Visual Arts: Triumph of technicality

Tricks of the trade dominate the Royal Photographic Society's 141st annual show, says Phil Johnson
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GYPSIES; breasts made to look like Iron Age hill-forts or desert landscapes; nude pensioners; more gypsies; practitioners of age-old trades ("Whittler, Northington Woods" by Michael Clement); tricksy conversation pieces; beach huts; gypsies again. The RPS Annual has been going a long time - this is the 141st show - and, like the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition, it's a reliable barometer of what might be taken to represent the contemporary picturesque. And now we know why gypsies keep moving around. It's mainly to escape all those intrusive photographers.

It's an open competition and, with nearly 1,800 images to choose from for a final showing of 90 or so, the job of the selectors is clearly a difficult one, but even the judges display some qualms about the quality of the entrants.

John Easterby, the editor of the Independent Photographers Group, writes in the catalogue: "There was a mind-boggling range of technical skills on display. However, with no pictures of news events, social comment, attempts to address a single humanitarian issue, no reportage, fashion or sports photography to speak of, I was left with the impression that here was a case of technical inventiveness triumphing over content. I really do wonder why many of these pictures were taken."

From a technical standpoint, the prints are impressive. There's Selenium toning, silver gelatin and silver bronze mirror prints, Lith prints, Polaroids and the odd bit of digital retouching, but the beach huts and gypsies remain stubbornly themselves.

The winning entrant is "Die Trauerfeier" by Herbert Sternberger from Germany, which shows three couples dancing around a coffin while a woman plays the piano and a child does a headstand in the background. It's impressively odd, if ultimately, perhaps, yet another conversation piece.

Of the British photographers selected, Benjamin Dray's "Bungee Jump", in which a group of Asian women form the foreground against a doll-like jumper emerging into the top of the frame, is nicely quirky, but the overall impression in the show is of tricks of the trade mixed with rather obviously set-up shots, like a cross between Cartier Bresson and Monte Fresco.

Here's Richard Branson wearing a pair of wings, like an out-take from an album promo-shoot, or Matt Partridge's "Outdoor Laundrette", where a yard full of pallets carrying washing machines becomes the scene for a bit of cheeky business. A naked man sticks his kit into a washer, and one thinks of all the effort involved; the painstaking setting up of the shot, the directions to the model, the fiddling with the light meter and aperture. And was it worth it? Bluntly, no.

Better by far to stick to those plucky gypsies, as in James Lampard's "Gypsy Family, Appleby", another prize-winner. It's the very devil to get them to stay still long enough to complete the shot, but like Augustus John at the RA 80 years ago, you know you're on to a winner.

The Royal Photographic Society Annual International Print Exhibition continues at the Octagon Galleries in Milsom Street, Bath, until 22 March. Tel: 01225 462841.

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