Good judge bad judge
Towards the end of 2008, four years after being lured back into photography during the digital revolution, and having joined a camera club and the Australian Photographic Society, I was increasingly dissatisfied with where my photography was heading under the prevailing influences of the camera club movement. I wanted to do more than become a competent camera operator who could follow accepted rules and produce photographs that met with the approval of the establishment. I could do that stuff. I wanted more. There had to be more.
The catalyst to escaping from the rut was growing frustration with the general run of judges encountered through my camera club. Few were inspiring. Meeting after meeting I found myself listening to and questioning voice-recorded or written comments from judges who volunteered their time, it must be said, to critique members' competition images. I'd mutter under my breath things like: "Can't you make any comment other than a techno-centric one"; "Does it matter so much that there's subject movement?"; "Does everything have to be 'tack sharp'?"; "Do all shadows need to reveal detail?"; "Must all compositions follow the hoary rule-of-bloody-thirds?"; "Is a centred horizon or centred subject always to be shunned?"; "Does depth-of-field always have to be deeper?"; yada-yada.
So many judges were, in my opinion, visually constipated. I decided to appropriate Mahatma Gandhi's words―Be the change that you want to see in the world.
In 2009 I enrolled in a creative photography course conducted by two retired academics I had never met and who are now friends: Emeritus Professor Des Crawley and Dr Roy Killen. On one weekend per month for five months I drove to Sydney to attend lectures and workshops presented by Des, Roy and some prominent figures in the Australian photography industry and photographic art world. The curriculum was designed to give students an appreciation of the history and heritage of photography, the tools (visual literacy) to develop their photography as a means of self-expression that remains true to the heritage of the medium, and the ability to visualise and make images that meet the communication objectives set for them by the maker. In short, it was focussed on the art of photography rather than the craft of photography; the creative and fulfilling stuff as opposed to the tack sharp rule-of-thirdsy stuff!
I was hooked and remember saying to myself within 15 minutes of listening to Des's opening presentation..."This is where I need to be. This is where I must go with my photography".
On the final weekend, those of us who aspired to become accredited judges were put through our paces doing stand-up judging of panels of images we'd not seen before to an audience of fellow students and mentor judges. It was a revelation to me. I discovered why so many judges talk about The Rule of Thirds, sharpness, and all those other dry craft attributes of photographs. It's so easy...compared to studying images for design and ideas that photographers may have been trying to express...and giving photographers encouragement and principles (not rules) they can explore in order to develop their own artistic voice, the art in their own photography. It wasn't easy to evaluate images in terms other than technical attributes. But it was necessary.
The role of a judge in the camera club movement is to be an agent of change, a mentor, and a coach to aspiring photographers. It's not good enough, in my opinion, for a judge to simply rate an image based on its compliance with 'rules'. There are no rules for art.
I know that my own photography has improved as a result of endeavouring to critique others' images on more than a superficial level. It's a pathway available to all, even those who do not aspire to judge photography. Oh, and by the way, 'critique' does not mean criticise. I'm delighted if I can find nothing but good things to say about an image I'm critiquing. Some judges, I feel, seem to think that their job is merely to point out perceived faults, or deviations from the way they might have approached the opportunity.