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