Abstract Interpretation vs. Literal Depiction

In my previous article I related how I took a group of photographers from my camera club to Turimetta for a dawn seascape shoot.

In an article I published three days earlier I expressed my frustration and dissatisfaction with the state of camera club-level photography competitions.

It was only between 5am and 6am this morning, after looking at the images the others captured, that the relationship between these two separate items entered my mind like a bolt from the blue.

One of the people who attended, Sue, shot some arty, abstract images at Turimetta.  The images honed in on the smaller details rather than showing the type of vista typically depicted of this location.

The rest of us shot more literal, scenic representations of the place.

It then occurred to me that Sue's images are abstract interpretations that convey more of a message than "here is a beautiful scene, shot very nicely".  Sue does quite well in club competitions, whereas I generally do not.

Perhaps what judges want to see is creative interpretations of a subject rather than visually striking pictorial records of a place they can buy on a postcard or photograph themselves with similar equipment in similar conditions.

What also dawned on me when comparing Sue's images with mine is that she is an artist and I am a technician.  We both recognise that about each other and about ourselves.  Sue shoots freely, somewhat randomly and in a flowing manner, using her creative side to throw a very different view on a subject.  That is not to say she does not pre-visualise.

My style is structured and precise, and less free-flowing.  I want a particular image or type of image and I set up accordingly.  I do not consider myself creative or artistic; rather, I consider my images predominantly technical with artistic creativity as a secondary (if present) consideration, and I think my images reflect my mindset and approach, just as Sue's reflect hers.

Now, crucially, there is nothing wrong with either approach.  I am happy with my lot as it were; but when it comes to competitions, a photographer with my approach is probably not going to be as successful as someone with Sue's approach.

For me, my photography is what I want it to be, on my terms, and not to be squeezed into some arbitrary mold to win points, either literally or figuratively.  Competitions do not drive my photography; my photography is driven by producing pleasing images, and by whatever reaches out, grabs me and really holds my attention.  I am completely comfortable with that, even if it greatly diminishes my chances of attaining much success in club-level competitions.

Of course, neither school of thought needs to be mutually exclusive, but if one wants to do well in competitions one has to play the game and show the judges what they want to see; and I am not interested in playing games.

The irony of the situation I have just described, and my realisation of it, is that Sue also shoots what she wants and how she wants without regard for what some judge will think of it.  Her creative images will generally have more appeal to competition judges, however.

I cannot force myself to photographically conform to someone else's standard if it is not inherently in my nature or spectrum of interest.  I also cannot easily force myself along a given photographic path.  What I shoot and where I shoot reaches out to me, not the other way around.  I did not wake up one day with some vision to be a seascape photographer; it simply evolved over time.  When something appeals to me, I give it a try.  If I like it, I run with it and pursue it to the Nth degree.

The other great irony is that for a photographer who is so structured and particular, where I am going, when I am going and how I will get there is largely outside of my conscious control.  That is not entirely a bad thing, and provides something of a counter-balance to the structure and habitual nature of how I do what I do.

Published on Monday, 6th September, 2010.