Future of Photography Q&A No.2 – George Plemper

Oomska’s ‘Future of Photography’ Series continues…

We presented our interviewees with a set list of questions, and left the matter of in what format and at what length they should answer entirely up to them. Here are George Plemper’s responses.

1. How and when did you first become interested in photography? What was the trigger which led you to take a serious interest? How different would that trigger be now, with all the changes – technological and otherwise – in photography during the intervening years?

Well there is interest and then there is interest . . . isn’t there. I remember getting my first camera as a Christmas present back in the late 50’s, I remember it was plastic and light blue in colour. I would take a picture and a week or so later we would look to see what, if anything came out. I was fascinated by the flashbulbs for colour photography they were coated in translucent blue plastic which bubbled up when fired. This was really interesting as, at that time, I only ever wanted to be a scientist. The magnesium burning smells and the appearance of the spent flashbulbs was amazing, images they were of secondary interest. Photography was really expensive back then so it was not something to be taken lightly, I was never really interested in the pictures which were mainly blurred and difficult to decipher – it was a case of there was my brother, there was my mother, they were a small proof that we existed on the planet.

A decade of so later, I bought my first camera, it was a Chinon 35mm with a 1.4 screw fit lens. I decided that I needed a tool to copy photographs from books, in order to make my lessons more interesting and to move away from the toxic, illegible “Banda” sheets and the ubiquitous chalk. I had no interest in creating images, it was a tool and a means to an end. Why a Chinon 1.4? Well it was relatively cheap (though not in today’s terms, where digital cameras are ridiculously cheap), compared to Pentax, and I was attracted to the bronze lens. The 1.4 lens had more bronze glass and somehow I just knew that it must be better than the less impressive 1.7. I signed a hire purchase agreement for £79.99 at Dixons, Sunderland in 1974 and left the shop with a new camera.

My new tool did little to make my lessons more interesting but, because it was there, I started to take photographs of the children. I have recently found some old snaps in a box from that time and they are really shockingly incompetent. People say that the difference between a good photograph and bad is the difference between looking and seeing. Looking back it does not appear that I had learned to even look through the view finder – I used the camera as a point and shoot, sometimes I think that I might have even had my eyes closed.

A little later a colleague invited me to his home to show me how to develop a B&W and print picture; I liked the idea – the chemicals, the red light and the slowly emerging images from the developing tray. This was interesting, and, of course, it was scientific. I started to read books on photographers and came across the work of the likes of Julia Margaret Cameron and Annie Liebovitz, she edited a wonderful book of Rolling Stone portraits entitled “Shooting Stars” 1973 which I still have and this just blew me away. Like a child learning from their parents I copied their work, unselfconsciously and unapologetically, just like my great hero Bob Dylan, he copied everything and so did I. Why not? This is all so evident in my B&W pictures from this time.

People seemed to like looking at my pictures and, because, like most people, I liked to be liked, I did more. Occasionally, just occasionally, I would look at a book or a magazine and sometimes even some of my own photographs and I would be transported somewhere else, I would see things that only my inner self knew and I would become transfixed with that image, staring at if for long periods, it was as if the image had appeared before me uninvited but it was welcome nonetheless. These pictures transformed my world. This was and remains an incredibly interesting aspect of photography and I do worry that we are losing this awareness.

How different would that trigger be now, with all the changes – technological and otherwise? Well the triggers would no longer be there now, “Banda Sheets” and chalk were the norm, video was a dream, piped school television was only sometimes available. Today we have beautifully produced DVDs, Power point, white boards and, although I am a lazy writer, I am a good typist. On the other hand photography is everywhere; photographs tend to be taken for granted. Millions of people are taking pictures, some are looking but very few people are seeing. Photographs, sometimes, and I do not want to overstate the frequency, are used for inappropriate ends, whether it is by the pupils who sometimes look to humiliate their class mates or teachers in order to post onto You Tube or by some teachers or school assistants who abuse their position by taking inappropriate images of their pupils and charges for posting on . . . well, God knows where.

Sadly today, there would be no need for me to buy a camera for school, digital images printed on an inkjet printer do not have the romance of chemical development and, in any case, any teacher pointing a camera at their pupils would immediately come under suspicion. I remember being asked to photograph a wedding, I was there with my wife, and I remember how the crowded room went quiet when I asked a little girl, who was with her Grandmother if I could take her photograph. So very, very sad and so deeply disturbing. The trust has gone.

2. Photography is often described as a mixture of art and science. It’s also a medium. How has digital technology altered the way these elements combine to produce what we think of as ‘photography’? Has technology altered that balance?

Well, of course, photography, can be both an art and a science but, and this is important, not at the same time. I know that the likes of Ansel Adams, would scream at this heresy, how dare he suggest such a thing. I am, he would say the orchestrator of a great work, my science and creativity combine to create this great work of art, just look. Well I do understand what he is saying, but this is not necessarily great art although he did produce great photographic works of art. Well, at least not to me. Barthez distinguished between photographs that grab our attention, clever images, thoughtful images, he used the word “studium” to describe the quality of this type of image and he also identified images that had a quality that caused, in him at least, the sensation of being pricked, he called this the “Punctum”, I hate the word and find it pretentious but I do recognise that some images, and by no means all images, have the power to move me in a way that is more than the sum of the parts. This is what makes a photograph a work of art, the power to prick at our very being. Studium can become tedium, this is not art.

Is photography a medium? I am not so sure. Sure a photograph can be a two dimensional object in space made out of paper but what about an image on a screen. I once was stopped in my tracks by a Paul Strand image, I was walking up St Martin’s Lane, London and from across the road I saw his image of “Young Boy, Gonedeville, Charente, France 1951” Of course, his is a great work of art, but from across the road, the impact, the power, the expression had nothing to do with the medium of the photograph. When I look at this image in a book and, perhaps I have seen it in an exhibition, I cannot be helped, I become aware of the beauty of the media and his craft and his genius but none of this adds any more to that breathtaking moment of recognition that I experienced all those years ago in the late 70’s. This is the art of photography, it goes beyond media.

New technology has, of course changed the very nature of photography. It has destroyed the myth that the medium is the message. Sometimes messages go beyond all thought of media. Photographic art does not need to be a paper photograph, new technology teaches us this.

3. Prior to the introduction of digital, how much did the equipment you used change over the years? How has digital changed the way you use equipment? How would today’s technology, if you could have used it earlier, have changed your relationship with photography?

I remember the changes so well, most cameras were metal frames designed to hold the lens in place and to transport film through the camera. Some cameras did not have an automatic diaphragm, some did. Some cameras had through the lens metering, others did not. I took great pride in being able to set the exposure by eye and film boxes had a lovely set of diagrams showing the various apertures to be set according to the conditions. For Ilford films if you set the shutter speed to the film speed, then a sunny day would be f16, an overcast day would be f8 etc – or at least I think that was the case. Camera magazines discussed the different types of through the lens metering and the benefits of the different chemical make up of light sensors, CdS (cadmium sulphide) sensors were common but if I remember correctly they had disadvantages over the more modern types with a different chemical make up. This was a topic of conversation.

Towards the eighties, automatic exposure and shutters became common. I thought that the Olympus OM2 with an automatic exposure system that bounced light of the film was the ultimate in sophistication. Olympus and Pentax competed to produce the smallest 35mm reflex cameras with the MX and OM1/2. They were beautifully designed cameras but professional photographers were big on manual cameras and worried that the smaller cameras were not robust enough, given that a lot of photojournalists were seasoned front line war photographers, their concerns were understandable. Automatic cameras with electronic shutters were viewed with mistrust as it was obvious that only totally mechanical systems could be relied upon in the field. When I put my camera away in the early 80s zooms were becoming more common but most were of vastly inferior performance to primes, unless you could afford the very best from Canon and Nikon.

Then the digital world came along. Well obviously the technology has changed but I believe that the attitudes towards cameras and hardware has changed little, professional photographers talk of the benefits of Canon and Nikon, just like the old days and I still continue to tell all who are willing to listen, that it is not the camera that counts, the really important aspect of photography is the person behind the lens, and anyway everyone knows that Pentax cameras are the best.

4. How would photography’s great pioneers have embraced and utilised today’s technology? Might Ansel Adams be using software to stitch together panoramas of Yosemite? Would Garry Winogrand be using an iPhone? Would Eadweard Muybridge be experimenting with HDR?

This can only be speculation and each of those mentioned above were men of their times, just like Diane Arbus and Julia Margaret Cameron were women of their times. I think the short answer to the question is yes.

5. In some ways, digital seems to have ‘won out’ over film. Digital photography is everywhere, while companies such as Nikon and Fuji are discontinuing some of their films and film cameras. Is this process irreversible? Should we care?

No, times change, the world changes, the important thing is the still image, the photograph, what is says and how it is used.

6. Are there some qualities or aspects of film photography which digital will never be able to replicate or replace? If so, will these aspects of photography die with film?

Well for me, it seems that it is impossible to reproduce the B&W skin tones that are evident in film, skin tones in digital B&W seem to me to be lifeless. Funnily enough, I do not mind digital B&W landscapes, some digital B&W landscapes and urban scenes are breathtaking. I hope that digital B&W will match the qualities of B&W film eventually.

7. Will the ‘camera’, as we (still) think of it, even remain as a distinct device? Or will ‘camera’ become just one of a plethora of multimedia features people expect to find on any number of hybrid consumer appliances?

There is just something nice about holding a still image camera. The whole experience is just different and I have tried using camera phones, video cameras as still cameras and still cameras as video cameras. It is a different experience and each experience should be valued for what it is. Whether this continues to be considered to be important – who can say. But if the future of photography is in hybrid devices then I do worry about the future of still photography as an experience and an art.

8. A few years back, Magnum photographer Eliott Erwitt was quoted as saying: “Digital manipulation kills photography. It’s enemy number one.” He also disdained digital in general, for its ability to produce “an image without effort”. To what extent would you agree or disagree with these sentiments?

Well, all I can say to that, is that just because a piece of equipment reduces the effort needed to complete a task, this does not mean that the task will be completed well. Just look at the billions of people who take photographs each day and understand that this has not resulted in a proportional increase of the number of great photographers/ artists. Great photography is every bit as difficult as it was in the old days. Reflect on the words of Woodie Guthrie – “The radio waves and your movies and your jukeboxes and your songbooks are already loaded down and running over with such no good songs as that anyhow.”

Easier does not mean better.

9. We’re all thoroughly weary of the ‘fix it in Photoshop’ approach. But defenders of digital post-processing often say, “Well, it only does what you used to do in the darkroom.” Is this a valid argument?

This is not an aspect of photography that wearies me but in answer to your question: “Yes.”

10. For how much longer will the general conception of ‘photography’ refer exclusively to static, two-dimensional images? Imminently, 3D is looming, and ‘convergence’ – meaning not just the ability of modern DSLR’s to capture high-definition video, but the compulsion to make use of that functionality – is a current buzzword. Does this trend – photographers becoming film-makers, and vice versa – ignore the important divisions between static and moving images?

Yes. Taking stills photography and making videos are two entirely different activities and workflows. Both are art forms and both move us in different ways. If feel totally different depending on whether I have a camera or a video camera in my hand. 3D stills photography? Now there’s a thing.

11. Cinema historian David Thomson, in his ‘Biographical Dictionary of Film’, wrote the following, regarding Marilyn Monroe: “She gave great still. She is funnier in stills, sexier, more mysterious, and protected against being. And still pictures may yet triumph over movies in the history of media. For stills are more available to the imagination.” How much more of a contentious statement does that seem today?

I really do understand what he is saying, still images and moving images are completely different things and Marilyn’s presence in stills is missing in the movies but I think he is missing the point, this is nothing to do with our imagination, it is about a certain, relative truth in our existence. The way that human beings look at each other, in a moment in time. The camera is capable of capturing an essential element of a person, Marilyn Monroe was surrounded by an energy, a presence and the still camera was able to catch and fix this tangible aura. People who knew tell us this but I know this because I can see it, just as David Thomson could. Where we differ is that I know that the qualities he describes have nothing to do with the imagination, they are real and tangible, the camera makes these qualities visible.


Born in Sunderland in 1950, George Plemper grew up dreaming that one day he would become a famous chemist and spent much of his time playing with detergents, bleaches and anything else he could find around the home. The Hylton Colliery pit heap would sometimes catch fire and looking around its slopes he fantasised he was on the side of a volcano. His early childhood was idyllic.

Always “Real Labour”: the Labour party of the health service, serving a dignified working class, it should not have come as a surprise to anyone that he gave up his childhood dreams and became a secondary school teacher. What did come as a complete surprise to him, however, was that he was totally ill-equipped for the class room and he bought a camera from Dixons in a vain attempt to make his lessons more interesting by making slides using pictures in text books.

It was quite natural for him to take the camera into the classroom and quite natural for him to take photographs of his pupils and to give them copies to take home. If Susan Sontag once said that to photograph something is to confer importance, then he soon realised that there was no better way to increase his pupil’s sense of worth than by giving them a beautiful positive image of themselves. Parents and teachers responded positively to his pictures. For the first time in a long time, he began to feel important.

In the autumn of 1976 he took up the post of Head of Chemistry at Riverside School in Thamesmead, London and with the agreement of the Headmaster used photography as a tool and means to boost his pupils’ self-esteem. When asked why he took so many pictures at the school he would simply reply that he wanted to leave behind a visual diary of the life and times of a small town school teacher. In 1978 he left teaching and began working as a research assistant at the Polytechnic of the South Bank and began a career path that would lead to him taking up a variety of technical and management positions in a variety of manufacturing and service industries.

In 1979 the Half Moon Photography Workshop produced a touring exhibition entitled lost at school, the show opened at the London Institute of Education, near Russell Square and thereafter there was little interest in his work until, more than 20 years later, he retrieved his negatives out of black bin bags, scanned and posted them on Flickr. Since then his work was subject to an article in the Guardian Society, “Photographic Memory” written by Michael Collins and featured in a BBC 4 documentary “The Great Estate” also presented by Michael Collins.

Only a few years off retirement, he dreams of producing a documentary of the British People inspired and following on from the work of his heroes: Lewis Hine, August Sander, Dianne Arbus and Eugene Atget.


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