12 minute read

Landscape Distinction Panel Q&A

The Society has recently introduced a new distinction genre for landscape photographs and, as this issue went to press, the first assessment day was fast approaching. The editor had the opportunity to virtually pose some questions from the Group’s committee members to two members of the panel: Joe Cornish HonFRPS and Tony Worobiec FRPS. Joe and Tony found time to answer the questions to help anyone considering submitting a panel for their next distinction. All being well, in a future edition, we will be able to catch up with them again after a few assessment days have been completed.

Ed. Why do you think there is a need for a landscape category within the RPS distinctions process?

JC. As an RPS member who did not go through the distinctions process myself, I felt that there was no natural home for the work that I do (so-called ‘straight’ landscape). Over time I realised that I was almost certainly not the only one who felt that way. While landscape could arguably fall into alternative genres, these force the landscape photographer into what is often a false genre (square peg in a round hole syndrome).

TW. The difficulty I have here is that I find myself wearing two hats, as I am a panel member of both the Fine Art panel (which has traditionally been the home for landscape orientated applications) and this new Landscape panel. However, if we carefully consider the criteria for the former, it would be possible to submit a highly “processed” version of a landscape which lacks the authenticity this new genre seeks to promote. It is, for this reason, I believe that a discrete distinction panel, exclusively for landscape, is appropriate. 

Ed. If there is one piece of advice for someone starting out to gain a RPS distinction,what would it be?

JC. I always hesitate to offer anyone else advice about their photography. However, if forced, I’d always ask for authenticity. In other words, do your photography for yourself and don’t try to please others, including the RPS and their assessors.

TW. In my opinion the most interesting landscape photographers reveal a passion and an empathy for a particular area. They understand how it is fashioned by varying weather and lighting conditions and have the technical skills to capture these elements at their most revealing.

The following questions are loosely based around the definitions provided by the Society in the booklet available online:

DISTINCTIONS AND QUALIFICATIONS GENRES DEFINITIONS: ADDITIONAL CRITERIA AND REQUIREMENTS GUIDELINES FOR PRINT, IMAGES FOR SCREEN AND BOOK FORMATS

Ed. Do you think it is possible to be successful with a panel of images taken at well-photographed locations such as Durdle Door, Luskentyre beach or Blea Tarn for example?

JC. Yes, I think it is possible. But the difficulty is that assessors all carry their own prejudices and preconceptions and, in the case of landscape, this may mean having seen many brilliant photographs of these locations. Or they may be familiar with them (the locations) personally. However hard human beings strive to be impartial and objective, this inevitably makes their response to familiar locations harsher. So the bar is (subconsciously) set at a higher level than with unfamiliar or anonymous locations.

TW. You certainly have raised a clear dilemma. My response would be that it would be foolish to exclude any image just because it has been taken from a well known “honeypot” location, but one would have to ask the question “how has the author improved our appreciation of it?” If it is largely the same as most other renditions, then clearly it tells us very little about the photographer. Landscape photography should be personal to you and as soon as you become obsessed by a particular location, you become blinded to equally worthy, but less celebrated, alternatives. I genuinely believe that every location has its golden moment and the skill of landscape photography is to anticipate when that is likely to occur. That said, if an original take on a well-known location is included within a panel, then of course it would be warmly received.

Ed. Can Landscape Distinction photographs include people or animals?

JC. In my opinion, yes they can. However, it remains to be seen how assessors react to the presence of animals and people. For the sake of argument I see this as a matter of emphasis. Is the picture about the landscape? Or the dramatis personae (inc. animals) within it? If the latter, then perhaps the picture is in the wrong category. Thus, I would suggest that animals and people should be…incidental.

TW. I can think of numerous examples where the inclusion of animals or people add to the landscape photograph; clearly it will be a matter of balance and intent. For example, a glimpse of a deer taken in the New Forest would, in my opinion, be perfectly acceptable if, as a viewer, I could see that the purpose for taking the photograph was to celebrate the beauty of the New Forest and not specifically to reveal the deer within its natural environment. The intent of the photograph clearly is of importance.

Ed. How do you think the panel would respond to very abstract landscapes, using techniques such as ICM or multiple exposures?

JC. The landscape category is not seeking to lure applicants away from Fine Art or any other genre. Rather, it is aiming to offer a natural home to landscape photographers. Thus, if images are not readily identifiable as landscape (due to creative editing and other techniques), then they probably belong in Fine Art. That is implicit in the definition that you quoted above. However, it is deliberately left not too prescriptive to allow some room for interpretation.

One of the beauties of art (and photography) is you cannot predict what people are going to produce!

Finally, to try to address your point, anything unsuitable for the landscape distinction should really be re-directed by the RPS Distinctions team before it reaches us, hopefully.

TW. What we see as a viewer and what we capture in camera can be quite different. For example, by using a slow shutter speed or perhaps a very wide aperture, the final image will be quite different from the reality of being in the landscape, but of course this is still legitimate “landscape” photography. If I push this a little further, those engaged with night photography often use software in order to enhance the starry sky. The point, however, is that the primary motivation is to capture the essence of the land, whether it relies on specific camera techniques or limited adjustments using editing software. There are, however, numerous photographic techniques which merely use landscape as a vehicle for exploring perfectly praiseworthy aesthetic issues, which would be better suited to being assessed by a different panel. It is a matter of intent.

Harbour at Blythe
 (C) Tony Worobiec FRPS

Ed. One of the criteria for successful Fellowship panels is that the work must bedistinctive and distinguished. Is it possible to describe what characteristics a panel of landscapes may have, in order to be considered distinctive and distinguished?

JC. This question made me think! Initially, I thought it wasn’t possible to answer but then how about....... ‘eliciting a realisation in the viewer that they were seeing the world in a new way?!!’

More reasonably though, all I would ask is that the photographs genuinely communicate the photographer’s own authentic and individual way of seeing. Ideally this will tell us something about the subject, about the photographer and perhaps about the human condition more broadly. Robert Adams said that a landscape photograph might contain geography, autobiography and metaphor. I think that’s about right.

TW. Deciding what is a genuine response to the landscape and what is mere affectation clearly is a challenge, which is why the Statement of Intent is so important; it allows the panel members to better understand what motivates the applicant. Clearly, we are all different, but I genuinely believe that landscape is such an awe-inspiring genre, capable of evoking so many nuanced responses, that the skill is to capture these without resorting to gimmicky veneers. The distinctive and the distinguished qualities will emerge as a result of the author’s capacity to view the landscape empathetically, but also possibly by exploring an area or areas that are personal to them.

Ed. The genre is defined in the guidelines as ‘photography that illustrates and interpretsearth’s habitats, from the remotest wilderness to urban environs.’ Would a panel based on images of the ‘intimate landscape’ be considered for a Landscape Distinction?

JC. It depends whether or not the work succeeds on its own terms. It is no more, or less, likely to succeed than photography of wider landscapes; it is as legitimate as subject matter. There might be an argument that intimate landscapes allow the photographer more room for their own interpretation.

TW. Whilst I cannot disguise my enthusiasm for the “intimate landscape”, primarily because the work produced is highly personal, it is essential nevertheless, that the spirit of the land is captured. If I am permitted to cite an example, a small pebble on a rocky ledge is certainly intimate, but is it sufficient to call it landscape? Perhaps a single image or two of this nature, within the context of a more comprehensive panel, would prove acceptable, particularly if it served to illustrate an understanding of an aspect of landscape the author was passionate about. 

Ed. All distinction levels require an element of technical proficiency. Is there onetechnical element over others that defines a landscape image for a Distinction, or does it come down to the choice of technique in relation to the subject matter and the submitter’s intended visual story telling?

JC. There is no defined technical element. Any technical approach is acceptable if it achieves the outcome successfully.

TW. We all employ a variety of techniques to achieve our goals, but personal vision must always take primacy. If the image is hindered in some way by poor technique such as camera shake or whatever, then clearly that becomes an issue.

Ed. For an Associate Level of distinction there are 5 points highlighted in the RPS guidelines, the first of which states that the submission needs to include:

A Statement of Intent that defines the purpose of the work, identifying its aims and objectives.

How important is this statement (150 words) within the assessment process and can a poor statement be the undoing of, what is visually, a submission that would otherwise be successful?

JC. Ha! This is a horrible question, but also a very good one! Statements of Intent are important because they may indicate whether or not the photographer has a sincere goal or not. But even if not, if the work is good enough, it will probably be successful. If a Statement of Intent is inspiring and noble, that may help, but if the work still isn’t up to scratch then it still won’t achieve the distinction.

This is a deliberately obscure answer because it really is impossible to quantify its importance. You could argue that submitting without a Statement of Intent should also be allowable. However, I am sure this has been debated within the Society before and the conclusion is that a Statement of Intent provides a measure of credibility, integrity and consistency to the process.

TW. As a teacher, whenever assessing work, my first task was to ask open questions; this allowed me to enter the mind-set of the student. Clearly, this isn’t something that we are able to replicate when assessing RPS panels, but the Statement of Intent can serve a similar function. It is so easy to jump to conclusions when viewing other people’s work, as we all have our own in-built prejudices, but a well-considered Statement of Intent immediately helps us to understand the applicant’s intended goals, which ensures that the applicant is fairly assessed.

Ed. As the distinction levels become more challenging, do you think the number of images required (L = 10, A = 15, F = 20 or 21) is about right? And, if so, is there any advice you can pass on when selecting images for consideration in a submission?

JC. It has remained the same ever since I have been involved and I am confident that the Distinctions Committee have debated this and are satisfied with the present arrangements. It’s not really for me to comment. As for advice, I do think that assessors appreciate a coherent narrative. To achieve this, I’d always suggest seeking support on the editing process, probably from a number of different people, before committing to the final selection. Most photographers are poor curators of their own work.

TW. In truth, this is something I have never questioned. As an assessor, I personally think that the balance here is about right.

Ed. For those members submitting printed images as part of their submission,do you think the move to an online-based submission and assessing via video- conferencing will affect the overall decision-making process?

JC. No, hopefully not. Print quality is something we won’t be able to scrutinise first hand for ourselves, but we will have an expert assessor present to assess the print quality for us and I am hopeful that will ensure consistency.

TW. Having experienced both processes, I really do believe that print-makers are not in any way disadvantaged by the current video-conferencing system. The central tenet must always be that the image is of primary importance and, in my opinion, the procedures set up by the RPS were exemplary. Clearly, we are not able to see the prints “in the flesh”, but we had a print expert on hand standing alongside the prints, who gave us all a very professional run-down on the strengths and possible weaknesses of any of the panels prior to any decisions being made. It could not have been fairer. 

Ed. One final question for Tony: What do you wish you had known beforehand whenyou started out to get your Fellowship?

TW. Blimey, I got my Fellowship nearly 34 years ago!!! I honestly cannot remember. One bit of advice I regularly do give to those wishing to apply for a Fellowship however, is to enjoy what you are doing. If you are anguished and constantly questioning yourself, then you really are barking up the wrong tree.

Spurn Head
(C) Tony Worobiec FRPS

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