What would a judge think of my work?
This thought occurred to me whilst I was looking at some truly exquisite black & white images taken by Tony Gardner, a participant on a recent large format workshop led by Joe Cornish and I. Tony had a selection of superb high key images, many of which had, to be fair, been judged as prize winners. But the story relating to one image in particular was both depressing and fascinating.
Tony showed us an image that might be thought of as being in the Michael Kenna school, though not in any way derivative of that great photographer's work. This image had been a medal winner at one salon yet when it was presented it to another judge at his own club the judge took a cursory glance and then turned the print to the wall and made the following remark, "This is the kind of image that looks better this way round." What did he mean by this?
Tony took it to mean that in this judge's opinion the image wasn't very good, that the most interesting thing about it was the array of judges' awards affixed to the rear of the mount; first, distinction, highly commended etc. More than that, that this judge was surprised at the accolades that had been heaped upon this image. As I've said before in previous posts, photography is relative. So, we can't castigate the judge for his opinion – that is , after all, what he was called upon to provide. The problem is the manner in which it was delivered.
What gives him the right to belittle somebody's work? What possible benefit is there in being harsh in such an unconstructive way? I can only think that it made the judge feel superior and that, sadly, that's how he thought he ought to feel. He'd been called upon to exercise his judgement. He felt that his opinion was exalted. So, it would seem, he felt that he was superior to the photographers' whose work he was criticizing.
But that is surely not the true role of the judge. He should be humble. He must bear in mind that whatever he feels about the image presented to him the person whose vision it is has no doubt poured their heart and soul into its making. When we attack another keen photographer's work we are making a personal attack on that person. We imbue our photographs with our own spirit, we put our heart and soul into making images and for someone to be so flippant and cruel is inexcusable.
Of course the judge can be critical, that is his role, but any criticism should be constructive not destructive. The latter helps no one to achieve better results. A judge's role is not to show how clever they are but to help the photographers to achieve a higher level of work by praising good work and constructively criticising less well executed work. It is also beholden on the judge to be knowledgeable about photography – not in some narrow, parochial way but in a deep and broad way. Of course this would instantly disqualify many of the judges on the club circuit which is hardly going to go down well. The judges role should be to serve the photographers whose work they are appraising but all too often they appear to feel that they are doing them a favour by deigning to give an opinion, however ill-informed or biased that opinion may be.
Many artists have fragile egos precisely because, to a greater or lesser degree, they expose their souls in their work. When a critic turns around and says that what they have done is c**p they are apt to feel that this is a personal attack on them as creator of the work.
It would surely be more productive and less destructive if camera clubs used a secret ballot sytem to judge images entered in their competitions rather than asking the opinion of an outside arbiter with dubious credentials. How many judges allow their work to be scrutenized and open for possible villification?
I'm still stung by a remark made 10 years ago by an art buyer when I showed her the image on the right. It was one of the first detail images that I had made and reminded me of the stark simplicity of a Zen garden (follow the Rock Garden link). At the time it was one of my favourite images. She glanced at it briefly and quickly pushed it across the lightbox, making the derisory comment, "Oh look, a turd on the beach..." I was devastated. But the real damage was not just the short term shock but that for many years I couldn't shake off that description. The transparency stayed hidden away in my filing cabinet and was shown to no one. Whenever I viewed the image it had lost the power to evoke tranquility and had just become a vision of mamallian effluent stranded by the falling tide... Now you can't get that association out of your head either! What is said about an image, the linguistic tags associated with it, are often stronger than the complex but difficult to grasp feelings evoked by the purely visual information. These feelings are hard to express precisely because they don't relate easily to language. Words swamp them, drown their delicate form beneath overpoweringly concrete signification.
But in the intervening years I've come out of therapy and come to realise a couple of things.
Firstly that my vision isn't necessarily going to be universally accepted by the general public, art buyers or my fellow photographers. What matters is that I continuously critically appraise my own work and that I accept the constructive criticism of my peers in the spirit in which it was offered. Secondly, that the opinions of my peers are far more important to me than those of outside arbiters. I must be, at all costs, true to myself. If I'm diverted from my course by every careless remark passed by a viewer then I shall never make any headway.
To return to the question I posed at the beginning of this post, "What would a judge think of my work?" I guess I don't know, is the honest answer, but more than that I don't really care anymore!
Workshop at Linhof & Studio
Paula and I will be running another LF workshop in Leigh on Sea in spring 2008. Details will be posted on the Linhof website in due course or if you just can't wait contact Paula on +44(0)1702 716116 for further details and to reserve a place.