Forget f-stops, megapixels and fancy zoom lenses - the secret to winning pictures is... editing, according to one of Britain's leading photographers. It's timely advice given the launch of our annual photography competition.
"Photography is... rigorous selection" - Chris Steele-Perkins
Like many world-class photographers, Chris Steele-Perkins' body of work is far better known than the man behind the lens. A member of the prestigious Magnum Photo Agency, and winner of distinguished industry awards, Steele-Perkins burst on the scene with his 1979 book The Teds - which detailed the last wave of that seminal youth culture - the Teddy Boys.
Since then he has undertaken many foreign assignments but is, perhaps, best known for his documentary pictures of life in Britain. In the first of a series of interviews with those behind the lens Steele-Perkins explains what inspires his work and the importance of rigorous editing.
Your working life has encompassed many photographic genres and taken you around the world. What inspired you to be a photographer?
My photographic career started at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Whilst studying for a degree in psychology I worked on the student newspaper which turned out to be a really good place to learn. Essentially I taught myself photography covering a wide variety of events from which you have to deliver real pictures.
That's the key to learning. You've got to produce work, theory is all very well but you've got to produce. Doing it shows you how photography and the world really work. It's about interacting and you can't do that from behind a desk.
PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR 06
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Magazines such as Creative Camera helped me realised that you could express yourself in photo, not just make nice tonal images or balance in the frame.
There is a huge industry of art colleges doing photographic degrees, some are better than others, but there is lots of stuff pumped out that diminishes what seems to me a degree is about - a high standard of learning and achievement.
The digital revolution means there are many thousands of pictures produced each day, but more importantly these can now be shared instantly via websites such as Flickr, often it would seem without any editing. What's your view on this?
Photography is generally a question of rigorous selection.
Most photographers I know would be happy with one frame from four rolls of film - that is to the extent they would seriously think it is a decent picture.
It's what distinguishes photographers from each other, the interesting ones edit rigorously... work hard... are tough on their own editing.
As for the whole digital thing, controversial image manipulation is nothing new. Since the beginning of photographic history over 150 years ago images have been airbrushed or made into a montage. Just look at the work of John Heartfield (see Internet links, right).
Like everything else it's about who's doing the manipulating and the sensibility, intelligence and creativity behind it.
One area documentary photographers are muscling into is the art gallery scene and, of course, online.
My agency, Magnum, are currently running a new site called Magnum in Motion, licensing little slideshows with voiceovers, some are very strong. Also you get the photographer's voice, or vision, as opposed to a writer's one that you will get in a magazine.
A criticism of much modern photography is that the over-arching theme for a set of pictures is more interesting than the resulting images themselves. Do you feel the idea can be greater than the visual execution?
Well the idea can be pretty dull too.
Occasionally it comes together, but there seems to be a new orthodoxy developing that if you take enough pictures of a boring subject from the same perspective, in some formal framework, then that boring thing becomes interesting. It doesn't.
People succumb to the idea that X has taken 25 pictures of a blank wall - this is fantastic. Really? I don't think so.
Your work has taken you to Afghanistan, central America and the Far East, as well as encompassing extensive coverage of life in Britain. Yet it always maintains your straight-forward, unpretentious, almost traditional style.
Yes, style evolves, though I hope I am taking different pictures now than when I started.
It's not always the case. [Legendary photographer] Henri Cartier-Bresson in a sense took the same pictures throughout his life, whereas someone like Bill Brandt changed dramatically from social documentary, to nudes and landscapes.
I want my photographs to reflect my understanding and my age.
The next book I'm doing is on Tokyo and involves lots of street photography. Whilst shooting I realised I've lost a bit of my edge, a kind of alertness. That doesn't mean I'm not taking spontaneous pictures, I am, just not in the same way.
As a documentary photographer your work is there for future generations. Do you think that's one of the responsibilities of the documentary photographer to record time passing?
I think that's up to them? For myself, it may be vanity, but I like to think that in 50 years' time when people look back to teenage culture in the late 20th Century, The Teds will part of the repertoire. And maybe in some dusty library they will be able to find my book on Afghanistan.
What body of work would you be most proud of?
I don't see The Teds as single body of work. Along with The Pleasure Principle [Steele-Perkins' document of alternative life in 1980s Britain] and a soon-to-be-released book on Durham, it's all part of my British work.
Perhaps, though, I'd select something that hasn't seen the light of day. I've spent 20-odd years on and off covering Africa, building up an enormous body of work that has not yet been published as a whole. I just need to find a publisher.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
The Teds and The Pleasure Principle, were excellent books, which I often still read now.
I'd like to see Chris do something similar on the British Biker scene. There's so much on America, but Britain is often overlooked, apart from a couple of small films.
Glenn Willis, Kettering, UK
Photographs that have been doctored are fakes and an attempt to deceive. That's the trouble with digital photography: it lends itself too easily to fakery, underminig such photographs as evidence. I think photographs should be displayed exactly as they are, no 'editing' - or not at all.
Miland Joshi, Birmingham, UK
Personally, I am happy if they don't have my finger in the way...
JH, Tylers Green
Of course, editing helps to frame a photo or even to remove an unsightly obstruction, but you still need to take an image with enough pixels to be large enough to crop, and for it to be in focus... By all means edit your photo, but start with the basics!
Flash Wilson, London UK
Why do some consider it more "artistic" to use black-and-white? Surely it's just easier - one less thing to think about!
Thanks Chris, suddenly I don't feel so bad anymore when I only find one gem in a shoot of 500+ action photos. :)
Stefan Paetow, London, England
I really want to find out how soon Chris's book on Durham is going to be released. I've searched for more information on the net (by Chris' name, Magnum and Amazon) and drawn a complete blank. Is there any way you can help me? It would make the most brilliant gift to someone who has been living and working in Durham for the last 20 years and who is about to leave.
Sarah Ellison, York
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