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.

Ian-Poole-Brisbane-Photographer

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.