I recently entered six images into a local judged photography competition. Of the six images, four were accepted for entry. At the reception I was able to talk with one of the judges regarding one of my images that did not receive an award of any kind. I believed the image to be in the “possible award” category (yes, I know, we all believe that about our work!) and so I asked the judge why my image was not found compelling enough to win an award. Note that I was not complaining as two of the four images of mine that were accepted did win awards and I was happy with that. I think the judges, overall, did a good job of choosing images to be awarded. I simply wanted a clarification from the judge on this particular image so that I could do better next time around. His reply surprised me.
He asked me if I had any more images like the one in the show. I was confused and really did not know how to answer him. The image in question was a one-of-a-kind subject that was shot from a public place in Cuba. I asked him what he meant and he said the image reminded him of the “American Gothic” piece (a painting by Grant Wood of a farm couple in Iowa). This confused me even more. Then it started to dawn on me that he, and perhaps the other judge, thought the piece was a set-up image and that perhaps I had shot many different images that were similar to that scene with the same tone. I was actually dumb-founded when he told me this and I really did not know how to respond other than to say the image was one-of-a-kind and taken in Cuba. The question I had of course was did his thought process affect his judging? Did he and the other judge give less serious consideration to the piece because they thought it was a “set-up” scene? I also wondered at that point if an image can, perhaps, be too perfect?
I’ve entered many competitions and have often received an award so I am familiar with the idiosyncrasies of judges. I have also volunteered in the past to work for the group that puts this particular competition on and had actually followed the judges around during one competition to assist them with their judging needs. Doing this allowed me to learn a great deal about how judges operate in viewing and judging a competition so I was no stranger to odd ideas in judging. But I had never heard any of the judges state the idea that an image can be too perfect. The people category in this competition, which this particular piece was entered into, was called “Human Experience.” It could be that, in this case, the judges discounted my image because it looked too perfect to be real, to be a “human experience” that really happened. Indeed, the image in question, even to me, does seem to be an impossibility, although it really is a real image and something that I simply stumbled upon, as the saying goes.
The scene presented itself to a group of people, including me, that were walking in a public square in Cuba looking for possible photographic subjects. A dark colored door opened just in front of us and a young girl stepped out and stood in the doorway. She simply looked out over the scene and at us and was without expression. She was holding a broom and was dressed in a colorful outfit that was right out of a book or movie. We almost ran as we wanted to get closer to her. We began to snap away and were able to get several shots of the scene before a police officer strode toward us waving his hand for us to back away. He went over to the young girl and motioned her inside and that was it. The rest of our group, who had been straggling behind us, did not get the shot. The scene was perfect and the image turned out perfect as well (at least as perfect as I could get it!). But, apparently, at least to the judges for this competition the scene was so perfect that they did not believe it to be real. I do know that judge’s choices are affected by their thought processes during judging. I’ve heard a judge comment about an image and, even though I knew absolutely that their comment was incorrect, I could not say anything to set them straight as I was only a staff person there to help them though the process. Competition judges vary in their approach and I do know that every competition judge that I’ve had any experience with does take their judging experience seriously. Judging a competition is hard work and there is always someone who is not happy with the results. I do appreciate the hard work that all competition judges do. In this case, I simply wanted to know why the image of the young girl was not compelling enough to win an award and the reply to my question was somewhat confounding to me. He was not able to provide me with any other comments on the piece other than that there “was nothing wrong with it at all.”
There does appears to be a lot of confusion in photography (this has actually been going on for years) about what is real and what isn’t real in an image and who’s done what to what image. Sometimes it’s the viewing public who is confused and sometimes it’s other photographers. The line between what is “real” and what is not “real” seems to be important to some people (including photographers) when viewing and assessing images. It’s somewhat annoying to me as, generally, non-photographer artists are not put under this microscope. There really is no way in a competition for a judge to know if a scene is a set-up scene or a “real” scene unless it is obvious. I guess that begs the question of should a judge put more weight toward a scene that is not “set up” unless the entry criteria state that will be the case?
So, for me the question remains, can an image be too perfect to be “real,” at least in the mind of a competition judge? Should we ensure, in some way, that the viewer will know that our image is a “real” image, not contrived to look real? And, how would we do that in every case? I think I’ll be pondering these questions for some time to come. I’ll also be pondering whether what the judge said about the image was a complement or a snub, I’m still not clear on that one. Even though the 1930 “American Gothic” painting has become a timeless icon, it has also been parodied quite often through time.
More articles that might interest you