Defining competitive photography

How to talk about photography that escapes the traditional assumptions about “professional” and “amateur” photography and exists in an “art” context which nevertheless does not belong to the art world as we know it? Such questions emerge from my current work in progress, my dissertation research about the “international style” of photography in the 1950s and early 1960s. In what follows, I would like to introduce some preliminary answers to these questions and test out my theoretical approach. This is part of a draft for a forthcoming research article (please contact me if you would like to quote this draft or comment on the topic).

[A note added June 3, 2016. I am introducing the concept of competitive photography in a more detailed and elaborate way in the first part of the article "Competitive Photography and the Presentation of the Self" (2016), co-written with Lev Manovich. The article is in press to appear in this book: Jens Ruchatz, Sabine Wirth, and Julia Eckel, eds. #SELFIE–Imag(in)ing the Self in Digital Media, Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming in 2016.]

First of all, a short introduction about the historical context. The main object of my research is seven photo books published biannually from 1954 to 1966 by the International Federation of Photographic Art (or, as commonly used by the organization itself in French, Fédération internationale de l’art photographique, FIAP). These yearbooks contained a selection of photographs that were considered the best by the constituents of FIAP—national associations of photography (or similar organizations on a national level) from forty countries around the world. FIAP was founded in 1950 with an aim to unite the photographers’ associations of all nations and to promote “photographic art.”

By looking at the FIAP yearbooks, however, it is extremely complicated to define exactly what “photographic art” was, according to this organization. In terms of subject matter, some themes seem to be recurring, such as family, children, local customs, dance, agriculture, industrial labor, and nature, especially birds. Yet none of them is more visible than others. Similarly, in terms of style a vast variety of different—and even contradictory—approaches coexist in these books. Documentary, humanist photography (genre scenes and street photography) is as popular as the legacy of the 19th century Pictorialism (motifs of romanticized nature, still lifes, and female nudes) and reminiscences of European interwar modernism (formal devices of Surrealism, New Vision, and New Objectivity). In terms of photographers’ professional background, some were well-known photojournalists affiliated with magazines such as Life and their work included in shows like The Family of Man, and some were dedicated amateur photographers. This total eclecticism is confusing. It is the opposite to the pure examples of a unified style that photography historians know how to address (such as, for example, “FSA photography” or “photojournalism”).

The jury of the 20th Singapore International Salon of Photography judges the submitted prints. 1969. Reproduced in: Alise Tifentale, The Photograph as Art in Latvia, 1960-1969, p. 47.

The jury of the 20th Singapore International Salon of Photography judges the submitted prints. 1969. Reproduced in: Alise Tifentale, The Photograph as Art in Latvia, 1960-1969, p. 47.

However, my research so far suggests that photographs in these books, despite their visual diversity, have at least two things in common: these images have been exhibited, and they have been exhibited because other photographers had voted for them. FIAP promoted juried exhibitions of photography (or the so-called salons of photography) where anyone could apply and send in their work to the organizers, but only a limited number of works would be selected for exhibiting by jury members. Typically, some kind of voting process would be involved. Such juries would consist from older, more experienced photographers. (In the 1950s and early 1960s, these juried exhibitions of photography were enormously popular the world over and were perhaps the most widespread and popular type of photography exhibitions at that time.) People wanting to participate in FIAP exhibitions, and ultimately desiring to see their photographs reproduced in the prestigious photo books sponsored by FIAP, were constantly competing for votes from other photographers—jury members of the exhibitions.

Therefore I propose to use a term competitive photography to describe this type of “photographic art:”

First of all, this is a skilled and highly aesthetic practice.

Second, this photography is made for public display—it is made to be shown in juried exhibitions, to be published in specialized photography magazines, and to compete for recognition and prizes (unlike the much theorized naïve amateur or family photography).

Third, it exists in a transnational milieu (the juried exhibitions of photography organized by FIAP always were international), it doesn’t belong to a single national school.

Fourth, competitive photography always has a collective, social nature. The photographs that were exhibited or reproduced in books had been explicitly endorsed by other photographers.

Finally, in terms of photographic form, this kind of photography tends to be advanced and sophisticated but conservative—typically, it closely follows textbook prescriptions and conventions of a chosen visual paradigm. Or, in other words, the main feature of competitive photography is likeability. To make likeable pictures, you must follow the rules (read more about this aspect of competitive photography in another article draft, “Good photography is a game of rules”).

To conclude, I believe that the term competitive photography brings into focus a large segment of photographic practices, contemporary and historical alike, which so far has escaped the attention of scholars. History of photography has been focused mostly on two areas: avant-garde art and amateur photography. Competitive photography occupies a liminal space where these two areas overlap.

Example of competitive photography. Montage of all portraits appearing in the seven biannual FIAP photo books (1952–1964). Thumbnails are organized in ascending chronological order starting from top left.

Example of competitive photography. Montage of all portraits appearing in the seven biannual FIAP photo books (1952–1964). Thumbnails are organized in ascending chronological order starting from top left.

Example of non-competitive photography. Montage of anonymous found family photographs from the collection Look at Me (http://look-at-me.tumblr.com). Thumbnails are displayed in ascending order according to the number of persons in the photographs starting from upper left corner. Vast majority of these images have no title and date. For this montage, I selected images that were tagged “black and white” assuming that the largest part of such images most likely are from c. the 1950s and no later than the 1960s when color photography became commonplace.

Example of non-competitive photography. Montage of anonymous found family photographs from the collection Look at Me (http://look-at-me.tumblr.com). Thumbnails are displayed in ascending order according to the number of persons in the photographs starting from upper left corner. Vast majority of these images have no title and date. For this montage, I selected images that were tagged “black and white” assuming that the largest part of such images most likely are from c. the 1950s and no later than the 1960s when color photography became commonplace.