Thursday, June 14, 2007

On competition

I started life with hardly a competitive bone in my body. A couple of years of pee wee football and, later, a couple of years of swim team in high school. I was always a better speller than anyone in my school, but I simply had no stomach for the spelling bee. Consequently, I have very few ribbons and trophies like lots of other guys I know.

Once I joined my photography club, and I was feeling around for a place, I found myself seeking validation in a way I'd never done before. "What do you think of this?" "Could you give me some feedback...?" We have a monthly competition on our website, so I started entering. I won several first place awards and didn't get votes on a whole lot more. I entered county fair competitions, TV morning mugshot competitions. Anything to get some validation that I took good photographs. I found a competitive side of myself I'd never known before. But something wasn't quite right. I submitted images that I knew, without a doubt, deserved at least a third, if not a second or first place award. They were, in my opinion, that good. And yet many of them did not place. And this feeling started growing in me that I wasn't really getting any valuable feedback, win or lose.

Why do people go into photography? Lots of reasons. Some are surely competitive. For most, it's more likely that there's an artistic or aesthetic drive at work. For my first 35 years or so behind a camera, I imagined myself as an artist waiting to be discovered. This competition thing didn't really fit. I started noticing what types of images won competitions. More often than not, there was bold color and contrast in the winning entries, mine included. The question that started gnawing at me was whether a photograph had to win an award to be a truly "good" photograph. I had my doubts.

This morning, I had occasion to read one of Allain Briot's essays, Art and Facts, where he helped put it all into perspective for me: "Art is not a race, a match, a competition. Art is inspiration, skill, talent, personal expression and yes, if you ask, luck as defined in my essay Being an Artist."

Winning a competition entails appealing to some judge's preconceptions of what's good, whether he bases his conclusion on what he considers measurable facts (technical merit) or on emotional impact. Creating art, as Allain pointed out so well, requires being attuned to your own feelings and vision.

I'm going to enter one final image in our monthly competition. You be your own judge. I'll let you know how it fares. I'd also enjoy hearing your thoughts on photo competitions.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

On beginnings

A few years ago, I resumed a pastime that I had thought early in life might be my profession. It turned out that my life took many twists and turns totally unrelated to that initial impulse. Still working, and nowhere near retirement, I began buying digital cameras back in 2002. First, a cheap, underpowered model to try it out. I quickly moved on to a more expensive DSLR. Then some lenses and various gadgets, then another camera and another. And another.

In 2004, I came across a really unique group of photographers scattered across parts of NW Arkansas, Eastern Oklahoma and Southern Missouri that met in Fayetteville, Arkansas, under the name of the
Photographic Society of Northwest Arkansas. Since then, my education has begun anew. I'm now the secretary/treasurer for this organization, and we meet in Springdale, Arkansas. I'll never lose my fascination with and love for gadgets, but I've begun to focus on what it really means to "be" a photographer. My library of photography books is increasing, and my subscription list is out of control.

There are so many choices. Can I replace my current income, and handle the various burdens I've accumulated, through photography? If so, do I focus on fine art? Commercial? Do I follow my interests or do whatever pays?

I'm becoming confident in my technical abilities and the quality of my work, but I'm finding more questions than answers. Feel free to visit my
website, which, at the moment is woefully behind what I've been shooting for the past six weeks - several charity events, six concerts, a wedding, etc.

Recently, an old friend of mine from Kansas created a new blog,
Ideas to Images, and it crystalized a thought I'd had for a while: to create a blog of my own where I could document my journey as a photographer. I've long been inspired by several talented photographers who are also prolific writers and who share their knowledge through the web. Chief among these is Michael Reichmann's Luminous Landscape, where I could spend whole days just reading his and his guest writers' thoughts on their art and craft. It occurred to me that I might be able to provide something of value to less-experienced photographers by discussing what I'm doing, why I'm doing it, what I'm learning, and share some of my work. I have no illusions that anyone will expect expert advice from this blog. But I may get lucky and get some valuable feedback from—I would hope—interested readers who help determine the directions I go in.

So, there you have it. The beginning of another, perhaps, mundane journal. We'll see.