15: 8-May-2017

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Ok, now to my musings – not the usual selection of reads this time.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve had a week off and indulged my hobby on a trip to Melbourne. The main reason was to see the Van Gogh Seasons exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria and to see a contemporary photography exhibition at the NGV that is also running.

After seeing both exhibitions I came away frustrated and irritated – and not with the exhibitions which were excellent. I’ll explain that shortly. But first a short summary of the exhibitions.

The works of Van Gogh were inspiring, full of colour and life, able to capture the essence of the subject so well. His early work was ok, but the later paintings with all those colors and interesting texture was brilliant and truly inspiring – literally mind blowing! The use of colour dabs, lines, perspective, texture are just part of the reason for his greatness. He took the Impressionists to a new level. To think he did this in the 10 years prior to his sudden death is amazing. If you get a chance to see it make the effort – it runs until 9-Jul-2017 – you won’t be disappointed.

The NGV also had an exhibition of contemporary photography – they have a collection of over 3500 images to choose from.

The first part of the exhibition I saw was a series of landscape and portrait prints from Australian photographer Bill Henson. The exhibition’s images have a dark moodiness which is his style. This is challenging viewing. However what really struck me were his landscapes – which shared this moodiness of his portraits but with immense power. Not only the darkness, but the textures he produces in his prints are outstanding. The images make you think – they are enigmas. This is story telling – which is what good photography needs to do in my opinion.

I then went to see the Portraits of William EgglestonEggleston works in colour and has been a proponent of colour photography in galleries, including dye transfer printing. His early work was inspired by Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson, but evolved into his own unique style with his colour work. His most notable work is The Red Ceiling. Although portrait photography is not his primary work his contribution to colour photography is enormous. What struck me looking at his images was the use of colour and form. He would find a shape or capture a specific colour or exploit depth of field to tell his story. The angles and textures were completely unlike camera club imagery – this is a photographer thinking about his work and pushing the boundaries of what he photographs and prints.

The final works I looked at was an exhibition of contemporary photographers from around the world, including:

There are many more – all different, all inspiring, most falling out of the camera club paradigm and worthy of your viewing (have a look at the catalogue of image captions).

What struck me as I viewed these images is how constricted and restrictive we are in the world of camera clubs. Clubs play to the judges – and become what might be called Blancmange. That was the essence of my frustration and irritation.

Here was the presentation of great photographic work from many talented people, telling stories, examining how we think, what we do, reviewing our past, capturing unique moments in time, displaying art and creativity. Much of it pushes the boundaries of what we see. Many generated emotional responses for me.

Eggleston in the hands of most of our judges would get low scores. His portraits don’t have the subject looking at the camera or with space in the direction of their view. Out of focus areas would challenge them, highlights in the wrong places.

Henson was dark and moody. His portraits are controversial, but have a message of vulnerability. Again, the club paradigm would be a poor fit.

Trent Parke is often derided by people I meet at photography clubs. Why? What is wrong with seeing something different and challenging? Like reading a book or listening to music, these are different stories, with their own merit. If you can’t see the point that’s fine – but why negate it’s value? Experience it first, take from it what appeals to you, but appreciate it even if you don’t like it. The photographic and artistic world is a broad church with room for many views.

The other contemporary photographers had unusual colour shifts, images out of focus, highlights that challenged the eye, collages of images – both cut and printed, unusual angles of view. Again – the judges would fall back to their usual rules and score low with some condescending comment in many cases.

In contrast to these works we have our little club competitions, with what we think are the sage words of the judge or our peers. There are some good judges, but there are more mediocre ones. Seeing the exhibitions makes your realise how blinkered this view is. What – I hear you ask – could our judges be on the wrong track?

I have railed against judges before, I’ve joined their ranks, I’ve tried to push my own boundaries and the boundaries of the clubs I judge at, and move beyond the camera club mindset. In reality, we are living in a little bubble with little real understanding of what a powerful tool we hold in our hands. How we can influence and inspire people around us. We need to get out of that bubble and explore. That is one reason why photographers leave clubs – there is no point in going around in circles.

The first step to overcoming this is to recognise that if you limit your view to what clubs have to offer then you will not progress. Yes – we need to improve our technical skills – that is often the starting point for many. But we also need to move beyond the basic club style too. Don’t be mediocre.

The second step is to see the works of many other photographers and artists – learn from them, understand their message.  Experience the richness and diversity of other photographers. Apply new ideas to your own images. Here’s a suggestion – go to a gallery, do an art appreciation course, buy a book showcasing new (and old) photographers, visit web sites like 500px or Flickr or Instagram – there are lots more. Expand your visual vocabulary. See more than what we are limited to in clubs. Metaphorically we are very small fish in a small pond connected to a huge ocean teaming with other fish – be brave and swim outside the small pond.

Maybe what we need in our clubs is a short essay at every peer review reviewing a non-photo club photographer to experience other photographic styles. Get out of the camera club rut – and I use that word deliberately. You may not like all of the images at contemporary exhibitions – but if they make you think and explore beyond that bird or mammal or flower or landscape photo we see over and over again then they will have broadened your photographic horizon.

The third step is your choice – but make it your photographic choice – not some judge or peer not prepared to evolve. Be true to your photographic vision – don’t conform to theirs.

Only then will you progress.
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One response

  1. Ron.Hassan

    Thank you Chris , I’m sure many people have the same idea as you, I for one.Comps are sometimes so frustrating, you have a fair idea of what the photographer went through to get a beautiful image,he or she have an emotional tie to the image and the judge scores it poorly, thats how to kill enthusiasm how does one take it on board ? yet we are here to learn . The comments are “you should have used some process to do this or that”, they very rarely consider why one took the image.Every club “competitor” has had the low score, and asks in their mind but why, it portrays what I saw,and wanted to convey
    I cant help it if you are too “narrow sighted” to see it too.

    11/05/2017 at 5:21 am

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