A Juror's Insight

Excerpts from JUDGING PHOTO EXHIBITS: A CONFESSIONAL

By Douglas Beasley


I was the judge for the photography competition for the Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Exhibit. As the only judge in the photography category I found it to be an overwhelming task with over 1,100 entries that needed to be narrowed down to just 107. That meant that fewer than nine percent of the entries would be making the cut! …

I had the help of several volunteer assistants. My first task was to remove (as quickly as possible) all entries that were visually or technically poorly executed. I did this in order to avoid further visual overload and to save my energy for the hard choices I knew lay ahead…

My next job was to eliminate the typical or the trite responses for cliché subject matter. I encountered way too many cute kids, cute kittens, and old barns. I have nothing against kids, kittens or nostalgia, but cute quickly gets tiresome when looking at over 1,100 framed images. Nostalgia also does not replace craft, vision, soulfulness or insightfulness. Cute or nostalgic are not enough to carry a photo through this level of competition. Avoiding cute or nostalgic as a starting point and going deeper will get us somewhere. If as an artist, you choose subjects such as flowers that many others are going to submit nearly identical versions of, try to find a more unique or personal way of interpreting your subject. …

Another category in this competition that had a number of submissions was travel. These entries spanned the globe from nice vacation snapshots to some insightfully beautiful photographs. It bothers me to eliminate anyone’s favorite travel shot or the amazing sunrise or sunset, because I love that they stopped and noticed. I know too that their friends or relatives told them it was a great shot. I am equally sure that the experience of being in that spot was great, but it is usually the place or moment that is significant, not their photographic record of it.  At this point in the judging process the choices of what to eliminate are fairly easy and instinctual and I feel confident about my decisions. From previous experience, however, I know that that the real work is about to begin…

My criteria for selection includes the following: concept, execution, creativity and exemplary implementations of a wide range of styles or genres. The most important criteria for me is the emotional impact of the work: what makes the viewer think, or even better, feel. The quality of ‘emotional impact’ is, of course, completely subjective and up to me to interpret. I make an effort to be as objective as possible while also fully realizing that true objectivity is impossible. While judging this competition I find that I recognize many of the photographers by style, content or because they have signed their name on the front. Many of these artists are my friends, my colleagues, my students. Is it possible for me to be objective when comparing images when I know someone’s strengths and weakness, their vulnerabilities, their struggles, their growth to someone else’s photographic work I don’t know? I try my best to be objective but I simply don’t think it’s possible, at least not for me. In the past I have had much easier times judging shows in Alaska and Hawaii where I hardly knew any of the photographers. On reflection, I think maybe the State Fair should bring in judges from outside Minnesota to avoid this dilemma…

What is true of jurying is that it is mostly selection by elimination. As a juror, I need to think about balancing how many images there are in a given genre (i.e. nature, wildlife, documentary or digital composite) so that the exhibit shows a balance and range of different methods of working with the medium and ways of seeing. In the end it is more about trusting my instincts, but there still is a lot of second-guessing myself. For the final selection there are a few that didn’t make it that now, in retrospect, I think should have...There are also a couple I think now, in retrospect, shouldn’t have made it in and I agonize over these decisions. Had it been another day or another time I might have made different choices but that is always the case…

As I get the work pared down to 250 or 300 photographs, I find that all of them are strong and deserving of a place in the show; but I still have to eliminate two thirds of these… To narrow it down to 107 is no longer about what is better than something else but what appeals to me at this time, this day, this point in my life, my career.

But the question is…are these really the ‘best’? No, there is no such thing in art. These are my favorites and I leave it at that. It also becomes about having a well-rounded show with many styles and genres represented.

Picking the first through fourth place and merit awards is by far the toughest part of the day for me….The task is made more difficult and more complicated by the fact that I know at least half of the award contenders personally and a couple of them are very close friends. I consider eliminating any awards to friends. I consider only giving friends ‘honorable mention’ status. This tactic, however, would be doing their work and them a disservice. I walk away again to try to clear my head and gather energy. When I return I talk with the exhibit director and with several of my helpers about my dilemma in making awards to friends. They help me realize that I just have to give the awards to what I feel is the strongest and most powerful work, no matter whose it is…

Ultimately, there are many factors that influence the judging of work that has nothing to do with the quality or artistic merit of the artwork: the judge’s taste, how many similarly themed entries there were, the need of the judge to create a well rounded show reflecting many sensibilities. In this case, there were some very good photos that didn’t make the final cut and every time I had to eliminate one of these it hurt. Undoubtedly, there were also excellent entries that somehow got overlooked in the chaos of the sheer mass of submitted images (or the apparent blindness, ignorance or poor taste of the judge). I think it is the job of the photographer to submit a photo with a strong enough vision coupled with a high level of execution to be in the top tier, but the work also has to be true to the photographer’s individual vision. My advice is to submit images that you feel most passionate about, not the ones that you think will get in. From there it is anybody’s guess as to the whims of fate that year…


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