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Issue #1768      March 8, 2017

Book Review by Rob Gowland

Master of Photography

I’m not telling Guardian readers anything new when I say that commercial television is an adjunct of the advertising industry. TV broadcasters make their money by selling advertising time on air to the advertising industry: the more people who tune in to a channel, the more it can charge for its advertising time.

Master of Photography – from the theme “The Beauty of Rome”.

The only function of the programs is to attract as many viewers as possible to tune in to be exposed to the ads the channel is running. The quality of the program is purely incidental, an unwanted inconvenience that TV executives strive to avoid. If the broadcasters could attract viewers with just ads that is all they would run.

Over the years, governments have had to issue regulations preventing TV stations from trying to insert ads into the actual programs. The intrusive advertising plastered all over sporting fixtures so broadcasters can’t miss it is nothing compared to what the advertising industry would try to get away with if they had their way.

Television has the potential to be a great tool for the development and promotion of education and culture. Only public broadcasters that are not driven by the need to maximise profits and are not tied to the advertising industry can fulfil that potential. They are certainly the only ones that have ever tried to. Capitalism, however, is predominantly interested in the money-making possibilities of TV. As Frank Packer said when he established Channel 9, “A commercial TV license is a license to print money!”

Pay-TV is a hybrid variant in which people subscribe to a TV channel, paying directly for their viewing content. Although not so dependent on ads, it is subject to the popularity of its programs for its profitability. So even here, minority programming is eschewed.

In Australia, our once prestigious national public broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, have both been crippled by funding cuts and government interference. SBS has been made to rely on ads while the ABC has had a former Murdoch executive foisted on it as CEO. With commercial TV essentially unchallenged now, the result is a TV schedule full of copy-cat programs all aimed squarely at the lowest-common-denominator among viewers.

Commercial television, supported by the rest of the capitalist media, devotes considerable time and effort to convincing the viewing public that its unimaginative, trivialised programming is actually important, significant and rewarding. A combination of propaganda and absence of any real choice results in people watching with simulated enthusiasm endless variations on My Kitchen Rules, or X Factor or meaningless sporting competitions invented purely for television.

Master of Photography was yet another talent show, this one produced and broadcast exclusively on British subscription channel Sky TV Arts. It was the first TV talent show in Europe focused on photography. A dozen professional and amateur photographers from across Europe competed for the title Best New European Photographer and a prize of €150,000, the largest ever offered in a European photo contest. The winning photo was also given to a prestigious museum for display.

It was promoted as so much more than just a TV talent show. British reviewer Michael Zhang commented: “Although it might follow a similar format to other light-entertainment talent judging shows, Sky Arts ... from the outset pitched this as a highbrow show for people who take their photography seriously. Very, VERY seriously.”

Nevertheless, the format was the standard one for such shows; it ran for eight weeks, each week the contestants produced photographs to a set theme with the loser voted off the show by a panel of expert judges. Eventually, the last person standing won the prize.

Think American Idol or MKR for photography. Neither high-brow nor original, in fact.

The catalogue of the competition has been published in demi-octavo hardcover by Italian publisher Skira. For reasons of economy, presumably, most of the photos have been reproduced across the middle of a standard book page, which means they measure only 13.5 cms by 9 cms. It is frankly too small. Significantly, the section Irish Landscape, where having too small an image would be a distinct disadvantage, is reproduced at four times the size of the others (29.5 cms x 19 cms, spread over two pages).

The effect is to greatly enhance the quality of the photos. It is a great pity that the catalogue wasn’t produced as a large format work (possibly in soft cover) which would have shown off all the photos to advantage.

The eight themes that occupied the competition were successively The Beauty of Rome, Berlin Nightlife, The Body, Celebrity Portrait, London Backstage, Irish Landscape, and the rather nebulous Home Sweet Home and Places And Faces.

With such generalised briefs, there is considerable diversity of approach and choice of shot between the various photographers. This is particularly noticeable in the photos from the second episode, Berlin Nightlife. Most effective (or possibly affective) in this section I thought was Neal Gruer’s melancholy study of a young man alone in a graffiti-covered photo booth.

Also an unfortunate decision – whether for the competition itself or just for the catalogue I do not know although I suspect the former – was to do without captions for any of the photos. If you do not know exactly what it is you are looking at, the photo becomes simply an abstract artwork, devoid of much of the meaning it could have if it was identified.

Surprisingly, the reproduction of the photos is often overly dark and usually – especially in the B&W shots – excessively grainy. All the photographers made an effort to interpret the world in terms of light and shade, but the quality of the reproduction makes it sometimes difficult to judge their success. I found the photos in the collection interesting but in this format not memorable.

Next article – Brace for impact

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