It was with some dismay that I noticed a recent contest-winning image posted on a popular social media site. It featured a beautifully composed and processed image of a waterfall. If I had seen it for the first time, I would have been impressed, but the award-winning image was, in fact, the third one of that same waterfall that I had seen that morning. Certainly the photographer deserved credit for excellence in photographic skill, but in my mind that is only part of what contests should reward. What about such things as creativity and originality of vision? Do these no longer count?
Here is a simple, but to many, inconvenient truth: there is nothing easier in photography than to make a beautiful image of a beautiful subject. It takes far greater skill to make beautiful, meaningful, original images of subject matter whose beauty is not obvious, or may even be absent. Such images testify not only to the photographer’s proficiency in operating their camera, their travel budget or processing prowess, but also – and more importantly – their creative and expressive ingenuity.
Regrettably, when photographers run out of obvious and easy subject matter in one area, they often don’t proceed to grow as artists – to explore further, learn more, evolve greater depth, or make more personal and expressive work – instead, many move on to seek yet more obvious and easy subject matter in other places.
It can be argued that as long as the photographer enjoys what they do; and their audience, whether for lack of knowledge or caring, finds value in it, then there is nothing ‘wrong’ with this approach. That is a true statement if only by virtue that, beyond trivial matters such as proper exposure or focus, there is no such thing as right or wrong in creative photography. However, there are some very good reasons to eschew this approach, perhaps the most important of which is that the photographer, whether they know it or not, is robbing themselves of the immense reward of creative discovery. If winning a contest is, in itself, a great compliment, a much greater compliment is to win a contest with an image that is entirely of one’s own conception. In fact, accomplishing such work is personally rewarding in ways that no award can come near.
In expressing such views I am often met with skepticism from those who are yet to experience such creative success, and it is my sincere hope that they take me at my word that such things exist and are worth striving for. Those who have, I believe, also know it to be true. It is a sense of accomplishment, pride and gratitude that is profound and overwhelming and that one can never experience other than through hard work, both physical and intellectual. Too many artists prefer cover versions to original compositions; too many prefer to spend money on a plane ticket rather than invest time in thinking and imagining; too many opt for the safe and easy path of making beautiful postcards rather than meaningful impressions; and too many are afraid to risk failure, to a point of failing to see that when they photograph the same places in the same way as others then they have already admitted creative defeat.
Read this and many more articles in High Definition inside Issue 46 of Landscape Photography Magazine.