The Royal Photographic Society has just released the winning images from their 2015 International Print competition.
From the outset, I'm careful to note this isn't just another cliched internet rant for reasons I hope will be obvious later. I'm also aware that this was a print competition & a large part of the appeal of these images would be in the presentation of the print, something lost in an online gallery. All we can "judge" is the online gallery. The images I've linked to in this opinion piece are the ones I like. I think it'd be unfair to focus in on individual images I don't like so haven't singled out anything in this latter regard.
I think it's fair to say I'm underwhelmed.
The self-stated goal of the RPS is to promote photography & image-making and to support photographers in realising their potential. It was when I tried to marry this mission statement together with the work they are promoting that I wonder if they are failing in this ambition.
Some of the photographs are inspiring, some are awe-inspiring & some are technically excellent. All of these things are arguably very good tools in promoting photography & supporting photographers - they show just what is possible & what the current state of the art is. They are the kind of images you can find on many photo-sharing websites online although they are admittedly very good examples of popular types of work. Just because a given photography trope is popular, perhaps even easy to attempt, doesn't mean exceptional examples can't be recognised and the RPS seems to have made some effort to do this.
However these images are far, far outweighed by a significant number of very ordinary, technically average images & forming a notable percentage of their award winning selection. An over-preponderance of stilted portraiture, forced expressions & compositions so painstakingly configured to give the illusion of a fleeting moment fortunately captured, just like a teenager's shabby-chic hairstyle styled to imperfect perfection. If you haven't reduced the contrast in your image you aren't getting in... In some cases it feels like the judges deliberately chose images that many would otherwise overlook because it gives the impression they are able to appreciate an elevated level of art we are not. I'll be entirely honest. I think a lot of these images are flat out boring.
"But art is subjective!", some will cry. "You aren't an FRPS, what do you know?", from others. And they would both be correct. I'm sure the judges are excellent photographers in their own right, and/or have developed a cultured eye based on years of experience. I'm definitely sure they have the photographic credentials to have been asked in the first place. What I'm less sure about is whether these "best of the best" images are inspiring & supporting photographers. Does the selection of images present the RPS in the best light? Does it help or hinder their mission to be a resource that all photographers can use to improve their photography? Does the attention it will no doubt garner in the press help promote photography or will it put people off because it comes across as overly-pretentious, formulaic & repetitive nonsense?
This is my personal dilemma. It's certainly true that the whole of photography benefits when we explore & are exposed to different tastes, styles and genres and that the best of each deserves due recognition. We need to see a blend of everything so we can not only learn & develop ourselves but by extension help others develop in the same way. Does the choice of images the RPS has recognised have this blend? I'm not sure it does. It certainly isn't balanced - so many of the images follow the same trope that I think the RPS is presenting a skewed image of what it means to be a good photographer. People could look at this and see so many bland, boring images it puts them off photography... that may admittedly be a little dramatic but it's entirely possible it puts them off the RPS instead!
Personally I think it gives too much of an impression that the RPS is stuck in a time-warp, a bubble of its own creation and it comes across as ignorant of what the majority of people appreciate & aspire to achieve. This is a shame. Photography is such a powerful tool to convey a message or story, or to demonstrate & inspire creativity in the viewer, or even just to elicit a "wow!" reaction. So much of what the RPS has chosen in this exhibition, for me, fails to achieve any of this. They are doing a disservice to an entire world of outstanding photography to present an unrealistc, high-brow snapshot of photography. It's disappointing.