Monday, June 10, 2013

In the Matter of Judging


And the Winner Is! 2011

One thing I learned right away about entering serious juried photography competitions is that you need to have a sense of the jurors’ values. An image or series of images that seems perfectly appropriate, thoughtful and provocatively eye-catching is wasted if the judge is looking for something entirely different like, say, images made under water through the photographer’s knees.
Preposterous, you say? I once entered a respected national competition without doing research on the judge. It turns out she was famous for her underwater photographs of vaginas. Had I known that, I’d have instead used my entry fee for a nice dinner out with my wife. I’d have known my work wasn’t up to the judge’s level of gimmickry. Live and learn. Seventy-five dollar learning lessons, I call these experiences.
But as the saying goes, “You can’t win if you don’t enter,” and I haven’t been completely unsuccessful in competitions. So I recently succumbed to the allure of celebrity and entered several images in another nationally respected juried competition. I did so because I thought I had several images that were consistent with the theme, yet each somehow different, thoughtful and engaging on its own and also contributing to a unified visual theme when considered together.
It’s true. I waited until the last day to submit my images. I was able to determine that the judge for this competition is a curator at a reputable museum that isn’t known for its collection of photographs of underwater…well, you know. I paid my entry fee and hustled my samples off for review.
I didn’t make it into the show. I have to say, though, that the rejection letter was one of the most thoughtful I’ve ever received.
Of course I wish I’d gotten into the show. But it was far from heart breaking that I didn’t. Since I look upon such situations as learning opportunities, I tried to figure out why I didn’t make the cut by looking at the work that did.
That’s when my feelings got hurt. I really don’t mind not getting in. You can learn a lot about your work from looking at work that’s considered better. What upset me about the work selected for this competition, however, was that some of it was just plain thoughtless, empty and pretentiously banal, if there is such a thing. It told me nothing. It neither engaged nor challenged me. In a few cases, the link between the work and the competition theme was so tenuous as to be laughable. 
There’s a lot of mindless photography that passes for art. A beautifully composed image of a shoestring can be either a work of art or mindless documentation. You can even get away with mindlessness when there’s something else strong going for the image. 
But it still helps to know the judge.


  1. Very good post, Chris. I've learned that if the judge loves Chihuahuas and you've entered your champion Pit Bull, chances are that you won't get a bone, much less a trophy. I won a First Place and B.I.S. in the first and only show I've entered (1984). Probably because the judges were chocoholics. Either I don't know art, or I don't know judges. Happy with what I do.

  2. I'm with you. I've given up entering these things since it seems like a waste of money and ultimately i photograph to please myself and those I know. I thought this a very good article on the subject and I like the idea of the The Canteen Awards in Part 2. The comments following the article are helpful as well.

    Trying to choose a "good" juried photo competition can be as daunting as trying to find a good photo workshop. You never really know how good a person is at teaching about the subject until you're listening to them critique and share their knowledge.

  3. I suppose people enter competitions to win, but I would have guessed you'd be satisfied knowing you'd done your best to interpret the theme and offering all the viewers the opportunity to view your art. I have always appreciated your thoughtful blog which frequently accompanies your flickr offerings. I'd say you have a true calling interpreting human nature.