THE Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones recently asked who today has taken on the tradition of representing the poor in art as, for instance, Van Gogh did.

He could find no answer; surprising, as it seems obvious that social realism is best represented by photography. The realist figurative tradition that began at the Renaissance transferred to photography as technology improved, resulting in a medium less corruptible than painting.

It turns out that Jones didn’t look to photography because he thinks it can’t be art.

I’m not really bothered about this hoary old question, but I like to ask whether Caravaggio would have used a camera if one had been available. You bet he would!

Jones’s prime evidence against photography as an art was an image of rock formations that recently sold for $6.5 million. I have defended photography as an art form for more than 30 years, but I do see his point. (Relevant images can be found by searching online for ‘Peter Lik canyon’).

Much photography today strikes me as being tricksy, shallow, vulgar and simply bad art.

One contemporary problem is that technology has turned the hobby of photography into something like birdwatching, train spotting or safari.

There are even organised tours and a worldwide travel itinerary checking off all the top photographic cliches. Every day at the Mesa Arch in Utah 40 or 50 photographers line up for their own unique image.

Film photography was much more of a technical hobby, and appealed to the same sort of person who enjoyed renovating old cars or building radio sets.

There are still a few individuals who insist on using film and wrestling with chemical processes in the dark, but in the main all the technical questions are easily answered.

What is left are intentions and meaning. This is both a good and a bad thing.

I am no Luddite and digital photography has taken my own photography in new directions, but am always conscious of a visual tradition.

The Southern Counties Photographic Federation exhibition at the Young Gallery (until January 31) probably won’t help win the argument that photography is art.

For most casual visitors there are just too many pictures. It’s my subject and there are too many for me.

Some guidance comes from a jury’s commendations and awards, and in the main I think these are deserved, but the gems that I found were hidden in the main body of work.

And there are some real gems here: usually the subject matter is quite commonplace, and the technique is simple: yet the image has a new and surprising twist.

Martin Urmson

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