In March 2012 I achieved my Licentiateship of the Royal Photographic Society, the LRPS.
The next distinction to be aimed for was the Associateship which, according to the RPS, requires “images of exceptional standard and a written Statement of Intent (what you hoped to achieve with the work). This is a significant step up from the LRPS. At this stage a creative ability and a personal style (what makes your work unique to you), along with complete control of the technical aspects of photography must be evident.”
The problem I faced was fixing on a subject. I do mostly landscape photography and seascapes feature a lot given my proximity to the coastline of East Cork. I considered a panel of seascapes but I wasn’t confident that I could bring a personal style to bear. Long exposures taken by the coast is a technique that I like but it can hardly be described as a personal style. I’m sure the RPS judges have seen it done far better. I needed something a bit different. But what?
Then, one afternoon last November, I was walking by the River Lee in Cork City. There was a high tide and the reflections from North Mall looked beautiful in the calm waters of the river. I had my little pocket camera with me – a Sony RX100 – and I took some pictures.
When I processed them I decided to invert the images so that they appeared the wrong way up as if you were looking at the buildings straight on rather than at reflections. They looked more like paintings than photographs. I realised then that I had an Associateship subject. I booked my place for the Distinctions sittings in Birmingham in March.
Throughout November and December and part of January I made numerous visits to the city to photograph reflections, timing my trips to coincide with the high tides. I took hundreds of exposures. I used the Sony RX100 throughout – it was far less conspicuous than one of my Canon DSLRs and was thus ideal when traversing the city. Besides, I knew its capabilities and I was confident that I could produce 15×10 prints from it without compromising on quality.
I whittled down the images to about sixty from which I would make a panel. I made individual 6×4 prints and began the hard work of deciding on the final fifteen.
This is a tortuous process. It’s not a matter of just producing fifteen good prints – they must work together as a panel which must have a logic and a coherence and which must reflect the Statement of Intent. I began by laying out fifteen prospective photos in three panels of five (I had opted for the five/five/five layout). This became a daily ritual for weeks – shuffling the 6x4s, removing some, adding others. Each time I had what I thought was a finished panel I would return to it the next day and re-arrange it once again. Eventually I arrived at a final decision – I had a panel that I was satisfied with.
I began printing 15x10s on Ilford Galerie Smooth Pearl paper (now discontinued) on my Epson R3000. Some prints worked first time out of the printer, others required two or more attempts before I was satisfied. This is where home-printing has a huge advantage over labs: you can keep at it until you get the results you require. I dry-mounted them on adhesive backing board and placed them in white A3 mounts.
This process was completed two weeks before the distinctions sitting date, March 3rd. In the meantime I was wracked with doubt. Was I kidding myself? Was the panel up to standard? Would the prints be eviscerated by the judges on the day? Why did I subject myself to this ordeal?
The day of decision started out well. I was on the 6:45am flight out of Cork to Birmingham, the panel in a secure and well-padded case in the hold. The flight was due to land at 8am. Shortly after the pilot began the descent however he began to fly in a holding pattern. The airport was shrouded in fog and no flights were landing. He would circle and wait for it to lift. This continued for about fifteen minutes whereupon he announced that he was diverting to Manchester as there was no sign of the fog disappearing. This was a bad omen for the rest of the day. Would I be able to get to the RPS venue at all?
When we landed in Manchester about twenty minutes later I phoned the RPS HQ and told them what happened and asked them to advise their representative in Birmingham that I hoped to get there sometime later in the morning.
I arrived at 11:50am following a two-hour coach trip from Manchester. Was I too late? Would I have to re-schedule the application to another sitting? I needn’t have worried. I was assured that they would be able to fit in my panel before lunch. After grabbing a much-needed coffee I returned to the auditorium to await my fate.
There were two panels judged before mine. There was an excellent black and white one which I came in on at the very end and which the judges praised highly. The next was a series of colour still-lifes of food which was technically very accomplished. However, the Statement of Intent by the photographer did not match the photographs and this was probably the main reason for the panel failing. (The judges had some compositional criticisms as well.) It cannot be emphasised enough: the Statement of Intent is crucial.
Next up was my panel.
I was glad at least to see the prints were placed exactly as I had indicated in my hanging plan. One of the judges read out my Statement of Intent:
I want to show in these inverted reflections how a river is like a multi-faceted artist, by turns – realist, impressionist, and modernist, taking the mundane aspects of the city, its buildings, trees and bridges, and transforming them into a variety of shimmering, evanescent images.
It is not a pleasant experience to sit there while the judges are reviewing your work. They sit and consider the panel first from a distance of a few feet. Then they stand and review the prints close-up, taking down some of them from the stand the better to examine them in detail. They were discussing them among themselves for awhile – to me it seemed like an age – and then they sat down. This was it: the verdict. Oh God, please let this torture be over soon.
The chairperson of the judges asked one of them to comment. He stood and faced the audience. “I think this is a stunning panel” he said. He found the concept of inverted images “very clever” and had not seen it before. I could hardly believe my ears. Another judge commented on how her favourite print looked like a water-colour painting. Yet another told the audience that the prints contained a wealth of detail that would not be apparent from where they were sitting. The chairperson asked the judges to vote and then announced that I was to be recommended for the Associateship (which was formally ratified by the RPS Council on 13th March). I stood to acknowlege the applause. It was an incredible feeling – a mixture of overwhelming relief and joy. I hardly needed an aircraft to return to Cork later that day – I think I could easily have floated home.