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A True Picture?

BBC4 is running a series on Sunday nights called A Digital Picture of Britain, which is supposedly a companion to A Picture of Britain on the main channel. The latter is a look at the influence of the British landscape on the arts hosted by a rather grumpy David Dimbleby (“I suppose it’s worth it,” he harrumphed as he set off up Helvellyn in dangerous winter conditions), with each programme concentrating on a particular region. Unfortunately, the former forsakes the opportunity to draw comparisons between the artists and scenes mentioned by Dimbleby and the work of landscape photographers, in favour of pointless “Gee whizz, these digital cameras are really neat!” technolust.

It’s not a terrible programme and it’s certainly watchable. For example, in the first one, Joe Cornish, who normally shoots for the National Trust using a traditional 4x5” view camera, was given a tiny cameraphone. Ian Berry, a diehard film and rangefinder shooter, was lumbered with the huge and expensive Nikon D2x DSLR, with pro zoom to match. And the Guardian’s Dan Chung was handed a standard Canon digicam.

None of the participants could be said to be wildly enthusiastic about their gifts. They all attempted to take the same type of photographs they normally shoot, but found themselves struggling without the benefit of their accustomed working methods. That’s not to say the resulting pictures were at all bad, but you knew that they would have been a whole lot better had each photographer been allowed to use their own gear. Cornish pointed his miniature phone at similar compositions to those on his view camera’s glass, then swore as it failed to focus or struggled to expose everything clearly. He even resorted to clamping it to his tripod, before finishing with the (extremely valid) point that a camera obviously intended to capture spontaneous moments yet having a shutter delay of 2-3 seconds was practically useless, something which doubtless went down well with the manufacturers hoping to see their products showcased here. Berry moaned about the complexity and obstrusiveness of his Nikon, and eventually captured a great, evocative shot of a Cumbrian farmer that had “I normally use a Leica” written all over it. He seemed happy reviewing his work on a laptop later that day, but there was no evident advantage to him in using the DSLR. Chung tried to shoot the action at a local football match before being beaten by digital shutter lag again and falling back on “slice of life” scenes that are probably his bread and butter.

What was the point? Could anyone imagine Cornish throwing his view camera in the nearest skip and crying “Whoopee, I’m liberated!” as he danced off into the sunset waving the Crappyphone aloft? Did digital capture result in radically different approaches or results from any of these unfortunate guinea pigs? The old saw that a great photographer can produce great results with any kind of camera proved true, but didn’t necessarily lead to any further insights. The level of artistic exploration produced by either the cameras, the subjects or the programme itself was virtually nil. There is, however, a certain comedy value in watching Joe Cornish balance a tripod on the roof of his car with a mobile phone attached to the head of it, desperately wishing it was a Linhof.

Running alongside the programme is a competition on the BBC web site for viewers to submit their own pictures of Britain. BB was about to complain that the rules stated a picture must be taken by a digital camera (because pictures on negatives would somehow be old-fashioned and fail to reflect 21st Century Britain?), and remain uncropped and unaltered (what, no B&W conversions? no levels adjustments? no toning?), but these clauses appear to have since been yanked. The precise nature of the £500 prize isn’t explicitly stated, but we’re betting it’s a digital camera. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped us submitting our own work: 1, 2, and 3.