When I first joined the Halton Hills Camera Club it was comprised of a handful of enthusiasts that met at the police station to discuss photography and enjoy a little camaraderie with other people who shared a common interest. That was almost twenty-five years ago and over that time the club has provided many treasured constants. The relaxed friendly atmosphere at the meetings. The enduring friendships. Photo-Art. The inspiring workshops and outings, and the social activities that have cemented relationships beyond photographic interests, just to name a few.
But there have also been many dramatic changes.
Membership has grown exponentially. That’s great! It means photography is alive and well in Halton Hills. Digital photography almost totally supplanted chemical based photography in the blink of an eye, and the large number of beautiful images produced by members is truly impressive. There is a state-of-the-art website that facilitates the exchange of ideas, keeps members up to date on club news, and introduces our club to the general public. And, rarely a week goes by that there isn’t a club-related activity available in which to participate.
Another way the club has changed is that we have become much more competitive in our approach to our work. There are now two in-club competitions throughout the year and an awards system that acknowledges success. Members also actively participate in a number of annual competitions with other clubs, as well as numerous other broader-based competitions.The benefits of these are easy to see. Competition forces us to look at our images with a critical eye and it ultimately leads to improvement in the quality of our work. Comments from judges help us focus on both the strengths and weaknesses of the pictures we make, and the competitions expose us to the inspiring work of others. Just watch the images projected on the screen at club meetings and you’ll know what I mean.
But there is a downside.
Of necessity, certain guidelines, both technical and aesthetic, have evolved to help judges as they assign numerical scores to subjective images. Beyond the need for sharp focus, the correct exposure and accurate colours, things like the rule of thirds, nicely placed leading lines, and the elimination of visual distractions are elements that we have learned to keep in the back of our minds as we are shooting. And, there’s no doubt that images that follow the “rules” are often stronger and more aesthetically pleasing than those that do not.
But this comes at a cost. There’s the potential to become less concerned with how an image moves us emotionally, and more concerned with how we think unknown judges will react to it. That’s not always a good thing.
The emotional impact of an image often cannot be quantified by applying the “rules”. And, indeed, over the years, many of the images that have moved me the most have ignored them. Maybe the centre of interest doesn’t follow the rule of thirds. Maybe there are no leading lines. Maybe there is no harmony of colours. Maybe the focus isn’t spot on or there are other technical weaknesses. Nevertheless, there is just something about them that evokes something in me: something that captures my imagination and brings me back time and again, just to have another look.
These pictures may well be totally uninteresting to someone else. If placed in competition, they may cause judges to scramble for something nice to add on the comment sheet just after they push the “four” button. And, they may be images that stay at home when there’s a members’ night at the club.
But, there’s no denying that they’re important pictures.
Let me site an example. A few years ago my daughter was doing an internship in New Delhi, India. It was a perfect opportunity to experience a little bit of southern Asia, and I arranged to fly over to visit her. While I was there we flew into Nepal for a few days. Nepal is a special country overflowing with spectacular scenery, colourful people and a rich cultural history that has become part of the landscape. In short, it is a photographer’s dream and Emily and I took full advantage of it. Even though we were only there for a few days, we were able to do some hiking, explore a local market, visit an ancient religious cite with numerous temples and monuments, and take a flight to see Mount Everest.
And, make no mistake, I shot hundreds of photos that appealed to my creative side: photos that attempted to capture the people and place in an artistic way. And, without question, all those images stir certain memories. They remind me of events and places and, like any travel photos, they help me share my experiences in Nepal with others.
But, among those many photographs there is one that speaks to me more loudly than the others; one that takes me back to that time more than the others. An over-riding memory of Nepal is that it seems like all the roads are simply potholes strung together in a meandering line. Typical taxis are decrepit relics that would not be allowed on the roads here, and the photo I’m referring to was grabbed from the backseat of a cab when we were heading out to visit a temple.
More than all the other pictures I took on that trip, this one speaks to me in a way that’s difficult to explain.When I look at it I’m instantly back in Kathmandu winding our way through the narrow streets. I can feel the car bouncing along the corduroy road and hear the springs groaning under the torture. I can smell the exhaust fumes from the bus, and feel the vibrations of its engine as it passes. In my mind, I can picture the motorcycles navigating the muddy undulations and the passengers holding on for dear life. And, I can see Emily as she and I looked to each other grinning from ear to ear in rapturous disbelief of the adventure we were having. In short, the photo provides a conduit to another place and time. It speaks to more than my memory, it speaks to my senses.
Would I ever enter it in competition?
Not a chance.
Apply the “rules” and it doesn’t make the grade. I think the real centre of interest is the road but the composition is dominated by the bus that is hogging the upper-right third of the image. The ruts in front of the car lead your eye towards the hazy, uninteresting sky in the upper left of the picture and the exposure is a bit hot. The interior elements of the car are distracting, and the decoration hanging from the rearview mirror not only blocks the view of the scene as it swings from side-to-side, but it’s out of focus and bisects the image.
Really, it can best be described as a “grab shot”, or as some judges would say when they’re trying to come up with a comment for an image they don’t really like, a “record shot” or a badly executed “holiday snap”. In short, there are no awards in its future. And, I recognize that. But, when I look at it, none of those things matter. For me it’s a doorway into a richly textured memory. It’s an image that peels away the years and makes an otherwise fading memory rich and sensual again. It transports me.
For many of us, as artists, it’s important to continue to strive to improve the quality of our work, and there’s no doubt that one of the best ways to do that is by participating in competitions. But, it’s equally important to keep sight of the fact that through photography we are also capturing memories, and our individual life experiences guarantee that photographs that touch us may be meaningless to anyone else. But, that certainly doesn’t make them meaningless. So, when you’re out there taking pictures that you hope will impress the judges, remember that you should be taking pictures for you, too.