FLEA MARKET PHOTOBOOKS: 15 / APR / 2020
BLUFF YOUR WAY IN PHOTOGRAPHY
by John Courtis
Ravette Books: London, 1987
Reviewed by Annebella Pollen
Aside from the generic tableaux of camera, case, guide and print on the cover, Bluff your Way in Photography does not contain any photographs. This fits perfectly with its subject matter. The true bluffer, in John Courtis’s estimation, ideally never takes a picture. He notes: "You don’t have to be a photographer at all to achieve moral ascendancy". The object is to "sneer knowledgeably from the side lines"’. The ideal situation for the complete bluffer would be to not even have a camera, although s/he must be seen to have one as a baseline. Those with complete brass nerve are advised to buy an old camera case and stuff it with newspaper. As bluffers will not be able, or indeed want, the finest of photographic technology, the next best recommendation is to have a camera so bad that you stand out from the crowd. A non-operational one, out of use due to the dedicated pursuit of an obscure specialist part, carries particular kudos. If caught without a camera, the faux-photographer must claim to be "between systems".
To bluff is to appear knowledgeable without engaging in any serious study. This book is a quick primer on how to get there in a domain where a specialist vocabulary of technicalities, processes and practitioners is required. The world that the author describes is one predisposed to bullshit; it is recognisably that of 1980s camera club competitors and enthusiasts committed to equipment, yet the observations can equally apply to other domains where one-upmanship may flourish, such as, dare I say it, the opening nights of some photography exhibitions. The book contains a lot of predictable sarcasm and the weak humour typical of gift books but I appreciate its articulation of the unspoken codes of photographic culture. Its inverted attitudes are also refreshing. It foregrounds "The World’s Worst Cameras" over the best of tech, and schools the bluffer in a list of common errors to enable confident criticism without having to attempt to get any of them right.
The book is founded on the core premise of photographic hierarchies; those conditions and approaches that separate amateurs from professionals. It outlines a ladder of value that mirrors those identified by eminent scholars of popular photographic practice. As such, this £1.99 popular work is, amusingly, not a million miles from Pierre Bourdieu’s heavyweight sociological study, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. The ideal position for the bluffer is to convince amateurs that they are experienced, and simultaneously to convince professionals that they are not talking to an outright novice. This is a tricky tightrope to walk. One must not know too much, as one then becomes an expert not a bluffer. The ideal is the cultivation of a particular kind of image.
Photography is an area of practice that is overwhelmed with books of guidance. Was there ever another hobby with so many publications dedicated to technique? Here the "How To" is not how to be a photographer, but how to look like one. Advice is given on "Cameras to be Seen With" and a further section describes "How to Wear your Camera". This reminded me of the ways that certain kinds of kit – those considered "bad" in the book’s terminology – are now used as fashion accessories. Analogue cameras act as cultural signifiers round the necks of mannequins in the window displays of Urban Outfitters. The hipster in its twenty-first century manifestation was not born when this book was produced, but some current photographic posturing seems to come straight from its pages.
Bluffer’s Guides sold by the million in the 1980s and followed a standard format, whether their subject was Accountancy, Modern Art, Wine or Sex. Bluff your Way in Photography adheres to the pattern. A glossary of key terms and famous names is provided at the end, along with a short history of pioneers. Names to drop include Moholy-Nagy (only to show that you know his last name "rhymes with large") and Susan Sontag, whose book On Photography is described as a bluffer’s dream: "no illustrations". Sontag talks the talk without taking a single photograph; she has earned the bluffer’s stripes.