but of course that is not the case. Camera clubs, online forums and online platforms are the spiritual homes of the mass ranks of the hobbyists. Where the latest camera releases, mega pixels and photoshop plug-ins are much discussed and debated. Where images are revised and rated. It is a vibrant and engaged community, passionate about photography but completely disconnected from the world of photography I identify with.

Both worlds seem to co-exist with little if any recognition of the other. An image applauded within one world is often derided in the other. Work praised by one community is often misunderstood or never seen by the other. These two worlds of photography have different priorities.

Does this have to be the case? Maybe and perhaps each are content with where and how they are but it is always to the detriment of any creative practice to be narrow focused, to dismiss the experimental, and reject challenging work. To do so would be to exist within an environment of creative stasis. Unfortunately, I do feel that is where the hobbyist work is.

I am not being dismissive or condescending towards those photographers working with the medium from a hobbyist perspective but maybe the camera club member could find even more enjoyment from the medium if they were hearing from those working with narrative as a core element of their photographic practice. Maybe they could welcome photographers from outside of their world to their meetings to hear from those engaged in a different approach to photography despite using the same tools as the club members. And as a result those photographers could hear from the club members and share experiences, stories and inspirations.

I know that this does happen but it is clear that it is not happening enough because the divide between two very different approaches to the same practice is not being bridged. If it were the work would demonstrate this and it does not. In that sense it does seem that one world is moving forward and exploring all creative aspects that photography offers, whilst the other has stalled.

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 (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

His book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/

© Grant Scott 2021

Image: Creative Commons

6 comments

  1. The division is as much a problem with the lack of clarity of language and vision of the contemporary art world as it is by the volume of gear fixated, camera club amateurs.

    In reality there is a cross over and many of the “amateurs” you suggest are disconnected with the real art of photography, are creating work with more depth and passion than a million art school graduates (an understanding of photographic context of the word amateur would help).

    Cliches and narrow minded thinking exist in equal amounts on either side of your “two worlds” and the attitude exhibited will only continue to prolong that way of seeing.

    If you really wanted to engage, you’d look at trying to educate from both worlds rather than proclaiming the division from one. We’ve put on conferences where we’ve brought together Simon Norfolk, Jem Southam, Thomas Joshua Cooper, John Blakemore and Paul Hill with Joe Cornish, David Ward, Charles Cramer and Colin Prior. We’ve including artists working on novel image making like Paul Kenny alongside commercial photographers like Julian Calverley and Paul Wakefield. We’ve featured young artists like Nick White and Yan Preston. The result, I’m sure, would have surprised you.

    Simon Norfolk was interestingly dismissive off the attendees until he actually sat down and talked with them and saw some of their work and realised there was just a different type of engagement. Jem’s and Thomas’s engagement with our audience showed a much greater degree of understanding that the divide is a self created one and in reality it is a continuum that has been manipulated by many (including your narrative) into a disappointing us vs them groupthink conflict.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I think you may have misunderstood my position by placing me in one particular group but that is your perogative. I have visited camera clubs and agree that good work is done there. However, I am not specifically talking about camera clubs here. As the previous editor of both Professional Photographer and Photography Monthly magazines alongside my other experience I have straddled all areas of photography including discussion with all of the names you list. I would therefore be much less surprised than you suggest.

  2. Thought provoking, and deliberately provocative, but I don’t think the two worlds you describe actually exist, or if they do it is as part of a multiverse in which there are many hundreds of worlds co-existing. It’s not just people who talk about narrative and documentation and describe what they do as “building a body of work” who are actually encountering the world photographically and making images that are meaningful. Many of them are not. For every group that is standing around in a gallery or online consciously drawing on the history of photography and supporting each other in their photographic worldview, there are dozens of photographers seeing things in new light, telling new stories and making new images without the need for the self-conscious conceptualising. They are doing as much to move photography forward as any self-defined in-group. Much of the avant garde, and challenging work, turns out to be a dead end and some of those seeking technical perfection may already be creating the new wave, or, more likely, it’s a kid using a phone to post on instagram who does their own thing and makes something genuinely new.

  3. Thank you for the thoughtful blog, Grant. Perhaps the divide between the two very different focal points to the practice of making images is not being bridged because the domain is widely spread and old. Over its 200 years of evolution, discrete offshoots have taken lives of their own because they had their own appeal to individuals. The laws of physics or biology don’t prescribe convergence. So, in my view, it’s okay that divides exist; bridges aren’t a necessary outcome of division. Let’s just celebrate the many worlds of photography – period.

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