From concrete to Champagne

03 June 2019

The RPS Journal

André Meyer-Vitali ARPS describes his photographic journey to Associate 

Becoming a better photographer is a lifelong process requiring study, practice, feedback and recognition. Study the technique and the masters, and practise as much as possible. This need not be a solitary endeavour – the RPS provides feedback through its study groups, and recognition with its Distinctions.

 

Where to start

Joining the RPS Benelux Chapter, I began taking part in events and study group meetings which introduced me to Distinctions qualifications and portfolios. I hesitated between pursuing a Licentiate, which would demonstrate diversity and technique, and an Associate, focusing on style and story. 

I had been on many courses and practised techniques and subjects before joining the RPS, but what was lacking in my photography was content. My goal was to develop a more coherent and meaningful body of work consisting of themes, series and stories. This is exactly what the Associate Distinction is all about. So, finally, I gave it a try and took a series of pictures to our study group meeting. 

One of my favourite themes is architecture. The first feedback I received was disastrous – there were some good pictures but no story, theme or apparent intention. I had missed everything I was trying to achieve. Finally I understood why a ‘statement of intent’ is required for the Associate level. You must start with this. Taking pictures comes second. And – very different to the Licentiate – you have to demonstrate a consistent style. While some people successfully wrote their statement of intent after the fact, I found it helpful and inspiring to shoot with a concept and style in mind. 

 

Brutalism

I knew I wanted my portfolio to focus on architecture and cityscapes. I'd also had, for decades, a theory I wanted to translate into pictures. This was the time to go for it. The theory is formulated in the book The Savage Mind by the French philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss, and cited in the book Collage City, by Colin Rowe, about (post-)modern urbanism. 

A specific passage by Lévi-Strauss deals with the relationship between structure and events. Structure refers to the intentionally designed and built, while events refers to the unplanned and unexpected things that happen spontaneously. The interaction between these two concepts creates exciting environments. But how could one visualise such an abstract and generic concept?

Another inspiration came from a picture by Stephen Shore HonFRPS that I saw accidentally on Instagram: an industrial facade with plants growing all over it. Now I had a concrete idea. I would use the example of brutalist architecture for my purpose. The term brutalism refers to the French term ‘béton brut’ as Le Corbusier used it – raw concrete (no brutality involved). The use of raw concrete is interesting in at least two aspects: the raw nature of the material invites environmental change, and the material can be shaped in any imaginable way, which often results in rather organic constructions. Thus, the relationship between the planned ideal and accidental modifications would become apparent in more than one way, as intended.

In terms of style, I wanted to step beyond the obvious. Again, inspired by David duChemin, I went from colour to black and white, and from 3x2 to square format. This new way of composing liberated my pictures. Restricting myself to this style also allowed me to see the subjects in a new light. In combination with the post-processing, this style fits well with the theme: Naturally concrete.

 

Working on the idea

A month after my poorly received first presentation of random architectural pictures at the study group I returned with a statement of intent and a new set of photographs. This time the feedback was much more positive. My new portfolio was intended as an example of what I was trying to do, but was far closer to a potential Associate portfolio submission than anything I had produced before. It was now or never, and the idea of a Licentiate portfolio was left behind.

Shortly after the study group meeting an advisory day was planned in Ghent, Belgium. The motivation to present a good portfolio there was high. It proved an interesting and inspiring weekend. Besides learning from other portfolios, the feedback on my own work, from Ray Spence FRPS, chair of the Distinctions committee, was encouraging.

I learned about the different categories, or genres, and their rules. It appeared my portfolio would either fit in the conceptual or fine-art category. With conceptual, the story is paramount and the statement of intent can be extended to explain it in more detail. With fine art, the quality of the pictures is what counts most. After some hesitation I decided to go for conceptual, because I felt that my portfolio had an important story to tell.

 

Submission

As more pictures were made the selection of the best ones only became more difficult. Not only does one have to select perfect photographs, they also have to fit in the portfolio and complement one another. The statement of intent was fine tuned in many iterations. This process is the hardest part and benefits from discussions in the study group. After selecting, printing and framing the pictures they had to be sent to RPS headquarters, just in time for the next assessment day. The portfolio was accepted, and I received confirmation a few days later. A bottle of Champagne was ready to be opened for the occasion.

Although the ideas and intentions had been ripening for decades, the period from the first idea for a portfolio to a concrete result in terms of a submission was rather short. It took less than half a year from conception to award. Sometimes, it can take ages before you’re ready, but there’s nothing to stop you when you are.

The support I got from the study group, and my wife and children, was extremely important. The best way to learn is to seek out feedback. And, for me, learning and improving myself and my photography are extremely important. I have become a better photographer and now I’m ready for new challenges. Never stop learning.

Images copyright André Meyer-Vitali ARPS.

Find out more about Distinctions in the Journal, the monthly membership magazine of the RPS.

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