Observations and Thoughts from Judging at the Orange County Fair

San Diego –– Wednesday (the 10th) I went up to the Orange County Fair Grounds in Costa Mesa to do the 2nd tier judging for their photo show.  They handle things a bit differently logistically and procedurally than at San Diego’s Fair.  Some things work better — others perhaps not as well but it was easy to get into the swing of their processes and get on with the jurying.

I was put on a panel with two  L.A. based professional shooters and we were given a number of categories including several black and white categories.  The work was generally of good quality.  The categories were not the ones I did online for the first tier.  I think the middle of the range was generally a little better than at the San Diego Fair though work at the top was on a par with SD’s exhibition.  That was the good news.

But here too there seemed to be some issues that appeared over and over and over.  This exhibition was not promoted to be on the same international standards as at S.D. so we (the jury panel) did not nit-pick to the same degree.  However there was one disappointing category for which we awarded NO prizes or ribbons because not one of the judges on the panel thought any entry was worthy of it.

The primary recurring problems were in composition and the related point of view and lens choice.  By far and away the greatest recurring problem was composition — especially cropping (or more precisely, NOT cropping when they should have done so).  It was enormously frustrating to see photograph after photograph where lost in the clutter that could have easily been removed by taking a few steps closer or slightly angling the camera or failing all of that, simply cropping a little tighter, was a delightful even sometimes powerful image.

But the most powerful of images can have that power diluted or eliminated entirely by allowing distracting elements to remain.  Sometimes those other elements are so interesting they deserved a shot of their own.  Sometimes they were dead space in foregrounds or sky that contributed nothing to the real shot’s story and instead only provided visually ambiguous space where the eye and mind of the viewer could drift from the real subject or even off the image entirely.

When you are shooting you need to be brutally honest when composing your shot.  If you cannot determine for yourself, AS THE PHOTOGRAPHER, where the heart and soul of the image is, how can you expect a viewer to do so?  If you do not know what the story is yourself, the viewers will have scant chance at discovering it for themselves because, unlike you, they cannot see the “Big Picture” to determine where the core is.  They have no personal point of reference for the visual metaphor you are creating.  You and you alone know – or should know – what the shot is really about and if you do not compose in such a way as to make that clear you cannot blame the viewers for not getting it either.

It is a disingenuous cop-out to claim that you are presenting the whole view so the viewers can determine for themselves what to take away from it.  It is also a bald-faced lie.  Your photograph has no ability to present the “whole” of the experience since you have already isolated some part of the totality of the views, you have altered special relationships from 3D to 2D, you have eliminated sounds, touch, and smells and the emotional responses that flow from those on-site sensory experiences.  You have, in effect, created a whole new and constrained universe in your shot that can only convey whatever equivalences, metaphors, analogies, that you, the artist, has presented via your expected mastery of ALL of your image creating techniques.  Of the myriad stories to tell from one expansive scene, you necessarily, knowingly or unknowingly, isolated a portion and  thereby only told a small portion of the potential.  But is it the story or portion of the story you wanted to tell, does it convey the emotion that you felt, which moved you to stop and make an image?  It better be. You cannot escape that job requirement despite all of the hopeful rhetoric from people who use it as an excuse to cover a lack of skill or, worse, a lack of aesthetic insight.

A great photograph is a nearly perfect wedding of the two sides of any art: the foundational and fundamental skills and the artistic vision.  Both are required and if either fails the images suffers and sometimes is lost.

If you do not have a mastery of BOTH parts then don’t just sit there, do something about it.  There are an over-abundance of classes, books, tutorials, instructors both public and private available to you.  Take advantage of them.  If you truly respect the art and the art form in which you work, then you cannot allow yourself to sit back and pretend that if you take enough shots on your own somehow, magically, you will have an epiphany on the road to your next shot.

Yes, you need to shoot a lot and practice but it has to be the sort of dedicated practice that is designed to hone your eye and hone your skills.  Continuing to simply shoot without some guidance will result only in a lifetime collection of mediocre shots with a few flukes you can try to claim you did on purpose but are unlikely to repeat in any predictable way.

The digital world has erected an even higher wall with increasing levels of options and tools but they have masked that by making cameras easier and easier to operate and get SOMETHING more or less correctly exposed.  But it is an illusion of personal competence that does not really exist.  The tool is not an artist; it has no heart, no soul, and no story to recognize much less tell.  For all of its power it is still no more an artist than a brush or a chisel.  Going from pen and paper to the typewriter to the computer word processor did not create better writers… only more of them.  It is the same in the visual arts and especially in photography with its massive array of technical underpinnings.

We saw many, many shots where one side of that needed wedding were missing.  Technical excellence without heart or a stunning concept without the skill to properly present it results in a crippled and thoroughly unsatisfactory piece.  You need both.  We are not born with them.  Males are not born with a detailed map of the world engraved in their synapses or the innate ability to start a campfire, though many act as if they were.   We instinctively want to create things but we lack the instincts to know or control the necessary tools; those we have to learn.

So if making images is important to you, if you are driven to do so, if the making of art is a deep inner itch that has to be scratched, then take advantage of a world of increasing opportunities to properly learn the tools of your trade.  It takes almost no money to study composition.  That is the syntax of the language of visual art and the web is filled with material, not to mention a vast library of books on the subject.  Composition is not the art.  It is a tool necessary to the creation of the art.

You do not need a mega buck or hyper-megapixel camera to learn how to control the main tool.  An inexpensive DSLR and cheap kit lenses, along with some quality instruction, will allow you to learn all you need.  Many legendary guitarists look back fondly on some cheap guitar they used to learn the instrument.  You can learn to read music on a toy piano.  And in photography you can learn the important controls and their aesthetic results on a cheap camera as well as an expensive one and frankly, you may be able to learn them better because they do not give you the options.  At City College we REQUIRE that new students take a basic B&W beginning class before they go on down the track.  The students grumble and complain but the truth is, they are BETTER photographers for the experience.

Then, after you have mastered the camera just as a musician has mastered his or her instrument, and your composition and visual skills are also honed, if the process has grown to an obsession to create art you can now leverage those skills into the procurement of better equipment.

But it is a huge mistake to think that buying the ultimate camera will, by itself, produce the ultimate art… or, for that matter, ANY art at all.  The bet of show, as chosen by ALL of the judges, was a small piece but an incredibly dramatic and powerful one.  It could have been shot with a smartphone for all we knew… or cared

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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One Response to Observations and Thoughts from Judging at the Orange County Fair

  1. Ahjile Miller says:

    Hello,
    I just wanted to say thank you for your honesty and true respect for photography. I truly believe photography is an art.

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