Way back in 2000 I was part of an art collective with friends of mine, Jonathan Legender and Christian Alderson. Together we curated a photography exhibition called ‘Quality Control: The Art of Bad Photography’.
It’s a project that became a labour of love and something that I still to this day remain very proud of as it received critical acclaim in both regional and national press including being featured in Creative Review.
Quality Control: The Art of Bad Photography was an innovative and original collection of unwanted and neglected photographs, found and collected from friends, family, colleagues and in some cases, the pavement.
The common idea uniting this collection was that the images were seen as mistakes by the people who took them. In fact, they demonstrated a strong social, historical and aesthetic value.
By presenting the images in a gallery space – alongside text and video exploring the cultural significance of photography – it was our aim to question the shared values which make a picture good or bad.
It was also a museum piece of sorts. Because as the amateur photographer took advantage of digital photography, we believed that images such as those may become a thing of the past.
Many of the snapshots were reprinted, enlarged and arranged to enhance their qualities. Some of the pieces were displayed as they were found. However, all of these photographs have been carefully selected from a large number collected. They range from the inscrutable and mysterious to the poignant and humorous.
The exhibition ran for eight weeks in Linthorpe Gallery, Middlesbrough.
Here’s the programme text that accompanied the exhibition (originally written in 1999).
A subtle dislocation of the norm: foundling images re–exposed for the viewing public that abandon them. Possibly the last true picture show before we consign our mistakes to digital oblivion.
Every amateur photographer is an artistic genius. From surreal landscapes to sublime abstract forms, clumsy fingers have created masterpieces of sheer ineptitude.
‘Quality Control: The Art of Bad Photography’.
A presentation of prints from a variety of sources: friends, family, colleagues and pavements.
Photographs trigger memories. They act as a physical substitute for people, places and situations that are separated from us by space and time. To understand who we are in a world where things seldom last, we hold on to memories of where we’ve been and what we’ve done.
We look to the photograph to reinforce these recollections, to frame our lives conveniently.
The technology used to take the standard snap works on basic principles of chemistry and physics. In most cases, what the lens sees, you get. The images in this exhibition do not fail to reflect reality. Their main fault is quite the opposite. They fail to frame life as we want to see it.
A ‘bad photograph’ doesn’t conform to our need for a simple, easily interpreted signal. A signal that can be employed to produce a clear, uncomplicated memory. Something very unlike real life.
Soon the average photographer will have the technology to completely avoid the imperfect picture. Instead of taking up space, mistakes will be filtered out and wiped from digital existence – never to be found again.
Look through most family photo albums and you’ll find a common visual language and order. People of all ages stiffening into the same poses and the same smiles. Groups standing outside strangely familiar places and experiencing ceremonies together.
These pictures are reference points: maps of our past. They’re taken as proof that we are happy, normal, interesting. We know these images aren’t giving us the whole truth. But we’re willing to suspend our idea of reality when flicking through a family album.
So many of us take the time and effort to create these moments.
It’s why people spend an entire holiday through a viewfinder, as if capturing the environment was more important then experiencing it.
This collection of images can remind us that perfection is hard to attain in real life. For every carefully composed image of friends and family, there’s a thumb blocking a lens, a decapitated head or a pair of demonic red eyes.
The stories we construct about ourselves can take a lot of practise to get right. But the mistakes we make can tell tales
that are far more interesting.
20th Century technology allowed more people than ever before to compose images that reflected their lives. Surely one of the most accessible pieces of technology was the camera. Through this tool, millions recorded the human condition. It altered our perception of the world.
From many there’s still a reluctance to see photography as art. The argument is that there isn’t enough skill and effort involved. After all, you just have to press a button, don’t you?
The photographs in this exhibition may be mistakes. But to artists past and present, mistakes like these have provided great inspiration. From fashion photography and fine art to cinematography, the “imperfect” photographic image has infiltrated our visual culture and made it into the mainstream.
Look at these prints with a different perspective. Peel back the Quality Control stickers. Behind them are strange documents that reflect the sublimity of the everyday.
Digital cameras give us control over the whole process of taking a snapshot. We can choose what we want to see through a computer screen. In addition, we can process images to meet our ideas of perfection by enhancing, cropping, pasting and stretching.
As for the imperfect images – the “bad” photographs – these can be extinguished from memory by the click of a button. Or altered to such an extent that they no longer resemble their original form. The result is a photograph that has been manipulated to fit an ideal. Through a digital viewfinder, there is no reason to worry about capturing uncertainty, spontaneity or chaos. These elements can be filtered out later.
If this is the future of photography, it will no longer give us tangible evidence of our imperfection. The strange images with which we are all familiar may disappear completely. As a digital future draws nearer, now is a good time to reflect upon the secret history of the bad photograph. Because although new technology will deliver much to those who strive for order and control, we believe there should always be a space for images that are little more truthful.
All images, graphics and text © Christian Alderson, Neil Edmundson and Jonathan Legender 2014.
For enquiries about the exhibition please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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