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Review – Master of Photography, series 1

Master of Photography

I don’t have Sky on the TV at home, so was unable to watch this series last year when it came out, something I have been lamenting. However, I am currently in possession of a two week free subscription to NowTV, and so spent a wet weekend comfortably tucked up on the sofa binge-watching series 1. Watching the whole series over a short period of time made it easy to get a sense of how the different contestants progressed in their work, some of the issues they faced and how their choices affected their overall success or failure in the project.

First things first. The set was strangely inappropriate, being an old warehouse on the outskirts of Rome, and filled with an assortment of stage props of the 19th century warehouse variety. Each contestant sat at a non-matching table that looked as if it had been bought at a junk shop and repurposed. It seemed a little odd for what is a modern subject. The three judges were Rut Bless Luxemburg, Oliviero Toscani and Simon Frederick, none of whom are familiar to me, and it will be interesting to have a look at their own work in due course. Along with the contestants who came from a wide variety of European countries, it was very pan-European in feel, which was a change from the usual format. The compere was Isabella Rosignelli, whose role was to provide the voice-over and look encouraging. The parts which included her were rather grating, as she favoured a flirty enthusiasm which was totally out of place in what was a serious competition with enough prize money to make a serious difference to the winner’s career.

The contestants were given a task each week, and then judged on the basis of either a single image or a series of three, which they had to select and edit immediately after the task was completed. The tasks ranged from “the human side of Rome”, to portraits, landscape, night photography etc., offering the contestants a wide range of subjects to show off their skills. Thereafter, a famous photographer was called in to offer some advice on their choice of the image they wanted to submit for that assignment, most of which the contestants ignored (foolishly, as the advice was better than their own choices.) The judges then gave the images a mauling ranging from “Boring” to “This is rubbish” and bemoaned the poor quality of the images and editing, and  one contestant was given their marching orders.

On the basis of the exact requirements of the tasks, personally I think the right person won – Gabriele Micalizzi, an Italian photo-journalist and tattoo artist. His images were consistently good and a little edgy, although I did not like the way he staged some of them to get the best effect, something which is considered out of order in photo-journalism at present. He appeared not to have been taught any of the theories and practises of current art photography, and this showed in his images, which were a mix of all sorts of styles and genres. I cannot honestly say that he improved significantly over the series, nor that he has a particularly recognisable style.

Of more interest to me was the poor selection choices made by some of the other contestants, and their difficulties in adapting to the changing briefs. Personally, I thought that Yan, the Russian contestant produced the most interesting work, but his performance was marred by his bizarre editing choices, particularly in the last two episodes. Most of the women seemed keen to rip their clothes off at any opportunity, and Laura in particular was unable to produce anything that did not include herself, preferably naked. (Beautiful images, though meaningless in large numbers). Several of the others too struggled to let go of their “signature look”, which limited their work.

The judges were pretty harsh in their criticism throughout, and only gave grudging praise occasionally. It seemed they were constantly disappointed that the work was not more challenging and creative, and I had the feeling they were looking for an arts response from photographers who have come from the commercial world and who did not really understand where they were going wrong. The mentors were much more constructive in their opinions.

On the whole though, it was an interesting series, and I look forward to seeing the next one. I wonder whether they will include more contestants from the academic side of photography this time, to spread the potential responses to the tasks, almost all of which were quite traditional in series 1.



Wolfgang Tillmans at the Tate Modern

I attended the study visit on Saturday, which was led by Jayne Taylor, the tutor who regularly attends the Thames Valley Forum meetings. It was a popular visit, with a large group of students, mostly somewhere in the middle of their course. During the exhibition and the subsequent discussion, I wrote copious notes, but a couple of days later, I am still trying to work out how to interpret Tillman’s work. The best way I can think of to describe how his work appears to me is as one of those neural network images, with thousands of strands joining at random nodes, like the one below.

neuron-network-in-the-human-brain-computer-artwork-E7TP8AI have read the suggested reviews of the work, and watched some of the YouTube clips, but the explanation that accords with my own thoughts best is the post by fellow student, Kate, linked here.

Tillmans says that he sees linkages everywhere between seemingly unrelated subjects. The exhibition is set out in a series of 14 rooms, each with a general theme, and some of these are more easy to comprehend than others. He photographs everything from the mundane to the very exotic, and the print size varies from tiny 6×4″ ones to room length. They are all presented together in what appears to be a chaotic manner, but in reality Tillmans has put considerable thought into their placing and colocation with each other. One of the videos shows that he is a big fan of scale models and sets his exhibitions out with absolute precision, according to a system which is opaque to all but himself.

He says his aim is to look at everything, new or familiar, with a fresh eye – not particularly unusual in its own right, but the subjects that attract him tend to be different from other people – weeds, excess, decay, transition. These are mixed with his clear activist ideals into jumbles of loosely related images and a lot of papers and books as well. Subjects that interest him include different understandings of “truth” and the backfire effect, whereby we categorise any proof that does not accord with our understanding of a subject as ill-informed and wrong; fake news as it were.

I could go on for several more paragraphs about the different media he works in, including video, music and sculpture, but the exhibition is so vast and complex that it is impossible on a single visit to appreciate everything fully. I therefore want to mention two aspects that struck me particularly as I moved around the rooms. Firstly, Tillmans homosexuality is referenced throughout, and I was very touched at the affectionate and tender way he portrays his friends and lovers. A host of images feature them, either in portrait form, or as snippets of their bodies which caught his attention, such as the nape of a neck, or a sliver of skin between jeans and t-shirt.

The second area that attracted me was his experiments with the process of making photographs. Not so much the folder single colour prints, but the large scale images he has drawn from dirty printers and his use of non-standard print processes which look at colour grading. These include several images taken from the windows of planes (a subject very close to my own heart), and which produced beautiful modernist abstracts.

Finally, and just for fun, I took a series of several photos in his installation Instrument 2015, where he juxtaposes two video loops, one of himself from behind, dressed only in underpants and dancing while facing the wall, and other which might just be another version of the same, but which is really his shadow on the wall at a totally separate place and time. These rather mundane but mesmerising loops are accompanied by a weird electronic sound, which is apparently synthesised from the noise his feet made while he was filming. The total effect is bizarrely addictive, and the point he is making is that we want the two films to be of the same thing, even when they are not. In any case, my high speed shots of what I was seeing revealed bizarre coloration changes, which I enjoyed making. Jayne said it was something to do with my camera’s rendering of the work.  So here, below, I have shown what the eye saw, along with a few of my camera’s interpretations of the same.


Finally, it needs to be reiterated that this exhibition cannot possibly be fully appreciated in one viewing. There is just too much to take in, and Tillman’s thinking is too opaque. It is abundantly clear that he is an excellent photographer and that it all means something, but divining what that meaning might be is a substantial undertaking. As Jayne, said during our discussion after the show, “There’s only room in art photography for one Wolfgang Tillmans.”