I am not given to using Americanisms and the word “awesome!” usually just irritates me (Fiona Wallace reports). But a couple of weeks ago I had good reason to see why our cousins across the Pond are so fond of it when it is merited. And what merited it on this occasion was my visit to Colin and Joyce Robinson. By the power of inter-galactic travel (or at least a ramshackle auld Toyota Previa from home to Kilmaurs) let me take you to this final frontier. Cue Gene Roddenberry titles:It becomes apparent as soon as I walk through the door of Colin’s workroom that I might as well throw away the set of pre-prepared questions that I usually take to these Catchlight interviews as this would be no routine interview. In fact it became very apparent that this will not be an interview at all, and that it is more likely to be rather “freestyle”. And thus it is. In a conversation that stretches over three hours and involves a lot of me babbling on about bonsai, the outcome is that I find myself very quickly reappraising pretty much all of my own photography journey over the past couple of years, as Colin shows me that there is a big photography universe out there that I am not aware of.
Back then to the workroom, and the first thing that strikes me when I walk in is the size of the printer sitting there. It is the size of a sofa, and indeed Colin informs me that lurking behind it actually is a sofa that is not visible to the naked eye because of the sheer volume of photography paraphernalia sitting on it.
All this supersized technology makes me feel that I have strayed on to the bridge of the USS Enterprise, and this image is only strengthened when Captain James T Kirk, aka Colin, sits down and opens up his screen – also of a size worthy of a star fleet command module. A trillion stars appear in the form of Colin’s images (that may be an exaggeration, but only a slight one) and what is most impressive is that each one is meticulously labelled, stored and backed up to at least two further locations, one of which is in another room. Or possibly even another galaxy – nothing would surprise me at this point. To continue my Star Trek analogy (albeit by mixing up my series) this workroom is where Data meets metadata.
And therein comes the first of the challenges this “interview” throws out to me; I realise I have simply been playing at this thing called workflow. Up ‘til now I have been a little bit sneery about the word, but this encounter makes me realise that my own workflow, which consists of little more than wheeching a few sliders one way or another in no particular order, is totally inadequate. Although Captain Kirk Colin uses Lightroom and Photoshop like many of us, the sheer amount of attention to detail he inserts in PhotoMechanic is, to use that word I usually avoid, truly awesome.
But then again, talking of sheer amounts, it would be true to say that the sheer amount of images James T Colin deals in is light years ahead of mine and probably most others. But even at that, the detail is gobsmackingly inspiring. The images I saw earlier were all from the latest match Colin has covered in his role as official GHA photographer. Given that Colin also covers Scotland soccer home matches for the Famous Tartan Army Mag; was the SXC official photographer for years, and also did loads of equestrian stuff for several years, then you can only imagine the quantity of pictures he has created, edited and stored all with painstaking craftsmanship. And that is even before we get to his competition images.
There is a short pause while a female crew officer comes on to the bridge to announce that coffee and home-made buns are available on a lower deck. Before we adjourn from the bridge, Captain Colin shows me some more of the images from the GHA match – all of course labelled and stored meticulously, including info on who has actually pressed the shutter for each image and on which camera. What then becomes clear is that the female officer is no mean photographer herself, therein causing me instantly to realise that she – Joyce – is no mere Lieutenant Uhuru but is in fact Captain Kathryn Janeway to Colin’s James T Kirk.
The coffee and buns are served and the chat gets round to competitions, criticism and judging. Both Colin and Joyce are regular winners within the club’s internal competitions and I discover that Colin is also a competitor of note in national events. Indeed he has, amongst other things, been part of the SPF’s Scotland “team” of contributors that won the FIAP Van de Wijer Trophy and the FIAP World Cup for their collective results in two years of FIAP Biennials. Yet when I press him further for details of achievements, it becomes clear that Colin is not interested in blowing his own trumpet about national competitions, entering not for adulation but for his own satisfaction. This in itself is fairly awesome.
I then get a further challenge to my assumptions about photography competitions run at the various levels and through the organisations I learnt about in the last penning for the website. At my stage in development I still see progress at club competition level as an achievement, so it is a momentary surprise when Colin asks me why I haven’t ventured to the national level. It transpires that he means not as a competitor but as a viewer at live judging events such as the SPF championships that are coming up in November. Why, he asks, do more people not attend these events as viewers as opposed to entrants? For beginners, improvers and experienced photographers alike, he points out, it is a colossally good learning tool.
And he is right. I compare my photography development to that of my other hobby of bonsai and I see remarkable similarities. Bonsai as a hobby exists at club and at national and international level, and the higher up you go, the better the quality gets, as you would expect. You can see a decent exhibition at club level – of course you can; to say otherwise is derogatory. And of course there are clubs and club members who regularly punch above their weight in terms of producing good trees, just as there are those who are content with simply going along for the enjoyment and who have no interest in competition. So it is with Photography.
And when I was starting out in bonsai the advice to me was to travel to national and international exhibitions if I wanted to see the really top drawer trees as it is there that you see the best of the best. By doing that you see beyond the immediate level, which in turn gives you an idea of what you could aim at as well as providing the inspiration to do so. Again, so it is in photography. Having tried this out recently by attending the Inter-Ayrshire competition for the first time, it becomes clear what he means: images that were top scoring at club level are now being pitted against the best that other clubs are offering. It is not that images that scored high at club level suddenly become any less good; it is merely that the competition bar has been raised.
Both Colin and Joyce are in agreement that judging and the accompanying criticism is an integral part of the competitive photography circle. “Learning to take criticism is paramount.” says Colin. “Sometimes you will walk away feeling great; sometimes a judge will say something you don’t want to hear, and sometimes they will plain and simple get it wrong. I know it’s hard to take a 16 when an image has been scoring 19 and 20 in other competitions.” He adds with a rueful smile: “But if it’s scoring 16 regularly then perhaps the judges are right. In other words, if something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then whether we like it or not, it’s highly likely that it is a duck.”
This is something of a lightbulb moment for me as something that has baffled me to an extent in competitions is why there can be such a discrepancy in marks. If a picture is technically good, has good composition etc. then surely it should score uniformly across all competitions? I can now see what Colin means when he says: “Certainly in a higher level competition you can expect the marks to be generally lower than at club level simply because you are up against the best of the best.” That makes some semblance of sense to me now. I am left with the more vexed issue of why different judges award different marks for the same image at club level. But as Joyce says: “it is often just down to the judge’s personal opinion and if s/he marks you down, then you just have to smile and walk away.” As an aside, at the Inter-Ayrshire event I discover that Joyce has the same uber-competitiveness that I have. I wonder at this point if she too, after a seemingly harsh judging, would adopt the response of “I’ll ******* well show you!”
So what did the not-an-interview yield? First, that Colin and Joyce Robinson are photographers who go way beyond what I ever imagined could be possible in terms of workflow and versatility of genre. Second, Colin and Joyce both share the opinion that in Photography having an eye for an image is of far more importance than anything else. “Technical skills such as post-processing can be learned.” says Colin. “But without having a good eye you won’t ever really touch the sides of being a good photographer.” And the third thing the conversation yielded was a reinforcement of my own belief that there is nothing wrong with wanting to do your best work and keep improving. And this is where to an extent Photography and Bonsai differs. In certain circles of Bonsai – mostly at club level – wanting to do well gets you the label of “elitist”. In my own admittedly restricted experience in Photography circles I have not encountered that. Indeed I have been grateful for the freely-given assistance I have received from my betters in the club and beyond. And Colin and Joyce Robinson have been way up there with their help.
I finish by recounting that when I mentioned to Jim Muir that the next website article would be on Colin and Joyce, he said that it would be very interesting to see what they do that is different to others. I will say that it isn’t that they do anything different – just with a load more focus and application than I certainly do.
Or as I would say to our Webmaster: “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.”