Master of Photography is a new show produced & broadcast exclusively on Sky TV. The format is simple & oft-repeated these days; a dozen professional & amateur photographers from across Europe compete each week producing photographs to a set theme with the loser voted off the show by a panel of expert judges. Eventually, the last person standing wins a prize, in this case 150,000 Euro & possibly the chance to have their work displayed in a major exhibition.
Think Great British Bake-Off for photography.
If I have a dirty secret then it's probably that I really enjoy Bake-Off so I tuned into the Master of Photography with much interest!
Although it might follow a similar format to other light-entertainment talent judging shows, Sky Arts have from the outset pitched this as a highbrow show for people who take their photography seriously. Very, VERY seriously. Just based on the number of squirrel-cage filament lightbulbs adorning the set you know this is a serious show for the serious photographer. Much bokeh. Many lens flare.
The show is now four episodes into its first season run of eight and I've waited deliberately until it reached this half-way point before writing this review and sharing my thoughts - if I hadn't, and had judged the show on its first episode, then this review probably wouldn't exist.
I felt the first episode was very weak. With a theme that gave the contestants six hours to capture the relationship between art & beauty in Rome I was looking forward to seeing how the photographers would be able to interpret such an open brief. I wanted to watch them work, see how others exercise their creativity. What annoyed me so much about the first episode was simply that we spend hardly any time looking at their photography and more time letting the judges tell the photographers how bad their work was. This is much the same as all of the other "TV talent shows" - to begin, everyone is dreadful, setting up the judges as experts, but as the series progresses everyone suddenly becomes great showing just how much the contestants have improved. It's the same with Bake-Off or X-Factor. The problem with this approach in a photography show is that art is so subjective. A poorly baked cake is obvious to all as a failure but when it comes to photographs, seeing the judges seemingly criticise the photographers for the sake of it was frustrating - especially because with a dozen photographers the critique is limited to one-line snarky quips. I do appreciate that the show is time-limited but there is plenty of time to give more focus to the best images and explain WHY the judges think they work, with similar attention focused on why weaker images don't work but for this first episode it was simply a series of rapid-fire banal comments that only served to set the judging panel up as elitist bad-guys who needed to be appeased. This might work in something silly & light-hearted but this show is deliberately setting itself up as something more intellectual & sober and I don't think it was a fair reflection of the judges either. I'd rather spend more time on looking at the best & worst photographs than seeing B-roll of the judges walking around looking pensive. The saving graces for the first episode were the contestants. They were an eclectic mix and watching them explore Rome looking for inspiration struck a chord. I felt echoes of how I do the same myself when exploring a city and I felt genuine inspiration from seeing how each approached the brief. Although it was far too early to have formed an emotional attachment to any of them - you don't get pick a favourite from one episode - I did feel for them and wanted to see more of what they were capable of.
Even so, I found the "style-over-substance" presentation almost too off-putting to watch the second episode but I persevered. Immediately afterwards I found myself eagerly watching episode three. I'm now watching each episode when they are aired.
Episodes two, three and four have followed the same format but because the show established itself, the photographers & the judges in the first episode we now spend much more time watching the contestants approach their photography & seeing the results. With three photographers "evicted" and another dismissed for breaking the rules we also have fewer contestants to spend time on which in turns we see more of how & what the remaining photographers are doing. The judges are still maintaining their evil overlord pretence but their feedback is now much more insightful & in some cases we've even seen rare praise! It was also refreshing to see that the judging team disagreed on certain images and they weren't afraid to admit it. Episode two's "Berlin at Night" theme was pretty forgettable but the "Human Beauty" brief for episode three was fascinating. When multiple photographers are given something as diverse and as large as a city to photograph then it can often be hard to objectively compare wildly different results but episode three gave the photographers the same models and the same tools to work with and seeing the flair they exhibited was hugely enjoyable.
As you can tell, by now I'm already overlooking the stylistic gripes that plagued the first episode and enjoying the show a great deal more. Episode four saw the photographers each shooting portraits of actor Michael Madsen and with only half a dozen or so left in the competition we saw much more of how they interacted with a celebrity and brought their ideas to life. It was an educational AND entertaining episode and I'm hoping for more of the same with the final four parts. We've had time to build a relationship with each photographer now and empathise with them. The judges are more measured in their feedback, less worried about pretending to be Bond villains and spending more time explaining themselves - they too are now not the caricatures they once were pretending to be and I want to hear what they say about a photograph to see how it measures against my own thoughts and to let their expertise come through. I like how retouching and post-processing is accepted as part of the art and how each artist is shown using it to a greater or lesser degree depending on their vision.
I'm still not sure I have a favourite photographer yet but I do know why. It's because I see elements of myself in each of the photographers and that makes me want them to ALL do well. I understand the awkwardness some feel shooting nudes, or the frustration when a photowalk around a city yields unsatisfying results.
And that is a feeling I don't get watching people bake cakes.
Master of Photography airs every week, Thursdays 8pm UK time, on Sky Arts. Images from Sky Arts website.