Last week was a modest feast of TV photography. I watched the final of the re-run of Sky Arts 2017 Master of Photography contest (winner Gillian Allard); and caught the first in the BBC 4 series Great British Photography Challenge. The latter looks like a rip-off of the former, but they are really very different. The Sky offering has high production values and budgets – with the BBC you are sent to Brighton or Birmingham, Sky sent you to Lapland or Morocco (and there was an eroticism assignment, I can’t wait to see the BBC’s alternative). Sky had judges that were refreshingly tough for reality TV; Rankin, who is mentoring the BBC contestants, is more avuncular than acerbic.
What the series have in common is a peculiar view of what makes a master of photography. It was too much to hope that they would be asked to go back to basics: the blessing and curse of digital photography is that all too often you can get away without knowing any of this, the camera does it for you or you rely on post production or both. But f-stops and hyperfocal distances wouldn’t make very good TV. More worrying was the way the contestants were sent out on diverse assignments and given an hour or maybe a day to come up with images worthy of a master.
The BBC challenges so far have included wildlife, fashion and celebrity shoots, smart phones on Brighton beach and in a gym, and documentary of a wholesale market. While the contestants each purport to have an area of specialisation they seemed to set out with only a hazy understanding of how to go about the assignments. This was exemplified by the documentary where there was little grasp of how to approach it and build as story (the clue is in the word, ‘documentary’). Perhaps the Newport School model – establishing, relationship and close-up shots – is passé, but it tells the story. Ultimately it’s all superficial – if it makes exciting TV, and that’s doubtful, it doesn’t make good, and certainly not great, photography.
Watching Mark Lawson Talks to David Bailey on BBC 4, the same night as GBPC episode one, was an antidote to this instant approach to photography. The master summed up the gap: he said that with modern digital photography anybody can take on great picture, ‘I can take two’; he was too modest to add ‘day after day.’