Is Humanity Defined By Its Images?
In this exclusive interview series, we speak to David Bailey CBE and Albert Watson (two of the world’s greatest photographers), HRH Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands (Patron of the World Press Photo Foundation) and Professor Francis Hodgson (Co-Founder of the Pictet Prize). We discuss the powerful role of photography in culture, arts and communication; and examine the true nature of the photograph, the photographer and- in the process- ourselves.
Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, April 2015
The history of human culture is a paradoxical epic, flowing in a series of ebbs, spurts and leaps, yet tied together with a singular narrative, hooked around two significant plot twists. Firstly, the invention of linear writing, and secondly, the image… This connection between writing and the image is perhaps why it is no accident that the word photography itself is derived from the Greek words ‘phos’ (for light) and ‘grapho’ (for writing).
“Images are significant surfaces…. Images signify- mainly- something ‘out there’ in space and time that they have to make comprehensible to us as abstractions (as reductions of the four dimensions of space and time to the two surface dimensions)” writes Vilém Flusser. “Images are mediations between the world and human beings. Human beings ‘ex-ist,’ i.e. the world is not immediately accessible to them and therefore images are needed to make it comprehensible.” (Towards a Philosophy of Photography, 1983). This may seem overly philosophical, but we cannot underestimate the cultural significance of a picture. “When we look at a photograph,” writes Dawn Phillips “knowing that it is a photograph, we have a distinctive kind of experience: a visual confrontation with remote but actual objects and events. We scrutinise a photograph with a sense that we are scrutinising the actual objects themselves, although they are distanced from us in time and space. In this way, photographs enable us to gain information, to recollect details, learn new facts and correct mistakes. They can stimulate feelings of delight and disgust. They can cause us to react with shock or sympathy, surprise or recognition. They often sustain attitudes of curiosity, nostalgia and desire; but also an attitude of indifference. These experiences have special epistemic and affective status because they can legitimately be understood as responses to real objects and events.” (Fixing the Image: Rethinking the mind-dependence of photographs, Postgraduate Journal of Aesthetics Vol 6. No.2, August 2009).
It was c.1826 when the first known photograph was taken, as an experiment, by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, of the view from an upstairs window at his estate. This experiment has been succeeded by billions of deliberate acts of recording moments, from the utterly mundane to the unquestionably significant (such as pictures we receive from conflicts and from explorations). Each one takes us on a journey, from an insight into someone’s daily routine to the sense that we are standing right there, on the surface of the Moon, being one of the first two human beings to observe Earth from another celestial body. Each experience is different, but neither is more or less significant than the other.
If ever you doubted the importance of photography, it is estimated that humanity conservatively generates and shares over 700 billion individual photographs per year on the Internet alone. This mix of images manifests as cultural ephemera, art, science and journalism but each represents the fact that “…photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.” (Henri Cartier-Bresson). So how then, can we define the role of photography in human culture?
In this exclusive interview series, we speak to David Bailey CBE and Albert Watson (two of the world’s greatest photographers), HRH Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands (Patron of the World Press Photo Foundation) and Professor Francis Hodgson (Co-Founder of the Pictet Prize). We discuss the powerful role of photography in culture, arts and communication; and examine the true nature of the photograph, the photographer and- in the process- ourselves.
Considered one of the pioneers of contemporary photography, David Bailey is credited with photographing some of the most compelling images of the last five decades. He first rose to fame making stars of a new generation of models including Jean Shrimpton and Penelope Tree. Since then his work has never failed to impress and inspire critics and admirers alike, capturing iconic images of legends such as: The Rolling Stones, the Kray twins, Damien Hirst and Kate Moss, these simple yet powerful black and white images have become a genre in their own right.
Albert Watson has made his mark as one of the world's most successful fashion and commercial photographers during the last four decades, while creating his own art along the way. Over the years, his striking images have appeared on more than 100 covers of Vogue around the world and been featured in countless other publications, from Rolling Stone to Time to Vibe - many of the photographs are iconic portraits of rock stars, rappers, actors and other celebrities. Watson also has created the photography for hundreds of successful advertising campaigns for major corporations, such as Prada, the Gap, Levi's, Revlon and Chanel, and he has directed many TV commercials and shot dozens of posters for major Hollywood movies. All the while, Watson has spent much of his time working on personal projects, creating stunning images from his travels and interests, from Marrakech to Las Vegas to the Orkneys. Much of this work, along with his well-known portraits and fashion photographs, has been featured in museum and gallery shows worldwide.
Constantijn Christof Frederik Aschwin Prince of the Netherlands, Prince of Orange-Nassau, Esquire of Amsberg was born on October 11, 1969 in Utrecht, the third son of Princess Beatrix and Prince Claus. Prince has two brothers, King Willem-Alexander (1967) and Prince Friso (1968-2013). Since 2008, His Royal Highness Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands is the royal patron of the World Press Photo foundation. World Press Photo is an independent, non-profit organization based in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Founded in 1955 the organization is known for holding the world's largest and most prestigious annual press photography contest.
Francis Hodgson is an internationally recognised critical writer on photography. He studied history at Oxford before completing an MA in Museum and Gallery Management at the City University in London. His dissertation was on UK photographic institutions. Hodgson has separately held a number of senior posts in businesses centred upon the photograph: he has been the Head of the Photographs Department at Sotheby’s auction house and creative director of Photonica and Image Source (both large commercial photo-libraries). Hodgson is a co-founder of the leading photography prize the Prix Pictet (on which he has twice served as chairman of the panel of judges). He has also been the chairman of judges on the Sony World Photography Awards, judged the Jerwood Awards, D&AD, British Journal of Photography Awards and AoP awards among others. He has recently been appointed as Professor in the Culture of Photography at the University of Brighton, his first academic position.
Q: Why does photography matter?
[HRH Prince Constantijn] Photography has brought the world closer and at the same time widened our horizons. It can be highly aesthetic as well as troubling and confrontational. And whereas the images we see are reflections of a frozen moment in time they are also universal, and make us stop, look, and reflect.
Q: Why do we take photographs?
[Prof. Francis Hodgson] We take photographs because we can. Photography is a simple technology, a refinement by hundreds of actors over time of a magical piece of Victorian tinkering. In essence, photography freezes vision. That in turn allows us better to contemplate the world at the human speed which is quite slow. I read somewhere that certain hawks have vision as good as 20/2, some eight times more acute than human sight. Goshawks probably don't need to freeze vision in order to make sense of it. Humans do; and once the technology was available, we availed ourselves of the ability whenever we could.
The magic, by the way, is not necessarily that certain materials are light sensitive. The magic was being able to freeze that. If your kids leave a tent out on the lawn for any length of time a pale shape will show where the sun was prevented from reaching the grass. Same with a watch-strap preventing the sun from tanning your wrist. That's not very exciting until you can find some way of freezing that effect after the tent or watch has gone. That's what the early photographers did. Once you had that – once, in effect ¬you had parcels of portable sight – you could compare one to another, you could compare one to real life elsewhere and so on. Photography allows us to think about the world. It starts with that most empirical of certainties: I can see that. Of course we know that not all photographs speak the literal truth, far from it. No matter how many times we see tricked or wrong photographic versions of the truth, we cannot shake the base conviction. I see it. It may not be right, and that needs explanation or solution. But I see it. And the particular trick of photography? I still see it, even though it's not there any more.
Q: What is the role of photography culture?
[David Bailey] Photography was the first great recording, allowing people to record the moment. The moment is the only thing you’ve got when you think about it… As we’re talking now, we’re already history, but a photograph can turn it into a moment.
Forget all the art sh** and all that nonsense, people keep albums to keep memories alive. Your brain can’t cope with all your memories, as you get older, your hard drive gets overloaded. If you see a snap from the 1970s or whatever, you might think ‘oh, I remember that moment!’ but if you didn’t have it? The moment would have been gone forever, and nobody would remember it.
Photography is a great moment-taker, much more than movies….
[Albert Watson] Asking the role of photography in culture, is like asking the same question of an art-form like painting. You can have pop-art and many other genres, and even see distinct differences between periods of the same artist like Gaugin, for example; and each of these will have a different emotional impact on you.
The one interesting thing about photography, and why I think it has such mass-appeal, is that it’s very easy to understand. You can take different things out of a photograph, and have different interpretations, but for the majority of photography you will find that the majority of people understand what it is. Regardless of whether it’s a Cartier-Bresson, Avedon, Adams or otherwise, people can still tell what it is, understand it and appreciate it very much. The average person can understand photography to a high degree. Obviously, the more information you have and the more knowledge of art you have, the more you may be able to take out of the picture… If you take somebody from the middle of nowhere and put them in a 3* Michelin, they may like it and say it was pretty good however, you can take a gourmet food-critic to the same restaurant and he will take something else out of it. There are different levels of appreciation and understanding in food, art, photography and all parts of culture.
[Prof. Francis Hodgson] The literate of today is literate in pop music and films and advertisements and design and food and maybe football, too. Among all that, photography lies at the centre. Photography, by its accessibility has been a great democratizing tool. Who needs a mandarinate with such a simple communication tool of such power to everybody's hand?
I suppose my view is that photography is our culture. There used to be three relatively large industries implicitly derived from photography : making cameras, making film, and processing and developing. Now, as those industries have atrophied, another group of even larger industries is unthinkable without photography, though photography itself is not their business. Pop music, so largely devoted to that word 'image'. Politics, vast swathes of the travel business, fashion, even publishing. Advertising, of course. For all of them, photography is not the prime product nor even necessarily a very important product. Yet all of them are unthinkable without the central role of photography. Apple does not ask us to think of itself as a camera-manufacturer; yet every smart-phone is a camera, as we know. Apple doesn't ask us to think of itself as a processing and developing firm; yet every smart-phone user distributes pictures through them. Photographs have always been regarded as culturally marginal – in my view quite wrongly. Here the phenomenon is repeated in its new guise. Photographs are central in these large businesses even though they are not photographic businesses.
It's a very odd fact that photography has remained very largely a cottage industry of many small producers, even as other cultural production has been rapidly agglomerated. In spite of Getty images (and its imitator, Corbis), brilliant agglomerators if ever there were, corporate control of photography remains slight. Think of newspaper reviewing, something I have done through all my career. If you review opera, or books, or the theatre, or dance, or pop music, or television, or films, you deal with a number of monolithic houses which exert a remarkable control over all production, even if they don't quite own it all.
In photography, that is not so. Photographs are produced everywhere, distributed almost by seepage. 'Famous' ones are not really distributed much more than vulgar or meretricious ones. See only the tidal waves that pass on the internet every so often, for cat-bearding, or hamuketsu if you doubt it. Very few photographs are produced as cultural artefacts and consumed as such.
They have become central to identity, memory, activism of various kinds. The desire to be clear about who one is and how one would like the world to be - these things are now articulated in photographic terms. Or perhaps in photographic terms first.
Q: Why has photography become such an appealing art-form?
[David Bailey] Photography has become appealing because it’s so easy! That won’t make you Ansel Adams or Richard Avedon, but you may think you are! People can mess-about with images on Photoshop, and kid themselves that they’re artists. Photography has to be art if it’s gonna’ be any good.
[Prof. Francis Hodgson] We're only really just beginning to shake the notion of art out of photography. The historiography of photography has largely been written until fairly recently in terms borrowed from art-history. One can say ( I do say ) that photography is at the very core of every development in art certainly since the latter third of the nineteenth century. Some artists have run away from it, others have embraced it. None has been able to ignore it or to remain indifferent to it. I remember a major exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1989, celebrating the hundred-and-fiftieth 'official' anniversary of photography. The Academy sent out press releases congratulating itself on its daring in showing photography seriously for the first time. In 1989 ! I wrote a snippy little article saying that every single one of the artists they had shown in those hundred-and-fifty years had been passionately, obsessively involved in photography even if they had never held a camera. The Academy was hopelessly late, not daringly early. Photography is the core of our visual culture. Ask not how it relates to art. Ask rather how art relates to it.
At the opening of that same Royal Academy show, the great English documentary photographer Ian Macdonald stood up and made a very plain speech. Among other good things, he said this:
"Two of the most obvious things about photographs intrigue me, their stillness and silence; these are for me also their major strengths. Photographs, being silent and still, preclude reality other than in that most superficial sense of the representation of an apparent likeness. In precluding reality they fall into the realm of myth, where everyone is free to invent by association as they see fit, for the meaning of each photograph is conditioned by those personal experiences the onlooker takes to viewing each image. This makes many types of photograph universally accessible. It follows that it is close to impossible even to contemplate the irrelevant notion, which is, are photographs Art? As Paul Strand so succinctly stated 'All painting is not art'".
The principal approach to photography has ignored that sound sense. For years, photographs have been shown in exhibitions and sequenced in monographs as though they were watercolours. Throw your mind back a few years to recall that news pictures or commercial pictures or scientific pictures or sports pictures or family albums used not to be considered quite respectable until the book or the exhibition had appeared; as though, in fact, photography had to borrow the old Victorian habit of the media it had so comprehensively blown out of the water as cutting-edge and modern. Certainly, vernacular photographs of every kind flew under the radar. The truth is that photography itself has taken our old notions of aesthetics and thrown them up in the air. As I wrote some time ago, ugliness and horror and pain and squalor slide onto light-sensitive paper just easily as grace and harmony. Who cares, in the end, quite how this Protean medium deals with the finer points of limited editions or sales to collectors or canons of star names? Photography represents visual thinking. In the end, it is not only aesthetics that photography turned arsey-turvey. Communication itself has been re-shaped by photography. We live in the post-photographic world.
Q: What is the purpose of the photograph (as an artifact)?
[Prof. Francis Hodgson] To be interested in photography itself is by definition to be interested in everything. It's not just that everything can somehow be photographed. It's also that in photography we invented many of the ways of thinking which are characteristic of the era. For example, it was in photography that we first found that we could habitually experience something without analysis. The repercussions of that are huge. The modern political sound-bite, for example, is received as a photograph. It is aural, not visual, but it plainly traces its ancestry back to the photograph. To rub up against experience and to keep the choice whether to make something of it or to pass on by, that may be the true legacy of photography . All over the contemporary cultural map, we see ways in which we are exposed to experience without having to make sense of it. Video games and the cinema, of course have that, direct descendants of photography as they are. But even the modern experience of driving a car seems to be post-photographic. Many writers have noticed the distancing effect of driving along on one's own upholstery, listening to one's own music on the stereo, watching the world process silently by on a large screen ahead. Cars are the way they are for all sorts of reasons. But we experience driving them in ways of thought learnt in photographs.
The very odd thing is that nothing has proved resistant to photography. I know of no field which once photography had made inroads into it was not hugely altered by that fact. Indeed, a terrific recent book which came out of a project at the Smithsonian is simply called Photography Changes Everything. One of the examples there concerns ophthalmology. "When ophthalmic photography went from being documentary to diagnostic it changed the practice of ophthalmology and subsequently saved the vision of millions of people worldwide." That's a very photographic story, repeated often. Photography arrives somewhere a useful tool. Sooner or later the field is radically upheaved by photography. The history of photography is the history of a continuous uninterrupted expansion; constant boom, like the Big Bang. Photography is successful in the Darwinian sense. It adapts easily to new uses and roles. Every circumstance is a field for photography. New technology comes along, and for a while voices are heard, "That's it, photography is over…" It's still here, more than ever.
The photograph itself corresponds so well to all of that that it's almost uncanny. Small, cheap, light, portable, reproducible….If a camera can be pointed at anything, then a photograph matches that by being able to be shown to anyone. Photographs are as nearly as anything in the world transcultural, transnational. They slide onto screens more nearly unchanged than most kinds of imagery. Graspable by a four-year old or by a university professor, photographs remain around the world as a mulch of things seen. Of course many of them are probably not very interesting in their own right – until someone decides to be interested in them. When that happens, they all are. Anyone can be an editor with photographs. Increasingly, with the explosion in digital photography, everyone is. For a teenage boy to tear a picture of a model or a singer out of a magazine and pin it to the back of his bedroom door is an act of curatorship every bit as justifiable as for a major department head to go three times before her acquisitions board to ask for a huge sum for a masterpiece. The photograph respects no boundaries, knows no restrictions. It's an invitation to think (whether that may be to argue or dream or catalogue) from which no one is barred.
Q: What is the essence of a great photograph?
[David Bailey] Photography is not an art, like painting is not an art, and it depends on whether the person doing it is an artist or not.
You need to have it in your genes, you can’t teach art. You can teach techniques, and with photography that’s the trouble- you have people that are technically good and that overshadows the art. There’s a snobbery about photography because it’s so easy to do, but people don’t realise; so is drawing. A bad drawing tells you more about the person than a bad photograph… A bad photograph is a recording machine, but a bad drawing is someone’s bad drawing.
There are many millions of people are out there taking pictures, and very few float to the surface… it’s always been like that. Even in something as superficial as modelling, there’s only ever 10 great ones in the world at any given moment. You can’t explain someone like Kate Moss… maybe she’s not the most beautiful girl in the world, but she’s the most photogenic girl in the world… but you can’t explain it, and that’s what makes it so interesting.
It’s like meeting your heroes, often it leaves you with regrets (well, I don’t do regrets!)… I slightly regret the fact that I never photographed Picasso, but on the other hand; suppose I walked into his studio and there he was, and he farted! It would be terrible for me, because he changed my life! Now this old, balding fat man farts! I didn’t want to meet him, I wanted to keep him where he was. My two biggest influences are Disney and Picasso…
[Prof. Francis Hodgson] Photography does borrow solid old-fashioned habits. Composition, tonal range, 'interest' evenly spread across the plane, verisimilitude, legibility….these are not much different to those prevailing in much older imaging systems. But the fantastically effective message-carrying ability of photographs is not only bound in with those. We see photographs, but we also read photographs, if given half a chance.
For a long time I have struggled with the idea that the principal difficulty photographers must overcome if they wish to convey complex messages is that of holding the eye of the viewer on the page for long enough. Photographs, we know, can carry wonderfully sophisticated and subtle messages. But they can't do that if that the viewer sees them in one gobbet, and is gone. Photographs are swiftly graspable for their base content. As conveyors of one-liners, they are unequalled. Buy this. Hate that. Here's Nana. He did it… But a viewer once invited to linger upon them, can get much, much more through them. So a photographer who takes the trouble to use in a picture all the resources of his accumulated visual culture to lead a viewer around the elements of the picture in the way he wants them to be led can expect that viewer to follow an argument, be persuaded of a belief, be referred to a previous cultural position – and so on. There is nothing that words can do that photographs can't. Parody, description, wit, allusion and reference, different 'voices', narrative … all of it. If only a photographer can slow the eye down long enough, all of that is possible within photography. Some do it by making the surface less slippery: by building in surfaces of their own under the slick, skiddy, eye-repelling surface of 'normal' photographic objects. Others do it by composition. Others again by reference to what the viewer already knows. Greatness in photography does not lie only in great skill. It lies in great skill in the service of great messages. I suppose I think that a great photographer at the height of her powers is not merely a wonderful catcher of the world, but a great communicator. Certainly, a very fine photograph with nothing to say is not a very fine photograph.
Q: What is the role of the photographer?
[Prof. Francis Hodgson] If you follow the line that photography is a branch of art-history, the role of the photographer is easy and plain to describe: a specialist kind of (usually realist) artist, equipped with certain kinds of light sensitive equipment, and with a specific visual cultural background. There has for a long time been a peculiar slipperiness to photographs. We got used to the idea that the same picture might mean powerfully different things according to the context in which it was found. A news picture became something very different on gallery walls, that was the standard example. So then one asked about the original purpose of the photographer, and answered as one could.
If , on the other hand, you don't limit yourself to that art-historical line then the question is much more difficult. My own view, over a number of fairly recent years, has inclined towards there being a rift so huge in the middle of 'photography' that we need new language to describe it. For me, the number of practitioners who are actively concerned with the past culture of photography – who situate themselves in some line of development within it, whose work is in some way a critique of work they know to have preceded them, and who address themselves to audiences consciously interested in photography – is diminishing fast. For those, I propose to reserve the word 'photographer'. For the others, the millions and millions for whom photography is a rapid, effective transcription or message-passing system, essentially neutral and not really to be thought about in its own right except in so far as it serves the purposes it is applied to, I propose to use the phrase 'camera operator'. The distinction is borrowed from the cinema, of course, where the industry has had no great difficulty separating out the role of the imaginative, creative, cultured cinematographer from the technical, effective, role of the operator.
In Britain today, and I suppose pretty much elsewhere, it is standard for the traffic wardens who ticket your car for being wrongly parked to take many dozens of pictures a day to be used in evidence. They are not amateur productions: the job of the people making them is intrinsically bound to their effectiveness in making those pictures. In fact, those pictures have by definition to be good enough to stand up in court. Yet those traffic wardens are not remotely interested in photography, nor are they expecting their audience to take any interest in the making of the photographs they produce, but only in what they depict. In the jargon, they are making photographs to be transparent. In my coinage, they are camera operators, not photographers, even though their use of photography is so deliberate, serious, and professional.
It used to be that a top commercial photographer was definitely in the former category. She was trusted as a creative artist to represent the brand's purported values. The photographer was a kind of creative director or a design consultant whose style and manner were as much in the hire as her control of cameras and lights. But that has changed immeasurably. As commercial clients have become more anxious to control every detail of the messages they send out, and as the costs of error have multiplied enormously, so it has become more usual for the photographer's leash to be tightened and tightened. The commercial photographer won't be a photographer for long ( saving exceptions ). She'll be a camera operator, controlled by agency representatives and client representatives physically present in the studios, looking shot by shot at Mac screens.
More and more fields like that, formerly clear zones of photography, will become zones of camera operation.
But all photographs are interesting once somebody has become interested in them. So my construction goes one step farther. Much of the impact of photographs is not down to the photographer, but to the editors, curators, picture editors, picture researchers, designers … who use them, down to and including that boy who tore a picture of a singer to put on his bedroom door. We're all editors, now. If we are online, we wallow in a giant archive, all the time. I suspect it was always true that the great photographs were the ones somebody had described as great. Now, that's obviously the case. Put pictures together – any pictures – in a sensible way, and you have a communication package ( if I can call it that ) not dreamt by the photographer. Whether it's rescuing supposedly naïve vernacular photographs for sophisticated ethnographic or anthropological ends, or merely putting 'nice' kitchens on Pinterest, the grammar and syntax of picture-editing and curation are now available to everyone, as the vocabulary of making pictures has been for some time.
It may be that one day photography in the sense I've outlined will have reverted to a kind of museum art-form, practised by a few archaeologising specialists in vintage materials and processes. But the ability to archive ( the privilege of archiving ) will not cease to be available to wider and wider groups.
Q: What’s the role of aesthetic and beauty in photography?
[David Bailey] Of course photography has an aesthetic and beauty, if you’re an artist. It’s only a paintbrush! I paint, take pictures and make bronzes, there’s no difference for me… It’s making an image of something you haven’t seen before.
Copying is the worst thing you can do though; actually… there’s one thing worse than copying another artist, and that’s copying yourself. That really is disaster, it means you’ve got nowhere to go… Nobody knows how they’re going to continue inventing something new, if I did? I’d fu****g go to Samsung and bottle it!
You need the accidental to make art, and that’s why digital isn’t so good.
[Albert Watson] For me, a photograph is there to represent minimalism, memorability and simplicity. If I mention a photo that I’ve done, in less than a second you will register that image and remember it, and almost give me a description of that image. For example, the Steve Jobs image that I did for the cover of his book or a movie poster for something like Kill Bill with Uma Thurman and a sword!
Simplicity enables you to remember a picture carefully. It’s something I strive for, but I’m not saying it’s the essential ingredient. There is a photograph by Cartier-Bresson for example, of a family on a Sunday having a picnic by the Seine. It’s much harder to describe that picture, it was shot from the back, they were sat on a grassy bank with the river in front of them, I then start to wonder what they were eating, what the table-cloth was and so forth. There are complex photos that are important, but I’m saying that simplicity and power are something that I’m quite interested in. I don’t always achieve it, but I continue trying.
I have been involved in many different types of photography, and if you take one of my books such as ‘Cyclops’ you could be on a page looking at a still-life of Elvis Presley’s suit, and then turn the page and see prisoners at Louisiana penitentiary and then see Haute Couture in Paris. I’ve always had different projects. I’ve always done still-life, I’ve always done landscape, I’ve always done celebrity portraits, fashion and so on. The smallest component is maybe reportage, but I still have quite a lot of that also.
I trained firstly as a graphic designer at what used to be called St. Anne’s University in Dundee, which is now Dundee University, and at the time took photography as a craft project. After this, I went to the Royal College of Art in London in 1960s which- at the time- was a 3 year course, and attended film school. I had seven years of art training there, specialising in graphic design with craft subject of photography- and onto film school where I wanted to be a director. If you put these components together, you can analyse all the pictures I’ve done, and drop them into the category of film, graphics or a combination of those two.
A classic graphic piece for example, maybe a monkey with a gun, it’s not just pure graphics; but graphics combined with a concept. You have to come up with the idea to start with of portraying a monkey with a gun, and then come up with the solution- which is the graphic itself.
[HRH Prince Constantijn] Photography is as rich as humanity. There are so many purposes, subjects, colors, angles. Endless choices make the medium so interesting. From pure aesthetics to raw depiction of reality. From a selfie to a staged setting. Digital technology and distribution now allow new layers of expression and communication, through the reuse, combining and manipulation of images. It has further widened the medium
Q: How can photography communicate the essence of a person?
[Albert Watson] After film school, I was involved in a lot of direction and did over 500 commercials. When Steve Jobs said, “what do you want me to do?” I said, “I have a very simple idea, I know you’re scheduled for an hour, but I can get you out in 35 minutes…. [which made him very happy].” I asked him to just give me one look, and asked him to imagine sitting across a table from 20 people that are against him, and don’t want to do what he wanted to do, but told him to remember that he knows that his way is the right way, and that he will win… He said, “I can do that, I deal with it every day!” Consequently, he did the look, and was unblinking at the camera, and didn’t hesitate; he was direct and that’s when I took the shot.
There’s some more background to this too. Steve Jobs challenged the fact that I was shooting on film and not digital! I was shooting on a 4x5 camera, which is quite old-fashioned and has bellows on it. It’s quite a long-lens and gives you a lot of compression in the shot. Telephoto lenses tend to bring a lot of aspects of the face onto the same plane by compressing the face; not so much to distort it, but somehow making it’s aspects more immediate to the camera. Part of the look of the shot was due to that. For elements like that, you don’t want the subject to be aware, that’s my job, but important nevertheless in capturing the essence of the subject.
Q: What has been the relationship of technology to photography?
[David Bailey] If I go to Afghanistan, or somewhere a bit dodgy, I’ll take digital because I don’t want to fu** about getting rolls of film when I’m coming in and out of a helicopter. When I went to find the head-hunters, I wanted a camera that was serviceable and quick. That’s a different kind of photography.
If you’re going to learn photography, you need to learn film. Even though it won’t be used in the future, it’s still a good basic way of learning. It’s like the renaissance guys; most of them could draw very well… they didn’t need to! I’ve never seen a drawing of Francis Bacon. To be a great artist you don’t need to draw, but many do, it teaches you about shade and colour.
[Albert Watson] I remember many years ago when my son in the studio looking at one of my cameras. On the front of a camera you have shutter speed, f-stops, distance guides, depth of field guides and so on. He looked at me and very innocently asked if I knew what all those numbers meant…. Well, of course yes is the answer! However, for the masses; they didn’t know and weren’t quite sure what the relationship between shutter speed and aperture was. The advent of digital and mobile photography has taken all of that knowledge out of the users hands and onto the camera, it’s removed the mystery of photography and democratised it. Anyone can take a half-decent picture of the Empire State Building, Big Ben or whatever; they don’t need to worry what those numbers on the camera mean!
There is still however, a gigantic difference between amateur and professional photography. The difference is between somebody who drives to work every day, and somebody who is a grand-prix racing driver. There are many amateurs who are posting interesting things; but as far as someone who is working as a real professional, unless you are dealing with a Mozart situation (which people always like to bring up, even though there’s only been one Mozart, one Einstein, one Michelangelo, and so on…) it’s a huge gulf to cross. When you’re younger, 15,16,19,20,21 for example; you can use that argument and inspiration, ‘well, if they can do it… I can’ but an amateur photographer would have to significant work to get into the realms of a professional.
Artistically, there could be one component of an amateur that has a certain appeal without them realising what that appeal is. There are many books available, and collectors, that put together snapshots of amateur photography; and they’ve been curated with a good idea. A lot of amateur photography can look like fine-art pictures. Many may say this makes the argument null and void. You have here an amateur who can take something that a collector wants… but a lot of it is accidents and mistakes, and the naivety and primitiveness is part of the charm and appeal. With someone’s good eye who rescues that image from the garbage, they can put it on show! There was an exhibition a couple of years ago at MoMa in New York where collectors put together a beautiful exhibition of snapshots taken by unknown amateurs who didn’t know what they were doing!
Q: What is the role of sex, love and the basic human traits in photography?
[David Bailey] I can’t see any difference between photography, art and sculpture…
You see equal sex in Caravaggio or Bernini. If you look at The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, it’s the sexiest piece of art in the world! It’s sexier than any photograph I’ve ever seen. If you’re gay? Caravaggio’s Boys is probably the sexiest thing you’ll see, he manages to make those boys look so naughty and sexy!
A woman climaxing is the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen in my life! It beats a fu****g sunset.
Q: What is the role of photography in the press and journalism?
[HRH Prince Constantijn] The combination of photography with text, written or spoken is very powerful. One image can say more than words could ever do, but text gives context and nuance that may be missing in a photograph. A written testimony doesn’t carry the same weight of photographic proof. Together they make journalism what it is today.
Great photos have many layers. The true skill is to capture an image that tells a whole story, that conveys a sentiment, a feeling, a sensation to those who were not a witness and do not know the circumstances.
Q: What is the role of philanthropy in photography?
[HRH Prince Constantijn] Good journalism sells good newspapers. With digitization the business, the craft and the delivery are all changing, but there is still a huge need and reward for quality reporting and imagery. Philanthropy may help in this transition, to ensure good photographers get the support they need to adjust their practices and become more entrepreneurial. There are also projects and stories that may never sell but need to be recorded and communicated. Here philanthropy has a role to play, as well as in archiving, storage and digitizing images. By the way, WPP is supported by sponsors and philanthropists, but its not in itself a philanthropic organization. It is an organization that defends the highest standards in the craft and actively promotes and trains the most talented photojournalists. It is activist in the best tradition.
Q: Can photographs change the world?
[David Bailey] A photograph stopped the Vietnam War I think, the girl on fire… It’s just a press picture. That’s not art, it’s being there. Taking a picture and making a picture are two different things. I’m not saying taking a picture isn’t important, it is… if it’s the right picture, in the right place… but you can’t call it art, if there was 500 photographers stood next to you, they would all have taken the same fu****g picture. The other famous picture, of the bloke shooting a guy? Turns out it gave the wrong impression, because the bloke was a real ar** hole…
[Vikas: what about now?]There are too many people in the world. Politicians go on about petrol, but the simple thing- which is so obvious- is that there’s too many people! Eventually, the world won’t be able to take it… Scientists aren’t going to solve it, unless we can find a cheap way to go to other planets; and they’re not going to do that. It’s a bit like Easter Island, they cut down all the trees, burnt them and they were stuck on the island; and the Earth is just an island in the universe. The only other thing that could unite the human race is the discovery of aliens. [Vikas: do you think they exist?] I can only go by my common sense, which is very limited. If I met God, I wouldn’t be able to comprehend him anyway. I don’t believe in God, I believe there’s something else, maybe quantum maths, who knows, or maybe we’re the dream of Krishna, who knows, collective electricity, I don’t know what the fu** it is, and if someone showed me, I couldn’t comprehend it; my brain’s not big enough. We’ll never find out who God is, our brains just aren’t big enough! There’s a story that when Captain Cook first came into contact with Aborigines, they couldn’t see his boats because they couldn’t comprehend them.. That’s a bit like seeing God, on a lower level.
[Albert Watson] The speed of communication is growing exponentially, and photography is at the forefront of that. On a Friday night, a couple of weeks ago, I was at a restaurant in Moscow about 400 yards from where Boris Nemtsov was assassinated. I heard sirens and things like that, but assumed it was a fire or some other event. After the dinner, I got back to my hotel and put on CNN and saw the pictures of the bridge next to where I was!
If Jennifer Lawrence, in California, does a nude picture of herself and sends it to her boyfriend through the internet as little tiny electrons and pixels, a hacker can- within a few seconds can intercept that image from their computer in, say, Australia and spread it! It’s the speed of the communication that has an aspect of the power.
Photography has been around for about 150 years in it’s modern form, but never before have we had the speed of communication. It’s not just how the pictures affect you when you get them, but their immediacy.
I’m always amazed at speed. I can be in Paris reading my copy of the New York times before anyone in New York is; that’s because they publish at 4am New York time, consequently it’s 10:00am in Paris and I’m sat having breakfast reading the paper before New York has woken up. Of course photography can alter things dramatically, but it’s how fast those images disseminate across the planet that’s important.
[HRH Prince Constatijn] Not by themselves, but a photo can influence events, change behavior, make politicians amend policies, outrage a community. Photos raise awareness, expose abuse, and by doing so turn the public from unknowing bystanders into potential agents for change. They now have a choice to act or look away, but the photo disallows us to hide in innocence and ignorance.
[Prof. Francis Hodgson] I have been involved since its very beginning with the Prix Pictet, a huge prize routinely described as the largest in photography. That distributes ( and awards ) some of the most moving photography you could imagine on the broad theme of sustainable development and the environment. Year after year, we have evidence that those pictures, edited and 'creative-directed' as they are, have an extraordinarily powerful effect where they land as they tour the world. There's nothing revolutionary about it. It's the old, old documentary impulse in a more contemporary guise: do but show something clearly as it is, and you very likely show the need to change it.
Q: What would a world be like without photography?
[David Bailey] A world without photography is beyond comprehension! It’s such an important part of our lives… thinking about it though, it probably wouldn’t make much difference…. If there was no Oranges in the world, or no Coffee, or no Bananas, would it make a difference?
If there was no art in the world? Would it make a difference? If there was no religion or flag-waving, I think the world would be better. I don’t like religion and flags…
You need poetry in the world, it’s as important as food; although you can’t tell that to someone who’s starving, they’d choose the food… They wouldn’t choose an Eliot, they’d say, ‘let’s have a cheese sandwich!’ [laughs]
We’re like ants, but we have art. Ants have practicality… Art takes us out of the norm in a way. Most animals don’t seem to be artistic, but I’ve never been in the brain of a chimpanzee. I think we’re collective animals, and what we imagine tends to happen- and that’s scary. There must be a collective consciousness to make that happen, and you need the ar** hole artist to come along and say, ‘I don’t agree with that…’
[Albert Watson] I remember going to do the collections in Rome where I may have been for 2 weeks in the 1970s and early 80s. There were often a couple of days between shoots, and I was often on my own or with an assistant. On a few rare occasions, there was time to do some visiting, but after 20 years of shooting collections in Rome, you get bored of seeing the Coliseum! Sometimes you get trapped in your room, and back then you only had Italian television. Now, technology means that with sling-players, I can watch [nearly] live British TV in my living room here in New York! I have 120 channels of British Television and I can watch everything from Match of the Day to the 6 O’Clock News and record it if I want to. The difference in technology has made a huge change to availability meaning I can now be in Rome and watch whatever television I want, instantly. I can switch on and see live CNN with barely a second delay to anywhere in the world.
I remember what it was like before I had my television available to me 24/7! I used to take a lot of books with me, and was reading. I had several magazines that I’d read cover to cover. You adapt to what’s in front of you, and based on what’s available to you.
If you don’t have a smartphone to take selfies of yourself, then you don’t do it! Technology has altered our social patterns gigantically!
If you want to get a gauge of what life was like before photography? Read a Charles Dickens’ book! That was an era where photography was beginning but was still pretty brand new.
[HRH Prince Constantijn] I would like to rephrase this question. What will the world be like when no photograph can be trusted to convey the truth. All digital images can be easily manipulated. Where humans are inclined to believe what they see this may be a thing of the past. I don’t dare to speculate what this will do to trust in society, the legal system, politics, etc.
Q: What do you see for the future of photography?
[HRH Prince Constantijn] I am not the person to ask. All I see is that the trade changes. That the photographer becomes more important as a personality. That viewers and readers can be reached in many different ways and that there are a lot of opportunities in the traditional and new media opening up for photographers who dare to be entrepreneurial. There is always a market and an audience for creative ideas, imaginative storytelling and high quality journalism. I’d hope that the next generation and the ones that follow will continue to strive to deliver this to their audiences.
[David Bailey] I don’t give a sh** about the future of photography, if it’s not there, there’ll be something else… I don’t think photography or art is precious, the artist is precious. The people who made the gothic cathedrals are great artists, but nobody knows who they were! They were probably some of the most exciting buildings ever built, much more exciting than the pyramids… which were wonderful in their simplicity… but something about the gothic Churches is beyond imagination; a bit like in India, some of the temples are incredible, those sex temples are just breath-taking.
We need the rebel, the poet. Count Basie was asked; ‘what’s jazz?’ (it’s like asking what art is… )He replied, ‘It’s four beats to the bar and no cheating…’ I’ve lived my life like that ever since.
Q: What would be your message to the future creatives?
[David Bailey] If you want to be an artist you’re in trouble… You either are creative, or you’re not. My greatest advantage over most people is that I’m completely dyslexic, so I see the world completely different to the average person… If there was more people like me, my vision wouldn’t be so interesting!
When I was growing up, I wanted to be Chet Baker. I mucked about with photography, but I never thought it was anything to do with art, I never really thought about art. Being dyslexic, I didn’t have a choice. I had to be something to do with the visual world- movie making, or whatever.
You don’t have to be great… most art is boll***s, remember that. It’s that thing which makes us not be like ants. If you enjoy making art? Do it!
You can’t teach art. Artists should be like Shamans, they think outside the box. Most people don’t even know what the box is, so how can they get out of it?
[Albert Watson] I’ve always maintained an old-fashioned look at life. I was interested in diverse subject matter, that was personal to me. A lot of people challenged that and told me that people wouldn’t understand who I was, but I challenged that and said that it was about the photography, the work, and not me… People don’t have a problem understanding that they can switch on their TV and see the 6 O’Clock News, and that they can hit the remote and see football or an old-movie. They understand that each of those has a category and can be analysed for what it is. You don’t have to follow a convention…..
However…. Early on in my career, I would take a picture on a Monday that I thought was the Sistine Chapel, by Tuesday I wasn’t quite sure and by Wednesday it was in the bin. It was always interesting to me why I liked something so much on a Monday, and hated it by Wednesday. A lot of this was a lack of technical fluency that meant that I wasn’t able to get to the purity of what I wanted to say because I didn’t have the correct technical ability to make the image stronger. The analogy is really to make sure that people learn to drive the car before they decide where to take themselves.
Young people nowadays are faced with the difficulty of having a false perspective of age. A guy came to see me to get a job as an assistant. I saw him because someone knew him and I thought I’d give him a meeting. He turned up and was in shorts and a t-shirt and had a skate-board under his arm. It was summer time and I thought, fine I’m not expecting an assistant to come in with a suit on. By the end of the meeting he told me that he was trying to find himself, he wasn’t sure if photography was what he wanted to do, and that he was only 31! This was an astonishing statement for me. Here was someone that knew really nothing about photography, and they were 31. In our day, you could say you weren’t absolutely sure what you wanted to do at 14, and maybe that you were not sure exactly but have a rough idea at 19, but by 21 you were starting down a road towards something, you were heading in the direction of your goal. Young people today think they’ll be playing tennis at 120 years old! Its not going to happen unless there’s some ridiculous genetic breakthrough. I read an interesting article recently which said, “yes, people are living longer, but not really” it was pointing out that Ramesses 2nd was 94 when he died 3,000 years ago, Michelangelo was 84. You could say that we’re programmed to make it to between 90-100 and by eliminating a lot of problems down the line like bubonic plague, we’re allowing humanity to reach it’s potential based on what’s written in our individual genetic code. When is your life supposed to take place now?
There is a beautiful alliance between the written word and the image. Imagine you were asked to explain the colour red. With the best of intentions, you could perhaps describe things that are red, maybe talk around the physics of light or even how the colour makes you feel. The only way to really ‘explain’ red is to show it, in an image. At a very basic level, this is the relationship between the text and image. They are both truths in different forms, one may consider the image to be the truth between the words. As Ansel Adams once said, “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”
The photograph however, is a primal and unique form of image. Assuming we put aside the drawn-out arguments in aesthetic circles about the artistic value of photography, we are left with something uniquely profound. As the philosopher Alexander Sekatskiy notes, “Despite all that has passed since the camera began its survey of the world, we remain unable to comprehend what it sees. The vision of the lens is closer to a kind of divine vision than to human perception. It shows what is permanent and hides everything accidental and temporary.”
Sekatskiy continues, by using Plato’s classic cave allegory to illustrate his point, where Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who lived (from birth) chained to the wall of a cave, facing a blank wall. All they can see is shadows projected onto the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them. For the prisoners, the shadows are their reality.
“Perhaps,” writes Sekatskiy, “…to follow this train of thought, the photographic version would go something like this: imagine a camera in which we are imprisoned and that has the capacity of operating with long exposure times. This apparatus cannot register rapid movements such as facial expressions, which will disappear into a barely visible blur and, thus, might be thought of as inessential. Only traces of solid life would remain: a table, some apples, a harp, a pot, a pair of worn shoes. This camera could function as the eye of a less flippant being than you or I. Now imagine increasing the exposure by a thousand times and examine the resulting image. Not a lot is left. The apples have rotted away and only the seeds remain, though these may have begun to germinate. Given enough time, even the table will not survive. Increase the exposure again, by another several thousand times. Enlarge and position the camera so as to survey the world from all points of view at once. Now everything incidental has disappeared. The only thing left of the harp, one might say, is the idea of the harmonies it might have once produced, for only harmony is permanent but the vessels that contain it must perish. All becomes a blur, a thin fog on the face of the image. As we ascend through these photographic effects towards the idea of time, we might be able to see with more clarity those objects that appear to our mind’s eye when we turn our gaze inwards. We would be able to see the immutable, the universal forms: eidos. We would be able to have an unmediated experience of those things that we can sense only vaguely and of which we have the faintest awareness. For absolute knowledge is not an accumulation of infinite particulars, but this ability to see beyond the particular is what we value in the work of masters of photography. And if we increase the exposure on our camera to correspond to the vision of a god, an exposure equivalent to eternity, the subject of contemplation will be ‘being as oneness’. This omnipresent and omni-powerful eye is a photographic camera with an infinite exposure and an absolute perspective on all things.” (Philosophy of Photography, Vol 1, No. 1)
We know that the ability to see motionless objects is a fairly recent stage of visual-evolution, until then most creatures possessed only the ability to discern movement. Thus (in Sekatskiy’s view) human vision is planted squarely between ‘frog’ and ‘God.’ Photography moved this evolutionary development sideways, the ‘image’ moved from the imagination (based on the Latin ‘imaginari,’ – meaning picture to ones-self) to the tangible reality. This shift to tangible reality of the mnemonic (in the form of the written word), and (perhaps) everything else (in the form of the image) came with another profound ability.
Humans, as far as we know, are the only creatures that have a sense of their temporal relation with the universe. We don’t live quite so immediately in the world as other creatures, and have a sense of our existence in the continuum of time, and within the context of the past and future of our world. Writing is perhaps the first offshoot of this, allowing knowledge to exist independently of time and the dissolution of it’s cultural origins- but yet it lacks something, as we can only imagine in the context of our own history and experience. That’s where photography differs. It doesn’t require us to have a pre-existing context, rather it presents an instant of existence, truthfully, undistorted, for us to understand; whether that is a picture of a fashion model, a historic political moment, an image of space or otherwise.
Photography has given humanity its first true time machine, and that’s remarkable.
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