In the last few years I have done my share of hanging my ego out to dry by submitting my work to various competitions and juried shows. Much more than my successes, my failures have made me wonder about the process of judging photography. Frequently rejections are softened by reminders that the jury procedure is inevitably a subjective matter of individual taste. With this realization, before I submit to a show, I will often try to look at the jurors images. I may reconsider a submission if I find nothing but abstract B&W photographs in my inquisitioner's portfolio - Hey, I know what I do! Following this kind of research, I recently added one B&W image to a group of my usual color photos submitted to a juried show. It was the B&W that was accepted. I don't fault the jurors. They produce and appreciate work that they like.
With this in mind I just finished seeing the process from the other side. I was honored to be asked to judge a very prestigious photography contest. Ok ... it was actually the New Hampshire Regional 4H Competition and the photographers ranged from 8 - 18 years old, but still it was interesting and a bit scary to be given the responsibility of judging all those kids who are just beginning to grasp the magic of photography.
So, the process went like this. I was given boxes with over 70 framed pictures to review. Actually I started with half of the images and then swapped with the other juror in the competition. We were given a form to fill out with 20 criteria to rate. It was difficult to place numerical values on these criteria. I guess I rebelled a little against the idea that these expressions of art could be reduced to columns of numbers, so it was in the comment section that I tried to focus my real evaluation. Perhaps because of some unpleasantness in the past, we were told to start out with positive comments before ripping the kids apart. As a frequent Flickr poster I had the positive comment thing solid. The constructive comments were a much tougher issue. It was clear in most of the images that these kids had great investment and pride in their work. Unfortunately I can't show any examples here, but there were some really nice images. As you might expect from a 4H group, many of the strongest pictures were of animals, but there were also many landscapes and a few macros. From the start It was important to understand that most of the pictures went straight from the camera to Walgreens for printing. With a few exceptions the pictures did not benefit from cropping, color correction or any of the adjustments that we, in the digital world, consider a necessity. Allowing for this there were still many marvelous images and many learning opportunities. I tried to keep my suggestions in very positive, constructive terms. I used phrases such as "Next time you might try ...", "This might be a bit stronger if you ..." and "Very cute, but you might ...". I certainly did not want to crush the enthusiasm of the next Ansel Adams!
It was interesting that many of my comments fell into just a few recurrent themes. These included :
"The composition might be stronger if the subject was moved away from dead center". This was far, far and away the most common issue. It shouldn't be surprising that kids (and adults) tend to aim the camera directly at the subject, but it seemed that the center of most of the pictures contained a black hole sucking in everything of importance. Often I tried describing how the frame might be cropped and in some situations I actually drew a picture showing how the composition might be improved. As I was approaching the end, I suggested in a couple cases that the kid might try Googling "Rule of Thirds".
"Beautiful donkey, but it might have been better if you didn't cut off his nose". Cropping or framing was also a common issue. For each image in which the framing was too tight there was another in which the tiny horse was lost in a sea of unnecessary background.
"Next time you might try exposing to get more detail in the shadows". Exposure was a frequent issue both over and under. I believe all of the images were digital so there is hope that as the kids learn to use their LCDs and histograms this will become less of a problem.
As might be expected, other issues included sharpness of focus, leaning horizon lines and busy distracting backgrounds, really all the usual suspects.
Overall, this was a valuable experience. I saw an impressive collection of interesting work reflecting great enthusiasm and potential, and I had the opportunity to relearn many of the fundemental tenets of good photography. I found myself envious of all the great discoveries that lie ahead for these kids as they develop their skills in a digital world that makes experimentation and learning a much easier endevour. That is assuming I didn't destroy their willingness to ever pick up a camera again.
If you would like to see the kids work, they will be on display in Morrison Hall at Keene State College begining on March 27th.
Enjoyed reading this...yes, your job was a weighty one, and very important, too. Hard to walk the fine line between honesty and being too hard on a learner, or praising/commending enough without overdoing it. Glad they had you!ReplyDelete
I guess it's really hard to teach kids photography because children aren't very intellectually developed. But you did well Jeff!ReplyDelete
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