The Past Informs the Future of Photography, But It Doesn’t Have to Control It!

I recently instigated a new hashtag on our Twitter feed #ProPhotoWisdom based on an email I received from an art director friend. I had asked her to give a talk to my students on her career and to give the students an insight into client expectations of a professional photographer. In addition to doing this she asked six photographers she works with for their advice for students studying the medium with the intention of gaining employment. The advice was good, honest and based in reality so I decided to share it through Twitter as a series of short edited anonymous comments.

Twitter seems to be full of people asking questions at the moment, so I thought it would make a change for someone to provide some answers. They seemed to be popular, so if you want to find out more about what was said you can follow the hashtag.

But this article is not a promotion for the initiative, it is a response to some of the responses. Here is some of the advice photographers gave:
“Keep the creative side of photography going it’s easy to get stuck doing money jobs.”
“It is essential to find your own voice.”
“Look at books and exhibitions of old photography”
“Be fully prepared before a shoot but be open minded enough to allow for all your plans to change.”
“The professional industry isn’t just about whether you can take a pretty picture, so teamwork and listening to other people are really useful skills, collaborate and be open minded.”

All good advice. honest, realistic, true. And there was universal agreement with these comments. However, the following suggestion bought forward some unexpected opinions.

“Don’t take a picture thinking, ‘I can fix it in post’, don’t rely on all the things you can do afterwards. Think of these programmes as only to be used in an emergency.” I think this is pretty clear, don’t knowingly take bad pictures and expect post-production to get you out of trouble, only use it in this respect if the image has gone wrong for reasons outside of your control. It does not mean that post- production cannot and should not be used for aesthetic purposes.

There is a joke amongst commissioned photographers that you can always say to the client “Don’t worry, we can fix it in post!” This advice is I think a response to this often heard statement.

However, that is not how it was responded to by some, who seemed to feel that the comment was an attack upon the very process of post-production manipulation and change. One person quoted Bill Brandt from 1948, two others raised the spectre of Ansel Adams and within a few comments the conversation had been co-opted by analogue photographers praising the importance of the darkroom in making photographs. Unsurprisingly, one responder turned to attacking the messenger and someone else’s informed opinion by saying, “I have read some utter sh**e on Twitter but this is right up there with the worst of it.” If this is the case I wonder what else is in his Twitter timeline!

Professional commissioned photographic practice is evolving at an incredible speed, not only in capture, but also in dissemination, usage and expectation. It is not controlled by the photographer, however much that may hurt photographers to hear. It is now a collaborative practice that requires the photographer to be open to change, to move on from the masters of the past as arbiters of contemporary practice and embrace new ways of thinking about the medium.

There are solid commercial reasons to get things ‘right’ in camera when commissioned. Perhaps the most important of which being financial. If there is no agreed budget for post-production every minute you spend working on your images post-capture you will be doing for free! Do you want to do that? I know I don’t!

I am a great believer in exploring the rich history of photography and allowing it to inform contemporary practice, but it should not and cannot control the present and the future of the medium. To do so would not only prevent the medium from ever progressing, it would also quickly make both the photographer and the photograph irrelevant. The darkroom was once the mothership of image creation, analogue was once the only process for creating images, they are not now. Brandt and Adams were great photographers, innovators and forward looking thinkers of their time. Their images live on as do their words, but they are not written scripture for the 21st Century photographer.

Dr. 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, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor 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 film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2022

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