In defense of Cameraclubville

It was not yet 5 photography tips harsh light a.m., and the silhouette of the three-masted Joseph Conrad stood darkly across the Mystic River. Not only was it colder than I had expected, but the glare of modern floodlights at the seaport museum seemed to destroy any possibility of-capturing the antique scene I had envisioned. It looked as though the struggle of leaving my warm bed would be unrewarded.

But dawn has the power to work magic. As the sky gained in brightness, the chilled river gave off a shroud of fog that drifted downstream. Sensors turned off the offending lights, and as the flattened disk of the sun rose above the trees on the opposite shore, the scene through my viewfinder simplified and became almost mystical. The river had been well named!

Excitedly, I made a series of photographs, bracketing exposures carefully. I repeated the process quickly using a blue filter to emphasize the tones of the dawn light through the fog and the mystery I sensed in the scene. Although the sun appeared far outside the narrow field of my telephoto lens, I left a space of empty sky where I was confident it could be added later through double exposure in my slide duplicator.

As I drove back to the motel to join my still-sleeping family, I was thrilled. Had it not been for membership in my camera club, I might not have been motivated to rise so early that morning in search of photographs. I certainly would not have developed sufficient technical skill to record the scene as I envisioned it. My ability to structure a composition that was balanced or that brought emphasis to critical elements of the scene would have been undeveloped. And, perhaps most important of all, I would have missed a wonderful moment in life. Many others did miss the experience, for I was alone the entire time by the river. Although the area is quite populated, not a single car passed during that hour.

Continuing my drive, I was struck with irony as I recalled the P-Essay by Hyman Raphael Shevelev, ARPS, “To Comfort the Disturbed and Disturb the Comfortable,” which appeared in the December 1987 PSA Journal. Mr. Shevelev darkly portrayed “Cameraclubville” as an isolated village, where residents mindlessly pursue the enshrinement of kitsch. I understand his desire to see greater experimentation and a broader scope of subject matter in camera club competitions. But, I think his understanding of the geography of Cameraclubville and its purpose is sadly wrong. Cameraclubville is not a forgotten and uncommunicative village in the “U.S. of Artworld.” It is, rather, an astonishingly communicative network of hobbyists in the world of photography.

Let’s not forget that camera clubs are, first of all, about people – the members – and consequently, life. Through comaraderie, and a shared joy for photography, camera clubs enrich our lives in many ways. For example, in searching out photographs, we’ve all felt excitement such as I did by the Mystic River. And, as we become more aware of the wonderful effects which light has on the landscape or on objects that surrounded us, even ordinary trips become something of an adventure. We find ourselves repeatedly surprised by beauty found in simple things – beauty that we may have missed without the awareness developed through camera club activities. And, we’ve all had a chance to meet and become friends with a remarkable set of people – a wonderfully varied bunch – since our hobby attracts both men and women and a great range of ages.

Second, camera clubs are about improving the craft of photography. When they join, most members are simply snapshooters. But, through camera club programs and competitions, they become aware of techniques that will help ensure their photos not only are technically on target but communicate more effectively. As a result, they begin to think more in terms of making a photograph, and to examine what they find in their view-finders more carefully.

The consensus is that excellence in artistry – in whatever medium – needs to be based on skilled craftsmanship. In sculpture, that includes understanding the peculiarities of working with clay and marble. In photography, it involves understanding the significant differences between how an individual perceives a scene and how the camera records it. It also means understanding film – learning what to expect when an exposure is made so that previsualization becomes fruitful.

I find it neither surprising nor disappointing that members develop that craftsmanship by photographing common subjects of beauty such as flowers, sunsets, or – here in the Northeast – lighthouses. In doing so, they pay tribute to what many others, caught up in the bustle of daily events, ignore. Upon inspecting and seeking critiques of their work, they become not only appreciative of how master photographers have rendered these subjects, but are better prepared to examine innovative photos such as Mr. Shevelev – in his discomfort – might provide for us.

When photography tips horses he dismisses the “mere recording of an inherently beautiful object,” I believe Mr. Shevelev has forgotten how difficult that “mere recording” can be for those who are still learning their craft. In fact, an inherently beautiful individual can be photographed to appear in a most unflattering way by novices. And we’ve all seen photographs of the Grand Canyon that were anything but grand.

Third – and I think this most nearly addressed Mr. Shevelev’s concerns – camera clubs are about personal expression and growth. We’ve each found areas of photography that are of particular interest. One member of our club has grown to be an accomplished backyard naturalist, and his photos communicate well his love of nature.

For me, club activities led to a special fondness for portraiture. And since I have three young daughters, it is not surprising that they frequently find themselves in front of my camera. Portraiture for me has become a way of celebrating the beauty I see in my daughters. And I flatter myself that my special knowledge of them allows me to show character or aspects of their lives that would be missing in a studio portrait taken by a stranger. Portraits of young people may be commonplace, and certainly my portraits will not advance the frontiers of art. But making these portraits was a deeply meaningful thing to me, and sharing them with others has brought additional pleasure.

Avenues for such expression and growth are many. The arena of art photography – which Mr. Shevelev chooses to highlight – is one such area, and it deserves enhanced interest and a broader representation in camera clubs. But there are other worthy areas as well, and these include nature photography, photo-journalism, advertising photography and – yes – the broad world of pictorial photography in which one might choose to include landscapes, still lifes, portraits and any number of other categories.

We do need to take steps to help our members achieve this growth in personal expression. It can be distressing to find someone plateaued at some level of craftsmanship. But, we should accept that individuals do have different potentials and not expect to find them all in frenzy of innovative activity.

If camera clubs create obstacles to such growth, I haven’t seen it. My experience is that innovative photographs which communicate well typically win camera club competitions. Photographs that challenge the viewer – the kind that ask questions, or are subtle in their approach – may suffer somewhat in competition due to the rapid pace of judging. But, there are other functions, such as regional or national conventions, where such photos rise to their potential. For example, truly innovative photography presented at the annual conference of the New England Council of Camera Clubs (NECCC) in Amherst, Massachusetts, usually brings standing ovations in crowded theaters. And, in the many salons – particularly those in Europe – one can find a level of competition that could challenge anyone’s creativity.

As the saying goes, “Familiarity brreds contempt.” It’s possible that a few have lost sight of how valuable our clubs are. One of the challenges in photography is to continue to see with a “child’s eye” – so that we don’t overlook beauty in things to which we have become accustomed. Is that the case with Mr. Shevelev? For the rest of you, I’ll see you at the club!

Dan McGrath is President of the Candlewood Camera Club in Danbury, Connecticut, and has three stars in the Color Slide Division of PSA where he is rated among the top exhibitors in North America.