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Thursday, 13 February 2014

Professional Photographer Column: April 2013

U or a G?

The SWPP convention is still fresh in my mind and the thing that always fascinates me is how two photographic worlds collide –  traditionally trained practitioners and the ‘avant-garde’ lifestylers.

Mulling over my column this month I was struck by the analogy of the formation of the Impressionists in Paris in the 1870s.   At this time the Salon was almost the only place an artist could exhibit work publicly and submitted works were judged by a jury.  The acceptance of works of art was based on a set of academic principles and as the rules became progressively more rigid the paintings became more idealised.

In parallel to this a diverse group of young artists were becoming disillusioned with the establishment and the criteria that their work was being judged against.  Advances in technology had enabled the artist’s studio to become portable not just for sketching but also for the main studies themselves.  They were challenging accepted painting techniques, working in natural light and exploring new subject matters that were more ‘everyday’.  They were looking for truth and spontaneity.

In 1863, after over half the submitted works were rejected, Napoleon III decreed that artists could exhibit in an annex off the main salon and be judged by the public.   The response was largely critical but over time the Salon Des Refuses legitimised a change in style that formed the foundations of modern art.

We photographers are beyond this critical stage of change and the more relaxed and everyday characteristics of lifestyle imagery are established.  No one can argue that there is  a market for this kind of work and that it sustains both full and part time photographers.

Where it gets interesting is how lifestyle imagery gets judged by the industry.  It’s not a niche enough genre to allow for a simple set of criteria to be set (whereas, for example, visual storytelling rates high in photojournalism judging).  When I was accepted to speak at the SWPP Convention it was suggested that I should be a qualified Licentiate. When I made my first Licentiate submission I was failed. 

When you receive your feedback they state that “judges are grading images with professional photography standards and point of view, not a client’s point of view”.  Some of the tips I was given to aid any future attempts included:
  • don’t show flat surfaces of hands, show finger edges
  • fingers should not be facing into the lens
  • bend fingers at all joints
  • male hands should be more closed, female should be more open
  • avoid feet and especially soles of shoes to camera lens
  • kids look best when they are happy
  • not a recognised head position
  • background overly light

I got my Licentiate second time by submitting a panel that doesn’t represent my work.  The image at the top of the column is an interesting one.  In a blind critique by Adam Alex (someone whose work I love and respect and who has judged print competitions) graded the image as Gold standard.  Subsequently I submitted it to the SWPP monthly competition and was given a U – Unclassified. 

At the time the category was called Wedding Contemporary and I notice that it has been renamed Wedding Avant-Garde.  The term avant-garde translates to mean ‘experimental’ or ‘innovative’.   I don’t believe I am either of these things and that the label contemporary fitted what my work represented more accurately.

Labels are interesting things – on a wedding day I shoot portraits, still life, landscape, reportage and photo journalistic moments.   Sometimes in a traditional style and sometimes contemporary depending on my couple and who they are as people. 

So here I am at the stage in my photographic journey where I’d quite like to enter more competitions but I will admit to not really understanding the rules of the game. 

After all, how do you judge a moment?  The couple had no idea that I took that image – as far as they were concerned we had finished and they were walking back towards their guests and marquee.  The image reflects their relationship, relaxed and loving and also tells the story of mixed weather with heavy clouds and dirty feet.

Even with clarity on the criteria against which I may be judged I am almost certain it wouldn’t change the way I shoot or how, like the Impressionists, I value available light, truth and spontaneity over hand or head positions.  Last summer I learnt so much from having a family shoot – the images that resonated the most with me were the ones which capture just how my husband and I feel about our kids.  It’s criteria like this that my clients judge me on and I’m happy for them to do so.   I suppose I am suggesting that emotion or human interest be added to the criteria for judging portrait and wedding photography.  I would also like to see ‘lifestyle’ photography given the respect it deserves by being judged against relevant criteria.   That’s not just my opinion either….

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