Determination or Selfishness?

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“Depth of Field”; © Ian Poole, Vancouver 2016

At a time of the year when considered wisdom would be to produce an opinion piece about planning, goal setting and collation of ideas, it was a chance encounter at a great photographic exhibition that generated alternate thought processes.

The Vancouver Art Gallery presented Walker Evans – Depth of Field.   Co-organised by the Josef Albers Museum Quaddrat in Germany and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; in collaboration with the Vancouver Art Gallery, the exhibition featured more than 200 black and white and colour prints.  The photographs had been curated from many worldwide sources and was a comprehensive survey of Evans’ output.  Exhilarating to view on every level, including the contemporary digital prints hanging happily side by side with vintage gelatin photographs.

But it was whilst digging deeper into Evans’ background that his determination was clearly on show.  His troubled relationship with Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration, (FSA)  was a case of two determined men butting heads.  In a sense, the FSA gave Evans the opportunity to create some of his best images and Evans gave the FSA some of their best images.  His ex-wife Isabelle Storey describes him as shallow, selfish and heartless.  Evans described Edward Steichen’s major work The Family of Man as overrated sentimental rubbish.

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Robert Frank’s Stove; © Walker Evans, 1971

Yet one of the gentle lyrical photographs from the Vancouver exhibition was titled Robert Frank’s Stove, which would indicate that Evans and Frank were close friends late in Evan’s life.

Pablo Picasso’s seven female muses were but the tip of the iceberg of a self-indulgent lifestyle that he required to maintain his artistic output.  Picasso is famous for telling one of his mistresses, Françoise Gilot in 1943, that ‘…for me there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats’.

This politically incorrect behaviour is not uncommon in the art world.

The photographer Tina Modotti managed to, eventually, reverse the male sexist treatment of female partners.  But it was only after a six year relationship with Edward Weston that Modotti was able to pursue a similar life style.  Although she made no attempt to describe her male partners as her muses.

Edward Weston managed to come close to the Picasso style with his string of models and muses whilst married to Flora May Chandler.  His four sons with Flora, included Brett, who would go on to become both his father’s assistant and eventually the protector of the Edward Weston legacy.  Brett went on to marry and divorce four times.

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Charis Wilson; © Edward Weston

Other than Modotti, Edward Weston’s most famous mistress/muse/model was Charis Wilson, eventually marrying her in 1939 and then divorcing in 1946.  The relationship produced some of Weston’s most recognised photographs.  Creatively the process worked for Weston but there is little documentation to say whether the relationship was as productive or rewarding for Wilson.

Garry Winogrand, despite being married twice, was not so much a womaniser as a driven photographer.  His photographic legacy on death was 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film, 6,500 rolls of developed but not proofed exposures, and about 3,000 rolls only realised as far as contact sheets being made.  His feeling was that photography was all about creating (exposing) the image and the post-production was of little interest to him.  Winogrand taught briefly at the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology in the early 1970s, but this period in academia was driven more by financial necessity than a desire to mentor students.  His clear aim was to continue to create photographs.

It is this mission that drives many artists, in every art form and therefore including photography, and delineates the character mores of these people.  For some of them it is a dogged determination to succeed, but it is at all times tinged with more than a touch of selfishness.

Dare we call that apparent selfishness the mark of a great artist?

Or is that too long a bow to draw?


Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 3.09.22 PMThis essay first appeared in
February 2017 edition of
f11::for photographers and aficionados,
page 160.

Hong Kong

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Hong Kong Abstract; © Ian Poole, 2017

With several visits to this intriguing island destination, I am always struggling to find a definitive viewpoint.  I suspect that this lack is its strength, as well as its weakness.

It can be overwhelming with the huge population jam-packed into towering high rise apartment blocks in such a small space.  But it is the isolated and cropped views that are giving me most reward.

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Apartment; © Ian Poole, 2017

Taking a voyeuristic approach is of some assistance.  But also the method of finding a subject/location and then attempting to isolate as much as possible can work.

For such a busy and active location there are many quiet and simple patterns lending themselves to documentation.

 

 

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Love; © Ian Poole, 2017

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Lovely Self-Portrait; © Ian Poole, 2017

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Contemplation on the Stairs; © Ian Poole, 2017

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Rainbow; © Ian Poole, 2017.

As you can see stairways were becoming a repeating theme.

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Early Morning Pedestrians; © Ian Poole, 2017

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1:5, Beware; © Ian Poole, 2017.

And a monochrome is always a nice way to finish up.


 

 

Walker Evans – “Depth of Field”

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Vancouver Art Gallery #1; © Ian Poole, Canada, 2017.

In my thought processes, the photographic output of Walker Evans (1903-75) was over-shadowed by the mid twentieth century photographers Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander;  the Farm Security Administration (FSA) members like Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, and Gordon Parks.  Whilst Australian heroes in Dr Michael Coyne and Tim Page piqued my visual interest.  The paucity of names on this list is a clear indication of my lack of knowledge of the genre.

Today I expanded that knowledge by a quantum of 100%!  Whilst others in my travel group were heading to Whistler for skiing – I was aiming to catch the final days of this block buster exhibition Walker Evans – Depth of Field at the Vancouver Art Gallery.  I was not disappointed.  Gathered with the skill that only a good curator possesses, from a multitude of sources, this exhibition documented some of Evans earliest work right through to his late output using Polaroid materials.  Colour even!

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Road Side Stand near Birmingham Alabama, 1936; © Walker Evans

I got to see personal favourites (the old reliable house mover) and discovered many new and ironic photographs (damaged).

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Truck and Sign; © Walker Evans, 1929-30.

These further fed my interest.  Of the monochrome photographs, there was a delightful mix of gelatin silver prints (both vintage and later printed) and ink jet.  The difference of printing techniques was never a consideration, such was the quality of both old and new.  The viewer concentrated on content not on technique.  I suspect even Evans would have approved.

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Robert Frank’s Stove, Cape Breton Island; © Walker Evans, 1971

Another intriguing find was a photograph of Robert Frank’s stove.  Such a personal insight into Frank’s personal space seems to indicate that the two great photographers had a knowledge of each other (albeit late in Evan’s life).

Evans trip to Cuba produced some delightful photographs including another of my personal favourites.  It was a joy to see three variants, including a large inkjet print, all side by side for the viewer’s pleasure.

Such curatorship is wonderful when it is carefully crafted to seduce and educate the viewer.

 

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Citizen of Downtown Havana; © Walker Evans, 1933

A pleasant gallery interlude and totally worth a trip around the world to view.  Thank you Vancouver Art Gallery.

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Vancouver Art Gallery #2; © Ian Poole, Canada, 2017.

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Vancouver Art Gallery #3; © Ian Poole, Canada 2017.


 

 

 

 

All our own work

An earnest debate amongst Australian professional photographers is currently ensuing online regarding the legitimacy of using second and third party professionals to prepare entries for photography awards.

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Story Bridge + Bird; © Ian Poole, Brisbane, 1995.

In this instance specifically, whether professional retouchers should be able to work on an awards entry and whether the resulting modified photograph still remains within the original photographer’s integrity of ownership.

The debate resonates on many levels.

Firstly, the Australian professional institute has encouraged its members to enter the awards with a view to improving professional standards across the broad range of the industry.  Comparing current entries with those of 30+ years ago, this has been achieved well beyond the imagination of the two or three Australian photography industry founding fathers’ fondest thoughts, wishes or hopes.

Secondly, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of first time professional photographers practising their craft without any degree of formal training.

And thirdly, many of these new industry members are trying their hand at entering professional awards for the first time using photographic images that were commercially sound enough for sale to clients – but then fail to attract high assessments from the panel of judges.  The antipodean professional awards of New Zealand and Australia present some of the highest standards in photography, as evidenced by the success of some of their participants on a world stage, so where does the disconnect occur, and why?

That third point is the basis on which many photographers are now questioning their own poor results and looking for answers in places other than deep introspection. Some are rooting suspicion from their discovery that some entered photographs have received post-production treatment that might not all have been the work of the entrant.  A lack of formal training in photography means that some fundamental knowledge of the history of the art is absent, missing in action, from their perspective.  This colours their judgment, hiding the real issue.

Right from the earliest days of photography there was a dependence on skilled third party assistance for the photographer to be able to produce saleable portrait images.  From the late 19th century through the early 20th century the production methods were similar, albeit the materials used varied.  The photographer (usually a male) exposed sensitised material and worked with the clients in The Gallery and behind the scenes vast numbers of staff (mostly female) worked on the production of the finished product.  Some photos of these areas in very large studios indicate an almost Dickensian workhouse nature. In a very real sense however, both sides of the production process were equally harrowing as work places.

The widespread use of colour materials in the mid-twentieth century brought about a dramatic change to the business model.  A host of colour processing laboratories created a revolution where photographers concentrated on finding clients and taking photographs while relying on their finished print production being entirely done by laboratories.  The resulting images were really only packaged back at the studio for delivery to clients.

This reliance on laboratories by domestic photographers was echoed in the commercial world.  The difference being, that instead of processing negatives these laboratories worked with transparency film and offered additional skills for sale.  Compositing two or more transparencies into one, adding text to a transparency, blending several images to create one finished result – something that any half trained photography student could do today in minutes with Photoshop – had to be sent to an expert or experts (often in another city) for completion.

My personal experience of having seen most of the Australian professional awards judged was that this manner of production was always perfectly acceptable.  Whilst the viewer often marvelled at the technical skill required to achieve some of the effects, nevertheless it was the brilliance of the concept, or the execution of the original exposure, that was being assessed and attributed to the entrant.  Today, the common practice of having one’s award entries printed and finished by a master printer is not only accepted, but tacitly encouraged. Judges don’t expect entrants to be master printers, so why should they expect the same photographers to be master retouchers?

Ian-Poole-Brisbane-Photographer

Tokyo Opera House; © Ian Poole, 2012.

The disappointment some new entrants to the awards system face is the discovery that their ‘successful’ commercial output does not rate highly in a peer review competitive situation.  Money from clients (albeit the most important yardstick for a commercial enterprise) while essential, is also on a par with lavish praise from one’s own mother.  The success of the trans-Tasman competitions is that the quality bar has been raised to a very high level.  Something to be applauded, not dragged down to a lesser level by adding the criterion that if the image was adequate enough to sell, it is therefore good enough to be applauded and awarded by a jury of our peers.

Content, intent, story-telling, description, emotion, memory, originality, technique and many other signifiers are the harbingers of an award winning photograph.  Judges tend to wait and hope, looking for photographs that bring a special message and trusting that they will be able to recognise these images when revealed in the dance of assessment in those quiet rooms.

Long may that expectation reign.


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This essay first appeared in f11 Magazine :: for PHOTOGRAPHERS and AFICIONADOS, p148, issue 57 :: August, 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.


 

 

 

 

Portfolio Published in f11

It was with some pleasure when I read the current issue of f11 :: for photographers and aficionados.    With a substantial number of contemporary photographs to view it was a joy to see them presented with such care by Creative Director Tim Steele.

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The process of arriving at this point was both interesting and laborious.  My initial idea of submitting a grab bag of images from a checkered commercial career was ruthlessly rejected  (fortunately) by the editorial board.   I was forced to regroup and reassess the work to be presented and be also constrained by the publishing needs of a journal that is produced eleven times a year.

I am in good company with Stephen Robinson’s delightful memories of vintage New Zealand architecture, the NZIPP Iris Award winners and of course the essay by Tony Bridge and equipment review by Gary Baildon.   I am almost embarrassed to mention a column by yours truly amping up the debate about whether photography award entries should (or should not) be the sole work of the entrant.

www.f11magazine.com
f11 Magazine has a social media presence on Twitter: @f11magazine; and
Facebook: Facebook.com/f11Magazine

……and one of the photos that didn’t make the cut –

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New Otani; © Ian Poole, 2015.

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.

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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?

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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.

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


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

 

 

 

 

 


 

Decisions

My long ‘to-do’ list of photographic chores has been a subject of great contemplation and some inner turmoil.  There are entries to be finalised for a couple of professional awards programs which I am keen to enter; several folders of work created on a month-long trip away from home still to refine; a portfolio of personal work for a submission

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Vintage Negative Collection; © Ian Poole, State Library Queensland, 2016.

and a vast archive of my life’s work of negatives that I am slowly archiving into the Queensland State Library data-base.  In spite of my well-documented history of procrastination I felt that it was time to take a more positive and proactive approach to this lethargy and work towards some quick but nonetheless worthwhile solutions.

The competition award entries were tackled first.  I am more than aware that my role in both of these events is clearly defined within the role of an assessor and as one of the judges.

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Hong Kong Monsoon; © Ian Poole, Brisbane, 2016.

But in that role it is equally important that I am seen to be entering and supporting the organisations involved.  Besides which, like many creative sorts, I also have an ego that needs to be stroked and maintained!

Some years ago I was given a format that I have now adopted.  This is based on the firm premise that I am not in competition with any of the other entrants.  Instead, I endeavor to compete against my own performance from last year.  The peer assessment manner in which these awards are judged ensures that my standard is not limited by my own inadequacies.  It meant of course, that when I failed to achieve silver awards with any my entries a couple of years ago I had a period of serious soul searching to endure. I soon realised that my best for that year was just not up to scratch.  It was of a professional standard, but it was clearly not award worthy.  Whilst I am comfortable with the strong and consistent possibility that I may never stand at the podium receiving trophies and accolades, I am also conscious that I want my entries to be of a standard that enables me to confidently and comfortably feel able to construcively criticise the work of other entrants.  For the record, and as is the case for all judges, I am never in the position of judging my own work, this does not happen with well organised and scrupulously managed awards programs.

So the first edit has been made and some test prints nailed to the wall so that I can live with them for a little while.  This is a great way to assess if I am bored with my own work – a sure sign that other judges may come to that conclusion much faster than me.

Several folders of a couple of thousand files have now been sorted in a rough edit to find a collection of photographs that may be useful as award entries, or suitable for the personal project I am working on.  This is followed by a longer period agonising over those thus sorted.  Doing this over several sessions means that I have time to contemplate my choices.  I also have access to one or two trusted and highly valuable mentors with whom I can share a few of the more difficult choices.

The personal project continues with a similar approach to that of finding award images.  A steady process of post-production followed by either elimination or acceptance of photographs worthy of the presentation I wish to make in the next few months.

Then comes the sorting of my entire professional life’s output of negatives and transparencies.  This is a job that has a certain amount of tedium that comes from peering at the results of some fairly banal commercial assignments, then followed by happy trips down memory lane as I re-discover other, long forgotten but far more interesting assignments.  Of course the recurring theme of rampant sexism in some of the photographs was just a by-product of the ‘anything goes’ 1970s.

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612 ABC Radio; © Ian Poole, Brisbane, 1976. (courtesy of John Oxley Library historical collection)

I do now wonder why it seemed necessary to have so many girls in bikinis draped over washing machines or gas stoves.  In my defence, all I can say is that, at the time, it was entirely at the direction of various art directors at whose pleasure I served.

It is possible that your own ‘to-do’ list could be similarly reduced or tackled with a clear cut analysis of what needs to be done, and a rational approach to sorting the tasks slowly and steadily.  My list, made a couple of weeks ago, is now under control.

Though I must admit that it did take a few sleepless nights to work out precisely how to achieve all of this within a tight time frame.


Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 10.51.51 AMThis essay first appeared in f11 Magazine :: for PHOTOGRAPHERS and AFICIONADOS, p154, issue 55 :: June, 2016.

 

 

In Defence of the Cliché

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Louvre Sunrise; © Ian Poole, Paris, 2016

Avoid imitating a cliché – is the oft loudly exclaimed cry from art teachers, creativity lecturers and judges at photographic competitions.  So why should I buck the combined wisdom of teachers and mentors with far greater stature than me?

It was a reluctant first-time visit to the Musée Rodin in Paris that did it for me.  I certainly have no difficulty in recognising that Auguste Rodin was an artist held in the highest regard, but my reluctance to visit it was based on the anticipation of feelings of intense déjà vu.

How could I not be impressed with the image of sculptures as well known as The Thinker or The Kiss?

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Rodin’s Thinker; © Ian Poole, Paris, 2016

When I realised I was comparing the shape of my hand with that of Rodin’s sculptured artwork, I knew that I was hooked and engaged with the artist’s masterpiece.  No catalogue, no wikipedia entry, no poster, was ever going to illustrate the power and emotion that he had crafted into each piece.  And whilst I had never sculpted in my life, I realised that I had photographically mimicked the poses and hand gestures from both pieces without much regard from whence these concepts had come.

After looking first hand at examples of photographs by Ansel Adams and Richard Avedon I started to understand the power contained within the images.  I had always thought that the landscapes of Adams were a case of hard hiking and early mornings, but to my horror I found a conscious thought process underlying his many images.

In the case of Avedon, my cavalier response had been that anyone with a few lucky breaks and access to ‘big’ names as subjects could produce great shots.  How wrong was I?  Avedon had a wonderful knack of reproducing and inserting the soul of his sitter into a photograph. Neither photographer had lucked onto a quick fix.  They had learnt their craft, worked hard within their genre, and consequently produced images that appeared to be effortless when viewed.

Clichéd – almost!

In case there is a misconception out there in reader-land that a rush trip to Paris or New York is required to look at cliché driven images to promote one’s own creativity, examples are happening all around.

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The Wanaka Tree; © Tony Bridge, New Zealand, 2016.

My respected fellow f11 correspondent Tony Bridge has been leading a workshop at the prestigious 27th Wanaka Autumn Art School in New Zealand and he was goaded by some of his friends to lead his group of students to that well-known location, The Wanaka Tree.  Tony’s response was to give his students a master class in landscape creation with a totally new interpretation.  I trust they were impressed, because I certainly was.

A further opportunity exists for some Australian readers to visit the National Gallery of Victoria and view James McNeill Whistler’s Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1871  (more commonly referred to as Whistler’s Mother).  This work is currently on loan from the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris.  The portrait painted in a stoic palette of grey and black, portrays a character vastly different to that of the artist – who was noted for his flamboyant dress and outgoing social personality.  The painting, having been mocked and parodied for decades, is still a powerful depiction of personality and emotional representation.

Having viewed photographic interpretations of these (and many other art works) frequently in my career, I am now of the opinion that a greater knowledge of so-called clichéd images is valuable in the extension of one’s creative development.  Studying why such pieces have become so hackneyed, even banal, is a step further in creating a personal style.

Maybe the clichéd road is the road to creativity.


 

Previsualisation

A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera…’ – Dorothea Lange

How could an early twentieth-century photographer be so aware and conscious of the power of photography without possessing any of the knowledge we now have at our fingertips, in our case thanks largely to the information age of the internet?

Lange was from that famous school of American documentary photographers during the early twentieth century which included, amongst many others, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, James Nachtwey, W. Eugene Smith, Nan Goldin and Mary Ellen Mark.

Seeing without a camera is also described as pre-visualisation. Ansel Adams was a great proponent of getting the image clear in his head before exposing a sheet of film.  There might have been monetary constraints behind such a process, but I like to think it was then, and still is now, all about searching and finding the photograph before letting the camera perform its very mechanical and technical thing, the job of making an exposure.

At this time of the year when the photography calendar has started with the WPPI convention in Las Vegas now completed, the various Australian state professional awards commenced, nominations for entries into the New Zealand professional awards having been called, and mumblings already starting about the Australian awards later in the year; discussion is rife about creativity, and the creation of great photographs.

Whilst some photographers maintain that a good photograph can be created via careful post-production of an image (either digitally or in the darkroom) I am strongly of the opinion that great images have their genesis in a process involving careful thought.  That superb reaction shot taken by a wedding or documentary photographer is more than just the tangible evidence of good reflexes, it is the sum total of years of experience, of getting into the right position, of thinking about new angles or approaches and having the presence of mind to be ready for the unexpected.  Luck plays very little part in it.

Migrant Mother

Migrant Mother; © Dorothea Lange, 1936

The power of Lange’s photographs is as strong and compelling today as they were when she worked for the US Farm Security Administration and created the iconic photograph, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936).  This image has little to do with technique and a lot to do with the gentle but determined desire of the photographer to observe and then capture a scene that she felt needed to be seen by a wider audience.

The focal length of her lens, her choice of film type, or the length of time it spent in the developer are rendered irrelevant by the choice of angle, the humanity contained in the eyes of the subject, a poverty-stricken mother, and the fact that her children, huddled in their tent do not make face contact with the camera.  Their eyes are unseen.  The power of the back story to this photo is compelling but it is the photo that takes you to that place in an unwavering way.

Whilst I now own up to looking for more books about photographs than I do for books of photographs, it was through my early career period spent studying photographs that I started preparing my eyes for seeing without a camera.  This was a difficult period because I was hooked on the mechanical process of creating photographs.

A period of time we all must pass through in order to reach the other side, I hasten to add!

But it slowly dawned on me (cheerfully admitting to being one of the world’s tardiest learners) that the content, the construction, and the creation of the photograph was more important than the delivery of the image.

This applies equally to the commercial image sold for money, and the fine art print created for aesthetic and stylish reasons.

The brain behind the eye behind the viewfinder is more powerful than any of the metrics we use to measure the calibre, quality or resolving power of the lens.

Ian-Poole-Brisbane-Photographer

Outside Portrait Gallery; © Ian Poole, London, 2016.


Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 6.10.45 pmThis essay first appeared in f11 Magazine :: for PHOTOGRAPHERS and AFICIONADOSp156, issue 53 :: April, 2016.