Encourage artistic innovation in others

Nimrod by Ivor Rackham, inspired by the Massachusetts photographer from the 1940s, Howard Liberman.
Nimrod by Ivor Rackham, inspired by the Massachusetts photographer from the 1940s, Howard Liberman.

What do the artists Monet, van Gogh, Gaugin, Cezanne and Lowry all have in common?

The answer comes later because first I need to say this: I think Northumberland’s camera clubs are brilliant.

Like any voluntary organisation, they attract a wide range of people, with differing levels of skill. They are friendly and encourage people to take photos. Members all have a love of photography. I hear only good things about them. You should join one. I started these articles with no intention of mentioning what follows for fear of you reading it as a criticism of local clubs – it isn’t. It is something I am sure doesn’t happen in Northumberland, but from the stories I hear from around the world, it can happen elsewhere. A friend of mine with a natural eye for photography was forever submitting photos to her local club competitions. Her images were original and truly outstanding. I could not understand why she never won. I looked through the winners on her club’s website.

The judge, a professional photographer, seemed never to choose the same photos that I would. I wondered whether this was down to differing tastes. Art is subjective, the reason why I am not a fan of competitions.

Then another photographer told a similar story. He suggested that some judges may undermine their competition.

A year later, a talented photographer I know in Australia went to a club. He was bowled over by the quality of a photo from another new member. The judge proceeded to pick holes in the picture, finding nothing good to say about it. The photographer, an outspoken character, gave the judge a piece of his mind and left.

I have heard stories of other people’s photos being criticised aggressively. I wonder whether the judges realise the damage they are doing. The enthusiasm of photographers can be demolished by severe criticism based solely on taste.

Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon and a host of others honed their technical skills at supportive camera clubs. They went on to discover their own style. Anne Geddes and Annie Leibovitz were self-taught and had encouraging mentors. Their biographies mention their supporters, never those that denigrated their work.

Which brings me back to the quiz at the beginning. Those artists were all innovative. They were also rejected by the establishment, criticised for lack of artistic quality by long-forgotten experts. Would the critics back then rather have been remembered for encouraging and inspiring those artists? Van Gough’s tragic story may have been very different if they had.

Be creative and original, heed technical advice, and most of all ignore criticism of your artistic expression. Continue to give careful, encouraging support to others, even if their style is different from yours. You might be remembered for inspiring the next Annie Leibovitz.