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.