I think we're all agreed that this year's Landscape Photographer of the Year award was a bit of a debacle. Whilst certainly not new, this year's controversy has regretably seen the winner stripped of his title.
There has been much discussion nay argumentation over the result, and those asking questions of the competition's integrity have found themselves under attack for their questions - accusations of bitterness, jealousy and 'sour grapes' being thrown at them. For the record and transparency I include myself in those questioning the result. With an (unexpected) reversal in the result, it seems justice has been done.
Yet I don't think there's anyone who genuinely cares for this art that is left feeling good about the situation. Indeed, I think most share varied feelings of embarrassment, sorrow and anger at the whole sorry situation.
And so a competition whose purpose is to provide a voice for landscape photography is left reeling, divided and eyed even more suspiciously. When credibility for the photographic art is already dubious, headlines such as "Photography competition winner disqualified for 'too much Photoshopping'" in the Telegraph do little to improve its standing with the general public. Indeed if the winner of LPOTY can almost get away with "using Photoshop" how much is the rest of the photography world getting away with their "fakeness"?
But rather than dive through the many issues and how we got here, let's accept that there is dissatisfaction with the way things are. I'd like to present a more positive post on what a better future might look like.
What Place Does Competition Have in Art?
Not for the first time LPOTY has raised the question "what place does competition have in art?".
I have long thought this and having seen the very emotional fallout this year I feel it even more strongly. For my sins, and again for transparency, this year I did enter for the first time. Even though it jarred with me, I felt everyone else was and it's what I needed to do.
Ultimately I think my ego got the better of me and I succumbed. Not the best use of £15 if I'm frank! Even weirder about my submission I didn't have any expectation of winning or even getting anywhere. Yet a couple of encouraging comments made me think "why not? If lightning strikes I get 10k". Having seen many of the winners and rejections I really have no axe to grind - my work was genuinely below par in this competition (the image above was the highlight, itself a massive cliche!).
So despite this moment of weakness, I still question the value of competition in art. That's assuming we want to call photography art, and not diminish our standing further.
Competition seeks a winner, someone better than the others, the rest cast aside as an irrelevance. The winner (in the case of LPOTY) gets £10k, a credible title and likely dozens of further opportunities. Everyone else gets relatively (or completely) nothing. You may win a category or get in the book - what that accounts for beyond Granny's "that's nice dear" I'm not sure - but otherwise you're left waiting and hoping for another year.
But what about the fact that all art has value, that seeing more art rather than filtering it down to a few images is a virtue, and that we all have different voices saying different things. The landscape may be our common stage, but our actors, our photographs, all have different acts to perform and messages to deliver. Whose voice and message is more valid?
So overall, I'm not sure what benefit the photographic community gets from all of this. Take-A-View/LPOTY publish thousands of books (having paid out relatively little), the public get to buy it and for a brief moment the art is elevated into a few superficial articles in the press.
I'm not sure there's much else to get excited about. In many cases I'm not sure that the included photographs include "inspiration" material, or just "that's nice, next" material.
I'm left feeling a sense of injustice not at the result, the controversies, the arguments or anything else. I'm left feeling insutice that this is all that we have to represent us as a community of landscape photographers. 10k. A brief moment in the sun. A moment in "Now! That's What I Call Landscape Photography". As a (self-titled) up and coming landscape photographer and - can I be so bold as to say it? - artist, that leaves me more than a little cold.
The Status Quo Doesn't Work
Where (I think) most of us landscape photographers are coming from is that this competition claims to represent us (the hint's in the name!) and yet year upon year we are disappointed with the outcome. We don't feel the results reflect us, our reality and expectations. The images aren't what we ourselves would reach for, we see great work by our peers rejected at the first in favour of honeypot shots, etc, etc. This competition isn't about us, it's exploiting us.
So to those of you who like me are feeling jaded by the status quo I'd like to present an alternative. It's not well formed, indeed it's entirely embryonic. I've felt this way for some months now so it's not new. But the events of this week and the people I see crying out for more have given it focus, impetus and made me certain that some change - if not this change - is required.
So some questions. As a landscape photography community do we want to:
- give one person all the glory and 10k?
- rely on an annual event to raise our profile?
- provide a generic and superficial "that's pretty" vision to the public?
- rely on a small panel of (unelected) judges to decide how to portray our gifts to the world?
Again as an up-and-coming I want to be able to easily find the "standard" for landscape photography. Sure you can see some good images in Flickr, 500px, etc but they are so expansive and disjoint that it's very difficult to make sense of it - it's almost impossible to "map out the landscape" of landscape photography.
Indeed the best tool I've found - and something I'm very grateful for - is Twitter. It helps you to join up the dots in the photography world, find out who is prolific and brilliant from the virtual conversations with many. In days gone by, this would be via word of mouth, books and the competitions I'm suggesting we need to move away from.
As an improving artist and as a member of the public I don't think I'm alone in looking for a definitive source of good landscape photography.
Sorry for the bold but I think this represents the key point. At the moment this "sense of soul" seems spread and so diluted through books, websites, social media and competitions. LPOTY might like us to think it represents the best on offer, but the reality is that it is a flacid, beige tool. It is purposely aimed at the masses to sell books. Without wanting to be too arty farty, selling books shouldn't be our goal.
What's the Alternative?
Instead what I think we need is regular, high profile, good quality, non-celebrity publication of all our efforts. We should have a platform that rewards:
- high quality
- the many (relatively) over the few
Having recently subscribed to On Landscape by Tim Parkin and Joe Cornish, and only just this week David duChemin's PHOTOGRAPH, I am certain that there is light at the end of the tunnel if we want to amp up our ambitions.
What these online magazines do is present featured photographers on a fortnightly and quarterly (respectively) basis for us to enjoy and get involved with. This I think presents the possibility of something much, much bigger.
In his introduction to PHOTOGRAPH, David duChemin says:
"That revolution will be marked by a maturation in this art, we begin to get comfortable, even bored, with the amazing changes in the technology inside our cameras, and begin to direct our attention toward the beautiful, compelling photographs for which those cameras are only partially responsible...I hope for a time when we're concerned with with some much more..."
With the advancement of digital and the ever lowering bar of entry, I think this art has accumulated a lot of people in recent years (myself included). I think those of us with a serious concern and interest for this art have a duty to see them past many of the rote chocolate box images we see in books (including, if not at times personified by, LPOTY) and show them into a more exciting, personal and intimate world of photography.
To make my proposal concise, here's a few bullet points of my thoughts:
- a single portal for good quality landscape photography in this country
- at least quarterly (maybe weekly) updates of latest work
- focus on portfolios over individual images
- variety of formats (website, book, exhibitions)
- a team of curators looking for the best out there, accepting contributions
- detectives to ensure that what we see is what we get
- a genuine connection with the artist, none of this "I'd like to thank my mum" type stfuff, but an actual interest in their work and their process, connecting them with people both within and outside the art in a human rather than voicebox way
- perhaps annual "best of" selections - voted either by artists in the "collection" (c.f. football's Player of the Year awards) or by subscribers to the site - as a money-spinning, reputation-elevating event
I could speak at length, but here's a few brief thoughts. I don't think we're looking for winners. I don't think we're looking for the best. I think we're looking for what interests us, excites us, moves us. And then share that with our community and with the world. I don't think the key reward for a competition is the prize money, but for recognition and opportunity. There has to be a better way to get that recognition and profile.
I believe as true artists we don't need to be better than anyone. We just need our own voice. And a platform to shout from.
It's that which I think is missing, and frustrates us. We get annoyed with Flickr, LPOTY, etc because volume, luck, randomness are all the key factors. Imagine if what we could see was considered to be the best collection of work currently available in the country?
Yes, problems with quality, volume, etc would appear and there would be issues around quantity of submissions and how thoroughly they would be reviewed but I'm sure we could think around those (e.g. submission charges, strictly applied criteria, etc).
Of course there remains an element of competition. We would have to whittle down the (tens of) thousands of applicants (though my intention would be to encourage "le creme" rather than everybody) and that of course leads to competition. With a suitably diverse and sizeable judging panel (and perhaps a few "judge's choices" thrown in to upset the apple-cart) I think we could have fair representation. With a focus on "I like this" rather than "this is the best" I would hope to encourage more open minded and inclusive thinking.
I have no idea (beyond subs, submission charges) how this would be funded, I'm not sure if people would pay for this service or sponsors would be interested. I don't know how widely popular we could make it, and so the problems go on. I guess if it was easy it would have been done by now.
But "I have a dream":
- that the best landscape photographers in this country have a platform to show their work
- those included gain the very meaningful recognition that their work deserves
- provide a credible, accepted source of the best photography in the country
Going a step further, if this "thing" were to exist then of course why restrict it to landscape photography? There are many genres - and I have many friends whose beautiful work falls on or outside the boundary of "classic" landscape - that are similarly ill served by the current establishment.
If the last week has taught me anything it's that people care for a better way, power of the people (through e.g. social media) matters and that the status quo is not acceptable.
Can anyone deny an alternative is required? And more to the point, would you like to be part of changing our world?
For my part, there is more than a hint of irony about me writing this due to two facts:
- I'm a relative imposter: I feel like I can only consider myself "on the scene" within the last 9 months, with much of my previous (perhaps current!) work laughably bad. I'd like to think I bring fresh eyes and heart to the conversation rather than a desire to push my own artwork (which pales next to many of those I have encountered in that time).
- I don't really know anything: ye, true! Given my relative newness, I don't really know how the "establishment" works if indeed there even is an establishment. I'm just going out making pictures and loving it whilst looking for a way forward. I am sure there are those that have been doing this for years that have hit brick walls I don't even know about, and perhaps what I talk about exists in some form that I'm not aware of. I'd love to hear if this stuff's already there, and then challenge why perhaps it doesn't seem to be working.
Becoming part of this community has been one of the best things I have done in my creative life and whilst I may be immature in knowing what challenges and opportunities it faces daily, I genuniely believe that LPOTY and the single point of exposure it represents is a significant frustration for this community.
Even if you rip this post to shreds and call me a clueless newbie I'd hope that you'd see within it a desire to help move our cause forward. I'd be glad to have the opportunity to work with you to do so.