Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The Best of Friends

The Best of Friends 11 is a collection of monochrome photographs, edited by Roger Maile. If you are looking for a Christmas present for someone with a serious interest in photography, this would do very well. It's not that all the images in the book are perfect -- far from it -- but they will at least provide a photographer with ample food for thought.

About twelve years ago, Roger Maile set up a group known as the Friends of Creative Monochrome -- Creative Monochrome being the name of the company he was then running (now replaced by Arem Publishing). His intention was to increase participation in monochrome photography, and, no doubt, to increase the profits of his company. Each year since then he has edited and published an annual volume of photographs, the final selection being made from a much larger number of prints submitted for his consideration by members of the Friends group.

To the layman, monochrome might mean black and white, but almost from the beginning of photography the practitioners of the art have used various chemicals to add 'tone' or colour to their images. That practice continues today. Indeed in the digital age it is easier to achieve consistency in this area than it ever was before. For the most part, however, the photographs in this collection have the look and feel of black and white prints.

This year, the actual printing of the collection has for the first time been done in the four-colour process, thus allowing much improved reproduction, even of those images which have no visible toning at all. It is hard to imagine how the printing of monochrome photographs could be done any better than in this volume, and both the editor and his printers, DAP (Sussex) Ltd, deserve congratulation.

The Best of Friends 11 is essentially the work of amateur photographers. However, they would, I think, claim to be trying to work to the highest standards of photography, and therefore it is not unreasonable, I feel, to judge them by the highest standards. So now let us consider the images themselves.

There are 172 of them in all, selected from a total submission of some 2500 prints. As you would expect, with such a large field to choose from, the technical standard is impeccable. Unfortunately, that does not mean that all the prints are interesting, even to someone (like me) with a fifty-year record of involvement in, and appreciation of, this form of photography.

The choice of images, and their arrangement in the book, undoubtedly reflects the editor's taste; it could hardly be otherwise, and there is no point in complaining about that. But it does seem to be a fact that many of the photographers represented here seem to be quite happy to produce prints which could have been made at any time in the last 50 years; or even in the last 150 years.

This thought having struck me, I went to the bookshelf and took down a copy of a similar book which was published fifty years ago: Photograms of the Year 1954 (PY54). This book was the fifty-ninth in an annual series. The title, by the way, is not a misprint: 'photogram' is simply an archaic word for a photograph.

A review of the images in Best of Friends 11 (BF11) soon reveals that they are very little different from those in PY54. In both volumes we have, for instance, pictures of cute kids; kittens; portraits of noble working men; trees covered in snow; castles; classical nudes; quaint-looking foreigners; flowers in vases; moody landscapes; and so on.

The quality of the image as printed on the paper is, of course, far superior in BF11, but then one would hope so. Apart from that, nothing much has changed. It would be invidious to single out any particular print, perhaps, but one print in BF11 has contrived, through a combination of filter, lith printing and grain, to emulate almost exactly the feeling and tone of an image reproduced in PY54, the latter exhibiting all the limitations of the printing process as it then existed.

It gets worse. Worse, that is, if you hope for some sort of originality in photographs, as opposed to a demonstration of mastery of (admittedly difficult) technical skills. PY54 includes, at the back, a series of images from the previous hundred years, pictures produced by the 'early masters of pictorial photography'. Of these, Julia Cameron's 1867 portrait of Henry Longfellow could be set between plates 137 and 138 of BF11, and, if they were otherwise unidentified, I would defy anyone to date any of them accurately. They are all three pictures of bearded men, with little to distinguish them.

As for the nudes... Well, it has been a long-standing tradition in 'serious' amateur photography, continuing even unto this day, that no nude must ever be suspected, in the slightest degree, of generating so much as the memory of an erection in a male viewer. Nudes must be chaste, bloodless, and wholly unerotic. Given this tradition, I have to say that I prefer those which appeared in PY54, particularly as one of them is by the wonderful Joan Craven. It is a notable fact that some of the very best nudes have been taken by women photographers: e.g. Rosalind Maingot, Yvonne Gregory, and the peerless Eva Grant.

What are we to make of all this?

Well, if you want a demonstration of fine-quality traditional darkroom printing, then BF11 will provide it. And that has its own value and interest. But if you want cutting-edge stuff, a demonstration of the possibilities of the digital era (and I'm not talking about Photoshop 'special effects') then, with one or two exceptions, it ain't here.

There is nothing here which is dangerous, disturbing, or even adventurous. You could show the book to your great-aunt Jane and she would think it was lovely. All the images in BF11 are safe, polite, and, frankly, dull. The photographers represented here here have all mastered the technique of their medium; but, having acquired this mastery, they don't seem to know what to do with it.

But perhaps that's just a result of the editor's choice. I get the feeling that, just as the original manuscript of Harry Potter was turned down by every publisher in London save one, a budding Dan Burkholder or Nan Goldin, or even Michael Kenna, would not find a place in the Best of Friends series.

Speaking of Michael Kenna, I am reminded that, on an internet newsgroup about photography, I once read a message from a member of a traditional UK camera club. Someone had recommended that he should take a look at the work of Michael Kenna. He had done so, he said, and on the whole he 'didn't think much of Michael Kenna's print quality.' This counts as the single silliest statement that I have ever read on the internet, an arena in which foolishness is not hard to come by.

As it happens, Michael Kenna has had one-man exhibitions of his work in major galleries and museums all over the world; he has produced books which sold out their 10,000 initial print run without difficulty and were then reprinted; and he currently sells prints for $1000 and upwards. If it is indeed true that Michael Kenna's print quality isn't much good, then the rest of us need to get our print quality amputated at the earliest opportunity.

And that's the problem with BF11. The print quality is superb. But there's something missing.


Anonymous said...

I'm afraid that I have to agree wholeheartedly with your comments. They go for the whole of the Arem range of magazines & the Arem message board too. Dull, old-fashioned & safe could be the strap-line.

Photographer-who-speaks-Anglaise said...

How refreshing to read a piece that is not only interesting but witty and with all the words spelt correctly.
None of the ghastly "chumminess" that seems to pervade the internet and sundry other journals [for want of a better word] but well constructed enlightening text that is a joy to read irrespective of whether you agree with the author or not.
Never left a comment before but feel that this author deserves his accolade as shown at the top of the screen.

Excellent - English as it should be writ and not a sign of a mate/matey/!/lol/aswell/true facts or other ghastly nonsense that is seen, alas, almost everywhere.

Anonymous said...

I have come across your blog while searching for information about Joan Craven, who was my great aunt. Delighted to read that you are an admirer of her work. I have so far only been able to track down three of her nudes - Chloe (Photograms of the Year 1951), Juno (Photograms of the Year 1952) and Finette (British Photographic Almanac 1954. If you could steer me towards any others I would be extremely grateful.

Michael Allen said...

Dear Anonymous of 27 November 2013 --

Hope you will spot this reply. I'm afraid I can't help. For many years I collected early books of photography, and made determined efforts to contact as many of the photographers, or their descendants, as possible, in the hope of getting hold of negatives from which a modern book could be printed. I too found that examples of Joan Craven's work were rare but very impressive. As a distant relation of hers you have the best chance (in theory) of tracing her output and (Ideally) her negatives -- but if you can't do it I fear no one can. If you need to contact me again, please click on "complete profile" (top right box on this page) and then click on "email" to send me a message direct rather than through comments.