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.
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.
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.
Above all, let’s never compromise on professional standards for the sake of inclusiveness.
Where would that end?
This essay first appeared in f11 Magazine :: for PHOTOGRAPHERS and AFICIONADOS, p146, issue 59 :: October, 2016.