No treat, no smile

25 November 2017

SIG: Visual Art

(Above: Mr and Mrs Khan by Masterji)

I’ve always loved the location of the RPS Rollright Visual Art Group meetings, approaching them as you do – from every direction – through the rolling Cotswold hills. The morning of the November 2017 meeting was bathed in beautiful sunshine, and the visual calm of the frost (and snow for some) was a picture that had stood the test of time for hundreds of years.

Fitting then, that the first talk of the day was a lesson in photographic history. Caroline Molloy is a senior lecturer at Coventry University, on the country’s best photography degree course (according to the national press).

Her studio work has been wide and varied across a huge range of high-end magazines and newspapers, but after heading into academia has focused on the history of studio photography and its cultural significance across the world.

Caroline’s talk was a fascinating insight into the idea of portrait photography as a record of the lives and aspirations of the people of southern Kerala, where she has spent a lot of time learning about how and why there came to be 10 photographic studios on one street in a small town.

For the subjects of her studies, and for their subjects too, the colonial influence of Victorian Britain is still evident in the photography and the backgrounds. And the images that Caroline showed could have been taken at any time in the 20th Century, despite being even more recent. Overall, a fascinating insight into a photographic genre I had no real knowledge of or particular interest in. But there was one quote in particular that stuck with me:

“These photographs, and their backgrounds, are about symbolism rather than realism” – a maxim I will repeat whenever someone asks me ‘What is visual art?’.


Goa beach by Caroline Molloy

After a well-earned coffee, Caroline handed over to Tarla Patel, the daughter of an understated studio photographer in Coventry known locally as Masterji.

What followed was an incredible snapshot of social change from the 1950s through the decades until the late 90s when Masterji retired. Using the same studio and very similar backdrops and backgrounds throughout his career. The photos, mostly of the local immigrant community, portrayed the emotions and aspirations of the subjects. But what struck me most was the sincerity that consumed them when having their photograph taken – a stark contrast to the slightly twee family photographs often seen on living room walls of young families.

Speaking to other attendees over the lunch break (thank you Mrs K for another generous spread – we really are spoiled!), the overwhelming feeling I got was of people having been exposed to a style of photography to which we would not otherwise have been exposed – a feeling which I am confident continued for the day.

It may just be me being a snob, but I often cringe when I think of pet photography – it’s just not my style and not to my taste. But after Elke Vogelsang's afternoon talk, that opinion has been swayed.


Lazy by Elke Vogelsang

Elke is a German pet and portrait photographer who, after a series of life-changing experiences, decided to take one picture a day to improve technique, to develop a unique style, and to find a subject she could photograph as a career.

Her evident love for dogs – not just her own, but everyone’s – led her to pet photography. But her unique style – patently ignoring the rules (if there are such things) around depth of field – brings out the things we all love in our pets: their quirks and personalities.

Throughout her talk, Elke dropped in extremely useful tips and tricks for taking the perfect photograph of a dog. But what was so engaging, was that these tips can be taken away to use in any form of portrait photography, as well as in the wider realm of the interests of VA Group members.

Often using wide-angle lenses close to her subject, Elke only cares about one point of focus – the eyes. And with a signature catch light in the eye of every dog she photographs, these were images that, again, most would never have seen before – and are well worth tracking down, if only for a new perspective on portrait photography.

And is not that the aim when leaving one of these meetings? To have been shown a new interpretation or a new perspective on photography?

If so, you would not have been let down. A new perspective on the emotional value of portrait photography in former British colonies, followed by a social perspective of studio photography in immigrant communities in post-war Britain. And finally, a new perspective - literally – on how to photograph dogs.

To finish off with another quote, this time from Elke: “The one thing to remember when photographing dogs is ‘no treat, no smile’.”

Judging from the beaming faces of others as they left, I think that can be applied to the people attending RPS events too.

Max Klatt