I grew up in a rural area of the UK - a simple chap with modest talents. I made it into a good school but did not emerge with strings of qualifications as so many do these days. In those days only 10-20% seemed to excel - now almost everyone does so! I was probably not the brightest pupil, and nothing much has changed over the years. No matter, I enjoy life and have learnt a few things along the way. Photography has now been part of my life for over 55 years so I have had time to work on it – but I recognize that only the surface has been scratched.
My father was also a keen amateur photographer, and largely responsible for my setting off on a half-century of film consumption. Indeed he was a member of a local photographic society back in the 1950s and 1960s. However, I did not follow him into a club environment. I am not particularly competitive and photographic competitions have never really appealed and I have seldom entered them.
I take photographs because I enjoy doing so – it is as simple as that. For me, photography is pointing a camera at a subject and doing what I can to improve the image before releasing the shutter. I am not kidding when I say that I am still struggling with these basic elements of the art, and honestly do not expect to master them in my lifetime. Perhaps I really am stupid. I have also always hated traditional darkrooms and nasty chemicals, although I am happier playing about on a computer in the modern digital environment.
I relate this dubious background because it is the most probable explanation for my personal approach to photography. What little I now know is largely self-taught and any progress made over the years has arisen from experiment, constructive criticism, and rejection by those with more ability or experience. A consequence of this seems to be, in photographic terms, that I am a square peg unlikely to fit the round hole typically offered by photographic societies and camera clubs.
During the last twenty years I have endeavoured to use some of my growing collection of images for constructive purposes. I started in 1993 by staging a public exhibition of 100 prints in a local exhibition hall. The same display later went to other more widely spread locations. An unexpected outcome of these events was that some attendees encouraged me to seek photographic distinctions. Pursuit of these eventually led to my interest in publishing.
Publishing leads an amateur photographer, such as myself, into extended conversation with professional people who have spent much of their lives around images. I recall my first real breakthrough when a London publisher rang to ask whether he could see some of my portraits. Later, over his office desk, he peered at the prints and then back at me. After a long silence he asked "So who are you and, photographically speaking, how did you get here?" I identified myself as nobody much from a rural UK village, and provided a summary of my photographic life more or less as related above. "Ah, so that's why there's not much evidence of camera club stuff!" I wasn't entirely clear what he meant at the time but a number of years down the road I am beginning to understand. He had observed that many of my images, whether good or bad, fell outside certain limits he carried in his mind. "Camera club stuff" is a term I have heard a great deal since those first exhibitions. It is not of my making, because it is widely used by freelance and professional photographers, publishers and editors. Neither is it derogatory - it undoubtedly has to do with boundaries.
The whole of photography is vast and multi-facetted. It encompasses scientific work such as electron photomicrography, holography, endoscopy, radiography, electro-photography, astrophotography, thermography, underwater photography and many others. Amateur work is obviously limited by opportunity and financial considerations, so this is perhaps the most obvious boundary by which we are all constrained. However within the more everyday world of popular photography it is possible to identify further limits. Among these, I believe, one begins to uncover what is meant by "camera club stuff".
Camera clubs exist as forums for like-minded enthusiasts, and provide purpose, direction, training and endless enjoyment for those who wish to partake. They school people in basic technique and encourage the aspirations of others, which is at least mostly good stuff. Inevitably there is some dependence upon compositional and technical guidelines or rules, not least because they provide an element of foundation for assessing work and judging endless competitions. It is general adherence to this schooling that arguably produces a preponderance, in the broadest sense, of similarly-skilled photographers. We have all been introduced to the rule of thirds, the sunny f/16 rule, the management of space, the use of differential focusing, and even the desirability of mounting images in certain agreeable ways. All these guidelines and methods have merit and, when followed, encourage competent images. Nevertheless, those who lack confidence and remain largely within them may find that they have contributed to a pool of competent images labelled "camera club stuff"!
As I understand it, the term is intended to categorize rather than criticise. Those who refer to "camera club stuff" are, it seems, making an observation about one area of photography rather than looking down their noses. They acknowledge that competent work emerges from camera clubs but claim that much of it is identifiable as such in the wider world. This seems to be because it falls within certain difficult-to-define boundaries, one of which is a rules-based ideology. So what are the other boundaries? Unfortunately they get more and more difficult to put into a few words. Nevertheless, the next one that comes to mind is specialism – or the lack of it. "Camera club stuff" tends to vary in response to the next competition - bridges this week, candid shots the next. Those who specialize are likely to gain deeper insight, and this will eventually be apparent in their images. It is no co-incidence that the higher-level photographic distinctions demand exactly this evidence.
Another allied boundary is measured in terms of personal commitment. Successful photographers pursue their dreams with passion and feel very strongly about what they are doing. They use the traditional or modern tools of photography in their struggle merely to express, in some tangible representation, their innermost thoughts or feelings about a subject - and eventually they succeed. Their work then holds the attention of viewers. The eye hovers, unsure whether it has explored the depths of an image and grasped all that it conveys. Yet another boundary is formed by the technical aspects of photography. Such knowledge is essential and must be mastered, at least in the relevant field. However it must also subsequently be reduced to little more than a solid foundation for more artistic endeavour. Only when our minds free themselves from f/stops, chemicals and Photoshop can we hope to transcend the basics and pursue emotion and meaning.
The problem with breaching boundaries is that they are best understood before they are abused. If you don't know why "to boldly go" is a split infinitive, don't split infinitives until you do!