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THE DOMINO EFFECT

TEXT BY ANDREW ALLAN

How does a new photograph come into existence? We’re familiar with the human and mechanical processes involved – selecting a camera, picking it up, pointing it, pushing the button – but what is it that differentiates between the various degrees of photography?

An album of family holiday snaps are different in composition, setting, and subject matter than a typical ‘art’ photograph. There is an arguable polarisation between the ‘amateur’ photographer and the ‘professional,’ with myriad strata between the two. The work of Martin Parr is a case in point, buying directly into the crafting of a holiday scene but doing so in an artistic manner. Photography as a truthful documenter is undermined.

There is a subtle boundary – a point that varies from person to person and culture to culture – which separates the ‘amateur’ from the ‘professional.’ Instead of asking how a new photograph comes into being, then, it is more relevant to ask, ‘At what point is a photograph no longer a snapshot?’

The multiple uses the camera has, and the increased accessibility of the tools required, has made everybody who owns a camera, or a mobile phone, a ‘photographer.’ This is the case with every discipline of the Arts: literature, painting, music – all have this bisected group with amateurs on one side, professionals on the other, and a sort of ‘amateur professional’ at the boundary or crossing-point.

In many cases, distinguishing between these groups is easy. A blurred photograph of a bee is the polar opposite of Cartier-Bresson’s Derriere la Gare Saint-Lazare. It is easy to see the differences in composition and tone, but it is equally not unreasonable to suggest that, statistically, anybody else who happened to be in Henri’s place that day would have captured the same shot.

Often, because of the speeds involved of both subject and shutter, photography is as much about chance as it is about skill or talent.

There are countless photographs taken by professionals that are dumped for being unsuitable for display. Similarly, there are a number of photographs taken by amateurs which capture a unique moment, show a robust compositional technique and awareness of colour or tone.

Photography for the professional is about building an innate sense of opportunism, which is founded upon a personal awareness of what works and what does not work.

A Bushman uses his skills and his knowledge of the land, flora and fauna to find much-needed water for himself and his tribe. A lost outsider, stranded in this environment, would struggle to find water or any form of sustenance because he cannot read the signs of his environment – he cannot tell where water might be.

Similarly, the professional photographer is a hunter-gatherer type: acute to the signposts that give him or her insight into a subject; possessed of a constantly roaming eye that searches for new ways to describe the familiar, or seeks out the obscure and produces its in a way that is just familiar enough to not alienate the audience. And always with a fundamental sense of opportunism: of wanting to capture a moment on film but

conscious to the fact that it what the eye sees may not be recordable, perhaps in that instant or ever at all.

It’s the complexity of three-body motion. You begin with a fixed point, in this case the photograph upon the wall. You add one person, the Viewer, and this person brings with him or her their ideas about what photography should be, and how this particular photograph fits into that categorisation. Even if they shun categories they are compartmentalising and labelling – this is a natural process, and a way of understanding the world around us.

When a second Viewer comes along, the viewers combine to form the beginnings of an audience – but both viewers bring different views about photography to the table, and they impact on one another and on the photograph itself. Viewer A goes off to write an amazing review of the artwork; Viewer B is disgusted and advises nobody visit the gallery. Now, if we add another viewer to the scene we complicate the scenario still further, as each viewer interacts with another, gives weight to one viewer over another, or finds some new approach to this particular artwork.

Despite this, there are maintained parameters for defining whether or not a work is ‘professional.’ These are the conventions, which have their own variations, stress-points, and flexibilities. All disciplines have a ‘no-go’ area, a line that, when crossed, signifies immediately the presence of an amateur.

There is a market for the amateur, to be sure, and there are many full-time mediocre artists who live comfortable lives selling layman’s art to laymen. That is fine. The issues arise when popularity is mistaken for a display of skill or talent, a fundamental cultural flaw fostered by the various talent and variety shows that appear on TV.

So what have we learned? Well, we’ve barely investigated how we define artistic creativity. The truth is that the answer is wholly malleable, and very much open to interpretation. The only universal truth is that there is no universal truth. For as long as people are free to make up their own minds about what they do and don’t like there will be a chasm of difference in opinion between the amateur and the professional, and always this grey area between them.

Is this a bad thing? Certainly not. Though struggling professional artists may gripe about the successes of their less-skilled peers, we must retain our awareness of the context within which we produce our work. When we asked for submissions to this magazine we said we were looking for technical awareness, a robust knowledge of composition and a grasp of the theory behind photography.

These are all subjective qualities, and the importance of one may be overshadowed by another depending on the artist and the work. Understanding your environment competently enough to interact with it in an artistic fashion, however, and using your chosen tools with skill and flair – these are the things that elevate you above the trope of the ‘amateur professional.’ The works then produced ultimately come to define the art of photography, a forever changing sea.