Yesterday (8/10/09) I judged the photography competition for the 2009 Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Exhibit. As the sole judge in the photo category this was an overwhelming task with over 1,100 entries that needed to be narrowed down to just 107. That’s less than nine percent of the entries making the cut! Although honored to have been chosen to be the judge this year, it is made even more difficult because I was suffering jet lag after returning from Italy late the night before. Walking through the room with the photos laid out on the floor along the walls told me there was going to be a lot of very enticing images to have to choose from but also that many will be easy to eliminate.
With the help of several volunteer assistants, my first undertaking is to remove as quickly as possible all entries that are visually or technically poorly executed. This is to avoid further visual overload and to save energy for the hard choices I know lay ahead. Poorly executed unfortunately often means very bad digital printing. With good Epson photo printers starting under $200 it is probably more due to lack of experience and judgment discerning print quality than a technical issue. I also try and look closely at the small prints that seem well executed so they don’t get lost among the giant oversized works that scream out at you. Small intimate works can easily get overlooked and I really try and see the intent and value in each piece. Almost half the photos have now been sent away!
Usually I also take into account presentation but have been asked to overlook matting and framing choices, since not everyone can afford that and to base my choices purely on the photograph itself. This is the only guideline I have been given by the State Fair. I try, but much of the wildly ‘creative’ framing and colorful mats, carefully chosen to match the colors in the photo and often double or triple matted really get in way of the photograph. I wish people realized how distracting this is and how much it detracts from, rather than enhances, their image. If only they could visit a few museums or galleries that are not in malls and that don’t start with “Thomas” or end with “Kinkade” or that don’t feature duck art, I think it might really help. Access to real galleries is where people who live in the metro area have a distinct advantage over the rural population. A mediocre photograph is not made any better by a colorful mat and ornate frame. It is in fact, much worse, sometimes even offensive.
My next task was to eliminate typical or trite responses to cliched subjects. Way too many cute kittens, cute kids and old barns. I have nothing against kids, kittens or nostalgia but cute gets old quickly when looking at over 1,100 framed images and nostalgia doesn’t replace vision, craft, soulfulness or insightfulness. Cute or nostalgic simply aren’t enough to carry a photo under this level of competition. Use that as a starting point in going deeper and maybe we are getting somewhere. And if you are going to choose subjects, including flowers, that many others are going to submit nearly identical versions of, please try and find a more unique or personal way of interpreting your subject. I suggest to my very helpful assistants that they should consider having a whole separate exhibit, hopefully in a building far away, for the hopelessly cute including any photo where your first reaction is “awwww”. It would probably be a very popular State Fair destination but you won’t find me there unless there is something very tasty on a stick on the other side and no other way to get there.
Another category with a lot of entries is travel. These span the globe from nice vacation snapshots to some very insightful beautiful photographs. I feel bad eliminating anyone’s favorite travel shot or the amazing sunrise or sunset because I love that they stopped and noticed. I know their friends or relatives told them it was a great shot and I’m sure the experience of being there was great but it is usually the place or moment that is significant, not their photographic record of it. The choices of what to eliminate so far have been fairly easy and instinctual and I am confident in my choices. From previous experience, I know that now the real work begins…
My criteria for selection includes concept, execution, creativity and exemplary implementations of a wide range of styles or genres. The most important criteria for me is emotional impact: what makes the viewer think, or even better, feel. That quality of ‘emotional impact’ is, of course, completely subjective and up to me to interpret. I try to be as objective as possible while also fully realizing that true objectivity is impossible. I recognize many of the photographers by style, content or because they have signed their name on the front. Many of these people are my friends, my colleagues, my students. How can I be objective about someone’s photo when I know their strengths and weakness, their vulnerabilities, their struggles, their growth and compare that to the photo of somebody I don’t know? I try to be objective but I simply don’t think it’s possible, at least for me. It was much easier when I judged shows in Alaska and Hawaii where I didn’t know hardly any of the photographers. I think maybe the State Fair should bring in judges from outside Minnesota to avoid this dilemma.
Jurying is mostly selection by elimination. I need to take into account balancing how many images in a given genre (i.e. nature, wildlife, documentary or digital composite) are accepted so the exhibit shows a balance and range of different methods of working with the medium and ways of seeing. In the end it is more about trusting my instincts, but there still is a lot of second-guessing myself. In the final selection there are a few that didn’t make it that now, in retrospect, I think should have. If your photo was rejected please know that it was definitely one of these. There are also a couple I think now, in retrospect, shouldn’t have made it in and I agonize over these decisions. Another day or another time there might be different choices but that is always the case. Today I stand by these choices. I also feel for all those that chose to honor moments in their lives by making a photograph. Who am I to now diminish that moment by saying it’s not good enough to stand with these other moments submitted by those more accomplished, more experienced or more sophisticated photographers or alongside the hundreds of professional and commercial photographers who also chose to enter the fair?
Now we are down to at least 250 or 300 photographs, all strong and all very deserving of a place in the show. And I have to still eliminate two thirds of these! If you have made it this far you should know that your work is good but there simply isn’t room to include all of these in the show. To narrow it down to 107 it is no longer about what is better than something else but what appeals to me at this time, this day, this point in my life, my career. But are these really the ‘best’? No, there is no such thing in art. These are my favorites and I leave it at that. It also becomes about having a well-rounded show with many styles and genres represented.
Picking the first through fourth place and merit awards is by far the hardest part of the day for me. With jet-lag swirling through my body and the sensation of my blood turning to cement I am temporarily unable to continue. I ask that all possible candidates for awards be lined up against the back wall but I simply can’t choose. I want to just give them all an equal designation of ‘my favorites’ and walk away, but winners must be chosen. The task is made harder and more complicated by the fact that I know at least half of the award contenders personally and a couple of them are very close friends. I consider eliminating any awards to friends. I consider only giving friends ‘honorable mention’ status. But either of these choices would be doing their work and them a disservice. I walk away again to try to clear my head and gather energy. When I return I talk with the exhibit director and with several of my helpers about my dilemma in making awards to friends. They both help me realize that I just have to give the awards to what I feel is the strongest and most powerful work, no matter whose it is.
Even though overall I love my choices, I am haunted by a couple images that made the final cut that I let outside factors influence me (who they are, what their previous work is like, their standing in the photo community) and a couple that didn’t make it in that I think I made a mistake on. When I go back the next day I tell the Fine Art committee I think have made a mistake at the last minute by impulsively, under pressure, cutting the photo of a man with a red white and blue straw hat the says “Made In China” on it. Is this photo ‘better’ than many of the other much more ‘fine art’ photos rejected? No, but it has made an impact on me and it is one I want others to see, probably more for the wry political commentary than anything artful, yet it is well done technically and aesthetically. They let me add it back in! Now we have 108, what some say is a auspicious number; the same as the number of prayer beads on a Tibetan Buddhist mala. Perfect.
If your photo didn’t get into the State Fair Fine Arts Exhibit it is important to remember that less than one out of eleven photos were accepted, due to space limitations. It was the highest number of entries ever. Out of the eleven hundred images, many by well known artists and accomplished professionals, I thought there were about three hundred strong enough to be in the show and still only one third made it in. Your job is to make it to that top three hundred. If you didn’t make it that far (and I wish there was a way for people to know) you probably need to work on developing your vision and craft. If you did make it into that top three hundred, from there it is up to the taste and whims of the judge. There are many factors that influence the judging that have nothing to do with the quality or artistic merit of your work: the judge’s taste, how many similarly themed entries there were, the need of the judge to create a well rounded show reflecting many sensibilities. There were some very good photos that didn’t make the final cut and every time I had to eliminate one of these it hurt. Undoubtedly there were also excellent entries that somehow got overlooked in the chaos of the sheer mass of submitted images (or the apparent blindness, ignorance or poor taste of the judge). I think it is the job of the photographer to submit a photo with a strong enough vision coupled with a high level of execution to be in the top tier but also true to the photographer’s individual vision. Submit images that you feel most passionate about, not ones that you think will get in. From there it is anybody’s guess as to the whims of fate that year…