Matters of Gravity

To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of universal gravitation before going for a walk”  –  Edward Weston

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Pepper; © Edward Weston, 1930

For the commercial photographer it sometimes appears pedantic to overly consider aesthetics when seeking the commensurate financial compensation for work performed in the current business environment.

For the amateur photographer chasing awards and citations within their club environment it sometimes seems essential to work the rule of thirds to its predictable and very likely dire death.

Should the rules of composition be considered prior to making a photograph?

Well of course they should.  But wouldn’t it be better if this, and many other rules, were ingrained via education and consistent repetitive practice?  After all, the best musicians practice every day.  Great artists are constantly working at their easel.  Writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle produced a solid 3,000 words per day, whilst Ernest Hemingway produced a more miserly 500 words per day – but they, and many others, kept up this rate day after day.  When questioned about his daily output, Doyle was recorded as saying “anything is better than stagnation”.

In this day and age, where the combination of simple photographic fixes with apparently bullet proof cameras producing exposures approaching perfection, the need for formal education has never been more apparent.  Learning the rules might seem a little on the tedious side, but a solid grounding with this knowledge makes the subsequent artistic breaking of them a matter of course.

Doing so with the confidence of gut instinct is far better than consulting a tedious check list of “rules” set out in bullet points on a crumpled piece of card in your back pocket.  A little like those cheat sheet cards containing illustrations that were once favoured for posing portrait subjects.

Equally destructive is the often absolute reliance on formulaic rules of photography favoured by some camera club judges.  This usually comes about from a desire to enforce a certain standard upon judges who come from many and varied backgrounds and experiences.  This approach to standardisation is as damaging as having a couple of rogue judges rampaging through a photography society.  This lowering of standards to that of the perceived average photographer is as counter-productive as the commercial photographer who attempts to bring a veneer of creativity to their output via a forced reliance on contemporary aesthetics.

There are no simple fixes to this age-old photographic conundrum.  Although often overlooked in current times, one simple answer is grounded in a formal course of study (either photographic or artistic) followed by a period of time working in the shadow of an established practitioner, prior to embarking into the world of commercial image making. Instead, today many choose the quick fix money making alternative of purchasing a sophisticated camera capable of producing sharp and well exposed images, printing a few business cards and hanging the virtual open-for-business sign that a simple website now represents.

It is at this point that aesthetics fly out of the window, lost perhaps forever to the commercial imperative.  The end result?  A slow decline in professional standards, and less effective, less persuasive visual communication.

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Pablo Picasso; © David Douglas Duncan

The downside of this unsophisticated approach is that an unskilled photographer with the gift of the gab and some slick presentation skills is sometimes able to take work away from a practicing professional with years of solid experience, often by providing a cheaper solution.

 

The words, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”, were attributed to Pablo Picasso, and it is difficult to argue with the master.


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This essay first appeared in f11 Magazine :: for PHOTOGRAPHERS and AFICIONADOS, p156, issue 61 :: December/January, 2017.

 

Glittering Prizes

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Wakatipu Sky; © Ian Poole, 2011.

The southern hemispheric professional photography awards season has finished and we will shortly see the start of a similar set of competitions in the northern one.

One of the outcomes from these award results was the proliferation of images rated at the higher end of the scorecard that contained, or were dependent on, both graphic design and large amounts of post-production.  Noticing these trends caused some disquiet to newcomers to the awards as well as to the more experienced traditional exponents of the photographic craft.

The distance travelled between the point we have now reached and Louis Daguerre’s 1837 invention in creating a Daguerreotype or the creation of the dry plate by Richard Leach Maddox in 1871 was undoubtedly a cause of debate amongst practitioners.  While doing away with the very dangerous life threatening use of mercury with a Daguerreotype process was the primary driver, the resulting then newfound ability to create more than one copy from each exposure opened up vast possibilities.  In a sense, those birds are still nesting.

Similarly, the transition from film to digital opened up possibilities not previously seen nor imagined.  The blurring of previously clear demarcation lines between image creators (photographers) and image manipulators (for the sake of the argument lets call them graphic designers) has now become very obvious.

The awards criticism comes from two quite diverse sectors.

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Whakatane Sky; © Ian Poole, 2011.

Amongst the critics are traditionalists who came from an era based on those clearly defined demarcation lines.  ‘A photograph is a photograph is a photograph’.  This is an argument along the lines of ‘a landscape photograph contains only natural environment elements, is created with a large format camera and should be in monochrome’.  That argument disallows the use of colour, the recording of the urban or man-made environment and ascribes a mystery to a particular type of camera.  A flawed argument on every level.

Another camp, mainly newcomers to the photographic industry who are quite successfully making money from a commercial product sold to clients, are seeking applause from their peers for producing a saleable professional product.  Some are upset when that their product was not deemed sufficiently creative for an award.

One of the definitions of the word award is ‘a prize or other mark of recognition given in honour of an achievement.’  Simply achieving a level of production beyond that which is normal, everyday or even professional is not sufficient for recognition in these awards.

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Possum Protection; © Ian Poole, 2010.

Over time, any increase in the value and status of our professional recognition awards systems must surely rely on flexibility of outlook and much more than the reluctant acceptance of change.  The intoxicating blurring of boundaries, extending and challenging everyday norms and creating new concepts and techniques within photography are surely powerful future proofing.  Handing out loads of prizes for delivering salable commercial product simply won’t do, today or tomorrow.

Another concern relates to the frequently occurring relatively simple visual replication of what has been done before.  This is an anathema to progress.  Not to progress is, frankly, to go backwards!

New ‘personal versions’ of iconic and very easily attributable images which achieved success in previous, but still very recent awards, are cropping up in almost every category. But is demonstrating simple duplication, right down to lens choice, perspective and cropping, a road to achieving either instant recognition or long term reputation? You be the judge.

The good health and future prospects of productive and challenging awards and competitions to some degree relies on open boundaries allowing participants to create new styles of work and vary the presentation of this work to include new methods.

There are competitions that are entirely shackled, rule bound with old concepts and techniques – let them be.  The awards that encourage and promote better, newer, more innovative skills are the ones with a place in the future of photography.

So let’s reach for the rulebook less often, let’s keep debating vigorously but remember to celebrate and encourage those pushing at the outer limits of our own boundaries.

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Lindis; © Ian Poole, 2010.

Above all, let’s never compromise on professional standards for the sake of inclusiveness.

Where would that end?


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This essay first appeared in f11 Magazine :: for PHOTOGRAPHERS and AFICIONADOS, p146, issue 59 :: October, 2016.

 

August 2016 was a great month

For different but related reasons August 2016 was a great month for me.

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In Good Company

Firstly I had a comprehensive portfolio of my photographs published in the online magazine f11::for PHOTOGRAPHERS AND AFICIONADOS.

Secondly I gained my Master of Photography (M.Photog) status with the (AIPP)

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In Equally Good Company.

The first achievement was the result of over nine months of submission and collaboration with the f11 Publisher and Creative Director, Tim Steele.

With some gentle (and often times not so subtle) prodding, Tim was able to move me away from a grab-bag of retrospective images culled from a lifetime of photography into displaying a targeted and curated array of complimentary shots.  For this I will be eternally grateful.  Whilst I have a fair record in curating photographic shows for other people this was proof positive that the artist should rely on the input of a dispassionate party in such an exercise.

As a long time exponent of the black and white process and genre, it was an eyeopener to me that not a single monochrome image was included.

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Istanbul Dolls; © Ian Poole, 2015

The wonder of colour was never more evident than in this portfolio.

Issue 57 commencing at page 98 gave a comprehensive survey of my more contemporary photographs.  The supporting essay alluded to a voyeuristic photographic eye – a statement that I don’t shy away from, albeit not in the wide angle, camera in the face documentary style that is employed by some practitioners of so-called street photography.  I am no Vivian Maier!

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Observations; © Ian Poole, 2015.

What this project did do for me was to isolate a not strongly held view that I was attracted to people and place.  Having been fortunate to travel a few times over the past few years it was obvious that I would document those moments.  But it was the urban landscape (with its attendant population) that attracted my lens more than “the landscape”.  It took an analysis of various submissions for Tim to make this point so strongly – a fact with which I am pleased.

The second part of the bookending of the month of August was my gaining my M.Photog.  The road to this achievement has been paved with many challenges (I Earned a 73 ……. and a few other scores) and (Failure) and (The 2015 APPAs).  In this 40th year of the APPAs (Australian Professional Photography Award), it was a nice co-incidence for me.

I had attended the “test run” of the APPAs 41 years ago at the HYPO Convention at Broadbeach on the Gold Coast, and entered the second APPA and earned a Silver Merit.  Having decided early in my membership of the AIPP that I was a better Judge than an Entrant I chose for a long period to restrict my involvement to the judging table – UNTIL!   Some six years ago a few of my Institute “Friends” took me aside at an Awards Dinner and monstered me.  “Put Up or Shut Up” was the demand.  Thank you Mike Langford APP.L GM.Photog FAIPP,  Jackie Ranken, Peter Eastway APP.L GM.Photog FAIPP FNZIPP Hon. FAIPP Hon. FNZIPP, Ian van der Wolde APP.L M.Photog III Hon. FAIPP, Andrew Campbell APP.L GM.Photog and David Oliver AAP.L GM.Photog.  So, with the exception of the disastrous 2014 Year of the Bronzes, I steadily worked my way through gaining my Associateship and then Masters.

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Birmingham Gallery Cafe; © Ian Poole, 2016.

This year’s Award images also contributed to my gaining a Master of Photography within the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography Iris Award system.

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Tallin, Estonia; © Ian Poole, 2016.

Huge thanks need to go to Living Image Print and Andrew Merefield (and Darren Jew who was away swimming with whales) for the care and professionalism given to putting these pixels onto paper.  A skilled job for a pair of skilled professionals.

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Opposite The Ritz; © Ian Poole, 2016.

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Edinburgh; © Ian Poole, 2016.

……and a final comment must be made to my talented mentor Adam Finch M.Photog.  Adam has continually challenged, critiqued and encouraged my photographic output.  No good photographer can exist without a mentor (or an Editor).  Thanks.