Thank you to all who left comments at the bottom of my last Picture Postcard, Judging from a soapbox. Normally, I would respond in the same place, but, due to the number and expansiveness of the responses, I think it will make for easier and more useful reading if I summarise the discussion with excerpts from comments, and better acknowledge and address some of the points made by readers, in a sequel issue of the Picture Postcard.
This is it. If the context of the summarised discussion below is unclear, or this is the first Picture Postcard you have read, you can get up to speed by clicking the Judging from a soapbox hyperlinks on this page and viewing readers' comments in their entirety. Previous PPs are accessible from the left sidebar menu.
First up, a big thank you to all who wrote compliments (I truly appreciate them) and those who gave the post extra legs by sharing it across cyberspace. I can see a marked spike in my website traffic statistics. It's wonderful (well, not really 'wonderful'!)...heartening to know that there are so many out there who are also disillusioned with the superficiality of judging that delves no deeper than technical and traditional craft attributes. We are not alone.
Besides comments on my website, I have also received personal emails, phone calls, and invitations to judge, speak, and run workshops. A groundswell of discontent has been building throughout the amateur photography club movement, it seems, and the calls for change are multiplying.
Let's get on with it. I'll respond to the (mostly) abridged comments in the order they were received.
I'm pleased, Brenda. One thing that I'm certain of is that if one makes the effort to study images and articulate thoughts and feelings that arise from that study, one becomes a more perceptive photographer. There's something about getting the words down that crystallises one's appreciation of others' work and what it is about that work that resonates. That's why I think online image evaluation forums can be so valuable. The pity is that it's been my experience that few people make the effort to participate in those forums in a meaningful way. "Wow!", "Brilliant!", "Top shot!" etcetera—as nice as they are to read—don't offer useful feedback to a photographer. The why is the most important component of feedback. A good critic can speak to the why.
Helen, I'm sure you'd be aware that a number of clubs in NSW have decided to abandon the traditional competition culture and reliance on external judging. Instead, they are developing image evaluation skills within their membership. The club that I belong to will soon debate whether that is a direction for us. Obviously, I'll be on the 'yes' side of that debate.
Incidentally, I think that articulating thoughts about photographs is a rich fringe benefit of judging/image evaluation: your own photography improves if you are forced to critically evaluate others' work. Importantly, the word 'critically' or 'critique' does not imply that comment is only negative, as some seem to assume. Praising the good things about an image is as important as expressing an opinion on how an image might be improved. A little encouragement works wonders.
You are very kind, Giang. It's the job of a judge in the photography club movement to try to be a mentor, an open-minded, frank and benevolent critic. The job is not to be superior or judgemental, to gratuitously expound one's knowledge of the tools (hardware and software), or to be technically picky unless technical issues significantly hinder appreciation of the image in terms of its ideas or expression. I'm well pleased if what I do is encouraging you in your photography, because I have been encouraged by the best mentor whose comment, incidentally, was the next after yours.
Thanks, Des...to you.
Cheers, Geoff. I am also an admirer of good equipment. I appreciate good enginerring. I can geek on with the best of them. Well...maybe not the best of them...nor do I want to. I do think it matters that modern, progressive clubs are not called camera clubs. It puts the emphasis on the wrong thing, in my opinion.
A camera is to photography as a house is to a home. It's necessary but not the heart and soul of it. A home is a place of love and family...heart and soul. It's not the bricks and mortar, the appliances, or the prestige of the address. Photography is also about people—photographers and their vision—not about the tools they use: cameras or any other kind of hardware or software...or the brand prestige that camera manufacturers want us to believe.
As for those damned cats!, I'll address that a bit further down!
Thanks, Tony. I wish the photograph was mine, and I think that's the best award that any photograph can receive from any judge. I often ask myself, "If this was my photograph, would I be entirely happy with it?" That doesn't necessarily mean it's a great photograph in anyone else's eyes. Art appreciation is subjective.
Perc, as fellow graduates of the Des Crawley school of image evaluation, we are going to see eye-to-eye. I agree that image 'assessment' or 'evaluation' is a better term than 'judging'. It connotes reasoned opinion that doesn't pronounce right or wrong. That's a gentler and democratic mode of learning and growth, especially in a group environment.
I put the image below together for your amusement. Click it to see a readable version in a new browser window, then click that version again to see it at maximum size.
It was a good night all round, David, for judge and audience. Lots of good feedback and satisfaction on my part that our members got some ideas out of the discourse that they can explore in their own photography.
Ormond, it's so good to hear you say that. It's the path to greater enjoyment, meaning and fulfilment in photography. Go get it!
Little boxesA parody of Malvina Reynolds' 1962 song 'Little boxes'. It laments the sameness and gear-centricity of much camera club photography.
I agree with you, Brian. You mentioned the word 'impact' which, in my opinion, also has its problems. I believe in the importance of composition as a foundation for imagery.
Images often rely on impact to be successful in traditional camera club and exhibition photography. It's because, particularly in exhibitions, judging is a rapid-fire process; there are just so many images to get through and judges have only a few seconds to assess and score. There are many fine images that reward the longer look and careful study, and these are disadvantaged by rapid-fire judging. That's such a shame. I prefer those images to: the rash of bullocks pulling chariots through mud holes; or rodeo riders being bucked off horses; or staged photographs of leathery old women in Kolkata cradling babies; or whatever else is flavour of the month/year in the salon circuits.
I remember a conversation with Graeme Burstow at Apscon 2011 in which he also lamented the potential superficiality of impact judging. David Johnson, below, expresses similar misgivings.
Thanks for your input, David. Agreed. "...at 52 I would have been the youngest person there". You whipper-snapper, you! I don't know what's wrong with the young people these days...trying to buck a tried and proven system! ;-)
John, we can see that the same concerns are being raised in many quarters. I spoke with Ingrid (far north Queensland) who expressed the fear that many photographers, like you, are losing interest because of poor judging that doesn't foster creativity/individuality and growth.
"Your imagination never ceases to amaze me..." I'll let you in on a secret...it's my medication! (Joking)
Robyn, your experience at the hands of many traditional style judges is illuminating. Your images generally don't do that well in our club competitions because your style is quiet, elegant and thoughtful. You don't hit people over the head with forced impact or processing, or slavish adherence to so called rules. Yet you are the most successful international salon exhibitor in the history of our club. Go figure.
John, I find that the hardest images to judge are ones that have no major technical faults and no apparent ideas in them, or scope for the imagination to roam. As a judge, one must always try to say something useful and never deliberately offend. You are right, sometimes it is just better to admit defeat. Here's an example from the recent judging...
"An unusual camera point of view, high contrast and repeating elements is a promising combination. The photographer has achieved a punchy black and white conversion with controlled shadows and highlights.
While commenting on another image I mentioned how an odd-one-out element in a repeating group can call attention to itself in a good way. In this image we see a partially unrolled towel on one of the deck chairs and discarded gowns and shoes beside another. Unfortunately, however, there seems to be too much going on in this image that’s not unified or given design by the composition or choice of cropping. It’s not holding my attention and I don’t readily see what might be done to make something of it. I’m disappointed in my own inadequacy!
Sometimes you just have to put the camera down and walk away if the scene isn’t working for you."
Walk away—it's OK.
Very kind of you, Terry. My actions aren't entirely altruistic, though. It's a two-way street...
Ruth (blush), I'm just applying what I've been taught. Thank you so much. Here are some paraphrased quotes I wrote in my notebook while listening to Des speaking about judging in 2009...
"A good judge can inspire people to keep going. Keep exploring an idea...take an 'almost there' image to another level." "A good judge will educate and encourage personal growth. Give photographers something to take away and ponder."
Thank you, Peter, for making such an important point about where the focus on craft should be in evaluating creative photography. I have been taught not to go too hard on the craft aspects of an image unless flaws are really getting in the way of enjoying the image for its own sake or the technical attributes are working against what may appear to be the intent of the photographer in making the image.
Geoff, it's gratifying to know that my blog post has generated interest and discussion beyond my website. As Perc Carter has said, "Common sense will eventually prevail", and the more vigorous the discussion the sooner that will occur.
Your expansive comments are appreciated, Di, and I don't think they are disjointed! Yes, in my opinion, photography's reliance on an apparatus (camera gear) is one of the main reasons why evaluation of images is so often focussed on the output of the apparatus.
Vincent's brushesA parallel. Would artists have cared so much about the equipment that their peers used? Why do many photographers obsess about acquiring improved equipment at the expense of investing in improved vision and creativity?
Would Vincent have cared?...
Vincent Van GoghWhat Vincent might have said about his art if he was like some modern tech-centric photographers.
Get over yourself, Gearhead!"Show me your pictures, not your toys" ®
Peter, one of the greatest things about pursuing photography as an art form—for me—is the knowledge that, provided I look after my sight and retain reasonable manual dexterity and my marbles!, my photography will improve the longer I live and explore it. Age has some advantages and one of the most important is visual maturity and discernment. I'm now more selective about what I photograph. There are so many potential photographs that I just don't need to make any more. I concentrate on the things that mean something to me. Salgado said it best, in my opinion...
Musing on a tagline for my own photography, I settled on this...
Those damned cats? Here they are. The shadows could also be likened to the shapes of horned owls, but cats fit my imagined story. That's all.