Ruminations on the Road to Damascus by John Cogan


John Cogan ARPS on the Mavis and Alan McCormick presentation 14th March, David Trout’s “A Positive View of Camera Clubs” article and the introduction of a DPS “Street Photography” competition:-

I had started an article about our evening with Alan and Mavis McCormick but, with it only half-done, I had a bit of a Road to Damascus moment last Thursday night, so Alan and Mavis will become a part of this article but have to share it with other elements.I also read David’s repost to a troll-like article on being part of a Photographic Society and, at some point, it too will play its part.

To start with Alan and Mavis:  a very together couple in every sense.  Their work, if looked at as a complete package, is a bridge between painting and the crispest of photography.  Mavis is painterly.  Much of her work has the texture of watercolour.  The gentle nature of many of her images is a good counterpoint to Alan’s more robust, powerfully coloured work.  Both authors are determined to strive to be the best they can with sharp images that conform to the strictures of appropriate compositional lore.  A classic example is the photograph of the foggy morning by the river which has a Turneresque quality, even the evocation of a Japanese Zen painting.  It is one of those accidents you feel has been arranged by the gods of the lens just for you… and then, into the frame, swims a swan and cygnets as if they had read the section of the guide book about composition and then placed themselves accordingly.

However, Mavis mentioned several times that she found an image boring and so, rather than give up a promising potential image, she would create a montage (her word).  A photograph of a wall in Krakow, complete with it chaos of Polish posters (mostly black and white with a distinct feel of the past), was used to provide a suitably Le Carré background to the girl in the trench coat.  The hat and the dark glasses complete the stereotypical image of the young Mata Hari going about her business.  The final effect is typical of their desire to make narrative images.  That their work succeeds is a tribute to their skill and dedication.  Their inexhaustible, youthful approach is reflected in their ability to “push the envelope”.  It is both refreshing and a challenge to one and all.  We might not agree with every image they’ve authored but their vigour is admirable.

Where, you may wonder, does David Trout’s article fit into this?  First of all it is increasingly symptomatic of the current trend in writing that it is often negative, and destructively so.  Nothing is safe from these, so-called, trolls.  You have to wonder where the Three Billy Goats Gruff are when you need them?  David is right to feel the need to challenge this trend.  You have to admire his vigorous defence and I wholeheartedly support him.   What a troll fails to realise is that being self-satisfied with their destructive writing simply, and inevitably, contributes to undermining their own position.  Being an iconoclast is fashionable especially as the authors of these missives are at such a distance and anonymous that they fail to realize the consequences of what, after all, a poison-pen letter.  That they write an article of such a general nature and extrapolate a thesis about Photo Societies based upon a small sample is also deplorable science and hardly good journalism.  With every negative comment they make it becomes reductive in terms of their own personal development and does nothing to further the cause of what should be a sensible dialogue.  David would be the first to admit there are societies that are bland, cliquish and the antithesis of anything vibrant and creative.  Thank goodness neither David nor I are members of such a society.

The combination of cutting-edge, traditional and contemporary guests should be endemic to any healthy society.  We all respond to challenges.  Granted, we’re not going to enjoy everything on offer but at least we’re given a chance to sample the various trends and strands.  One of the most important things these challenges does is to give us the opportunity to reflect upon our own practice.  As we experience this rich variety we absorb the changes, we talk with our fellow DPS members and, like all healthy institutions, we are part of the on-going exchange of ideas.  Nothing stands still.  Change is inevitable.  For those of us who once coughed our way through the process of developing our old Tri-X, the coming of digital changed everything.  Ah, but so did buying a copy of Photoshop.  Then it became possible to purchase various plug-ins.  Even the great Sebastian Salgado uses a copy of DxO to provide the necessary texture to his prints.  And so, with every development something has to change because the technology is available always available and there are enough technical-minded photographers to carry those, like me, who are slow along.  Ideas are exchanged and with this comes the realization that the process of growth has all the appearance of being organic.   This engenders a sense of co-operative cohesion amongst us.

If one were to offer advice to a club or society it would be that, at its heart, it has the open-mindedness and the generosity of its members.  Flexibility within the membership runs in tandem with the influences brought into the mix.  But no matter how challenging the guests, their input will never work if the minds are closed to receive the message.  Thankfully, our Durham Photographic Society is full of people ready to welcome new ideas and generous enough to allow others to plough their own furrow.  Tolerance is yet another vital element in the way a good and healthy society functions.

During last Thursday evening I was asked why I didn’t submit images to competitions.  The answer is simple: I don’t think my work is good enough.  “But, you’ve got letters after your name!” my questioner says with eyebrows bouncing off the ceiling.  Yes, I may have an Associateship but that’s because the panel I submitted was a combined narrative of 18 images and 500 words.  The two conjoined to procure me an ARPS.  When you see the superb quality of what other DPS members produce concentrating, as they do, upon the single image mine are rough and grainy, lacking the balance and the “nice detail” necessary for a competition.

However, and there is always an “However”, Street Photography is something I know a little about and the process of judging raised a few questions.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the winners of the three competitions were, without doubt, the right choices.  You could not question the gasp of awe when we all saw Michael’s Sunrise at Courthouse Towers, David’s subtle and evocative portrait let alone Joe’s shop front.  No, the quality of the work was uniformly excellent and I have say that the standard grows with every competition.  What worried me was that the Street Photography was being judged with the same criteria as both the landscape and the portrait categories.  Yes, we need to have a base-line of standards, a “Cruft’s Breed Standard” which all judges abide by.  However, the introduction of Street Photography as a separate and distinct category seems, to me at least, to require a different re-think.  True street photography that is always pin-sharp and so carefully composed may even be a contradiction in terms.  The question now is, what criteria should or could be applied to street photography and should a competition be won with one photograph or a series.  But, if the latter then we are entering the realm of the narrative and that could well be seen as a completely different kind of a beastie.

Taking all the elements into consideration: the evocation of good practice by visiting speakers; the way the Durham Photographic Society function and the collective knowledge it contains; the confusion amongst some competition judges about the role of manipulation and standards; the universal application of a narrow band of criteria in a “One-Size-Fits-All” approach are we ready for a rethink and if so, do have a sufficiently loud voice to influence those we invite to judge our competitions?  So far, the only category where manipulation is never allowed is Nature.  The logic here is clear.  What you see is certainly what you see, if you get my meaning?  Can you imagine one of Margaret’s beasties emerging from an imported Hunter Kennedy mist and riding upon the back of one of John Cummings’s super-detailed motorbikes?  Ah, yes, with a little bit of David Forster’s manipulation and Alison’s trackside ephemera.  Now, there is a pre-visualisation to conjure with.  Oh, I almost forgot, there must be a Goff lurkin’ in the background! 

John Cogan ARPS March 2013      

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