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Judging the Judges

Thoughts on Competition and Image Critique

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Guy Tal

Professional photographic artist, author and speaker working primarily in the Western US. Website Flickr

It is a shame to see in the work of an artist the limitations of his critics. ~Robert Brault

One of the transformations I witnessed over the years in how and why people practice photography, is the rise in popularity of participating in competitions and in critique sessions. The trend seems to coincide with the rise of photography practised (to whatever degree) as a social—rather than as a personally expressive—endeavor.

Before sharing my thoughts on competition and critique, I’ll preempt my conclusion, which is this: take any judgment of your work by others with a grain of salt; and on most occasions, as no worthier than a grain of salt. And the reason for mentioning my conclusion at this point is this: I wish to also volunteer a couple of grains of salt for you to keep in mind as you read this essay.

I do not enter my own work into them and have severe reservations about what painter and educator Robert Henri described as, “the pernicious influence of the prize and medal giving in art.”
Although I occasionally judge photography contests, I do not enter my own work into them and have severe reservations about what painter and educator Robert Henri described as, “the pernicious influence of the prize and medal giving in art.” And, while I received very useful advice along my photographic journey in a variety of ways (most prominent among these are the writings of notable photographers, artists, and thinkers of many disciplines, rather than formal critique), I have never—not even once—received critique of my work that I considered particularly useful to the way I practice photography.

A good place to start may be to examine what motivates those who enter their work into such contests, and those who seek critique for their work, especially online. Off the bat, I’ll set aside reasons having to do with vanity and bragging rights. Not only do I find these unimportant and distracting to my own goal of creative self-expression, but the knowledge that another photographer is driven by such things is enough to diminish my interest in their work.

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  • Dan Baumbach

    I don’t generally submit to contests because I don’t think my photographs are created to stand out in those types of competitions. I do, however, submit to critiques on rare occasions when I know who is doing the criticism. I do only with the intent of getting my work seen. If these critics are positive about my images it may help in more opportunities to exhibit and get published.

    • Hope it’s working, Dan. Your work is quiet and sensitive. It seems odd to me to pit these wonderful qualities against the “look at me!!! look at me!!!” creations that dominate the airwaves these days.

      • Dan Baumbach

        I don’t apply to those sorts of contests. It’s sometimes easier to get in front of somebody if they’re a juror. The photography curator of the Denver Art Museum chose on of my photos for an exhibit he was jurying. I don’t know if will amount to anything, but when I introduced myself to him, he know exactly what my image was.

  • Carl Neptune

    I don’t enter photography contests because my photography sucks.

  • dick o’kell

    Well thought out and well said, as usual.

    In my opinion, competition is inherently destructive, creating “winners” and “losers”.

    • That’s a good way to put it.

      “… if our attempt to help young artists is to be by giving them prizes which we award, we demand of them that they please us— whether they please themselves or not. Let the work they do get its honor in being what it is. Prizes generally go amiss. The award of prizes has the effect of setting up a false discrimination.” ~Robert Henri

  • Simon Miles

    Thank you Guy. This is very interesting. I wonder if you have similar reservations about social sharing sites like Flickr and 500px? I always resisted these until quite recently and, although I have enjoyed making contact with other photographers who share my interests or live in my area, the overall experience is inevitably quite superficial and simplistic – but is there a better way in the internet age?

    • I think the adage, “everything in moderation,” is a good way to describe my thoughts about social sharing. These sites indeed can be useful in a number of ways, but they are designed to be addictive, and as with any potentially addictive habit, one must be diligent about allowing the habit to overtake one’s life or supplant other things.

      I wrote about this subject in several other essays. Here’s a couple:


      • Simon Miles

        Thanks Guy. I’m sure you’re right. As I get older, I have come to realise that so many things in life are about finding the right balance.

  • Neil McCoubrey

    Hi Guy. Thanks for articulating this.
    In my experience Club competitions and, in particular, International Salons only encourage photographers to produce spectacular but emotionally empty images. Club judges do, at least, talk about the basics, focus, exposure, etc., but never about such things as narrative or emotional content.
    International Salons, where, from my experience, judging can take as little as 3 seconds per image (how else would you handle 17000 images in just a couple of days?) can only differentiate based upon instant appeal, being different, being spectacular. Then, of course, when entrants see what has won this salon, they will replicate the same for the next salon. Rather than encouraging experimentation, reflection and self-expression such competition drives photographers into repetition of whatever is currently fashionable.
    Consequently, I have long given up on competitions, but I do still enjoy “Group Tutorials” where a small group of peers discuss each other’s images candidly and honestly.
    Thanks again.

    • Thank you, Neil! I agree with you. One thing about club competitions (as opposed to more diverse venues) is that club leadership can, if they so choose, make the competition about creative expression, thereby prompting and encouraging members to strive for something beyond “my picture is prettier than your picture.”
      It’s probably true that most club do not do that, but I have come across at least a couple who do, and the results were impressive, both in terms of output and in the seriousness with which members pursued their photography.
      Not being a very social person, this approach would not suit me, but as most people do find benefit in meaningful social interaction, I encourage those who belong to such clubs to promote a creative, rather than competitive, atmosphere within their group.

  • Paul Gronhovd

    Guy, I have read your More than a Rock book of essays several times and have grown to like it very much. This time however I do take issue with you. I believe you are correct in pointing out the problems of competition but there is another side. That side is when the selection process works in the favor of an artist’s development. I cannot tell you what a great experience it was for me to be selected by our local art museum. It has motivated me to do more. I feel that if it never happens again that is ok because it happened once and that was a big deal for me.

    • Thanks, Paul! As they say, you can’t argue with results. On the other hand, consider those who may have entered the same contest but were not selected due to the judge’s subjective preference, rather than anything having to do with the quality of their work, and the demoralizing effect that such rejection may have had for them. It cuts both ways.

      As a student of philosophy, I consider Stoicism as the school of thought that offers the most practical life advice. What I suggest may indeed require a change in attitude reaching far beyond photography, but I believe that Epictetus was correct in writing, “The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.”

      Self-motivation can be very difficult, and requires believing in yourself and finding value in your work even (and especially) without external affirmations. But ultimately I believe that it is the only strategy that is sustainable in the long run.

      • Paul Gronhovd

        Guy you are insightful to say that what is being considered has to do with self worth and motivation. What I wanted to say however that being selected by people that I respect has given me a baseline. I am retired now but near the end of my last job I worked with someone who got all the praise. I know that side too. I feel in this case the selection process was fair and organic and not by one person’s opinion alone. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Gerald Rowles

    Bravo Guy! You have articulated the random accumulation of thoughts I have had on the issues of contest/expert critique with your usual deliberate reasoning. Having entered a few of these venues in my early photographic travels, it was my impression that the judges were basing their awards on some pro-forma concept that they derived from the latest issue of a bi-coastal, artsy publication. Consequently, I came to revel in the fact that I had not met those criteria, reinforcing my belief that I was the best judge of my expressive growth – despite being my harshest self-critic. As has been the case for some time, I come away from your books and articles with an intuitive sense of your unique personal sharing. May I also divulge my guilty pleasure in reading your thoughts, artfully expressed, on the globetrotting phenom, such-as-it-is. So, thanks again for being you – up front and personal.

    • Thank you very much, Jerry! I actually believe that being a harsh self-critic is essential. But such self-criticism should also be predicated on having a clear understanding of your own definition for what constitutes success. I have a number of images that are very personal, some even to a point that they likely are not suitable for publication and certainly will not win me any awards, but that I still consider as very successful. I often return to those images for no other purpose than to remind myself of the sense of joy and depth of emotion they hold for me, if for nobody else.

      • Gerald Rowles

        Guy, I have a number of personally ‘successful’ framed prints hanging on the walls of my home/studio which are also unlikely to see publication. On the other hand I have had hundreds of commercially ‘successful’ images published that won’t find a place on my walls. The area of greatest contention for me is when I am in the field wrestling with my inner critic as to whether to satisfy the personal or commercial pursuit of success – ‘art head’ or ‘magazine head’ as I characterize them. There are delightful times when they coexist successfully – but far less often than my critic would prefer. In the end, pursue-the-art or pay-the-mortgage can be a dreadful agonist/antagonist.

  • I agree with that, Barry. This is the reason I believe that critique is useful in an educational context, after both the photographer and the critic have had a chance to learn something about each other, and when the goals for critique have been established in the course of prior teaching (and the photographer may choose those aspects of the teaching and critique that are relevant and useful to him/her).
    My greater point is that someone’s opinion that “image A is better than image B,” without further context is ultimately not helpful.

  • Peter Stevens

    Guy, I find myself agreeing with just about everything you say about judging and judges but not to the point of dismissing competitions and exhibitions. In fact I’m a supporter. So how do I reconcile these two apparently contradictory positions?

    The answer lies in your first paragraph which refers to the social dimension of photography. You don’t develop this but I think it is important. I’m the Chairman of an active and growing camera club and meet many enthusiastic amateur photographers. Most are not driven solely by the need for personal expression. Some are but not all. They all like to meet, talk, share and particularly to take part in common activities, special interest groups and events. Competitions are one such group of activities and are for some an important part of their hobby.

    But my key point now is that this social activity, including competitions, brings with it common goals, timescales and members working together to submit to the same events. It provide a format and a process which stimulates discussion and the sharing of ideas. It creates an active learning environment. I can say without any doubt that for some taking part in competitions and exhibitions generates an energy and a pace in people’s work that would not have otherwise happened, and their work has impoved and grown as a result.

    So I agree with you about the questionable value of a judges comments, but the judging process must be seen as part of a wider and overall beneficial process.

    • Thank you, Peter. I suppose the lesson is that details are important. I agree that when such activities are offered in the spirit of encouraging (never mandating) participation, and with the aim of fostering growth by challenging photographers to think creatively, they can be very useful. I also acknowledge that for most people having a structured environment and an audience for their work is eminently important.
      The risk, in my mind, is when competition becomes the primary goal (and it will if allowed) and when photographers feel that their self-worth is being judged against that of others and may take the wrong message from either winning or not winning. I mention the first part of this statement by Robert Henri, and I think the second part is worth sharing as well:

      “The pernicious influence of the prize and medal giving in art is so great that it should be stopped. History proves that juries in art have been generally wrong.”

      If contests and exhibitions were the measure of art, we would not have Impressionism (or all modern art, for that matters). Paul Cezanne, considered the father of modern art, toiled in obscurity for 40 years(!) receiving the harshest critiques imaginable on the rare occasion that his work was exhibited (one critic suggested that pregnant women should not be allowed to see Cezanne’s painting for fear they they will be so repulsed as to lose their fetuses).

      Such outcomes are to be discouraged actively, which is only possible when the photographer and the critic have a rapport that extends beyond one trying to decide if the other’s work is worthy, by some subjective criteria. They should have a mutual interest in helping the artist grow his or her expressive powers, rather than dictating their course or pronouncing them “good” or “bad.” I believe that this is possible in a club environment, but it must be rooted in the club’s culture and leadership, and will not happen organically.

  • Malcolm Cross

    Hi Guy, I wonder if you could clarify for me a point you made about creative photography and aesthetics. My understanding may have missed something since I don’t quite understand why a creative photograph would not have aesthetic value? As usual a super thought provoking article.

    • Thanks, Malcolm! I’m not sure what part of the text you were referring to but I apologize if I was not clear. A creative photograph most certainly does have aesthetic value, but it is not only about aesthetic value—aesthetics are used as a vehicles to express something of the photographer’s mind.

      • Malcolm Cross

        Guy, Thanks for your reply. I have reread the sentence ” if you consider yourself creative, why would you want your creative work to be judged by those whose primary interest is aesthetics” and which makes sense to me now. I should have read it more carefully in the first instance. :-)

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