Thursday, 16 September 2010


Winners and Losers

The Photography Book Now results are in and, can you believe it, I didn't win again! Not even an honourable mention! OK, there were 2300 entries but... Sigh. I could have used that $25,000.

Now I remember why I hate competitions. It's because I never win. And I especially hate competitions where the winners simper in their statements about the wonderful validation this win has given to their work; true, but what about the approximately 2290 people feeling pretty much the exact opposite, hmm? How come there are never any losers' statements?

It's a very odd thing, being a winner. Winners may mouth self-deprecatory sentiments about "the luck of the draw" but validated is precisely what winners feel. I won because I'm the best! Winning is proof of election, in the religious sense; winners very rarely seriously question the motives or wisdom of judges, who usually bear an uncanny family resemblance to their chosen ones. Being a winner -- especially if you are a serial winner -- can seriously affect your grasp of reality.

For most of us, the unspoken truth is that life is about learning to manage disappointment. Damn it, this life really doesn't live up to its billing in so many ways, does it? But to concede that has become a bit of a taboo. Like the insistence that the word "problem" must be substituted with the word "challenge" (or, worse, that what matters in life is to "follow your dream") there's an ideology of compulsory optimism abroad which is as irritating as being told to "Cheer up!" when what you want is a good moan about how unsatisfactory and unfair it all is.

A mature adult is not someone who has ruthlessly overcome the challenges that stood between them and some idiotic, selfish "dream", but someone who has learned to accept defeat gracefully. A lot of unhappiness is caused to a lot of people by living in a culture that endlessly talks up the best bits of life until they appear to offer a bogus form of transcendence. Eventually, even the Real Thing is never quite good enough: romantic love is the obvious example, but virtually every good thing suffers from relentless hyper-marketing. I suppose the constant disappointment does sell a lot of chocolate.

The name of one of the PBN winners did give me pause. Most people will never have heard of Arthur Tress, but anyone who has followed photography for a few years should have come across the name. The PBN judges certainly will have. Mr. Tress was once Almost Famous.

He belongs to that interesting sub-category of artists who use photography to make whacky, surrealistic narratives, usually in the form of self-published books. Names like Les Krims (The Incredible Case of the Stack o' Wheat Murders), Bea Nettles (Mountain Dream Tarot), and Duane Michals (Take One and See Mount Fujiyama) come to mind. Tress' amusing and inventive book Fish Tank Sonata features in my own collection. The weirdness and sheer nuttiness of such productions would, you might think, be a conscious strategy to subvert "success". Such artists can surely never have had their eyes on the prize. If they did, then they are genuinely deluded, but in that same noble way that William Blake was deluded.

So what is Arthur Tress doing even entering such a competition? Perhaps, like me, he could really use that $25000. You have to wonder how many other Almost Famous (or even Very Famous Indeed) photographers entered the competition, perhaps pseudonymously? And how did they feel when they didn't win? Disappointed, probably, and puzzled that their winner's story was no longer running to script.

The wonderful thing is that life does offer moments of transcendence; pleasures and other feelings so intense you fear you might actually be dying, or briefly capable of flying. Precious and strange as they may be, these moments are oddly easy to forget, and to undervalue. They are rare and unpredictable and -- crucially in a culture that has an almost religious belief in cause and effect -- there is no entitlement or certain route to such fulfilment; these "prizes" are awarded seemingly at random.

There is a lot to be said for life's lesser but more dependable pleasures. Chocolate, anyone?


Martin H. said...

Yes please! Anything that doesn't require a lot of chewing.

Mauro said...

Ha ha ha. Just finished my Swiss chocolate bar .....

As always the winners are those who write the history, nothing new in this dept. Certainly a complete list of positions or at least a couple of words about the rejection would have been appreciated. You know just to feel the liberation from the uncertainty of being the 2300th or the 1299th.

The book by A. Tress is very interesting, and well made, I'm sure it does not come from a single, multi handed, one as it is your case or mine. I've made more or less the same considerations as you about him. Perhaps our biggest difference is that sometimes I find him a bit to much Jewish for my tastes. Certainly in the seventies he has been for me a source to look at as much as Les Krims. But you are right he was "almost" famous (even a bit more than now) even at that time.

Frank Harkin said...

Good stuff Mike. And if only children learned fairly early in life that disappointment is part of it all then maybe we could make some progress. Like the recent photos.

Gavin McL said...

The one thing that we seem to be losing is the desire to obtain and respect for skills gained by practice and experience.
It's the one thing that has given me more satisfaction than anything much else is the few things I have learnt to do well by years of practice.
Anyway on a lighter note and with respect to an earlier post their was a note in a recent National Trust flyer that Jon Boden of the band Bellowhead is recording some of Kiplings poems set to music by Peter Bellamy in the 70's
Might be interesting
Nice Rust

Mike C. said...


That sounds interesting -- I remember Peter Bellamy doing some Kipling at our local folk club in the early 70s -- he was a very powerful presence, and my first encounter with the idea that folk might overlap with literature to make something new, a bit of a revelation at the time.

It was just an upstairs room at The Red Lion pub in "Old" Stevenage, but a steady succession of legends passed through, from Bert Jansch to Martin Carthy. All for half a crown!