Amateurism – Richard Akroyd

I must admit that am unable to work out whether I lean towards any of the common “…isms” or can be described as any type of “….ist”. I suppose I do not like “clutter” in images, to the extent that I avoid it or do my best to remove or suppress it. I also like images with simple structure and a strong visual message, but I don’t think that is enough to mark me as a Minimalist. However there is an “ism” I find compelling – Amateurism. No I certainly don’t mean I have a preference for sub-standard images, I mean the noble groups of unremunerated photographers who in the second half of the 19th century led photography from being a scientific curiousity, emerging workplace tool and a method of producing stiff, tableaux portraits to the production of art, unique to photography but with all the thoughtfulness of intent and aesthetic qualities that are the hallmark of any art. In the 1860’s the word Amateur, a French word, sourced from the Latin Amator, simply indicated that these people were motivated by the love of what they were doing. They were passionate about it.

“Amateur—from the French amateur “lover of”, ultimately from Latin amatorem nom. amator, “lover”.  An amateur is generally considered a person attached to a particular pursuit, study, or science in a non-professional or unpaid manner. Amateurs often have little or no formal training in their pursuits, and many are autodidacts (self-taught)”


The Amateurs where the early adopters of photography amongst the professional and independently wealthy people who had the time and funds to indulge in the newfangled method of making images. Peter Henry Emerson, a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, was a noteworthy member of the group and his story is worth a read – just chase him down on the Web. These pioneers, unencumbered by the need for their photography to pay for itself, expanded the range of subjects to include friends and family, landscapes, horses and carts, in fact anything they could put in front a camera. They experimented with composition and lighting, they learnt how to make the best of the chemical technology they had been given and when it wasn’t sufficient they forced the technology forward. When I look at the pictures from that era, particularly from the perspective of someone holding in my hand a little camera than can basically take pictures in the dark, let alone the post-processing opportunities that we have available to us, I am humbled. These were the people who turned photography into art, ignited Pictorialism and led the way to the bizarrely named Photo Secession that secured photography’s claim to being an art form. From this beginning came a legion of great photographers including Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. When I think of Amateurism I am reminded that creating works of visual communication can be and should be about self-actualisation – goodness it doesn’t even cost much anymore. It should be embraced with passion and enthusiasm. We should in the spirit of Amateurism set our own agenda and take the pictures we want and in the way we want. After we produce them let us look at them critically and think if we would prefer them some other way. Let us also look at similar pictures made by others and ask ourselves if there are things we haven’t worked out yet. Let us talk to each other about how we make images. Mostly let us remember that if we don’t have to make our photography pay then we don’t have to conform to any legacy or agenda, so why not be true to ourselves. In the original meaning of Amateurism we should explore, not just follow and we should create, not just emulate.

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