Several years ago, after gentle but insistent prodding from friends, I entered a photograph into the county fair. Its subject was of our fair town viewed from the low ridge to the south with the grain elevator anchoring the right horizon and in the foreground a small sapling curving in an arc toward the heavens. It was, I humbly submit, a perfectly-composed, stunningly beautiful photograph whose every element was necessary and excruciatingly sharp. People oohed and ahhed over it. “You’re guaranteed to win,” they said.
The judge awarded best in show to a blurry, monochromatic image of a kitten.
“He’s an idiot,” I said.
In succeeding years I would haunt the photography exhibit not just to view the works of local artists but to judge the judge. This was admittedly a point of professional pride as much as personal vendetta. Invariably, without fail, I found deep faults in his methodology. Or theirs, I should say, for several different characters of dubious merit were awarded the position. Each judge, I discovered, had his own specialty or favorite subject and seemed to award images adhering to that personal bias. One preferred portraits, another landscapes, and one professed to never having made the transition from film to digital. Indeed, the latter all but sneered at digital capture, leading me to suspect either laziness, snobbishness or stupidity. Learn their preferences, one wag said, and you have a fighting chance.
But I didn’t want to photograph kittens. For kittens, or cats in general, were the ultimate winning favorite. This puzzled me, but I knew from experience that it was merely symptomatic of a larger contagion infecting photography contests. A friend once told of a Flint Hills landscape contest where the judges awarded the grand prize to an image of a kitten on a couch! “What were they thinking?” she asked. As if I had a clue.
Each year I would study the images, gnash my teeth and wonder why the fair board would select such incompetent boobs. Friends, perhaps weary of my elitist ranting, suggested I should volunteer my own talents. I found the idea ludicrous and let them know in no uncertain terms that it would be a cold day in hell before I’d subject myself to poring over bad kitten photos. Which makes it all the more odd that when the fair asked me to judge this year, I said yes when I meant to say no.
“Do they know how you feel about cat pictures?” my wife asked.
Judging got off to a rocky start. My assistant, an acquaintance, spread entries from the youngest contestants across a long table. Some were mediocre, some superb, almost unbelievably so considering the age of the photographers. Half were cat photos.
“What’s the difference between a cat and a rat?” I asked her.
She looked at me with a blank expression.
“One letter,” I said.
Her look turned to one of horror. “I love my cat!” she shrieked.
So much for humor.
As we worked our way through the dozens of entries, I confessed to a deep emotional scarring at being snubbed and explained how I had no biases to claim other than proper exposure and composition. However, I stressed, images of cats were automatically disqualified unless technically perfect.
She handed me a technically perfect image of a cat. I didn’t mind—I gave it a ribbon and explained why it worked so well—but she didn’t have to look so smug.
Selecting a winner was often difficult. The wealth of talent was impressive, and sometimes a winning image hinged on minute details of craft. In several instances creative vision trumped technique. One photo of a young boy and girl walking hand in hand over a bridge was as good as anything a pro could do with high-end gear, and taken by a nine-year-old. It was both humbling and encouraging.
After awarding ribbons in each category, we narrowed down finalists. This was the easy part for me because the top photograph was so sublimely composed and skillfully transitioned into a duotone of selenium highlights and olive shadows that I almost wept with envy.
I felt good about it and told her I hoped to have the privilege of being asked to judge again next year.
Later that afternoon I watched her hang the photographs for display. A few of the photographers and their families wandered in to watch. On their faces I saw all the disparate expressions artists are privy to when their talent is measured and weighed by strangers, quicksilver flashes of emotional responses running the gamut from trepidation to joy, acceptance to surprise. And, too, there were the inevitable disappointments, the narrowed eyes, the tightened lips. I knew that look. I knew what they were thinking. “The judge,” they thought, “is an idiot.”