Camera wobble: Sky’s photo contest misses its subject

“Taking a picture is to take away, not to put in, otherwise it is mediocrity”, the gruff Oliviero Toscani barked at a contestant on Sky Arts Master of Photography last week.  It is a gnomic gem he has dished it out, with slight variations, to many of the hopefuls competing for the show’s €150,000 prize.  Alas, had he taken his own advice, he would have stayed on the side of the camera where his reputation was made, rather than hamming it up as a Box-Brownie Simon Cowell.

A camera-skills-based reality contest over six episodes was a promising tv prospect.  Like cooking, baking and singing, everyone now uses cameras, yet a gulf yawns between snapping and photographic proficiency.  Drawing an audience to fresh ideas about image making via the stories of those trying to improve their photo skills, ought to be straightforward viewing to deliver.  Sadly, Sky Arts’ Master of Photography’s dependence on the cliched tropes of its form approaches parody.

Establishing shots of the disused factory that we are invited to believe is the filming location are endless.  Ditto the camera that pans over the contestants’ heads as they sit awaiting instructions beneath swinging industrial detritus.  Each edition sees one of the contestants asked to leave – cue frowning faces and long pauses that aspire to create tension. Past episode flash backs are frequent, with previews that are as extensive.  At least a third of Master of Photography’s screen time is devoted to such devices.

Its contestants are the program’s greatest asset.  They include amateurs and professionals drawn from all over Europe.  Weekly assignments form the basis of each edition – among them: the beauty of Rome, nightlife in Berlin, backstage at a London theatre and Ireland’s landscape.  There is much contrivance, as street photography with a tv crew in tow will always require.  And its easy to see why the contestant who is drawn to naked self portraiture impressed the producers.  With the final this Thursday (8 September 2016), however, I care sufficiently about the remaining three to want to watch. Their assignment will use film for the first time in the series, I gather.

There are some deeply odd features, though.  Isabella Rossellini presents the show: but creates the impression that her links for the entire series were recorded in a single afternoon.  Much is made of the unnamed ‘special software’ that allows contestants to ‘crop, tweak exposure and adjust the colour balance’ of their work. Whenever contestants ‘contact sheets’ appear on computer screens, though, they have the words ‘HP5’ (a brand of analogue film) unaccountably running along their tops.

Leica provided the equipment.  Contestants are dispatched weekly to the equipment room, but the suitability of kit used goes unremarked.  Was it the right choice of lens?  Exposure too long? Might a medium format have delivered better results?  Or would a rangefinder have aided discretion? Not a word.

At the core of the program’s issues, however, are the judges.   Rut Blees Luxemburg, is a fine artist.  Toscani and Simon Frederick have largely made their reputations shooting ‘edgy’ advertising.  Their judging criteria rest entirely on unexplained notions of originality, self-expression and the creation of obscure narratives.  Whatever the pedagogic talents the threesome possess, they convey little from which an armchair enthusiast might learn in this program.  A documentary or news photographer among them might have offered critique with slightly more democratic roots.

Master of Photography provides the sparest glimpse of what a tv photography competition might deliver, while leaving the field open for a more imaginative program maker.  It could benefit photography enormously if someone did.

Meantime, Sky Arts is casting about for other pursuits to which to apply its method. Guitar Star follows an identical format to its photographic sibling, portraiture and landscape painting have a show apiece, while Art Of Survival pits a cellist against a painter in a race from Athens to the Edinburgh festival.

Apollo turns tricks in the House Of The Rising Sun.