The Way to Art is through Craft

The way to art is through craft; not around craft – Ansel Adams

I was reminded of this cryptic comment whilst attending the recent Iris Awards held in Wellington New Zealand by the NZ Institute of Professional Photography.


Piper and Posers; © Ian Poole, 2016 (IRIS Silver Award)

With over 1,200 photographs judged in various categories over three days by local and overseas photographers, this was an event of resounding success.  Some great images were viewed, discussed and awarded.  With this access to vast riches of both imagery and photographic knowledge, all gathered together in a couple of small rooms, it was an opportunity to absorb creativity beyond compare.

It was not the fact that there was an audience – it was the composition of that audience that surprised me.

The judging of the wedding and portrait categories were unsurprisingly a case of a full house at every session.  Hardly to be marveled at when the photographic industry is largely constructed on the business of domestic image making.  My surprise was that these people disappeared from the rooms when other apparently unrelated categories were being considered.

This is the age where few domestic photographers maintain a formal studio, preferring to work from a home environment, with resulting wedding and portrait images being taken in informal outdoor surroundings.  For example the family group in a park setting, or the wedding couple being dwarfed by a large factory wall.   These good uses of the natural and urban landscape are part and parcel of the 21st century portrait or wedding photographic experience.

So, I wondered, where were all the wedding and portrait photographers when the Landscape Category was being judged?


Hong Kong; © Ian Poole, 2016 (IRIS Silver Award)

Where did they go? There were many entrants in the room but nowhere near the number of practitioners in evidence when the domestic genres were being assessed.  Many a time I have observed the plaintive cries of wedding photographers on social media agonising over an upcoming wet weekend and seeking fresh ideas and secret locations to use while documenting their brides and grooms.  It occurred to me,  wouldn’t observing the locations chosen by landscape workers be potentially useful for placing your bridal couples within their context?  Or a factory, or some city hall steps, or a strange dark and moody alleyway?  These are all locations where I have seen portraits produced for bridal couples working under a photographer’s direction.

A further cause for concern for me was the surprising comment by some audience members during the judging of the Documentary Category that men were assessing birth photographs!  This ironic observation would have had the potential for humour in times other than the politically correct ones we live in today, but the strength of such comments was a little daunting.  The category quite reasonably embraces the idea of the camera as a means of recording (documenting) the human endeavour.

A broad ethos at best.

The criticism was two pronged.  Firstly that male judges had no understanding of the birth process and that they were unaware of the degree of difficulty involved in this area of photography.  This seemed a somewhat sexist approach.

However, putting that aside, my first response would be that the judges (male and female) were briefed to find the best photographs showing a documentation of the human condition.  Note the requirement to arrive at a winning photograph.  All the judges came from different areas of the industry but carried with them skills and abilities to assess and arrive at a conclusion.  Some were skilled practitioners in documentary photography, and all possessed that necessary ability to assess, analyse and score a photograph within the constraints of a well-documented and rigorously maintained process.

The degree of difficulty argument is not new in the awards system.

The wedding photographer working in the pouring rain, the newborn photographer with the wailing baby, the architectural photographer without a cloud in the sky, the commercial photographer with a rubbish skip in front of a building at 5am, the medical photographer with surgeons and anaesthetists in front of their view –  these and many other obstacles are part and parcel of a professional photographer’s daily life.  To imagine that judges are unaware or unable to acknowledge these challenges is misguided and a sad slight on the skills and experience of the judges who worked tirelessly to ensure that high standards ensued.

Fortunately with some long hours, some diligent consideration, some robust discussion and eventual collegiate agreement, the 2016 NZIPP Iris Awards were a resounding success – congratulations to the Institute and their many workers on a job well done.


Nagano; © Ian Poole, 2016 (IRIS Silver Award)

Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 1.23.08 PM

This essay first appeared in f11 Magazine :: for PHOTOGRAPHERS and AFICIONADOS, p146, issue 56 :: July, 2016.







One thought on “The Way to Art is through Craft

  1. Hi Ian, I really enjoyed reading your comments and have a lot of respect for your perspective, I was intrigued by your comments regarding birth photography. I am a birth photographer and you judged some of my work, I learned a lot from your comments so thank you, as someone who was not connected to my image emotionally or with a maternal pang it was an insight that was very gratefully received. I would however like to speak to your comments about sexism in the comments regarding the judging and understanding the degree of difficulty involved with birth photography, i’m sorry it will be long but I figure you are open to conversation given your blog post about it.

    I absolutely agree that men can and should judge birth work, some male judges have been the reason my prints have won a higher awards because they fought for it and understood it better than their female counterparts however I myself have been guilty of making the comment that men don’t understand (smack on the hand for me), my comment came from a place of men in general sometimes not able to understand a birthing environment. for eg. I submitted an image to mock judging of a home birth and the men did not understand why there was an exercise ball in the shot and questioned where the midwife was, they genuinely did not understand that a midwife doesn’t need to be present at every moment or that an “exercise ball” can be used during labour was actually very relevant to the shot. They had some other relevant points about the image and that along with the possibility of judges also not understanding the environment lead me to not enter it.

    I agree photographers of all areas encounter difficulties in their shooting situations however there still remains a level of control, if a baby is crying at a newborn shoot there are techniques that can be undertaken to help sooth the baby and worst case scenario you have to re-shoot it at another time, with a wedding it may be pouring with rain but you have the ability to move your couple to a drier location that you would have arranged as a back-up, the rubbish skip in the way at 5am you can remove in photoshop and it doesn’t degrade or ruin your image or you pick another angle or shooting time . In a birthing environment you simply have no control, no control over the lighting, the subject, the angle, the timing etc etc.

    Id like to give a small piece of perspective with how a birth photographers job sometimes goes, imagine waking up at 2am, half asleep (you may or may not have been up the night before at another birth also) rushing to get dressed and out the door making sure you havent forgotten anything, drive quickly but safely not knowing whether you are going to make it in time to capture the main moment, a moment that if missed will leave your client bitterly disappointed. You finally get to the hospital, park and rush up the elevator to get into the room, you are met with an almost pitch black room or a room with a variety of artificial lighting above and behind Mum that are usually different temperatures and different strengths , a midwife or doctor may or may not greet you with a cold shoulder and may or may not allow you to shoot certain things, you then scramble to get all of your gear out and try and find the optimum position to capture whats happening, you sometimes have not only a midwife but a student, other hospital staff, grandmothers etc etc to try and work around to get the shots, you finally get a position that works (if you’re lucky) and start shooting, a midwife then stands right in front of you, you have to reposition, the main moment is about to happen and then bang a spot light is switched on and you’re then trying to contend with a spotlight and the rest of the environment ! you cant possibly expose for the background and the spotlit area so you grab a flash (the midwife may or may not allow you to use it) and try and do your best to make sure you get the shot. We only have one chance to do this job, there are no do over’s, of course sometimes you get optimal shooting environments but after shooting births for 5 years I can honestly say thats not very often.

    With all this being said I am sure you can understand a bit more why birth photographers feel like their environment is misunderstood when a shot that you know was so technically difficult/bordering on impossible is nailed and the ” I would expect that any good photographer would be able to capture this, its circumstantial ” comment gets made ! I firmly disagree, not just any good photographer could shoot in any birthing environment, you need to not only have the skill to quickly make decisions with the added pressure of completely ruining your shoot if you make the wrong one but also the ability to seamlessly slip into a sometimes very tense and sensitive environment, the ability to read a room and know how to proceed along with the ability to meet the huge expectation of documenting this life changing moment. What we do is not easy, it’s not a genre that is easily socially accepted either, we often have to fight to have our work recognised for what is is, beautiful and important. Stand up to the disgusting hypocrisy’s of things like Facebook who deem our work inappropriate yet happily accept soft core porn and protect our clients when others make derogatory comments about them having a birth photographer or sharing their images. I do not disagree that as birth photographers we need to find a point of interest rather than pure documentation but contrary to popular belief not every birth features these golden emotional moments that have been labelled as “easy award winners” in the past, not every mother has a look of euphoria when her baby is born, those moments aren’t just a given with every birth.

    Do I think our genre is more important than others, absolutely not, do I believe that we should be given awards more easily, definitely not, I simply believe that a wider variety of judges with further understanding is paramount to the judging process, I leapt for joy when a judge commented on one of my images and acknowledged that my environment was a tough one with the lighting and we just need more of that, a bit of understanding and less of the misunderstanding of where we are coming from 🙂


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