Sunday, 7 January 2018

Photography Education – Friend or Foe?

This piece is a reflection of the majority of education I have witnessed over the last 20 years however I wish to state there are islands of excellency still out there.

Like many professionals of my generation, I have happy memories of my photographic education – a time where our passion and love for the craft was deeply distilled into our very souls. Where an environment of trust and self-discovery was nurtured by experienced and gifted academics, many of whom were former professionals. But as the years have drifted away – this nirvana like existence has also waned.

Over the last 30 years of my career, I have employed 18 assistants from a range of backgrounds and experiences whom most were on the verge of completing some form of academic course. In the early years of employing assistants, I found their experiences of educational systems to be very similar to my own and they had a clear vision, both creatively and technically of where they fitted into the industry and how needed to develop to reach their career goal. Latterly, this has not been the case.

Over the last 20 years, there has been an explosion in the amount of degree courses offered in the UK – from around 15-16 to approximately 287 today. This coupled with year groups now ranging between 60-90 students per course, the question has to asked – is there a dilution in the quality of education being given to these students and are the necessary facilities in place to support this level of learning?

Firstly – why so many courses? Why create some many places? Has education seen a need in industry that current practitioners have missed or is this merely ‘education for education sake’? There are now 5000 photography graduates a year. In the halcyon days of the 80s, education was free at the point of delivery and grants were made readily available to support the less financially viable students – now another fundamental change has happened to the system, the blight of tuition fees.

Photography has always proven to be one of the most popular academic subjects whether on introductory courses or at degree level. During my short stint in FE, I remember enrollment night where over 200 adults would be patiently wait to be signed up to the latest digital ‘slr’ course whilst our colleagues in engineering and computing would be lucky to sign up 5 students in a session. My fear is that bureaucrats above us, watched intently the figures for creative courses and sought to profit from their popularity.

When tuition fees were first introduced, at around £2500 per annum, it was met with dismay by both the older academics and industry practitioners – they saw this as the first step to potentially dilute the ‘learning experience’ and the potential quality of graduates. Educating more individuals didn’t necessarily mean the same quality could be maintained.  With the new injection of money from students, group sizes gradually rose and also the pressure to continue to raise course fees – the start for the ‘dash for cash’ had begun.

Around this time, another phenomena, the career tutor, had started – hardly noticeable at first but with the rise in courses and student numbers, it became more and more susceptible. These were students who completed their degrees and then tried to make a living in industry but after a period of 6 months had given up and had returned to education for employment. Here, they were met with enthusiasm by their employers, who needed additional staff to meet the demands of the new courses and student numbers but a dangerous seed had also been sown. Without, the rigors of industry experience and problem solving, these individuals were deeply flawed in being able to provide the depth of knowledge to sufficiently educate the next generation of students – many realizing their weaknesses sought to distance their students and themselves from professional practitioners so as not to lay bear this truth.

After almost 20 years, we have now 4-5 generations of these lecturers in the education system who have perpetuated this cycle – and the level of trade craft amongst most educational institutions has hit an all time low. This can be evidenced by the lack of contact most establishments with industry organisations and their reticent to allow students to have contact with established practitioners. Some institutions allow their lecturers to forego the ‘pain of technical workshops’ and simply employ a technician (former professional) to deliver the basic skills. In other cases, even this doesn’t happen. A regular complaint of fellow professionals is that their new assistant with a first class degree doesn’t even understand the basics of ‘depth of field/apertures’.

From my regular contact with current students, most lecturers now seem to be driven by the ‘creative big idea’ coupled with group projects which are in some supposed to mirror current industry practice. Many of the students, found it fascinating that the work groups structured by the tutors always featured one or two of the top students, with the rest of the group made up of weaker/non engaged students – they were then marked as a whole regardless of individual input. Is the marking system flawed – I shall return to that point later.

Another failing, regularly pointed out to me by frustrated students, is the lack of contact time. 30 years ago, this was typically 24 hours a week throughout the duration of the course – now it typically ranges from 6-15 hours in the first year through to as little as 1 hour in the 3rd year. Some institutions even fabricate their timetables – one for public digestion of 4-5 days contact a week and another which is given to the current year groups of about 3-4 hours a week. This lack of contact time can severely impact on students progression  - no technical workshops, poor contextual studies and almost no ‘crits’. As the eminent tutor Minor White frequently stated, the ‘crit’ was the most important part of a young photographers journey and should be attended to regularly. From my own experiences of one a week, it fundamentally made me question my own direction, creativity and skill base. Nowadays, I regularly hear from students that they might only experience a ‘crit’ was once every academic year and in one university , lecturers gave up all together on ‘crits’ as they found them ‘too stressful’ to manage.

Another worry, is the distinct lack of business studies in most courses (there are exceptions) and for the most part, where it is touched upon, there is no depth or academic rigor given to it. Students are left with no understanding of copyright, licensing, estimating or invoicing and when do leave, they perceive it is acceptable to hand over all their images from shoot to a client and re-asign the copyright. This ill-informed practice is one of the greatest threats to the survivable of our industry in any viable form.

We should not also forget the student and their responsibilities in this. Many young people are desperate to obtain a degree, either through peer or parental pressure and perceive photography as an easy option that requires less work and academic rigor. This combined with the rise of social media (apparent social addiction) amongst the young has led to a disengagement of the larger part of the student body who feel through their own limited social engagement (self- gratification) and their previous cognitive learning environment where they were taught that they could not  ‘fail’ -  every assistance should be given by the staff, regardless of deadlines, to enable them.

This new class of education consumer feels owed by society and that higher learning, for the most part, must be spoon fed piece meal to them in a saccharine form. Motivated learners are thus thrown into environment of the masses where enthusiasm, self-motivation and creativity are derided and even the tutors, encourage simplistic mimicking of established artists through endless workbooks and banal artist statements. There is severe reticent and fear amongst this cacophony of the crowd to divest the education programming of their former years and embrace their own academic development. Now, like lemmings, they seem content to be herded through the halls of higher education without evening glancing sideways to see the opportunities they are missing.

Then there is the ‘under belly’ of the beast which education has become. The side few wish to discuss or mention, even in darkened pubs at the end of a long night of liquid refreshment, the ‘culture of education’. This is a world of narcissism, snobbery, fear and universal loathing  - where marking schemes are regularly tampered with and certain ‘academics’ abuse their position with venerable students. With the ‘dash for cash’ culture firmly embedded in the education system and progressive governments determined to make their educational figures look better than the last – a pervasive air has entered the once hallowed halls of education where students are required to pass at any cost. Whether it is through ‘cut and paste’ marking procedures from weaker members of staff to out and out fraud where non-existent students are entered into validated courses so additional funds can be drawn from the funding bodies.

Tutors who refuse to comply with requests from senior managers to pass failing students are bullied and ostracized with threats of redundancy or reduced hours  – at one institution I witnessed a graphics tutor dictate individually to a group of 4 students their essays so that they would pass. Whilst money is directly linked to academic success, the system of marking will be constantly open to financial abuse.

Other weaker academics, try to bolster their flagging careers through publishing ‘reader books’ and then, ethical questionable, write then into their own courses as required reading so that their own students are forced to buy them and penalize those that don’t.

Other lecturers (thankful only a minority) actions are far more questionable – where they use the trusted teacher/student relationship to manipulate and abuse venerable students. I must question the morality of any male lecturer (usually in their late 30s or 40s) who thinks its acceptable to groom a 18/19 year old girl into a relationship and flaunt it through institution trips and events. Even more worrying that when senior management, at some intuitions hear about, that they turn a blind eye to it – along with tutors photographing students in inappropriate manner as well. The educational environment should be safe zone for young adults discovering their new found freedoms not a play ground for the morally challenged failed academic.

At this stage, we need evaluate the future of education and not only how it is delivered but what role it plays in providing new entrants to industry. Is education an end result in itself – providing the student with a set of transferable skills which will enable them to work in a host of different industries (there is nothing wrong in this) but I would ask that the tutors and institutions are honest with their potential customers prior to them enrolling on their courses.  It is nothing short of miss-selling to enroll a student on a 3 year course if they believe they are going to educated to become a working photographer/assistant if this is not the course’s ‘raison d’ĂȘtre’. Please be honest with them – you owe them that and if you are intending to meet this need, please put in place the required resources to make this happen. As previously stated,  there are 5000 photography graduates a year in this country for only 120 vacancies per year. It frightens professionals, like me, even with the apparent glut of perspective employees, that there are so few that even have the basic requirements to make them employable. All education, for the most part has been seen to do, is line their pockets and leave unworldly students with £45,000 of debt.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Ellis Photographic Lighting

Ellis Photographic Lighting
For along time now, I have been meaning to write  a few words regarding my friends' photographic manufacturing business. I am greatly saddened that there is now virtually no record on the web of its existence or the ground breaking products they made.

Ellis Photographic Lighting Ltd was incorporated in 1986 by Peter Moss and his wife Anne - it traded  until around 2007. The name Ellis came from Peter's second name. The design of the products they produced was combination of Peter's tenacity and the technical genius of his associate Chris Thorpe.

Peter had been prior to this, one of the West Midlands most successful commercial photographers - with a large practice/studios on the Dudley Road, Halesowen. Many of today's well known Birmingham practitioners owe their initial training and success to the apprenticeships they received whilst working with him.

Chris, a close friend of mine, had started his photographic manufacturing career much earlier, by taking over the remains of the well-known 50's/60's lighting company Langham Lights Ltd (rival to Strobe).

During the 80's he continued to assemble bespoke Langham lighting generators and repair existing units.

1200j/ws unit manufactured for Donnelly Burns Nicklin - Circa 1985 (wired for Bowens)

Their first major product was the Ellis Strip Light - the first time I saw this was as a wooden prototype (around 1987) and it was being designed and tested at Chris's then base - the basement of the old chapel in Halesowen.

When the final moulds were completed, Chris (who had then moved from the chapel, when the lease had ended, to John Hilton's studio in Stirchley) relocated to Peter Moss's over flow studio at Gunbarrel Trading Estate, Cradley Heath to start mass producing them. Over 650 strips were produced, though some of the serial numbers can be misleading as they went up to around 1100.

The strip and the stand retailed for around £4800 + vat ea. Typically they were sold as pairs to photographers - Direct Lighting (along with several other rental houses around the world ) bought considerably more for rental.  Specialist installs were also undertaken at several auction houses such as Christie's for copying art work etc.

The strip light was 4ft long and contained single linear 5k tube which ran the length of the strip. It was designed to be upgradable with a modular control unit on the rear which could be swapped so as to allow compatibility with other flash manufacturers unit. The initial heads were made to run on:

- Broncolor Pulso Packs only (do not try to run these on any other Bron packs)
- Bowens Quad Packs 1.5K and 3K (there was one sample strip that had 2 smaller linear tubes which ran on a Bowens Estime/Traveller pack)
- Profoto (2 different versions - Acute and Pro 6a/7a only)
- Strobe

There was a later variant which ran on Ellis's own flash generators (1.5K and 3K)

The tubes were manufactured by hand by Stuarts of Manchester who went into receivership around 2007. I am not aware of any repairers who still carry stock of spare tubes, though the electronics can be easily repaired by such companies as Luminary Lighting in London.

The strip, itself, was totally over designed with ceramic moving parts on the barn doors and the rotating rear bracket which allowed the unit/barn doors  to be twisted into position and then stay fixed without any further tightening of clamps/knobs etc. The modelling light was a 4ft fluorescent tube which ran parallel with the flash tube. The unit was designed to either sit on the floor, be mounted onto a normal lighting stand (you needed a special parallel mounting arm and counter weight) or be fitted to its special designed stand (which also had a platform for a pack).

Be carefully using the strip off a stand - the poly injected casing can easily chip at the ends.

The stand had a unique feature, in that worked on a friction system so that it meant, the head/strip could be pushed/pulled to the right height and then simply let go of - the ceramic plates would then grip and there would be no need for additional screw/handles to be tightened.

There were 2 major accessories to the strip light - a large diffuser panel (with perspex) which fitted over the front of the strip (using 2 elasticated straps) and a comprehensive gel filter set (over 20qty coloured gels/ND filters mounted individually on perspex) which slid into the front diffuser slot.

Also, there was a 'v' shaped filter holder which came with the filter set.

The one design fault of the unit (there was no internal fan) was that if you fired off more than 50 full powered flashes in one go, you risked melting the trigger cable off the end of the tube. The tubes very rarely failed/lost gas - the majority of non-functioning models you will come across, have had either the trigger wire fail or several of the small transistors in the control module fail due to over heating. This can be easily fixed by Luminary Lighting.

Overall I feel Chris and Peter accomplished their task, which was to make the definitive strip light - the quality of light and evenness of spread is unparalleled. Also with its accessories and stand, it became an extremely versatile studio light source which could easily manipulated into nearly every position required. It had slight weaknesses such as the crudity of the modelling lamp and the duration of the flash (very slow by today's requirements) but lighting challenging products such as glass etc, its unrivalled.

Subsequent products followed:

A giraffe boom arm to hold the Ellis Strip
A range of Ellis Flash Packs and heads (these could be wired to either Ellis, Broncolor , Elinchrom or Bowens compatibility)

All the major components of the system were manufactured locally in Halesowen and the surrounding Black Country. Chris, Peter and many of the local suppliers could usually be found either at The Hadens Cross Pub or the Loyal Lodge at a lunch time discussing the finer points of it's design.

Also, there was a ring flash in development but this only proceeded to an early photo-type and a Mola light (several of which several were produced with a Bowens compatible head).


The majority of the Mola Lights that were produced ended up being sold to the BBC and were modified to run tungsten lamps and were used extensively in the 'Top Gear' studio.

Sadly Chris passed away in 2004 and all further developments of the range halted.

Thank you to Philip for allowing me to use images he had produced of his kit.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

The World Bar - Resorts World Birmingham

From my recent shoot at The World Bar - Resorts World Birmingham

All images copyright - Richard Southall/Emphasis Photography

Resorts World Birmingham - Casino

From my resent shoot of the casino at Resorts World Birmingham

All images - Copyright Richard Southall/Emphasis Photography

High Line New York Bar & Lounge - Resorts World Birmingham

From my recent shoot at High Line New York Bar & Lounge - Resorts World Birmingham

All images - copyright Richard Southall/Emphasis Photography

Resorts World Birmingham - Andy Waters Restaurant

From my recent shoot at Andy Waters Restaurant - Resorts World Birmingham

All images - copyright Richard Southall/Emphasis Photography

Resorts World Birmingham - Robata Bar & Grill

From my recent shoot at Resorts World Birmingham - Robata Bar & Grill

All images - copyright Richard Southall/Emphasis Photography