On Being a Judge

On Being a Judge

Several times a year I’m called on to judge or co-judge a photo contest. Usually it is for a local camera club, but every so often it is for a regional contest. I am honored to be asked and I look at these events as a way to give back to the community that has sustained me and allowed me to professionally grow for decades. However, I always approach these events with a good amount of anxiety.

I say anxiety not because my skills or judgment will be tested (although by definition they are), but rather because I know full well that the entrants are themselves anxious. For some it is their first competition, for others a chance to showcase their experienced work. But for all there is the anxiety of being judged, of whether the judges will be biased towards certain genres, of not having their artistic vision understood, among other reasons, I’m sure. I get this and I am deeply humbled by it as I drive to the competition.

I was once accused, rather shockingly, by a competition coordinator of bias after I awarded two winners for their wildlife contributions. While there may be some deep psychological merit to his accusation - I do consider myself a landscape, travel and wildlife photographer - I don’t think he was accurate in that case. Those two images were far and away the best of the competition, although I do admit one of the winning images was a bit out of the mainstream.

I’m not saying that all judges are unbiased. I can only speak for myself when I say that I constantly read and study photography of all types. I was raised in a family where my father and his brothers were all heavily involved in photography and achieved some amateur and professional accolades. I am passionate about photography and the art it produces.

With this as background, this year I judged a contest in Gaithersburg, Maryland where the caliber of the competition was extraordinary. Judging was not easy and took quite a chunk of time. Thankfully, the organizers were meticulous in their preparation, easing my job. I’d like to share with you two of the winners and use these images to illustrate what a judge looks for.

The headline image, titled “Scrolls” was taken by Henry Hartt. As Henry tells it: “These are three Chinese scrolls in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A friend and I were wandering thru the Asian exhibits taking random pictures and I walked right by the scrolls. She called me back and pointed them out as a possible shot. I took one grab shot and moved on not thinking I got anything special. A little post-processing and cropping proved me definitely wrong! Consequently, kudos to the eye of Barbara Carstensen!”

There are several things that impressed me about this image. First is its utter simplicity, using the curves in the scroll to tell a story. I thought to myself how wonderful that other art modalities can influence us to create photographic art. You may want to read a previous blog I wrote on the topic of how classical paintings can inform our work as photographers.

Next is the way the three simple colors are so integral to the image, drawing the eye over and over through the canvas. I find the undulating crop mesmerizing.

Finally, what prompted me to award this top honor for the color print competition is Henry’s choice of paper, a simple matt paper that carries the image without overwhelming it with glossy shmaltz. The tonality in the image was artfully applied in post-processing. My only wish is that you could see the image as a print. I am one of those artists who firmly believes that our work is not truly done until we print an image.

The next image struck me so deeply I have to admit I choked up. Anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one I am certain will share my reaction. In this case photographer Haleh Forouhesh was passing a hospice room when she saw this scene through an open door. She asked if the woman would like company and, when the opportunity arose, asked if she could take a photograph.

Why did I choose this one? I can honesty say that there are times when a winning image chooses me and that is the case here. The crop is absolutely perfect, the angle brilliant. Black and white, my preferred medium, is a dramatic genre, able to carry emotions directly to the heart of the viewer. In that this image succeeds.

I could go on with technical ways this image might be improved, but that would be a case of TMI, all of it irrelevant. I certainly believe that the image could have been printed better, but so what? Let’s save that for future prints made by this artist with a keen eye for composition and drama. This is an image that moves people, that offers a compelling, heartfelt human story and for that it merits a top award in my mind.

Oh, by the way, Haleh took this image with an iPhone!

Judging is never easy, but my hat is off to Henry and Haleh for allowing their images to choose me as their judge.