I’m not bad at playing pool, but I’m much better at playing speed pool. I can’t say for sure why, but I think there’s a lot to be said for switching off your brain, letting your instincts take over and just shooting.
And the same applies to photography. We’ve all seen the blog posts linked from twitter that list the five things to check before you release the shutter. They usually go something like this:
1. Check your ISO
2. Check your shutter speed
3. Check your aperture
4. Compose your picture
5. Repeat steps 1 to 4 twice… and shoot!
There’s definitely a place for lists like this. But if you’ve ever sweated over a shot, contorted yourself into all kinds of painful positions trying to find the right angle, got up at awful-o’clock just to get the sun in the right place in the sky for your shoot, and come away without the shot you’d spent the last week dreaming about (and if you haven’t you’re very, very lucky), then you know that all the planning in the world can’t replace gut instinct and just shooting what feels right.
There’s a well known saying in the world of photojournalism: “F8 and be there”.
Sometimes it’s better to forget about the camera, forget about the lights, stop trying to MAKE the shot happen and just LET it happen.
Or, as Yoda might say: “Do or do not… there is no try.”
Andreas Gursky’s photograph “Rhein II” sold at auction in New York last week for a whopping $4.3million. The photo, taken in 1999, is a landscape of the shore of the Rhein, and it isn’t the first of Gursky’s to fetch more than a few million.
In a short article on Petapixel several people have offered explanations as to why it would reach such a high amount under the auctioneer’s gavel, not least Ken Rockwell.
He is quoted as saying “it’s valuable because it’s art, not just a photo.” He goes on to explain that “if he was a photographer instead of an artist he would have been crippled by the non-existent ‘rule of thirds’ myth, and put the horizon someplace else.” He adds “Likewise, if it’s not captured on film, it is not art. Artists create art, not photographers. Artists may choose to work in photography, but being an artist is what matters above all.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but I think Rockwell is talking out of his, erm, hat. Whatever their medium, artists are required to learn their skills (just like photographers) and are expected to employ their aesthetic sensibilities and skills to create images that have meaning to the viewer. Whether you like it or not (and I don’t particularly think much of Gursky’s photo – I know landscape photographers whose pictures earn a fraction of Gursky’s but who display much more artistic ability) to say it’s not art because of the medium it’s captured in, or because the artist uses modern digital methods rather than old analogue methods is nonsense.
After all, like any other artists, we photographers do suffer for our art, don’t we? Or are we simply camera operators?
By these comments, Rockwell is essentially saying that he himself is not an artist either. Just taking a look at his website shows that he’s really into all the modern gear (you can’t move for the reviews of the latest digital cameras) and in the same post where he talks about the Gursky picture, he also takes the opportunity to push one of his organised photo tours in Yosemite national park.
Maybe I’m taking this all out of context. Maybe what Rockwell is actually saying is that photographers can be artists as long as they approach their work as an artist first and foremost, and a photographer second. What I do know is that I shoot digital and I’m an artist.
What about you?
The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize is, in my mind, the big one. Not only does the winner get a whopping £12,000 top prize, but the winners and the runners up are included in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. That’s pretty prestigious and the exposure is massive – if you’re a portrait photographer you’d be a fool not to enter, right? I did. I always do.
But I didn’t win. And there are no sour grapes here, especially given the high quality of those that made it to the shortlist, and especially considering there were more than 6,000 entries this year. I went down to the exhibition to take a look and I was, on the whole, impressed with the entries. What I’m about to spill forth are my highs and lows of the exhibition, what I thought about the selection as a whole, and my tips if you fancy having a go at winning next year. Bear in mind, I’m not posting pictures here, other than my own two submissions, for copyright reasons. I have, however, included links to the photographers’ websites.
There were a lot of stunning images in the exhibition, created by some incredibly talented photographers.
The first that really struck me was a photo by Tobias Slater-Hunt, from his ‘Closer to God’ series. A stunning, troubling, male nude that challenges you to look. Was it brave? Maybe. At first you don’t notice the subject’s disfigurement in this powerful photo. But what I did notice were the other images in the exhibition focusing on disfigured or disabled subjects. Whether it was the beautiful portrait by Mark Johnson of Leo Gormley, who suffered third degree burns over his face as a young man (which was cleverly hung opposite Michael Birt’s portrait of the very un-disfigured Kiera Knightley), or the photograph of Bibi Aisha by Jodie Bieber, who lost her nose to the Taliban as punishment for walking out on her husband, or the other pictures of the victims of war, accidents and disease, it’s a topic that seems to be an annual theme of this competition.
Now I understand that photography, particularly photojournalism, has a duty to confront the world with images it might not want to see. A duty to tell the truth. But in the context of a photography competition, is it cynical for the judges to choose so many? Does it soften the impact of the images by having so many of them in the show? Does a photograph of someone with a disability, or who lives in poverty, or who is standing outside their flooded home have more value than a photograph of a model taken in a studio? A couple stood behind me commented about one image: “But it’s just a nice photo.” My argument would be – what’s wrong with that?
Indeed, is it the duty of the judges to shock us? To be honest I was unimpressed with last year’s holiday snap of a girl without her knickers, baring all for the world to see – I can’t be bothered to Google the name of the ‘photographer’, because it was an exceptionally weak photo – which was quite obviously included in the exhibition to get press attention. Similarly, I feel that Jonathan May’s “The Embrace”, a photo of two old, heavily tattooed gay men hugging had been chosen to provoke a response. Is homosexuality even a taboo any more? I found the picture dull, but was more moved by the joyful photo of the two pensioners hugging hanging next to it – “Anna and Roberto at Home” by Claudia Burlotti.
What also struck me was the rather ordinary photos which only became extraordinary once you read the blurb on the wall next to them. It raises the question: Does a photograph become great dependent on the supporting evidence? Or should it stand on its own?
In the case of “Anna” by Italian photographer Paolo Patrizi, the blurb supports an already dark and meaningful portrait. But Simon Brown’s portrait “Daisy Garnett, journalist at work in her office with Rose” is uninspired, uninspiring, and if the context is required to shoehorn it into the shortlist, then in my opinion the photograph is not worthy of recognition.
Similarly, I found “The Shepherdess” by David Stewart to be dull and boring, lacking in skill, and weak in content (I know him to be much better than this). No matter what the story behind it is, if the photo doesn’t strike you, then it isn’t working.
The final thing that struck me when wandering through the exhibition was the arrangement of the pictures – how they’d been hung. A stunning family portrait (“Family Portrait van der Borch van Vewalde” by Ilya van Marle) was hung beside – and beautifully juxtaposed by – “The King’s Palace, Kabul” by Jeremy Rata.
I was hit by the clever arrangement of photos because it crossed my mind that it was so clever the judges might have been considering this when they were making their selections. If this is the case then they are failing in their jobs. Am I naive to expect every image to be judged on its own merits?
My overall favourites were the simply stunning “Gianna, Hermit for Love” by Carlo Bevilacqua, and the exceptional “Oliver” by Kelvin Murray.
My final thought about this year’s selection is that it is largely the same as last year’s selection. There are the disabled, the disfigured, the beautiful, the ugly, the soldiers returning from war, and there’s little evidence of Photoshop. In fact, it seems so formulaic that I feel they should publish a style guide so that everyone’s in with a fair chance, rather than claiming that their definition of ‘Portrait’ may be interpreted in “its widest sense, of ‘photography concerned with portraying people with emphasis on their identity as individuals’”.
I’ve decided to formulate my eight steps to winning the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012. If you fancy spending £23 per picture (plus £2 entry fee to the exhibition, plus £15 for an official exhibition catalogue) it might be worth taking note of these invaluable instructions.
Last year’s overall winner was “Huntress with Buck” by David Chancellor. A portrait of a red-headed girl posing with an animal. This year’s winner was Jooney Woodward’s beautiful “Harriett and Gentleman Jack.” It’s a picture of a red-headed girl posing with an animal.
I rest my case!
Despite my criticisms, I relish the opportunity to go and see the exhibition every year, I love to see some of the wonderful photographs that make it through to the final round, and I love the excitement of submitting my own work. Sure, someone’s making a load of cash out of it, but for the chance to see your own photos hanging next to some of the best photographers working today (known or otherwise), it’s £23 I’m happy to spend.
HOW TO WIN THE TAYLOR WESSING PHOTOGRAPHIC PORTRAIT PRIZE 2012
Follow these steps and you can’t go wrong, surely!
1. Keep it topical
I can’t say whether it was a good portrait, but Kate Peters’ portrait of Julian Assange made it to the exhibition. Controversial!
This year, and last year, there were portraits of soldiers back from fighting in Afghanistan. Let’s hope we’re still at war next year so that we can enter more pictures of the same.
3. Ethnic peoples
It’s be done and done and done and done to death. But if it aint broke, don’t fix it. Photos of African tribespeople, poor people from Pakistan, poor Aboriginal people from Australia etc. The judges seem to love this stuff. Just do a Google image search for “African Tribesmen” and copy that.
4. Disabled, disfigured, diseased
If you know someone with an artificial leg, get them to pose for you. It’s a dead cert.
5. Thoughtful children
Always a good one. If you or your friends have troubled looking kids then take their picture. It can’t fail.
6. Old people
Old people are a favourite, but make sure they’re kissing, crying or naked – or all three. It challenges the viewer so it must be good.
7. No Photoshop
Your Adobe products aren’t welcome around these parts!
8. Find a red-haired girl to pose with an animal
Find a red-haired girl to pose with an animal.