Those who actually know me will know that I haven’t been a member of a traditional camera club since the 1970s. For transparency I will note that I have been a member of a postal photographic club for the past ten-plus years however. I’m not going to discourse here on my reasons for not being a camera club member nor am I going to discuss why I have been a member of a postal one for some years. I may (or may not) do that another day. But what I do want to talk about is in some way linked to a key aspect of both.
When I first joined the postal club the monthly and annual competitions were the main attraction. Pitting my skills against other photographers, seeing my success rate in competition grow and being accepted as a “good” photographer we’re all key drivers. All was good in the world it seemed. But the bubble burst a few years back when I suddenly realised that all I was doing was producing photographs to satisfy the whims and fashions of camera club judges. Monthly, peer-judged competitions started to annoy me because they were microcosms of everything I disliked about club judging.
“Fred” doesn’t like landscapes so never scores them highly, “Jim” doesn’t understand macro photography so always scores 6/10 regardless. If “Tom” sees another ‘tit-on-a-stick’ he will be ill. “Bill” meantime is highly competitive and more than once has been suspected of tactical scoring. Which meant that you start to look for images that will play to the prejudices and whims of your peer group.
So, it’s the worst of both worlds. A lack of constructive commentary and having to make my own artistic preferences subservient to the whims of others. Slowly, it dawned on me that I had stopped growing as an artist and was merely rushing around trying to make images that worked for others in order to gain plaudits that meant nothing at the end of the day. I’ve an impressive list of competition wins and associated silverware but very few of the winning images mean a lot to me.
The thing is I like dark, gritty images. I like to play with chiaroscuro and I’m not bothered if there isn’t “a full range of tones (well done)”. I am also drawn not to the picturesque and colourful but to the reality of urban life, usually in black and white to boot. Remember “Here be Rats”? It doesn’t help that I am mainly a black and white film photographer these days. I once entered a darkroom print in a monthly peer-judged print competition. Eleven digital prints and one silver. The comment that, with hindsight, led to me turning away from club competitions, was:
“nice pic Dave but do think that you could add a gentle S-curve to add some bite to the image and perhaps check the histogram and tidy things up with a Levels adjustment”.Really!
I spent three fruitless hours looking for the S-Curve and Levels sliders on my enlarger – not!
So, although I maintain my postal membership I no longer participate in monthly peer-judged competitions nor do I enter any of the annual club-wide competitions.
What I’ve realised over the last few years is that only one persons opinion matters. Mine. That not being egocentric, I make photographs for my own amusement and enjoyment after all. I am not being paid to follow a brief and if I were I would move heaven and earth to give the client exactly what they want regardless of whether it’s to my taste or not. I once made a reasonable secondary income photographing children, not posed portraits but informal and natural images. This often involved me crawling around the floor or playing games outside but it enabled me to capture the images their parents wanted and were paying me for. A few of these, with appropriate permissions and model releases, won me “Best Image”, Best Portrait” and “Best Monochrome” trophies in annual competitions but by entering these I was only pandering to the judges, deliberately picking images I knew would appeal to them.
I am very aware that given the way my photographic tastes have evolved I am moving ever further away from current club ideals. That’s fine as I get great enjoyment from making them. I’m also very pleased when some of these images strike a chord with the couple of online communities I use. Let’s face it will all like a pat on the back sometimes and I’m no exception. The appreciation of others is a cherished bonus.
So, I guess all of the above could be summarised in just one paragraph. Rather than forcing your photography down a path to create images to please others look first at what pleases you. That is the path to follow, the one that leads to your own artistic expression and the one that will in the longer term give you the most pleasure. Be yourself, don’t try to be something you are not. Of course, if you like winning competitions then you have to follow the fashions and trends; there is nothing wrong with that so long as you are happy doing it. But when the fun of competition starts to pall then it’s time for you to stop, reassess and refocus (pun intended). I did and I’m very glad I did too.