PRIZE GIVING DAY AT THE LAYCOCK
HENRY CARROLL’S FUTURE FICTION SHORT PREDICTS A RATHER AUTOMATED FUTURE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY, WHERE PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE THE PASSIVE RECIPIENTS OF THEIR PHOTOGRAPHS.
The chairman stood up, walked forward and placed his tablet on the lectern. Every pew in the church was full, as they always were on these occasions, and when he took his position, the club members applauded and their cameras flitted around like hummingbirds in the airspace above their heads. Some cameras swooped down and hovered in front of the chairman’s face as he tried to gather himself. They made beeping sounds and flashed little blue lights. This delighted their owners, especially those who owned the latest models, but clearly irritated the chairman. He switched on his tablet, which filled the lines in his face with deep, dark shadows, and said, “May I ask that all members kindly switch their cameras to passive.”
With that, the left eye of some club members turned red. Or, more precisely, a circle of red ringed their pupils. And when the wayward cameras retreated, the red faded and their owners’ eyes returned to normal.
The chairman grunted and continued.
“Myself and the rest of the committee, would like to thank you all for coming along today and for your generous support throughout the year. As you know, this has been a landmark year for the Laycock Camera Club because 2039 marks our 175th anniversary!”
Applause echoed through the church and the cameras started twitching around, almost as if they were struggling to contain the urge to take pictures.
“And...and...” the chairman strained above the applause, “perhaps even more importantly, exactly 200 years ago, in my family home that’s just footsteps from where we are gathered now, my great-great-great-grandfather, William Henry Fox Talbot, invented the wonderful art form that we are celebrating today.”
The members looked around at each other with expressions that suggested the history of their club weighed heavily on their artistic shoulders.
“As always, the entries for this year’s photography competition have been judged by myself and our esteemed committee.” More applause echoed through the church as the chairman raised an arm towards four stern looking figures sitting in front of the altar with their hands resting on their knees. “And, as always, all the winners will be awarded a £50 voucher to redeem against next year’s membership fee, while the overall winner will receive one year’s complimentary membership!”
The chairman rocked with excitement, just slightly, and the applauding members shuffled around in their seats, eager to know whose photographs would triumph this year.
“So, without further ado, let’s get to it!”
The chairman touched his tablet, which made a bright holographic screen appear in the air beside him. The screen displayed the club’s logo; a portrait of Fox Talbot, below which was the name of the club and the line, ‘The Birthplace of Photography’.
“Is it big enough?” the chairman asked. “Can everyone see at the back? Speak up if not.”
There were a few distant requests for the screen to be ‘a bit bigger’ and ‘a little higher which the chairman accommodated by tinkering around on his tablet.
“Right. Where were we? Yes, first we have this year’s highly- commended entry.”
The tension in the room was palpable. Against the hum of hovering cameras, legs jiggled on creaky pews and those sitting towards the back craned their heads over the other members, anxious to see whose picture would appear on the screen first. In a way, everyone wanted it to be theirs, but at the same time, they didn’t, because no one ever remembered who won highly-commended.
After a few moments, the screen shrunk into a small, brilliant ball of light that vibrated in the air and then exploded outwards again to reveal a photograph of a windmill. It was, without a doubt, a very pretty picture of a windmill. A blanket of white covered the ground and snow rested gently on the windmill’s sails. In the foreground, bare black branches contrasted with the white and created a frame around the subject. Everyone immediately recognised the windmill, most had even photographed it, because this was the windmill that sat on the hillside overlooking the village.
“Snow Covered Windmill by Tony Pritchard!” the chairman announced. “Where are you Tony? Come up here to collect your voucher. Quick as you can.”
Tony stood up and edged down the pew to frantic applause. Some members whispered to each other, agreeing how pretty the picture was. They said things like, “Beautiful lighting,” and, “Wonderful composition,” and, “He’s always had a good camera.” Meanwhile, others gave a kind of unimpressed shrug, as if to say, ‘My camera could have done that.’
When Tony reached the front, a camera swooped down to take a picture of him shaking the chairman’s hand while receiving his voucher. “Congratulations Tony,” said the chairman. “So please, do tell us how your camera managed to capture this lovely shot?” And then, under his breath, he muttered, “And try to keep it brief, would you.”
Tony joined the club over twenty years ago and was a well known, rather eccentric figure among the members. In fact, he was the one who designed the club’s logo.
“Yes, well,” started Tony, “Cartier-Bresson and I were up on Laycock Hill, like we are every morning. It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures, just walking the dog with the camera. Anyway, I’ve got CB on this new vegan dog food and when we reached the top of the hill he did the most enormous poo. Being a responsible dog owner, I bent down to pick it up and the camera flew in to see if there was a picture to be had. Obviously, I was like ‘there’s nothing to see here mate’ and that’s when it made a beeline for the windmill. Inevitable, I suppose, because I had the thing switched to Popular because it’s nice to get all the likes, you know. Anyway, as I was tying off the poo bag I kept track of what the camera was doing through the old red eye. Quite fascinating to see how it was composing the subject and wotnot and when it eventually came back, I saw it had captured this. I was really rather pleased with it.”
Applause filled the church.
“Thank you, Tony,” said the chairman, prompting him back to his seat. “Very well deserved.”
The club’s logo returned to the screen, the applause died down and the chairman introduced the next award.
“Now, the photograph taking third place...”
Once again, the tension inside the church swelled. The screen contracted and then exploded outwards again to reveal a photograph of an old Spitfire speeding through the air over the village. The Spitfire appeared to vibrate slightly within the composition, which gave it an added sense of speed, and every five seconds it would do a victory roll. It was, one might consider, an unusually close and very dramatic photo of a Spitfire that was perfectly positioned in the sky above the village.
Over enthusiastic applause, the chairman shouted, “Spitfire over Laycock by Vanya Sing.”
Vanya was always first to arrive at club meetings and was sitting right at the front of the church. Once the shock of realisation wore off, she stood up and timidly walked over to the chairman. When he gave her the voucher and shook her hand for the hovering camera, poor Vanya looked like she was going to melt away under all the attention.
“Congratulations Vanya! What a shot. Please do tell us how your camera managed it.”
“Oh my,” Vanya said quietly, “I wasn’t expecting this.”
“Wait there,” the chairman interrupted. He touched something on his tablet which caused a microphone to materialize in front of Vanya’s mouth.
“Thank you,” she continued, her voice now amplified around the church. “Well, I was sitting on the hillside, probably not far from where Tony walks his dog. It was a wonderfully peaceful evening and I was just sitting there, alone with my thoughts. And then I noticed something very strange. My camera was hovering way over in the distance, like it was waiting for something. I realised then, that I’d accidentally selected Future mode. Well, I became quite nervous because clearly something was about to happen, but I couldn’t imagine what because it was such a still evening. And then, a few moments later, the Spitfire flew past and just as it was over the village, it did a little twist in the sky.”
“Fantastic! What a lovely story,” the chairman enthused.
Vanya pressed her palms together and thanked the applauding members and thanked the chairman and thanked the committee, who continued to sit motionless with their hands on their knees. When Vanya sat back down, the other members on her pew congratulated her warmly and then fired envious glances at her voucher.
The second place photo was Barn Owl on a Branch by Jack Perkins, which was, you could say, a very spooky and quite otherworldly photo of a barn owl.
Jack was a local builder who lived in one of the ex-council houses on the outskirts of the village and, to the member’s frustration, every year he would always win something. That was why the applause was a little unenthusiastic as Jack walked forward. Some members even rolled their eyes when his name was called, and through clenched teeth muttered things like, “Looks like someone’s getting a bloody good deal on their new roof...”
When the chairman asked Jack to explain how his camera took the photograph, Jack said, “Yeah. Right. So it woz about half four in the morning and I woz ridin’ my i-cycle on the way to a job. I had me camera in me backpack. Just thought it weren’t genna see nothin’ cos it were so dark. Anyway, I was almost at the intersection just outside the village, when this bloody thing started smashin’ about in my bag, so I stopped to let it out cos it woz genna knock me off me bike and when I did this the thing just spranted through the air, tankin’ it back down the road. I woz like, ‘Bleeding ell, I ain’t got no time for this.’ Anyway, I turned around and followed it and that’s when I saw the owl sitting on the branch! Couldn’t believe it. Thought they woz eggstinct years ago. Anyway, the owl just sat there while me camera circled around it flashing off some shots. Funny it woz, cos its ‘ead kept twisting around, following the camera. Thought it woz genna fall off!”
The chairman seemed to find this highly amusing and let out a little snort as he gestured Jack back to his seat. What little applause there was quickly evaporated and other than Jack’s footsteps and the odd cough, silence filled the church once more.
“Right! Now it’s time to announce this year’s overall winner. But before I do, I would again like to congratulate you all. If he were here today, my great-great-great-grandfather would have been astonished by the quality of your photographs and I am sure he would be absolutely amazed to see how far photography has advanced since his early experiments. But there can be only one victor. So, ladies and gentleman, the winner of the Talbot Cup 2039 is...”
Everyone sat motionless, silently willing the chairman to call out their name. Just imagine the prestige. Their photograph would hang in the clubroom, which was inside the chairman’s family home. And it would hang there alongside all the other winning photographs from the past 175 years. Perhaps the committee might even invest in a special frame, given this was such a landmark year for the club.
“Betty Douglas, for her photograph, Mop and Bucket in Lattice Window!”
When the winning picture flashed up on screen, there was a delayed reaction as the members assessed it. Some cocked their heads. Others squinted slightly. Then, the applause started. Patchy and slow at first, then gaining momentum until some members rose to their feet. Soon everyone was on their feet. There were even cries of “Beautiful!” and “Stunning!”.
This was Betty’s first year at the club, so for her to scoop the top spot would normally have been a bit of a coup. But her father had died recently, so the members, generally speaking, were happy to see her win. When Betty eventually managed to squeeze past everyone on her pew, she paused to straighten her skirt before making her way down the aisle. People held out their hands and said things like, “Your dad would have been so proud,” and, “I knew it would be yours,” and, “Look at you. You’re so talented.”
It was hard to say exactly why Betty’s photograph was so beautiful and full of atmosphere, yet it undeniably was. Backlit, the lines of the lattice window appeared delicate against a heavenly glow. Extending from the bucket, the mop cut a forty-five degree angle across the composition and its tip rested lightly against the cracked wall. Inside the bucket, the lattice window reflected in the still water, and where the mop broke the surface, the lines of the window became distorted. And the colours! The red of the mop, the yellow of the price tag, the mint green of the bucket and the off-white paint on the walls - it all married together perfectly.
As Betty approached the chairman, he was clapping so hard he had to hold her voucher under his armpit. He’d never done that before. And when she reached him, he shook her hand so vigorously, her short, plump body wobbled like a blancmange from breast to ankle. She then just stood there, facing the other members, red-cheeked with hands pressed against her mouth like someone who had never won anything before in their life. The ecstatic clapping lasted a further minute or two and then, one by one, the members sat down.
“Congratulations Betty!” enthused the chairman. “Here’s your voucher to cover next year’s membership fee. Now, I must say, your photograph is wonderful. So unusual. We’re all dying to know how your camera took it.”
Betty took a few moments to gain her composure before saying, “Well, as some of you know, my dad died earlier in the year and when I was going through his things, I found his old digital camera. One of those ones you had to hold up to your eye. I had no idea how it worked, so I went online and watched a few videos.”
As Betty spoke, a confused expression crossed the members’ faces.
“I then took it to work one day and when cleaning around the Abbey, I was just struck by this scene. I don’t really know why I...”
“Sorry,” interjected the chairman, “Betty, are you saying you took this photograph? And not your camera?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
The chairman bit on his bottom lip and made a sucking sound. He peered around at the committee who were now sitting with their arms crossed and slowly shaking their heads. He looked out to the members, whose faces were puffy with disapproval.
“Betty,” the chairman said gravely, “I know you’re new to the club, but even so, that’s no excuse not to know the rules. I’m afraid I’m going to have to disqualify you.”
Betty was, of course, quite taken aback. “Oh, really? Why?” she asked.
“The LCC rules state that the camera must take the photograph, not the person. Otherwise it wouldn’t be fair, would it? Because, some people would be much better at it than others. And photography’s not like that, is it? That’s what makes it so special. It’s... it’s for everyone.” The chairman motioned in the direction of the club members, who all nodded in agreement.
It was very unlike Betty to protest in public. She just wasn’t that kind of woman. But given the circumstances, she couldn’t help herself.
“But that’s stupid,” she said. “What’s the point of taking photographs if you’re not allowed to be creative?”
Betty’s comment provoked a chorus of groans from the club members and utterances of disbelief. “Oh my god,” they said and, “This is ridiculous.”
“Gosh!” the chairman scoffed. “That’s not very progressive of you is it, Betty? Why on earth would you want to swim against the tide of what photography has always aspired to become? You’re wonderfully privileged to live in a time when the camera does it all. Photography has finally fulfilled its destiny and become entirely autonomous. Don’t you see? People, like you, and everyone else here, have been removed from the burdens of the process, yet at the same time, included.”
The chairman loomed over Betty and drilled his eyes into her. Betty just stood there looking confused, which exacerbated the chairman’s mood.
“Look. We’re due at The Carpenters at four so we really must move on.” With that, the chairman tried to pluck the voucher from Betty’s hand, but she pulled back.
Betty gripped onto the voucher with both hands and held it tightly against her breast.
“Come now. Don’t make a scene.”
The chairman attempted to wrestle the voucher from Betty, but she was determined to keep hold of it. Exhausted, he took a step back, then another, and another, until Betty found herself standing alone at the front of the church.
That’s when she noticed all the red eyes staring back at her.
That’s when she noticed the high-pitched hum of the cameras.
That’s when she noticed they were all lined up in attack formation.
Henry Carroll graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2005. He is a photographer, writer and author of the ‘Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs’ series. First published in 2014 by Laurence King, this best-selling series has sold over 600,000 copies across 17 languages. Henry’s latest book, ‘Photographers on Photography; How The Masters See, Think & Shoot’, is in stores now. Originally from London, Henry is now based in Los Angeles