Victoria Cooper+Doug Spowart Blog

Judging professional photography: MSIT, Brisbane, March 24&25

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The 2012 AIPP Queensland Professional Photography Awards.

Queensland AIPP Professional Photography Awards judging

I’m sitting on judging panels for the landscape and documentary panels of the 2012 AIPP Queensland PPY Awards. The work is challenging and diverse and the judging panel capable and opinionated. My mind wanders to thoughts about photography, its assessment and critique.

The social scientist Pierre Bourdieu wrote many things about photography. Many photographers would take particular exception to his essay on ‘Photography: A Middle-Brow Art.’ But some of what he says bears a strong and salient connection with the way photographer’s debate, discuss and judge their work. Bourdieu states,

” It is no accident that passionate photographers are always obliged to develop the aesthetic theory of their practice, to justify their existence as photographers by justifying the existence of photography as a true art.”   (Bourdieu 1996:98)

Whilst his statement may relate to all kinds of photography from the camera club to the teaching institution it connects, to my mind, most directly to professional photography. Shortly after the time he wrote the original French text (early 1990s) I was not only a fervent participant in all kinds of photography competitions but also the chairperson of the AIPP Australian Professional Photography Awards. I witnessed and perhaps even guided the transition of the APPA, as it became known as, into the form that it now takes.

Founded in 1977 The AIPP National Print Awards were judged with an interest in the work being suitable and relevant to professional products for clients. Prints were glorious colour, 16”x20” flush mounted and were a celebration of technique as well as saleability. Each year 300~500 prints would be judged by the doyens of the industry and a few rising stars. In 1984 I sat on one of these judging panels alongside the big names of professional photography at the time – I felt quite small.

By the end of the 1980s new influences were invading the professional scene. John Whitfield-King and others of his persuasion were creating a space for documentary approaches to wedding photography informed by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Elliott Erwitt. Areas of photographic practice such as illustrative and landscape were emerging and along with them was a recognition of art photography from the American scene by practitioners like Ansel Adams, Harry Callahan, Lee Friedlander, Arnold Newman et al. Black and white prints with Leica-esque full-frame black fuzzy borders became the emergent trend and prints became small and fine on white mount boards. Along with Paul Griggs, Jeff Moorfoot, Lyn Whitfield-King, Peter Adams and Robert Billington, I also was also one of this new guard.

Photographers began to present images from their own personal photographic exploration – subjects that excited and invigorated their practice. These were photographs made by photographers – for photographers. The judges were excited by this work as well and awards were made that celebrated inspirational photography. Each year new work became more and more detached from the previous client-based assessment, and the new paradigm became the engine room for photographers to experiment and push ideas about what professional photography could be and also what clients may want. All this change was not without its detractors. The photo press and newsletters published the laments by some about the loss of industry and the self-indulgence of those engaged in it.

Despite this, professional photographers did embrace the awards process with such enthusiasm that larger entries necessitated extra judging rooms, days of judging and an army of judges and event team volunteers. Early in my chairmanship I undertook a national judge training program with the intension of filling the judging ranks with new judges, and in particular, evening up the gender balance of such panels. The term ‘judge training’ implies some kind of conditioning process where the participant is shown how to spot and reward certain standards. This was not the route that I chose. My philosophy was related to the recognition that all candidates start with a significant understanding of photography and that what they needed was to (1) understand the APPA judging system of team-based scoring and debates, (2) come to know and practice discussion and debate techniques, and (3) grow through the process accepting it as not only one which is about making judgements, but also its educative nature for the judge and the entrant alike.

In time we achieved much of what we set out to do. The judging team became more representative of membership – gender balanced, younger, from the regions as well as the city. APPA as a system during my time as chair cautiously welcomed-in digital output, imaging and image enhancement  – something we take for granted now but an area of significant consternation in the mid 1990s. Not to mention each year’s crop of award winners that are celebrated in the prestigious form of the Awards Book. Additionally we should not forget that the APPAs were originally, and still are an accreditation system to recognise and reward the professional photography skills of AIPP members through the awarding of APPA Associate, Master and Grand Master honours. At one time you could count the number of APPA Masters on the fingers of two hands – they were a rare-breed indeed. Now the AIPP is replete with masters and Grand Masters may need more than two hands to count. In my opinion what it takes to be a Master is no less now than it was 20 years ago – it’s just that the general standard of professional photography as an innovative and expressive form of communication has grown exponentially.

Over time the APPAs have grown beyond our imaginings of the 1990s into the mega event it is today. States such as Queensland have their local awards judgings that have entry numbers exceeding the national entry only 20 years ago. Professional photography practitioners from this country have, for over ten years, won every major international award, had top ten listings in numerous disciplines and travel extensively as guest speakers and leaders of the industry internationally. Some of this acclaim comes from the spark that was set by the team that was APPAs in the 1990s. Most of the names and contribution that these people made have now gone. I think of David Puddefoot, Mike Woods, Ian Hawthorne, the ‘godfather’ Ian McKenzie, Malcolm Mathieson, Jeff Moorfoot, Ruby Spowart, Victoria Cooper and the current Chair David Paterson. We owe these individuals and a host of other committee members of that era including Paul Griggs, Robyn Hills, William Long, Ian Poole, for the foundation that they helped make so that APPA, and the state events could be what they are today.

It has been some time since I have judged at an APPA style event. As I sat on the judging panel I reflected on the history that has brought us to this moment. It felt good – and I was able to contribute to great discussion about some amazing imagery. Photographers have embraced the theory and aesthetics of their art and justify it through the most interesting and informative processes.


Doug Spowart


Bourdieu, P 1996, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, Stanford University Press.

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