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.”
I simply will not even return to a blog that features photos of cats. I'm outta there like a house on fire.
I am so glad that you have taken the plunge into being a judge. My photos have suffered under the eyes of judges at the local photography club. I'm always amazed at their criticisms. Once my photo of a barn received a very low score because they didn't like the title I chose for it.
Have you seen the work done by "Kids with Cameras?" I was stopped dead in my tracks by photo taken by a young boy in Haiti, using the most basic of equipment. It was a stunning image.
Suzanne -- I adore your philosophy about cat photography! I'll check the website you mentioned. Judging was fun, but it also made me see with new eyes. I went in with the idea that vision and creativity always trump pedantry and I think I did a good job distinguishing the two. Technical expertise is necessary but doesn't always tell the stories good photographs demand. Your photography is superb. Some of your barn photos make me green with envy.
It is with great humility and a total disdain for images of any cat not my own, that I agreed to help judge photography at a local festival over Labor Day.
After reading your post, I'm sure that I will all but swoon over anything that is remotely close to well-exposed and composed.
Maybe someone will enter a triptych of large rabbit photos.
LGL -- You're in for a treat. Except, of course, for the damn cat photos. But, because you're the judge and have the final say, you can have fun. Next year I want to do the gladiator thing with the thumb up, thumb down routine. Let us humbly hope for rabbit triptychs.
Well, I suppose I could send you a link to a point-and-shoot photo of a cat...
Or not. :-)
Actually, it's interesting to read all the comments here. The only photography site I visit regularly, Weather Underground, has what they call "Approvers' Choice" photos. There's continual discussion over the choices made by those Approvers.
Or, more honestly, there's very little discussion and a whole lot of sniveling, disparagement, rage,contempt,incredulity and bewilderment. The number one question always is: "What were they thinking????" Even people whose photos are selected sometimes wonder what they were thinking! LOL
But everyone keeps uploading those photos, hoping next time they'll get some approvers who can recognize "real quality". And I imagine in the process, a lot of folks begin to look more closely at their own photos and learn something.
Linda -- I like to think that people looking at other people's photographs invariably turn their gaze inward to their own works, critically analyzing their merits and skills as a reflection of their own judgments weighed toward others. It did in my case, so I'm fairly sure it's almost universal. But it's also wonderful fun to occasionally sneer and belittle the works of others, too.
“Do they know how you feel about cat pictures?” - Classic!
Tom, you should have the option of thumbs up, thumbs down, and the throat-slash "off with their heads" option for cat pictures!
Dan -- I so perfectly agree!
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