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Art, snap or reportage


Time for an update: I still use film, though. Not vast quantities, but I have a darkroom, and I'm not afraid to use it.

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Art, snap or reportage

6 Mar 2021 5:28AM   Views : 429 Unique : 274


Yet again, I’m indebted to Phil Taylor for today’s text and pictures - he’s picked up the art/reportage/or what debate with some genre-blurring shots from a decade and a half ago.


A journalist friend from my local paper has recently taken up covering the Oldham area for the Manchester Evening News. Like everyone new to a ‘patch’ she was keen to pick up any story leads. I pitched a looking back feature on some of my photographs s from the 2000s.


2003 doesn’t seem that long ago to me, but you could still smoke in the pub, the smartphone wasn’t a thing, and a digital SLR still fascinated non photographers the first time they saw one. In some places, people asked how the film was developed in camera, probably because to many older folks it was a new concept. People still read the local paper, but proprietors were keen to find ways of slowing the decline in readership. Some papers turned to what was termed ‘the happy page’, no bad news, just local people in a picture led spread doing something joyous usually in a hostelry of some description.


The Oldham Advertiser were looking for a photographer to start up their ‘On The Town’ page, and approached me for the trial run, and I stayed for 7 years until the feature ended. The concept was to visit a nightclub or town centre bar, quickly grab a few snaps of revellers that would fill a spread, they were not intended to look professional in any way. In some titles, one person would be circled, and became the ‘Ringed Reveller’, and would win a prize donated by the venue, usually booze. The strangest was a one night stay above a pub in Rawtenstall, Lancashire for one, near where the League of Gentlemen was filmed. Eventually the concept grew, and I spent Friday and Saturday evenings driving up and down the M60 to different East Lancashire towns for 5 papers. One minute it was a rural pub full of farmers, and the next a high tech club with lasers.


For the clubs I developed a technique using flash on a camera with a wide to standard zoom, long exposures and either camera or subject movement, which meant that the shadowed subject would be sharp if no ambient light fell on them. Basically though, it was get in, fire off as many shots as possible, and get onto the next job. It wasn’t a particularly selective exercise, just catching anyone willing to be photographed. There was never any intention at art beyond the above technique, they were supposed to be ephemeral, a passing thing for a publication that would be next week’s cat lit liner.


So, where’s all this leading? Well, in revisiting the photos 15 years or more on, I’m wondering where they stand, they may well be social documentary (but isn’t that curly perms and moustaches in black and white), simply throwaway snaps as intended, or when compared with the high colour, in your face, raw flash work of Dougie Wallace and Martin Parr, have they become ‘art’ whatever that is? When does a picture turn into art, is it when somebody declares themselves an artist, and collates them into a coherent body of ‘work’, thinking of the likes of Richard Billingham’s ‘Rays a Laugh’, where gritty life is recorded without a filter?


Does the passage of time make it art? There’s a magic something for me of 70s interiors with PVC leatherette sofas, swirly print curtains, shag pile carpets and space helmet TVs that makes me think back to how as a kid in the Seventies we envisioned the future, so in my mind, anything recording that has become art.


Maybe the recording of a current event can become art, something that evokes a particular time without necessarily being hard news? A train crash would never be seen as ‘art’ but can street photography of the mundane and banal become art if linked to a news event. Of course, 2020 was the year of the blue face mask and Coronavirus, and who knows how long it will continue in this way. Images of blue face mask wearers will become iconic of the period. When my home town of Bolton hit the 500 per 100,000 infection rate topping charts every news agency descended on the town.


As a local, I had predicted it, and my agency already had stuff on the wire, so I spent a morning watching folk hunting down the essence of the place. Rather than, “has anyone here been raped, and speaks English” it was more can you find me someone eating a pie that I can have stand in front of the iconic town hall or a row of terraced houses. I’ll fess up to finding the pie eaters, and using the town hall, and submitting a miserable rainy day shot with mills, mosques and terraced houses. Could any of this be classed as ‘art’?


Maybe it’s the style of the image that looks like something else classed as art, aping the style of another photographer? Is it the subject matter or technique? I recently queried why monochrome prints are seen as more ‘proper’ photography? Or, can the use of high colour do it?


I’m not a big fan of ‘street photography’ – to me, apart from those who excel at it with a fine sense of observation and an awareness of light it’s just ordinary life. Capturing city centres for Coronavirus coverage has been tricky, as in many cases it’s been normality. A few things like the unpublished photo of the mobility scooter rider in Manchester wrapped up as if preparing for a spacewalk sums up the fear for me, however two of the most published pictures were of an illuminated sign (half a page in the Guardian) and a man walking over a bridge that has a Martin Parr Last Resort feel to it, they are very different, I reckon one could be art; but why?


So, when does a picture become art rather than simple reportage or a snap? Is it the author declaring themselves an ‘artist’, is it what those in the know to declare to be art, is it when it’s framed on a matte paper, wins an award, or can the passage of time confer it?

Over to the readers to fight this one out!

Phil Taylor ARPS



dudler Plus
17 1.6k 1833 England
6 Mar 2021 5:34AM
All pictures are by Phil Taylor, and are copyright.

Wherever you stand on the 'art - or not?' debate, and however you regard clubbing and clubbers, these pictures from a decade and a half back remind us all of the casual proximity that we used to take for granted, and now miss so much. The human condition is complex and varied. And let's have another shot of people having a lot of fun...

AltImages 1 1
6 Mar 2021 6:10AM
Interesting read and photos 😊

The phrase ".... whether photographs that record everyday life are art" struck a chord in me too. As I now realise why I don't tend to shoot much in the way of landscapes, flowers, street photography, or basically anything that can be Googled. They are to be viewed with admiration, but are more captured than created.
kaybee Plus
16 7.6k 26 Scotland
6 Mar 2021 7:52AM
Art - like beauty - is in the eye of the beholder.
If even one person describes a picture as 'Art', then that is what it is.
But at the same time it can be 'a snap' - taken a a deliberate record or as a 'memory jogger' for the future - or it can be 'social documentary' which historians can refer to.
You could almost say that a picture is all things to all men.

Insignificant pictures of the mundane may not amount to much individually or when seen individually, but when put together they can become 'a body of work' and that is always seen as more significant or important and more likely to be deemed as 'Art' (but it is still only an individual's opinion at the end of the day).

Some would say that 'Art' is or reflects life and vice versa.

There is a photographic website called Blipfoto which is one picture per day (taken on the day it is posted), with or without words from the subscribers. As a body of work (from people around the world from all walks of life) it has been deemed important enough by The National Gallery (I think) to be recorded in their archives, in its entirety, in perpetuity -- so surely a picture, no matter what its subject or quality is Art, a record AND social documentary.
philtaylorphoto 19 334 2
6 Mar 2021 8:41AM
Ah, proximity to people. All the clubbing was done on 20-35 or 15-30 lenses on crop sensor.

Just looking at my Google Timeline, the last time I went anywhere pleasant was October. I managed one trip for a landscape photo shoot for publication in February.

Let's get our jabs done, so we can all get back to normality, and start wondering why everyone used to wear masks in Street photographs.
viscostatic 14 49 10 United Kingdom
6 Mar 2021 9:28AM
Really interesting images and read.
philtaylorphoto 19 334 2
6 Mar 2021 9:37AM
Interesting that when I was doing the research for the article, all 4 of the club's I picked as examples had closed down.
just some random thoughts... mostly unfinished thoughts without a point Grin

Quote:I’m not a big fan of ‘street photography’ – to me, apart from those who excel at it with a fine sense of observation and an awareness of light it’s just ordinary life.

I would so much like to link some of the stuff I see on HCSP on Flickr (please please let me know if it's allowed Wink ). It's so far away from what you describe as ordinary life.

Maciej Dakowicz did a great series on revelers in the streets of Cardiff at night. They are bold, in your face, colorful, shocking, witty, bewildering, real. But I think he could take them without having to compromise.

I do get why people could claim that a number of the photos are just snapshots. Some would look exactly the same if a reveler were to take a photo (so, a snapshot) of his friends during a night out.
others are slanted, body parts cropped

The ones standing out for me are 1 - there is no posing at all going on. What exactly is going on? a moment of sadness? Then that connection of opposing looks, with in the middle the (somewhat strangely) faceless blonde. Only on the far rhs the picture falls a bit short with the man in the bg (he doesn't quite fit in). It's a bit of a shame you hadn't shifted your camera a bit towards the left.

and 12 - this time clearly posing, even provoking. This time the man in the bg actually adds something to it. without him, it would be a good exuberant fun pic. He adds longing to the equation.

my mac doing weird Grin

Quote:others are slanted, body parts cropped
. Often things related to "snapshots" by those who don't know better.
philtaylorphoto 19 334 2
6 Mar 2021 5:02PM
Pic 1 is truly enigmatic. I think the exposure was 1/3, so as the camera is panned, a lot can change in the frame.

dark_lord Plus
17 2.8k 761 England
6 Mar 2021 5:37PM

Quote:Insignificant pictures of the mundane may not amount to much individually or when seen individually, but when put together they can become 'a body of work' and that is always seen as more significant or important and more likely to be deemed as 'Art'

That sums up my thoughts as I read trogh the blog. Rather like a collection of individual short stories put togehter in one volume.

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