Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Mr Middleton - The last best hope for professional photography

Question: How many photographers does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: Just one, but I’m not sure I would have done it that way myself…

Professional photographers can be famously sceptical of other people’s pictures. Often the criticisms can seem petty and peevish but the news that the first “official photographs” of Prince George were taken by his grandfather, Michael Middleton, elicited immediate reactions from photographers everywhere.

Those reactions were howls of protest and gales of laughter in about equal measures.

In case you haven’t seen them, either because you’ve been locked in a bunker for the last day or you are the partner of a Guardian journalist currently transiting through Heathrow, I’ll describe them for you.


They are not spectacularly bad. Not so awful that we might be tempted to think they’re good in a in a post-modern ironic sense and certainly not so mind-bendingly pointless that we could expect to see them as finalists in the Deutsche Borse prize next year!

No, they are bad in an ordinary, approachable way. You do not need to be a connoisseur to know these are crappy pictures, absolutely anyone can see that they are grindingly mediocre.

Taken in what we assume is the garden of the family home, they convey two essential messages to the outside world.

Firstly, that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are normal, down-to-earth people who enjoy relaxing in the summer sunshine with their son just like any other parents.

Secondly, that they, in common with so many families throughout the world, have relatives with a really nice camera and no clue how to use it!

Let’s leave trifles like technique and camera-handling aside. After all, Mr Middleton certainly did. Instead we’ll concentrate on some of the more baffling features of the first picture.

It’s supposed to be a photograph of the Prince and his adoring parents right? So why are the family dogs more prominent than the future heir?

“Congratulation your royal highness you are the proud parents of a retriever! No, my mistake, there is a baby in the picture - just fading into the lawn. Hang-on, that’s a dog too! Where’s the baby? Oh I see it, masquerading as Kate’s massively developed right bicep!”

Did nobody spot this before the pictures were sent round the world’s media? Who looked at that and thought it was OK? What has happened to the famous concern for the royal image we have seen in recent years?

Better yet, where was the quality control from the papers themselves? Certainly someone on the picture desks of the various international publications and news-outlets should have called up the palace and said those time honoured words,

“Errr, do you have anything else?”

As if to answer this un-asked question there is another, similarly dreadful shot. No longer seated this time but still in the shade of a tree.

In this photo they appear to be standing on the banks of a huge yellow river that turns out to be the lawn - over-exposed by eight stops or so. The dogs are gone - mercifully – but it still has the same clumsy, depressing, second-rate atmosphere as the first picture.

Is this some misguided attempt at man-of-the-people accessibility? Is it a demonstration of extreme contempt for the very idea of aesthetic standards?

We are living in a time of austerity and cut-backs so I would be the last person to advocate that Mario Testino needs to be deployed to the Middleton household on a round-the-clock basis to record the infant Prince’s every move. That would be profligate and wrong.

Nor do I think that merely because the Royal family are publicly funded that automatically means William, Kate and George have to become public property. But really, basic self-respect should have kicked in here. A suitable professional photographer could and should have been found for this first official record.

On the bright side, this may be good news for professional photographers. A few years ago we were treated to some beef-witted, waste of blood and organs on Radio 4’s Today Programme, telling us that photographers were a thing of the past because modern cameras and software meant anybody could take a decent picture.

Finally we have a comprehensive irrefutable rebuttal to this assertion.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you... Michael Middleton!

* this is an edited version of the piece I wrote for Pixelrights Blog earlier today.


john gillings said...

the point of the pics are perhaps to emphasise ''ordinariness'' which includes over exposure ( the Royals are certainly that) cut off heads, panting pets, false attachments etc...amateur in fact...but professionals should refrain from irritating smugness!

Justin Sutcliffe said...

John, If it comes over as irritatingly smug then I have not done a good job in writing it.

My intention was to poke fun at the pictures because they are tragically second-rate and they have been released to the world's press from an institution that has traditionally been associated with certain high standards.

The pictures are very poor. but there is no reason to expect them to be good. Mr Middleton does not profess or claim to be a photographer so far as I'm aware.

What he has admirably demonstrated is that really good photography is a lot trickier than it looks.

There have been lots of photographers who have offered their tips for better pictures. I find that approach more than a little irritatingly smug.

So I have lampooned his rather feeble efforts - I'm sure he's a big enough man to take the joke.

What should of course be observed is that the last laugh goes to Mr Middleton.

He has an income considerably better than mine, has never had to risk his life in his everyday work, probably never worries about paying his bills, finding clients or the integrity of his pictures. Yet, for this week at least, many more people are talking about his photos than mine.

He who laughs last, laughs longest.