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Judging from a soapbox

September 12, 2015  •  20 Comments

Yes, I'm still alive, and I know it's been a long time since I've posted a blog. It's not that I've gone to sleep on photography (far from it) but, rather, been wide awake to competing photographic opportunities and commitments. More of those things in subsequent blogs, perhaps, but, for now,

I'd like to share a recent experience of soapboxing. Who? a soapbox? :-)

Show me your pictures, not your toys." — Rob Smith
I've been an accredited judge in the camera club movement since 2009, and have also judged at national and international exhibitions. From now on, though, I'll try never to refer to the camera club movement again. My own club has recently changed its name from a ​Camera Club to a Photographic Club.​ Yes, at last! That's an important step, and for those of you who are not in the photographic club movement, I will explain...

Photography is both an art and a craft; alter egos if you like. Unfortunately, for decades in the photographic club movement, the emphasis of the majority of opinion leaders and judges has been biased towards the craft and the gear—the tools. In the days of film photography it was meritorious to produce a technically accomplished photograph as a print or a slide. I was chuffed when I 'got one'; when I nailed the craft. Nowadays, I like to refer to the craft alter ego of photography as its Achilles heel. How so? Because preoccupation with the craft/gear aspects of photography is to the detriment of the appreciation of the photograph as a means of expression, and your growth as a creative photographer.

Crave better equipment, or burn to be a better photographer?" — Rob Smith
Now, in the digital age, we are in the golden age of photography. Now, more than ever, it is the democratic art (according to The Tate Gallery, London, it's "the 21st century's dominant art form"). Now, more than ever, one's proficiency with the tools is easy to master. With modern equipment, we can largely assign to the technology the task of getting the craft right. Yet, for the most part, judging of photographs in the photographic club movement is preoccupied with technical analysis of images, and insistence on practitioners' adherence to hoary rules, rather than being liberated from that stuff (it's a soft target to aspire to simply producing technically competent images) and attempting to evaluate images in terms of their artistic merit...or, if 'artistic' is too arty farty or pretentious a concept for you, their expressive merit.

I became a judge because I became frustrated with the old guard style of judging that dominated the camera club experience as I knew it. Once liberated from the technical challenges of photography by the technology of the digital age, I was ready to take my photography beyond the record, beyond a preoccupation with the gear and the rules. I wanted to express myself through photography. But the camera club environment wasn't helping me grow into that. Month after month I'd sit in the audience at our club and mutter to myself when I heard the comments of judges who couldn't see, or attempt to see, anything beyond technical merit in an image, or glib adherence to formulaic rote such as, for example, The Rule of Thirds.

I've judged many times since completing a creative photography and image evaluation course led by Emeritus Professor Des Crawley in 2009. Des opened my eyes to a whole new (to me) and exciting world of photography as an art form and, more importantly, encouraged and inspired me to believe that I could participate in it. But I have never judged at my own club. At my own club, I have continued to be disappointed with the (mostly) old guard judging style that pervades the club movement in NSW. In my opinion, it doesn't help that the parent body for the amateur photography movement in NSW is called the Federation of Camera Clubs. Other states have photographic societies or associations. Rightly so, the emphasis should be on photography rather than cameras.

A great camera can't make a great photograph, any more than a great typewriter can write a great novel. It's what you do with it that counts." — Peter Adams
Recently, I was quietly asked by my club's digital image steward to judge a monthly round for our club as she had found difficulty in securing a judge. I agreed because I had not competed at our club for some time (largely due to dissatisfaction with narrow-minded judging); I could remain impartial...and anonymous! I revelled in the opportunity to put up or shut up after being such a strong critic of the kind of judging that our members have been subjected to on, not all, but too many my humble opinion! Our club, being regional, doesn't have live judging. Our images are posted or made available to remote judges online who return written critiques.

So it was that I delivered a judging at our club last week. I read from my written comments, in the absence of our digital steward who usually reads the judge's comments, and did not identify myself as the judge. When one member asked, "Who is this judge?", I answered, "Lorenzo Schmidt". It wasn't until the end of the evening that I fessed up to being the culprit. I'm still alive and uninjured. In fact, and modesty aside, I received wonderful expressions of appreciation for the job I did.

With the permission of the photographer, here's the critique that I gave to the image that I awarded "Judge's Choice" in the open monochrome section.

Image title: Warmth for the ageing © M. Sheppard

Warmth for the ageingWarmth for the ageing© Michael Sheppard 2015

Poignant. Distressing. Portentous. “Warmth for the ageing” is an exemplar of a title that hints at the photographer’s feeling while giving the audience room to run with the ball. And I’m running with the ball with a lump in my throat.

Another judge might say, “Blown highlight on the dog’s back”. I don’t care.

​Yet another, "It's best not to centre the subject in the frame". I say, "Is that a rote comment? Sometimes it's appropriate".

Another judge might say, “Can’t see the dog’s eyes. Need to see the dog’s eyes and, by the way, the shadows are blocked”.

​Yet another, "Use a smaller aperture to get greater depth of field". I say, "Are you kidding me? Get a visual life! Is that just a knee-jerk comment or have you really thought about it?"

What do I see? A little, old, stooped over dog on a narrow road to somewhere; a road that cannot be avoided. The dog's distorted shadow is both cute and ominous. The little dog stops and looks at a line on the road. Is he/she ready to cross over?

Three of the neighbourhood cats are perched on the fence, their shadows falling on the symbolic road. They seem to me to be watching and waiting to see what their nemesis will do. Is the era of them being chased from this territory drawing to a close?

They say that some dogs wander off when they know their time is near.

This is a wonderful image. I can’t fault it. It exhibits competent craft, but more importantly it asks questions of the audience and gives the viewer’s imagination room to roam.  It teases out the ideas of decline and mortality, concepts that every living being faces.  MERIT & JUDGE’S CHOICE

Now you might say that the ideas I see and imagine in the image could be the ravings of a lunatic; peculiar to me. Perhaps they are nothing to do with what the photographer saw or was trying to express. Absolutely possible!

But it doesn't matter.

Appreciation of visual art, whether painting, sculpture, or photography, is in the eye of the beholder. You like what you like, and I like what I like—no argument. The point I hope to make is that it doesn't matter whether dfferent people have different interpretations. The important thing is that the artwork (in this case a photograph) has the ability to fire the viewer's imagination at all.

If anyone would like to engage in a discussion on this topic in the comments below, I welcome it. ®


Peter Cotton - pcbermagui(non-registered)
Des has a lot to answer for and all of it positive. You are further down this track than I but I fully agree/admire with the path that you are taking. It takes time. I'm a little older than you and on recollection, the first time I attended at the tender age of 15 the "Maidstone Photographic Society" in 1956 is was a junior trainee with a local studio.
Technique was necessarily king, but I got a first for an image I'd created in the studio. The technique was acknowledged but the prize was for the vision.
I've struggled for the last 59 years to repeat what came naturally then.
Digital technology has freed me now to pursue that vision without the tech monkey on my back and I thank folks like yourself, and Des for helping open my eyes and mind once again.
Cheers - Peter
Some disjointed thoughts your blog has provoked in my mind, Rob:

- do other art forms "suffer" from the inquisition regarding their tools? do painters have to comment on the brushes and paint they used, the canvas they chose? Does a sculptor have to provide the model number of his chisel? Do we even think of that when admiring the piece?

- does the reliance on "rules" and convention ring more true with photography because it relies more heavily on a complex mechanical (technical, if you will) appliance to deliver it's outcome?

- isn't it just easier to fall back on tried and true rules and conventions, in the name of fairness and "quality", rather than appeal to the more vague idea of "artistic quality"? Are we sacrificing recognition of the brilliant, in the name of a consistent and reliable approach?

- have other art forms through the ages had to break through convention and those that decided what "art" was and was not? ("If it's not J.S. Bach, it's not 'real' music!")

- and lastly, not a question...everyone I have shown this photo to has responded with "WOW...what a photo!" And when I explained it didn't really meet the rules of a technically great shot, they have all universally replied..."really? why not? well, some of those rules need changing". Mind you, they're just folk, not specifically aligned with a club (of either camera or photography bent). Just folk, appreciating a photograph.
Geoff Muscutt(non-registered)
Rob, your blog seems to have touched a nerve in many people and it is pleasing to read so many (mostly favourable ) comments. Re Michael's dog photo I didn't see exactly what you saw but it was a worthy Judges Choice. I thought maybe the dog was sniffing at cat smell on the ground so as you say each photo is appreciated differently by the beholder. Thanks for your detailed comments on the last club comp. as few judges would spend so much time studying and then commenting on the entries. You are inspiring.
Peter Fleming(non-registered)
Well done Lorenzo!
What a great image. The story is there, and with possibilities; Is the old dog just trying to warm up in the feeble sunshine where the concrete is warmest (as the title might suggest), is it contemplating the shadow line through rheumy eyes, is it just dozing without a care, is it feeling the creaking joints and just pausing to catch its breath mid-stride before moving on, where was I going again?
It conjures memories of old foxies I've known and observed, and how many of them carried a back leg like this old guy. Of course, it's a foxy- it MUST be done in monochrome!
Importantly to me, the craft is all there such that I didn't even look beyond the captured image and the story: nothing irritates, so one concentrates on the story.
Ruth Marquez(non-registered)
i haven't had as much time for club meetings of late, perhaps because I felt I would not get much out of the judges comments. Thank you for being such a wonderful advocate of the art. I have always thought photography should be called an art. I try often to learn from you and others how to see my photos "more". By that I mean what can I do with a scene in front of me, to convey what I am feeling at that moment. It doesn't always work. So I will keep trying, keep learning and keep appreciating. Perhaps I will take more time for competitions and the meetings in the future, now that I know I will get something from the judging. Thanks Rob, you are my hero.
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