If you missed The 2013 Nikon AIPP Event – held in a damp, but surprisingly mild Hobart in June – you missed another great program of education, information and inspiration. The presenter line-up was again diverse and the workshops – all over subscribed – provided ‘real world’ learning environments which, most usefully, teach you a lot about how successful photographers work. If I have one tiny criticism of this event, it’s that we should spend more time ‘doing stuff’ and less time sitting down… the practical components of the program are just so valuable.

A visit to Hobart’s hugely successful MONA – the Museum of Old and New Art – certainly challenged some perceptions about what constitutes art and
initiated some lively discussions on this topic. For what it’s worth, my conclusion is that the facility itself is a work of art, but the exhibits are mostly just trying too hard. After a while, the unpredictability simply became predictable.

Nevertheless, the way in which viewers react to a piece of art – including, of course, photographs – is something which concerns us all and it came up again, albeit in a different context – at Richard Bennett’s excellent presentation. Although he’s done many things, Richard is probably best known for his dramatic photographs of the Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race, and he described how he progressed from mountaineering – his first great love – to photography and, in particular, techniques for shooting from aircraft. He even learned to fly in order “…to better understand the platform I was working from”.  He rigged a set-up inside a Cessna 172 so that he could shoot from the rear baggage compartment which enabled an unimpeded view. Later he graduated to chasing storms in a more powerful twin-engined Aero Commander, and was able to help in the rescue effort during the catastrophic 1998 race when the winds reached hurricane speeds. Some of these aerial studies have become iconic, including a shot of Wild Thing which, as a poster, has sold into six figures. A success by any measure, but when submitted to the Australian Professional Photography Awards (APPAs) in that year, earned a supposedly sub-standard score of 68 points out of 100. Yet this was a picture as carefully thought out as any portrait or landscape, but with a much higher degree of difficulty – including considerable risk to life and limb – and many more technical challenges… including, for example, correctly positioning the aircraft to get the right angle and the right light. We could conclude here that the judges involved were simply ignorant and things have changed since, but it actually remains an issue that images in which the content is the primary focus are going to be at a disadvantage in any major competition, compared to the images which first and foremost showcase creative techniques.

Does this mean, then, that pictures taken for most editorial purposes don’t have a chance in any competition (save for those specific to a particular subject area)? Does this also have implications for ‘pure’ photographs (i.e. those created entirely in-camera with no tricky Photoshoppery later on)?

I had a similar experience, starting out decades ago in photography shooting rally cars and keen to show off the results of picking the right corner and viewpoint, framing, blurring/freezing and being bloody quick on the shutter button. A few disappointing scores and I gave up on competitions, but there was a group of us rally photographers who were constantly challenging ourselves to come up with better images, both technically and creatively… images which better captured the dynamism of the sport. The same thing was happening in editorial car photography in general during the 1980s, led mostly by the photographers who worked for the UK magazine Car and who experimented like never before with locations (especially locations), camera angles, compositions, exposures, filters and motion. Yet there was always a balance because, in the end, the subject still had to be recognisable for what it was… and the same is still true if you photograph aircraft or motorcycles or boats or virtually any sporting activity and so on. So there is obviously room for creativity here, but it’s creativity that compliments the content rather than creativity for its own sake. The latter is even more prevalent in the Photoshop era, moving us further away again from images which rely entirely on their subject matter for impact. Yet photography in general is the poorer for it. There’s a sameness about the images currently winning the major photo prizes and very few, if any, are representative of the real work being done by the photographers who specialise in particular subjects… and who would like their hard-won skills and talents to also gain wider recognition. This is where professional photography as a body has to become more encompassing at every level, expanding from what’s currently a fairly narrow band of practice which, in essence, places more emphasis on the process than the picture.

The future depends on it.