Arts: Here's one I snapped earlier

How can you find out what makes a photo good? Ask a Yorkshire camera club judge to cast his eye over it.
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The Independent Culture
Ilkley Camera Club likes to think it's open-minded. The week before, its 70 members had been treated to Eric Harvey's extravaganza, "Florida's Fabulous Birds", while October promises further eclectic delights: Dorothy Shipley's travelogue, "Russian Waterways", and "It's A Monochrome World" by Don Nesham, Mark Snowden and Gordan Evans ("An evening beyond the straight print"). Last week, however, the Camera Club welcomed an even more outlandish visitor. Last week, Art came to Ilkley.

Camera club photography and gallery photography are two pursuits united by one medium. The first, so the cliche goes, deals in sentimental portraits and winsome landscapes presented to OAPs in provincial church halls; the second in provocative subjects hung on the whitewashed walls of elite metropolitan galleries. Technical proficiency as against artistic integrity. Hobby vs Art. Enter Stephen Bull, an artist and writer intent on making photography one big, snappy family again.

Bull's idea, with the help of Photo 98, was to see how the amateur enthusiasts would stand up against great photographers of the medium's history and, conversely, were the professionals able to meet the criteria of the camera club? Context was the point, he said, as was "shared history". In reality, though, what we really wanted to see was whether an undiscovered Cartier- Bresson lurked within the ranks of the Ilkley snappers. And what if a rigorous camera club assessment dared to conclude that gallery photography was technical ignorance dressed up with artsy flim-flam? To this end, David Allan Mellor, the art historian, was invited to compare Ilkley Camera Club's best efforts with the likes of Man Ray and Walker Evans, before Ray Brightman, an amateur photographer, stood in front of some of Europe's finest photographic artists and marked their work out of 20.

Needless to say, it wasn't quite that simple. Ray is a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and a camera club competition judge of some 20 years' standing. And, as David Mellor was to discover, an artistic pulse beats beneath the respectable veneer of this picturesque Yorkshire town. Mellor's lecture elevated "Motorway Madness", for instance, by Stuart Parker (the club's syllabus secretary), into the rarified company of the Futurists. (But then Stuart had always fancied there might be a touch of the artist about him - for Cancer, an earlier polemical work, he'd dressed a skull in a wig and stuck a cigarette in its mouth, he told me.)

Another star emerged during Mellor's amiable dash through 20th-century photography. Bauhaus, Man Ray, Walker Evans ... none won as much attention as Ilkley's own Keith Parcell. The 46-year-old financial services employee attributed his knack for sublime landscape to an unusual muse, his geography degree, but looked a bit nonplussed when informed by Mellor that another of his pictures bore the spirit of French surreal revolutionary photography.

As professional had judged amateur, now amateur sized up professional. Faced with the stern judgements of Ray Brightman FRPS, AFIAP, the art photographers - of whom Martin Parr, Joachim Schmid and John Kippin had been able to attend - laughed nervously. A copy of the Ilkley Camera Club's Competition Criteria had been leaked at the last minute, but it was far too late to do anything about sloping horizons or subjects erring from "the third". Ray, they learned, would not have had a chance to see the photos beforehand, nor would he know their titles or whose work they were until after the competition. Parr immediately told everyone within range that he'd once been a camera club member himself, while Schmid confided that he'd only be happy if he got no marks at all. Kippin sipped his tea quietly.

In the event, the audience of club members, mostly retired, seemed unperturbed by what they saw: two dozen images comprising, among other subjects, squashed women and even more squashed wildlife. They nodded approval where they felt it due. Dissent, when it came, was in the form of pursed lips and sharp intakes of breath, and seemed to centre on the generous allocation of marks. But Ray was not to be thrown off his stride. "You can moan and groan all you like, but I shan't change my mark," he said. In the end, the audience's tut-tutting proved an accurate reflection of Ray's own tastes: Clive Landen's series of animal road-kills was thought by Ray to be worth just 51 points out of 80, while John Kippin's landscape series proved the clear winner with 70 (his Hidden had even scored the much-coveted maximum: a full 20 points).

By the time John Kippin had received the Stephen Bull Trophy, talk of context, shared history and unconscious debt seemed long gone. Keith Parcell approached Martin Parr with a consolatory sandwich, Yorkshire Television grilled Stephen Bull and Stuart Parker fussed over the washing-up. Art had come to Ilkley and been given an average score of fourteen and three- quarters. Very respectable.

Photo 98: The Year of Photography and the Electronic Image is currently in its third season. Stephen Bull's account of the Ilkley Camera Club event will appear on the Photo 98 website in November: www.photo98.com

`Closed Contact No.10' by Jenny Savile

Savile has collaborated with Glen Luchford on a series where her nude body is distorted by lying on glass. Her work appeared in last year's Royal Academy show, Sensation.

"Here we've got a distorted figure - I believe it's pressed on glass so that the breasts are flattened and spread out. Overall, it's not a beautiful picture. If Camera Club people were doing nude photography they would be striving for an image where people would say `Isn't the girl beautiful?' That doesn't apply with this. The novelty aspect lifts it up a bit, the end result drags it down quite a bit." 12/20

`Pictures from the Street No.187, Sao Paolo, September 1993', by Joachim Schmid

Schmid's medium is "found photography". He picks up discarded pictures on the street and presents them as mysterious works of art.

"This is a puzzle. It appears to be a series of little streaks and dashes; it could be a blurred shot, the camera hand-held for two seconds. Possibly little birds fluttering about in the middle. I like this. What's clicked with me is a dark band across the centre - it could be a range of hills behind the photographer, if you're looking at a reflection." 18/20

No. 3 from `The Last Resort' by Martin Parr

Parr's brightly coloured photographs make witty, astute comments on British and other cultures and regularly appear in The Independent, The Guardian and galleries in Europe.

"It's a marvellous picture. It seems quite incredible that this is a candid shot (I think that's how this is being presented). The photographer presumably just wanders around nonchalantly and seizes the right moment, like a British Cartier-Bresson. I don't know what they're exchanging: perhaps a chocolate. Just note how attractively dressed the girls are: posh dresses and smart shoes. It had to be set up but I don't believe it was." 18/20

`Nostalgia for the Future' by John Kippin

Kippin uses the landscape tradition to explore ideas of heritage and military presence.

"There's quite a lot to look at: the group of people [on the right] are nicely placed on a third - that's great; the main subject across the centre. Possibly, if you were in a camera club, some judges would say, `Do you need all that sky? Get rid of it and that would concentrate the interest on the other bits and pieces'. Is the little family group on the right camped out in this rather ancient caravan? Is it a modern picture or very old?" 15/20

`Columba Palumbus Palumbas B4231' by Clive Landen

His exhibition and book, Familiar British Wildlife, shows wildlife the way we often see it - flattened by the side of the road.

"Another casualty - I hope this is the last of these. It is awful. I feel sorry for the driver as well as for the bird. Around Derbyshire where I come from you'll see pheasants that have met an untidy end but I've never actually tried photographing one." 12/20

`Hidden' by John Kippin

"This is the picture I'll give top marks to. The dark sky is most appropriate - you can assume that this crash happened in bad weather on some occasion. The aeroplane has suffered a lot, I think. Souvenir hunters have been along and taken bits and pieces off it. It's just sitting for all time on top of the moors and you get a very strong impression of the remote locality. You'd expect the title to be outside the picture, but if you've got the skills to put it in, so be it. And so this is the winner." 20/20

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