I was at the National Museum of Wales, Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre in Cardiff last week, a fabulously retro venue that transports you back a 100 years (I love it; my companion wasn’t so keen). The reason was to listen to a conversation between David Hurn and Martin Parr, both highly accomplished documentary photographers.
It was linked to the ‘Swaps’ exhibition at the Museum. Swaps is literally an exhibition of photographs David Hurn has gathered by swapping his photographs with other photographers. That’s a pretty interesting concept. I can’t think of another situation where this sort of thing happens. Maybe computer coders do this sort of thing with code they have written? Who knows..?
Also, Martin Parr gets described as a someone who’s projects take an, “intimate, satirical and anthropological look at modern life”. Satirical and anthropological views on modern life are right up my street, so I was looking forward to this, and I wasn’t disappointed. Don’t expect any insights into the technicalities of documentary photography to follow. Here are a few things that I did learn that aren’t specifically about photography.
1. Hard work and passion count. This was a recurring theme during the conversation. From references to driving for hours to get to a location with the right light conditions, through to spending every weekend for a few years at New Brighton beach, it came through. One thing that did strike me was a comment that you can spot the passion and hard work in a photograph. Both of them had judged many photography competitions, and they could detect the hard work and passion.
I recognise that idea. Developing deep expertise isn’t a quick process. It needs hard work and commitment, whether it’s in photography or something else. Get the basics right before becoming brilliant, which I did write about a while ago in Learn the Rules Like a Pro, so you can Break them Like an Artist.
2. Being human matters. Working as a Butlin’s ‘roving photographer’ in the 1960’s was an excellent way of developing people skills it turns out. I know some people get a bit ‘sniffy’ about the photographers who are present at lots of events and venues, taking pictures with the aim of you buying the print. If you’ve been on a cruise ship you’ll recognise this, but maybe we should be a bit kinder to them? Roving photographers have literally seconds to establish a connection and build enough trust to take a photo that captures something that’s much better than the grimace that says; ‘please go away, I don’t like you’.
It’s a tough job, where I’m guessing you have to learn fast to survive. I’ve thought for a long time that everyone should spend time in a front line customer service role. Working in a shop, selling newspapers (I did both), or roving photographer to learn some of those skills of how to better interact with other people. I’ve encouraged my kids to do it, although they might not see it from my point of view now, I hope it will help them in the future.
3. Learning and collaboration. This intrigued me. David Hurn spoke about the situation in the 1960’s where photography was developing as an ‘art’. During this time many of the people,who went on to great things, used to meet and share ideas. He spoke about the collaboration, learning from each other and a lack of competition.
This might have been the ‘spirit of the age’ or I do wonder if it’s about the lifecycle of a new movement / idea? The ‘pioneers’ are more interested in furthering the practice rather than squeezing financial gain out of it? Is learning and collaboration easier in an environment where everyone is motivated by something other than money?
There does feel like a bit of a parallel here with the ‘early years’ of social media (the late 2000’s ha ha). Things like blogging felt a bit more collaborative then, rather than the frantic scrabble for ‘views’ and advertising revenue you see more of now.
4. Cooperatives have a long life. I didn’t know that they were both members of Magnum Photos, and that it was a cooperative operating internationally. The fact that it has been around for over 70 years (established 1947) is impressive. I think it was David Hurn that said it has survived when many other commercial outfits have collapsed.
It was also mentioned that Magnum have changed what they do to reflect modern demands and are in a good financial position with the future looking positive. Having good staff , which they invest in, was a key part of that. That’s not a particularly different idea, but I do wonder if their cooperative approach had anything to do with the success and long lifespan?
5. Adopting technology, where it works. Inevitably there was some talk of photography technology, mostly raised in the Q&A. Both of them had moved on to new technology, when it worked better than what already existed. There seems to be little argument for stopping using dangerous, smelly chemicals to develop and print in a darkroom. However this was only done when the digital versions could at least match what the chemical process could produce.
On the digital camera argument David Hurn summed it up neatly. “It’s all about the stream of light that enters the box. What’s behind doesn’t really matter, you need to work to be in the right place at the right time to capture that stream of light.” Work hard for what you want…
So, What’s the PONT?
- If you want to be good at something, you need to work hard at it. Happy to have that discussion with my youngest son if he happens to read this and questions my view.
- People skills are really important. The best way to develop them is by involving yourself with people. A stint in retail isn’t a bad way to do this, or roving photographer.
- Technology is great, if it’s better than what you’ve got already, and working hard to be in the right place at the right time is equally important.