By: Ron B. Wilson
What an amazing week it’s been at WPPI (Wedding and Portrait Photographers International) at The MGM Grand in Las Vegas. This has been one of the most interesting, inspiring, and educational times of my life. My first WPPI was 8 years ago, back when the conference was held at Bally’s. I tagged along with my friend and co-photographer Faith West as her guest. I remember being so overwhelmed by all of the people, crowded platform classes, things to do, and tons of the equipment and products at the trade show. I scribbled a few notes and gathered lots of brochures, all of which made it home safely but most got buried in my desk drawer or in a box somewhere never to be seen again. I finally returned about 4 years later in 2009, but this time listed as an attendee under my own company. The simple fact that my badge said “Ron B. Wilson Photography” made everything seem a little more important, making me feel responsible to attend classes that sounded interesting to me and to see the value of really investigating new companies and product offerings at the expo. I passed by the gallery with the winning prints of the 16×20 print competition that year and thought I’d make more time to go back and view them, but they were already taken down by the time I returned.
I can remember soaking up that entire WPPI convention more vividly than the first time I attended, but once again I got home with a pile of notes and tons of pamphlets which somehow got misplaced as I returned to my life doing pretty much the same thing as I had done before going. As a creature of habit and being complacent in my business sometimes was just easier than applying too many new ideas that I had learned, but on the other hand something inside of me was different.
As 2010 approached; my work was looking better, my sales were up, I was getting lots of great client compliments, my confidence was boosted, and I felt that I was capable of pushing myself more. I had almost by accident applied some things to my business I’d learned earlier in the year at the convention and with some success. I decided to return to WPPI again the following year. I was lucky enough to attend that year with my team: Renzo Lara and Wes Lester, which really made me want to step it up a notch by studying the speakers beforehand and planning out how to get the most of the conference experience. This time, I learned more, I got involved more, and I took better notes, which I still have today. I probably don’t refer to them enough, but at least I know where they are. I took an afternoon to walk the gallery rooms and to study the winning images of the print competition. I was floored by the awesomeness of the images, the impact they had, and all of the immense talent and dedication it took to conceive, produce, and to present such beautiful artwork. I took the time to read the photographer’s names and their hometowns. There they all were, many rooms of photographs, which scored an 80 or above (out of 100) made by legends, some of my hero’s, people whose work I followed, and I even recognized a few friends. In one section of one of the rooms I just got caught up and lost, it was like the person who grouped these particular photos did it specifically for me. There were photojournalism, wedding, portrait, and illustrative images weaved together in such a perfect way, it was breathtaking. I actually began to get tears in my eyes. My friend Wes saw me and asked if I was OK. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but something about being so affected by the prints and wanting one day for my work to be among the presented.
Back when I was studying photography at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale many years ago, I sometimes entered the quarterly contests, and sometimes I even won. I liked the feeling of competition, but I especially loved the feeling of knowing my photos were hanging somewhere for people to see them. Of course, this was back in the film days and when we always needed to see our work printed. With digital, it is rare for me to actually print out any of my work unless it’s going into a wedding album. Otherwise, it is sized rather small and uploaded to my website. At least now many people are able see my work online, but there is just something special about working a print and holding it and appreciating the tones and detail. After that year at WPPI, I brought back the knowledge that there were photographers out there in the world who were doing great work that they believed in, and I knew that I wanted to keep growing and learning. The wheels were turning and I had so many ideas brewing.
I attended the conference again in 2011, learned a lot, bought some new gadgets, became more engaged in the experience, studied the winning prints and returned to my business determined to grow and evolve a bit more, and wanting to enter the print competition the following year. When it came time to register in 2012, I was in Peru and facing a busy spring wedding season. I unfortunately, decided to skip going to Vegas last year. I did spend many afternoons thinking about going back to WPPI in 2013 and wanting to enter the print competition for sure. This last year flew by so fast for me and it was February before I knew it. I had only a few days to decide if I was going to enter, make a selection, get them printed and matted, packaged up and shipped out to Los Angeles to the WPPI/Nielsen Headquarters. I don’t recall the moment that I decided to really do it, but once the decision was made… it was full throttle to get it done. With the advice from some fellow photographers and friends, and with the help of another local photographer Dan Harris who made professional prints. I pulled my entries together and mailed them off overnight. Literally, the moment I walked out of the FexEx store, a little self-doubt set in and I spent the next month going back and forth with myself about whether my images were winners, or if they were the wrong choices. I immediately started seeking advice and reading up on the Internet about the competition. Experts were saying how valuable it was to be present and to sit in on the judging and that it was an invaluable learning experience to hear your work and other’s being critiqued by a panel of world-renowned photographers.
I decided to go to Las Vegas a few days early to attend the judging. Then I went a step further and volunteered to be a print handler and actually had the opportunity to work in the Premiere room where several of my images were to be judged. People will tell you that to even be in the audience in the room hearing the judging of your work is nerve racking enough. There I was standing in the spotlights (they actually use two brilliant lights shining on the stage lighting the images for the judges in an otherwise dark room). The first of several of my photos came up and it was one that I debated heavily about entering and probably my least favorite. The way the scoring works is: a panel of five judges score the print, you then see the five numbers come up on the screen, and the moderator announces the average score. My first score was a 79! Just one point away from an 80 and being awarded and hung in the gallery. AND… this was my least favorite image, so imagine, I was thinking that I had this thing locked up. If this print scores a 79, then surely all of my others will be awarded! Some of the judge’s scores were in the 80s and one judge actually challenged the score of 79 and fought to get a revote on my first photo. There I was on the brightly lit stage listening to some of the world’s best photographers discuss my work, back and forth they went. All the while I had to remain calm and make sure no one knew I was the photographer, I wanted to insure it was fair. Even after the revote, my image still scored a 79. I was happy with that!
Throughout the day more of my images passed by the judges… Scores of 77, “wrong paper choice”, 76, “I don’t get it”, 75, “average”, “needs more contrast, no details in the blacks”, 74, “below average”….. It was so difficult hearing some not so great comments on my photos.. But did I think I was a bad photographer or “below average”? NO, I realized that I had maybe made some wrong decisions after seeing the other entries, but mine were all images that I was proud of and that I knew my clients loved. What an experience. It was literally a rollercoaster. Standing on my feet all day, seeing tons of amazing photos pass by, and getting a first hand learning experience second to none. Luckily I had the support of Renzo who was in the audience the whole day.
At the very end of the day, I knew that I had one more photo in this category and after learning about what these particular judges were looking for and it could go either way. But I still had a chance to score an 80. With a very small stack of images to go, there it was.. “The Swing”… the judges discussed it a bit and then it was receiving some good comments. I had a chance; I could still get a winning image. “The score is 81” said the moderator, my knees got weak. I had done it! Then one of the judges on the higher end started challenging the other scores and wanted to fight to get it to an even higher score. I was thinking to myself, “I’ll take the 81, please move on”. In the end they did do a rescore and it now received an 82!
On the following day, I saw another one of my images in a different category score in the mid 70s. Although I was so happy that at least one image scored high enough to hang in the gallery, I had a few others in different categories that I hadn’t seen being judged and I wondered if it was just a fluke that the one had made it through!? I didn’t sleep so well the whole weekend with all of the excitement, good and bad, ups and downs. Finally on Monday, as I entered the galleries, I was so overwhelmed by viewing the winning images. Such inspiring, emotional, funny, and amazing photographs. Finally, I saw mine hanging there with the ribbon and seal of excellence, among the world’s best photographers. As I stared at my photo for a while I felt so satisfied, but I still had a little voice in my head saying: “am I on the right track? am I just average? am I worthy?”. As I turned the corner, there it was.. There was the answer I needed… another one of my photographs had made it through and scored high enough to hang as well. I felt complete, I felt fulfilled. I really loved seeing my hometown Green Cove Springs listed there on the award. I was on the right path. I was not just average. But these feelings only lasted a moment, then my thoughts turned to the future.
Asking myself how could I take all of the things I have learned over my career and at this particular conference with so many amazing classes, speakers, and lessons learned. I am ready to go back home, work hard, grow and progress to be a better photographer and a better person. I look forward mostly to making my current clients happy and focusing on getting new ones. But I also hope to spend the next year looking for new moments and fresh images that might be worthy of entering in the 2014 competition. Thanks WPPI for these experiences over the years, it’s been great having my work hanging in the room right next to my favorite photographers such as Marcus Bell and Susan Stripling!