The Newton Camera Club’s annual library print show is coming next month. The size of the club has grown rather a lot over the last few years, and we weren’t sure that we would have enough for two prints from every member. We had reasonable success curating the West Newton Cinema show, so we thought about trying it for the library show, too. In the end, members could submit one image to be guaranteed a place on the walls, and a small jury of NCC members would pick one more from the five or so images each member submitted.
I was part of the four member jury. (Four is an even number, and we deadlocked twice. More on that later.) Here’s my tell-all description of what happens behind the closed doors of image selection for a show.
It’s an understatement for me to say that I have a different aesthetic than most of my NCC peers. It didn’t start out that way, but my work has gone in different directions over the last couple of years. I find this unbelievably frustrating, but I’ve stuck with the group mostly for camaraderie and for the occasional guest speaker. I’ve given up on competitions — where an external judge comes in and renders Caesar’s thumbs up or down (well, points actually) to three images on a theme — because the judges never commented on the ideas in my work.
Judge #1 was, in fact, one of the judges for an NCC competition last year. I found his comments on the images to be everything that I hate about judges’ comments about my work: all rules. “Too much negative space here. The subject is dead center. It would be better if that part there were gone. It would be better if there were an odd number of birds. Can we tell the maker to resubmit it with that cropped out? I like the rhythm and color harmony of this. I don’t get it. That’s too different. There’s a nice leading diagonal. I don’t like it when I can’t tell what an image is.”
Judges #2 and #3 have been “shooters” for a long time, make some very capable images, and generally talked more about what they liked in images than what they didn’t. I think everyone tried to give the members who submitted images the benefit of the doubt that certain subjects moved them quite deeply, but there didn’t seem to be much consideration of what the artists themselves probably were aiming to convey. Anyway, it’s hard to do that when you can’t look at a consistently themed series of work from one artist.
Mostly I just ranked the images in order of how much I liked the image content and the execution; the images that bubbled up to the top becoming my two votes added to the group. On a few occasions I suspect that I was a bit more curmudgeonly than I meant to be. The rule I brought with me for the evening was to consistently vote for images that pushed the boundaries of the camera club experience. Abstract images, unusual subject matter (i.e., not birds or golden light landscapes), alternative processes, and unique photographic techniques all made my hit parade. With the exception of the “Every year we see more or less the same picture of a gull or duck standing on a rock in bubbly water. I’m so bored!” outburst, I waited for the spirit to move me to give glowing praise.
Not all of my choices made the final cut, and I’m not sure whether I changed other judges’ minds very often. For one image, I laid out the reasons why I thought one image was definitely better than the other work by one artist: it’s fresh, it’s very contemporary, it has emotion, it’s extremely well crafted, etc. But the rules won when we deadlocked. The other 2-2 split — once again Judge #3 and me on one side versus the rules and Judge #2′s love for rainy images on the other — was more contentious. “This is one of the most interesting, avant garde photos submitted. We have to take it.” When that didn’t work I appealed to the rules. “It has great balance, symmetry, tonality, blah blah blah.” Still no swing from Judge #1. “But what is it?”
Judge #3 solved the impasse. “Judge #4 and I caved last time. This time we win.” That seemed to work, and I’m glad. Last year the artist in question was part of the jury for the Cinema show and said this about one of my pieces: “If you don’t put this image into the show, I’m going to quit the camera club!” Fortunately the requirement of my presence remains untested.
Strangely, the one image that I was sure the jury wouldn’t accept from my entry — the “Commuter Surfers Suck” graffiti from Bolinas, California — was accepted unanimously.