Raising the Bar
This story was originally written for Australian Photography magazine by Anthony McKee
The story may only be reproduced, in part or in entirety, with the consent of the author.
RAISING THE BAR
|Mogumber Tavern, Western Australia|
Camera clubs are a popular forum for recreational photographers; like car clubs, wine societies and sporting organisations they’re a place where people can get together and share common passions. Most camera clubs provide their members the opportunity to listen to guest speakers, share workshop evenings and occasionally get on the road for a field trip. For many photographers in clubs though, the most important aspect of club life is the competitions; they are a chance to put up one’s best photographs before the club, get them appraised by a judge and with luck, claim a trophy or two at the end-of-year prize giving.
Club competitions are considered by many to be a learning forum; an opportunity for photographers of all levels to show their work and have it critiqued by a judge. The competition trophies are also considered to be an incentive for photographers to put extra effort into their image making. However, while these reasons may appeal to some photographers the reality could be that photography competitions at club level are actually having a detrimental effect on recreational photography. The very nature of the competition could be turning recreational photography from a creative art form into a ‘sport’ where the winning of trophies is considered more important than personal direction and vision.
To qualify this argument you only have to spend time looking through the archives of most camera clubs or browsing through some old amateur photography magazines and journals. It doesn’t take too long to realise that over the past 20 or 30 years there have been no great progressions in the style or vision of recreational photographers. Most recreational shooters are still using the same landscape, portrait, natural history and photojournalism ideas that our predecessors were shooting back in the days when cameras still had wind-on levers. While most other arts have progressed, recreational photography seems to have become stuck at a roundabout, content to reuse winning formulas from past years to win today’s competitions rather than risk failure with new ideas. Creativity has taken a back seat to safe bets.
In reality almost everything about us in life is underpinned by competition in one form or another. From the day we start school until the day we retire the pressure is on to do better than the person next to us, whether it’s getting better marks in an exam, getting a promotion at work or just winning a social game of golf. Competition can be good for us; at a base level the knowledge our work or performance is better than someone else’s improves our self esteem (and any doctor will tell you this is good for a healthy mind and body). Competition can also have adverse effects on people though; the desire to win can sometimes overrule rational thought and cloud vision. This is not to say that camera club competitions turn people into irrational beings, but it cannot be ignored that for some people the desire to win is perhaps more important than the photography itself.
Camera Club Days
My own experience of club competitions began 20 years ago when I joined a club in New Zealand. Like most, the one I joined featured a mix of guest speakers, workshops, field trips and plenty of competitions; aside from six open print and six open slide competitions every year, there were landscape, portrait, photojournalism, natural history and C-grade (novice) competitions. Within months of joining the club I was involved in the culture of the competitions and was soon learning from judges the importance of depth of field, bright colours and the all-important ‘rule of thirds’. With time I also learnt that most photographers within the club realised what the different judges were looking for in a good image and they would essentially manufacture photographs that would meet the common judging criteria. I probably became guilty of this behaviour too; as I listened to judges talk every other week I slowly established a set of ‘do’s and don’ts’ to apply to my image making and soon I, like many others, was making photographs to a set of camera club guidelines that would help me win awards in club competition.
The one individual within the club who was content to make his own original images was another young photographer of the time, John Doogan. John joined the club a year or two after me and rather than photographing the pretty things in life, the backlit landscapes and the maidens looking lost, John preferred to head off in his own direction, creating sophisticated black and white composite images that were always interesting and often challenging. John’s images were created using a mix of negatives manipulated together in a conventional black and white darkroom (these were the days before home computers and scanners) and while most people in the club were intrigued by the work few ever set about to match the level of effort put into creating each image. John’s work was successful in club competitions because it was not only technically good (which often seemed to be the main criteria in judging) but it was also very original and convincing.
John and I left the camera club scene in 1989 when we both left town to pursue different career directions. Within weeks I was discovering a new level of competition, this time within one of New Zealand’s top photography schools. At the time I applied there were about 150 people applying for the seventeen places within the class and once on the course the challenge to do well only heightened with every class critique. Unlike the club environment though, our education tended to disregard traditional image making rules and instead demanded of us a new way of looking at our subjects and assignments. Rather than being shown how to make a portrait or landscape image we were expected to explore the subjects for ourselves using a range of techniques, processes and inspired ideas; if the work was too conventional or safe there was every chance we were going to get marked down on the assignment. The challenge to us within the course was to learn as much as we could about photography and then set out to break the rules.
On completing the course we discovered yet another form of competition, the struggle to get work in a very competitive market. For every photography job that is advertised there are at least as 100 to 1000 applicants trying to win the position, and then there are the jobs that are not advertised. Every week hundreds photographers all over Australia and New Zealand go out with their portfolios in the hunt for assignments, whether it be a portrait or wedding job or the next airline advertising campaign.
For many individuals, competition within the photography market is considered to be price based; in order to get an assignment you need to quote less than the guy next to you while delivering the same quantity and quality of product. Price-based competition drives a significant portion of the professional photography market place, however if you look beyond the budget wedding/portrait photographers and the $100 per hour commercial shooters you discover a different level of photography that isn’t price based, but style based. At the upper echelons of professional photography are individuals for whom the quote is not the determining factor in getting assignments, but rather the individual style of their work; some of the best portrait, wedding, fashion, commercial and corporate photographers have a way of making a photograph that is as unique as their finger print.
Some of these photographers may employ very intricate technical processes in creating an image while other photographers may just have the knack of getting the best look out of a model or their celebrity subjects. No matter how the final image is achieved, it is this unique style that a client wants to commission, at which point the fee usually becomes a secondary consideration. This is an important reason why professional photography has advanced significantly over the past two decades while recreational photography seems to have wallowed; the top professional photographers are driven to create new styles and ideas in order to stay ahead of their competition and achieve the high-paying assignments.
While we can usually see some of this brilliant photography appearing in glossy magazines and billboards about the country, the best place to be inspired by some of the country’s top pro photographers is at the annual Australian Professional Photography Awards (colloquially known as the APPAs) that are run every year in association with the Imaging World Expo. As with amateur competition, the APPAs bring out the competitive nature in professional photographers; all pros know that winning a section or the top prize of “Australian Professional Photographer of the Year” will not only be good for their ego, but also very good for business. Where the professional awards differ from most amateur competitions is all to do with the rules that govern competition, and the calibre of the judging.
The only two rules that really control what a photographer may enter into competition simply state that all images must be mounted on a 16x20in board and they must be photographed from within the past two years; beyond these two rules the only limiting factor is the photographer’s imagination. While these two rules make entering the awards accessible to anyone, the actual judging of the images happens at a level that is beyond most camera club competitions. Aside from the fact that as many as 2000 images are judged through the course of one weekend, a group of up to 40 or more qualified judges from throughout Australia and overseas are also assembled for the purpose of judging the APPAs. Each section is judged by two separate panels, with half of the entries being sent through to one panel for judging while the second panel judges the other half of the work in a separate room. There are five judges on each panel with two or three judges sitting in reserve. Overseeing each judging panel is a chairperson who collates the scores for each print, notes any major differences in the scorings and chairs any discussion as it is required. Any images that are still in debate after two scoring attempts are sent through to the other panel. In total an image may get assessed by a total of 10 judges.
Most of the process takes place in near silence; what you notice when the judges do start talking about an image is that there’s usually very little talk about the rule of thirds or the print sharpness and more consideration to the emotional content and originality of an idea. Photographs within professional competition are not judged on technical issues (technical prowess is assumed), but rather the photographer’s ability to convey an idea and an emotion about a moment in time. Judges are looking for unique images that are both convincing and engaging; any image that is either a cliché or a deliberately copied idea risks being scored low or thrown out of competition. On average only about 20 percent of all images receive a silver award while only about one percent of images receive a gold award. Achieving high scores and gold awards within professional competition is an extremely difficult challenge for any photographer.
To do well in professional competition the smart photographers know they cannot look to the past for ideas; they have to move beyond where photography is at the moment to create new and unique images. The process of professional competition is not all about ego tripping for many professional photographers either; it’s about proving to clients they have new and fresh ideas that make them unique as a photographer and deserving of future assignments. Winning awards in professional competition is a survival tool for many of the countries top professional photographers. It is perhaps no surprise then that John Doogan, who (aside from recently rejoining the camera club scene) now works as a professional photographer in Christchurch, has proven successful in the New Zealand Professional Photography Awards. John is not a photographer who I would ever describe as been driven by ego or a desire to win; instead I consider him to be driven by an extraordinary passion to create his own unique images independent of what everyone else is doing.
Competitions do not have to be a problem to the growth of photography as an art. Within professional photography they provide an annual forum for photographers to get together and appreciate each other’s work and talents; most professional photographers are happy the awards only occur once a year though. Coming up with new ideas, putting time aside to get to the awards and watching the APPA committee go through struggle of making the event work is not a process everyone wants to go through too often. By comparison, camera club competitions may be occurring too regularly; chances are they have gone beyond being an interesting forum and instead are becoming production lines for clichés.
Less Competition... More Inspiration
If camera clubs started placing less emphasis on regular competitions and more emphasis on non-competitive forums then there’s a chance recreational photographers could start helping each other to move forward again to realise the expanding potential of the medium. Camera club environments should perhaps become “creative collectives” where photographers work together to improve each other’s abilities rather than competing against each other for club honours. The results of each year’s efforts could then be really put to the test at the annual national and interclub competitions; such a move could see an overall improvement within recreational photography that could easily rival the APPAs.
To be fair on all concerned, everyone has to learn from the beginning and all of us through the course of learning photography have taken our share of the clichéd images. While it’s easy to compare the differences between visual trends in professional and recreational photography it’s also worth noting that many top professional photographers began their photography careers in a camera club. All of us however, are ultimately responsible for our own directions within the art of photography; we have to choose as individuals whether we want to follow or lead in the search for new photographic ideas. The only thing limiting our ability as photographers is our imagination; it’s time for people to realise that creating a uniquely original image can be just as satisfying as winning a club competition with a familiar idea. Photography is not a race; we do not have to head in the same direction as everyone else in order to be at the front of our game. Ultimately the very best and most memorable images have been made by photographers willing to create a new path across pastures rather than staying on the well-trodden path travelled by the countless others before them.
|Mogumber Tavern, Western Australia|
Five Creative Pointers for Photographers
Make photographs that make you happy.
Forget the judges, forget the competitions, don’t worry about what anyone else thinks; photography is an art and art is all about self expression. Express yourself!
Go the extra distance
Have the courage to look beyond the ordinary; walk an extra mile, wait another minute, ask an extra question, look in other directions.
Look and Learn.
Spend time looking at professional photography and international photography magazines and website. Look at some of the ideas being used in photography (and other art mediums) and try and apply a few of the techniques and processes to your own work. Don’t copy photo ideas, copy good technique.
Let the picture tell the story.
Avoid using complicated or funny titles on your images; if the picture is not enough to tell the story then maybe you need to reconsider how you visually tell stories within your photographs. If you look at famous photographs youíll realise it is the image that talks to us first - the caption usually only provides supplementary information.
Revisit old ideas.
It’s often worth revisiting a familiar area or subject with an eye to exploring deeper into the potential of the situation. You know what you have achieved in the past and you know how you achieved it; now use that knowledge to go beyond previous ideas.
Five Pointers for Judges
Know the potential of the medium.
Spend time looking at photographs beyond the realm of club photography; look at the trends within professional and fine-art photography both locally and overseas and realise the different techniques and processes in use. Encourage your audience to look at these influences and work towards involving some of the ideas within their image making.
Expect good technique.
Don’t feel obliged to reward a photograph simply because it’s well exposed and in focus. Reward fresh ideas, reward interesting risks, reward creativity.
Encourage progression within new ideas.
If a photograph is too traditional or clichéd try offering the photographer some creative options that can be applied to the idea within a similar situation. Discuss the composition, lighting and emotional elements and then consider the analogue or digital techniques that can be applied to the image to raise it beyond the ordinary.
Look for conviction within an image.
No matter whether an image is purely analogue or digitally manipulated there is one question worth asking as you judge it... are you convinced by what you see? Most people have a built-in baloney meter and if you don’t believe in the image you’re looking at, whether it be a simple portrait or a digital created image of flying pigs, then it has failed in its function.
Leave the audience happy.
Ask around and you will discover that the most popular judges are not the ones who hand out the most certificates on the night; they’re the ones who are honest in their opinions and who provide interesting enlightenment combined with a little entertainment during the course of the evening. Don’t give them the same lines about the rules of thirds and depth of field, get the audience thinking beyond the square, challenge them, and chances are they will thank you for it.