San Diego — I just received a comment on the initial entry about judging at the fair this year. It is attached to that first post so you can read it if you would like. It consisted of a complaint that pieces were rejected without explanation and that therefore participation was pointless. It also said I had mischaracterized the judging process compared to the information posted in the entry rules. I think those are important issues and deserve more of a response than a simple reply to a comment, so am going to address them here.
No one likes to have pieces rejected but it happens to all of us; God knows it happens to me as well. Our art work is our baby, we have a huge emotional connection to it since it is our creation and goes to our inner core. Often too our connection to the image is tied to the emotional responses that were part and parcel of the moment in which the photo was captured. It is incredibly difficult, even when we know better, to step outside those emotional blinders and not be hurt or profoundly unhappy when someone, especially someone held up as an authority on it, rejects it in a show. It hurts. I know, I’ve been there and know I will be again down the road. But being a judge myself I now can be a bit more objective about the results, both good and bad and perhaps I can make it a little more acceptable, if not more agreeable, to you.
OK, the first complaint was in not letting entrants know why they were rejected. I have to say up front I don’t think I’ve ever been told why a submission of mine was rejected for an exhibition but I do agree it would have been helpful information. So let’s put that activity under the lens of reality.
At large exhibitions such as the San Diego County Fair, there are usually a couple of thousand (and sometimes more) entries. They typically have hanging space for about a third of the entries so assuming a 2/3 rejection, taking the time to comment on all of those 1,000 to 2,000 prints that do not make the first cut or all of those except prize winners, is simply not possible unless the judges, who do it for free, were willng to spend several days devoted strictly to that activity.
Whoever sends the email out alerting entrants as to the fate of their entries is not involved in the judging and would have no idea as to why something was accepted or rejected. It is, however, a fair complaint and that is why at this particular exhibition there are a judges’ Roundtable and a Judges’ Critique events scheduled… and that is far more than most exhibitions and photo festivals offer in order to improve the caliber of both entries and displayed work.
However, photo exhibition are not intended to be photo classrooms; judges are not expected to also assume the mantle of photo educators as part of the judging process. Indeed some things ought to need no explanation: B&W shots entered into a color category, for example, or a landscape in a portrait category. Nor do basic level photo errors such as focus issues, bad printing or editing, poorly used composition, and a plethora of digital blunders such as being oversharpened or over the top HDR in the wrong categories. Those are errors addressed in nearly every basic level class available in the galaxy and the judges’ question back to the photographer is often, “Why on earth would they enter such a piece since they knew or should have known it was so flawed in execution?”
But there are other reasons as well for rejection that are less obvious than simple basic blunders should be. If we are in a “Color, Scenic, Winter” category, for example, and have just narrowed down to a dozen or more nearly identical photographs of wildflowers, judges are not going to accept them all and create a boring show unless the category is flowers. They will carefully, sometimes painfully try to find the top couple that, in their view, are the best and reject the rest. An artistic exposition, whether of photography or painting, is, in itself, a sort of art work and needs to not be boring or it is pointless. In the categories I and the panel I was on reviewed, we often chose between similar or nearly identical entries based on our collective appraisal as to which was the best, sometimes by virtue of having the fewest flaws, sometimes on which we thought made the strongest statements or told the strongest “Story” about the subject to decide upon the one or sometimes two we would pass on to the next tier of judging.
To everyone entering such a contest, it is very important that you understand something. Judges do not “see” with a monolithic eye or aesthetic. This is ART not SCIENCE. Judging between creative works of intended art does not have the luxury of the type of objective measurement that would allow us, for example, to judge the correctness of answers to a math quiz. That is why at this exhibition, unlike many others in which I’ve participated, judges work in panels and often discuss conclusions before making a final decision.
The comments I made in the previous post were compiled from discussions with a number of judges from a lot of different categories. These were judges from a number of photographic disciplines ranging from photojournalism to commercial photography to fine art photography and yet there was a surprising consistency in their reactions to what they were seeing. That, to me at least, helps reinforce the idea that in this case the final decisions were not simply capricious whims of individual judges — which in fact does happen in some juried exhiitions. Sometimes, though quite a bit more infrequently than one might think, we would disagree. The images that initiated the disagreements really got discussed and if we could not reach a consensus we kept it for the last pass where it was now viewed against others of the same situation and then evaluated comparatively but often with close and careful scrutiny.
Here is an ugly little secret about judging: when you are trying to whittle down a large pile to a few selections you are first of all looking for ANY reason to say, “No” to a piece. And one of the questions is, if we pass this on to the final round, does it really have a shot at a prize? We passed on some where our own answer was “No” to that question but we were trying to get the numbers up a little. How other panels dealt with that situation I cannot say.
However the point of the comment is well taken. To help turn the exhibition into an educational experience for the entrants, feedback would be good. Then like a call at a game, you could agree or disagree but at least know what the umpire or judge believed when they made a ruling and put that into your thinking for the next time. But I do not know how to get around the time issue for so many images.
On a single image basis it does not take much time, typically a minute or two or three (we timed a few) to open up that “comment” field in the viewing software, discuss an answer or comment the whole panel can agree on, type and edit it (most of us are not very good typists), re-read it to make sure we were as clear as possible trying to articulate visual issues, then close it and get back on track. But those minutes add up quickly and then we have to start rushing through the next batch and not having the time to give them the discussion they may deserve before we make a decision about acceptance or rejection. if there were fewer entrants it might be feasible, but frankly, not with this volume.
I’m sorry too you think I gave a different impression of the judging process. I have never seen any indication in writing or otherwise that would imply a process other than what I described, that is, panels of judges viewing selected categories and, in the first tier, trying to select for both display and second tier judging, an amount of work for which there is display room. I can tell you that in the past we have sometimes accepted more than the quota and left the staff scrambling to find a way to show it all.
Although I used the term “quota” the word overstates the reality. The so-called “quota” is simply a guideline and we were never told it was a hard and fast number as either a minimum or a limit. If that was what you thought I was saying then I apologize if I misspoke. As judges coming from the professional side of the discipline we all tried to honestly chose the images that were, in our opinions, the best ones but also the ones that best exemplified high technical skill as well as solid aesthetics. It is, after all, an International Exhibition and we set the bar fairly high.
Finally, an etrant is of course quite free to participate or not in future events. But I would recommend that all of you come to the judges’ presentations and hear their comments and suggestions. We will not entertain a whining convention of, “Why didn’t you accept my print since all my friends said it was so good and my mom just loved it?” But we will try to address visual, technical, aesthetic issues in general that should give you some ideas to start a round of self analysis. And at the Judge’s Critique we will talk about specific images if you like, at least within the time constraints given.
The commenter had some work accepted and some rejected. If that also describes your experience I would also highly recommend that you do a brutally honest analysis of the differences between the images of yours that were and were not accepted and look for the elements that might have led to such decisions. Contests are, in the end, reduced to juror likes and dislikes. If we can chose only four images for prizes out of 500-600 entries in a group, we first look for, as i said above, reasons to say, “No.” But invariably that leaves far more remaining images, often 50 or so, than we can give prizes to but for which, unfortunately for us, there are no remaining objective technical or aesthetic reason to turn down. We then try to rank them in some fashion but that still always leaves a small group of 10-15 that are all OK; any one of which might win. but by then all that is left as criteria is what we like or dislike based on our won sensibilities.
For entrants, knowing that reality means something important. If you lose… don’t despair: the fifth in line for which no prize is given was selected out often by compromise and personal taste and with a different judge or judge’s panel might have won.
And if you win… don’t get cocky about it: you got that blue ribbon not always because yours was the best in some objective sense, but because the judge or jury liked it better. A different judge might have placed if 5th or 6th.
I told several of my fellow jurors about this and the response has been this so far. First from Lee Peterson (http://photographyinparadise.com/)
OK, the first complaint was in not letting entrants know why they were rejected.
This is why I proposed a long time ago to have the judges panel night where entrants get to hear the judges and and understand what they were looking for in a print. Although not about a specific print but in general terms what makes winning prints. For one of the contests that I judged for the SDUPS I put together a pre contest review meeting where the judges discussed in front of the photographers who where entering the winners from the previous year and why and how they voted for these images to give the contestants some idea of what they had to do to get a winning image. I think this might be impossible for the Del Mar Contest because of the huge numbers of entrants. However small local competitions could benefits from this.
Entrants have to remember that values applied to a work of art by a judge is nothing more than an educated OPINION. Judges try to apply the criterion of judging the quality of the craft and execution of the techniques that make for a GOOD print and it boils down to the content and subject of the art or what I call the WOW factor. Prints that lack WOW just don’t make it into the final round.
If I put a print under a scanner with an algorithm software capable of evaluating the content of the print,(Focus,color,sharpness,cropping,mounting,type of material, and other nuances) I think the results would be the same as what we get by human judges on the first round of judging. The WOW factor is where the judges have to deal with the impact of the image and that is where the OPINION factor comes into play.
I do feel that the contest entry description for certain categories needs to be refined so that there can be no confusion as to what the category is about. If the image is in the wrong category the judges have the right to move it into the correct category if the print meets the quality needed to be a good print.
In this event judges are working together in a small group for each individual category and have the opportunity to discuss each of the images among themselves which adds a valuable scrutiny to the final vote.
I have judged many exhibitions and contests over the past 40 years and I have learned a great deal from this experience. I can say from my experience that the judging at the San Diego Fair 2013 for the entrants who have entered this competition that they will have been subjected to the best judging of any contest that I have been involved with. The accumulation of art and craft knowledge in the collection of judges that are selected for this event far surpasses any other event of the same caliber. I will say that if your image made it in the final show you have been selected by the best individuals in the field.
—Lee Peterson 2013