DRAFT 10 – 1/26/08
What’s Wrong with the way we judge Competition photography,
Forward: Competition Guidelines and their relation to the History of Art
Art historians have come to realize that the “evolution” of artistic style, unlike development in the sciences, is not one of continual improvement, but rather expressions of the changing goals and values of those civilizations that create visual arts. Since the beginning of the Twentieth Century (and even earlier), artists have recognized and paid tribute to the styles of earlier masters and modes of creation. To this writer, it therefore seems peculiar that the stylistic guidelines to which amateur club photographers are expected to conform tend to limit themselves to a particularly art-historically blind aesthetic. Needless to say, the process of judging tends to inculcate an aesthetic. As taught by judges hired to assess our competitions these guidelines tend to follow the so-called PSA rules – a misnomer, by the way. Not only do these “rules of practice and composition” tend to ignore the stylistic possibilities open to all creative artists, but by methodically disregarding meaning and subject matter in club photography, they discourage both budding and advanced amateur photographers from participating in one of the most exciting developments of our time – the acceptance of photography as a fine art worthy of commercial and aesthetic recognition. In this way club competition photographers are encouraged to create in an hermetically sealed atmosphere that isolates them from the advances and practices of the wider photographic world -- at least with respect to their competition work. This presentation will demonstrate a few of the above assertions and will endeavor to show how one of the most influential studies of the “evolution” of artistic style, Heinrich Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History, may have been partly responsible for the way such rules became paramount in the amateur photographic environment.
Recently I attended a presentation by a well-known professional photographer who enjoys a lively business selling his nature photography. At the conclusion of his talk, which was given at a local camera club, as the audience was leaving the room, I overhead someone behind me complain about the quality of his photographs: He said something like this: "I don’t think his pictures were so good; few would score well in our contests; he was breaking so many of the rules."
What happened here? Great pictures, as, hopefully, we all know, do not necessarily materialize from conforming to rules. My unknown observer had inverted the relationship between adherence to the "rules" and creating good pictures. Yet, most photography teachers (and even some professionals) know well that while the so-called "rules" may help prevent making really bad or unreadable pictures, they can’t ensure that a photographer will make good ones. It is not the rules that make the picture; it is the photographer. But, even more disturbing is the possibility that this critic actually believed that the use of "rules" to grade images is somehow authoritative. I think that following these rules is like an ice skater competing by trying to produce perfect figures, as they once did in the Olympics. Skating figures demonstrates the quality of technique. It does not display inspiration, ingenuity or creativity; it is not art.
Richard Avedon: 1969,
Avedon has caught something of the isolation and egocentricity or self-absorption of his subjects that is not attractive. It is even irritating. But, there is something going on here that is keenly interesting. I don’t want to suggest that Avedon depended upon specific sources, but in the history of art there are parallels and analogies that will help us understand what he has done and they are not necessarily modern.
In this 14th-century altarpiece the saints have been arranged in their own niches, with no perspectival or narrative connection, except, perhaps, for their traditional gestures of identification. The background is conventionally flat, airless, and gold. There is a floor, and the figures seem to stand on the limited space it projects, but its allover pattern bears no hint of perspective. Verisimilitude is not the goal; rather, the design is theologically determined. It is conceptual, not observed.
Avedon’s image uses the same compositional technique, dividing his five figures into three groups, with the outer figures intersecting the outer edges of the composition. This, more or less, is a scheme typically used in devotional triptychs, as in this one by Roger van der Weyden from the mid-15th Century. We see the figures in the wings symmetrically turned to the center.
Rogier van der Weyden,
Compositionally, Avedon’s picture has the quality of an icon – like a triptych. And its subject matter, likewise, is iconic – 1960 icons of New York’s WBAI, then a left-wing, anti-war radio station. Some older folks in the audience might recognize Bob Fass, Larry Josephson and Steve Post. The distance Avedon places between the subject and the viewer could well signify the innate disjunction between radio personalities and their listeners.
Lee Friedlander, Grand Tetons 1999
Peter Aertsen, ca. 1551
Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother
Sistine Ceiling. Niche Figures – Salmon
Sistine Ceiling, Isaiah.
Here is the Isaiah figure from the Sistine Ceiling. You can also detect
a strong formal relationship between it and Lange’s "Migrant Mother." It
could well be her source and is often cited as such.
But if it is the source, it is the formal source; it doesn't tell us much
about the meaning that is infused into Lange's picture.
Robert’s cemetery in the woods
I’m suggesting that in these cases the photographer’s stylistic decisions and choice of sources indicate what they want to tell us about their pictures. Even when photographers are not conscious about their choices, their broad experiences nudge them into selecting revealing examples from the present and past that help people comprehend their purposes and give their pictures relevance. At the same time, I’ll warrant that illustrative metaphors like those shown above, are frequently intended to be invisible and unnoticed, yet nevertheless reveal the artist’s or photographer’s frame of mind. In these efforts adherence to "rules" – if they have any importance at all – may have little to do with their meaning.
Not long ago WPS conducted one of its so-called "special" theme
competitions. The subject this time was sculpture. At WPS it is understood
that showing another person’s work requires the photographer to transform
it into his own creation or to establish a unique context for the work.
Unfortunately, the judge for this contest knew nothing about sculpture, to
the point of not recognizing any of the well-known works presented.
Embarrassingly, he often couldn’t tell the difference between a work that
had or had not been altered for the competition.
Here are two examples that require more than what the eye can see:
Salvo Galano is an Italian photographer who spent a year in New York
living with and photographing the homeless.
Lee Friedlander [shadow play]
We must acknowledge that rule-based competitions in other areas of our
lives are the norm. What would tennis or any other sport be without rules?
Rules make these competitions fair and exciting, but while the quality of
the play is crucial, in the end these contests are about competition –
that is, about who wins!
Are photographic competitions really about who wins? Or, are they about quality and ingenuity in photography? Are the rules firm and fast as in sports, or are they there to be broken?
An art (or photo) competition cannot operate from a rulebook and cannot definitively determine which images achieve their intended goal. The judges are always the intermediary and are always subjective – just as in boxing and in modern ice-skating. Breaking or ignoring rules for inventive purpose should be rewarded, not penalized.
Yet, there is something appealing about competing with rules. Competition with rules in some ways can be likened to writing poetry – for instance like writing sonnets. All sonnets must have 14 lines and be written according to a pre-defined rhyming scheme. The point in writing a sonnet is to produce something enchanting and inventive while honoring the formal requirements that define it.
Certainly it is fun to think of
sonnets in that way; but to my mind such a construction seems so very
Victorian (if not Elizabethan) and discordant with modern values and ways.
Even here, although working within an architecture of rules, the judges
would tend to exercise their power of subjectivity.
Personally, I prefer to think of "Rules" as a prescription for creating a "style" or, better, as a way to use your photography to express yourself and your values. But rule-based images risk expressing the trivial, and may even block attainment of its desired purpose.
We tend to use the word "style" carelessly – in a very empty way – meaning fashion, manner or technique – or just for your own personal way of rendering your visual perceptions in a form that pleases and characterizes you. But "style" has a deeper more profound meaning. Style can be an attribute of a temperament, disposition or character – as expressed across personal, national or cultural domains.
I tend to think of "style," metaphorically, as a multi-layered affair. The outer layer contains those techniques and methods (and rules) that tie you aesthetically and ethically to your time and civilization. As you go deeper, each subsequent layer shows your dependence and association with increasingly intimate groupings and their value structures. At the core lies your personal style – not just your outward manner, but something deep, hidden and powerful that may not only determine how your photographs look but how you select and project your subject matter. Observing the rules we learn in club competition will only take you so far. The deeper you go, the more you are asked to rely on your own ingenuity and invention and, in doing so, the more you’ll find the "rules" to be an imposition and a barrier to creativity. At its heart, creativity honors no laws other than those you create for yourself. Ultimately, the creation of a personal style or temperament in art cannot be taught by imposing rules unless they are intended to force you to shed them. Mandatory use of "rules" is tantamount to a restriction of freedom of speech or of thought. The descent to the center can be a journey filled with pain, suffering and self-doubt.
Every work of art and every photograph is created in an historical
context, and that context determines their creator’s choices for forms and
subjects in his efforts to give his works meaningful expression. But those
choices need not be limited to the modern or the contemporary. As we have
just seen, the entire world of the history of art and ideas (if the artist
is willing and able) is available. This means that an artist may reach
back in time or away from home for the raw materials with which to create
those truths and/or fictions he needs to express his chosen content.
Les Krims (Set ups.) from "Stack o’ Wheats"
Cindy Sherman. [Untitled Film Still] 1979
From the above examples we must conclude that relying on dictated or conventional guidelines of composition and expression may be suspect. This does not mean that guidelines (or "rules," if you so choose) are irrelevant – we know how powerful certain configurations can become. Rather, it suggests that artists’ motives may best be served if they distance themselves from the support and comfort that the rules and guidelines promise.
Indeed, the familiarity of the rule-tools we customarily use may ultimately exert a destructive force on works that use them – because these works, so easily seen as castings from familiar forms, quickly turn uninventive, repetitive, boring and trite.
I must mention a few of the gimmicks upon which we traditionally depend to create our competitive works. I’ll limit myself to naming just a few of them, without explanation, because most of you know them all already:
And so many others, that in so many ways have worked well to improve images. In the end, advocating use of these rules routinely, I believe is paternalistic; it treats photographers like babies. In general I agree with the Dalai Lama who says "Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly." [note: See Elinor Stecker-Orel, "A New Look at Composition," © 2006.]
Whatever their apparent value, rules haven’t improved all images. Indeed, such "improvements," when they do occur, may come at a cost. It has been suggested that the rules or expectations under which we work were popularized not necessarily to serve our individual or personal aesthetic goals, but, rather, the unending needs of commerce. In competition the need to grasp the attention of the judge may have stimulated our use of the visual language and style of advertising, where the ability to seize and hold the attention of the observer is paramount. Alternately, the judges, themselves, may have been influenced by the advertising aesthetic and in judging may have created an atmosphere that calls for these devices. In advertising we want to exert control over the observer, to tantalize him with, say, a bottle of Grey Goose, and lead him, consciously or not, to the nearest liquor store.
How often have you been told that this or that picture has no "snap"?
What is "snap," anyway, other than a means of seizing the attention of the
viewer and holding him tightly in the grip of the work of art. And what
does "pop" mean? Is "pop" different than snap? If I get "snap," and "pop"
how long will it be before I’m told my picture has no "crackle"?
The trouble with these devices is that they don't presume the presence of
substance, meaning or content; for all practical purposes they border on
being vacant or merely eye-candy.
Man Ray, Advertisement from VU. 1933, Cover photograph. For the Salon de l'Automobile et Radio. (photo from Michel Frizot, The New History of Photography, p. 554.)
Hoover Dam, Tampax
advertisement. Proctor & Gamble. (Designed by Leo Burnette Company) 2004
As photographers, and especially as amateur photographers, I’ll wager we want more than that. Many stylized photos in the "commercial" mode are clever, but limiting in their focus. Sometimes we want the observer to wander over our images, exploring and digesting the rhythms and associations we have offered him so he may absorb the world we’ve created. There may be no center of interest, or the entire photograph might be the center of interest. We want our photographs to be interesting for more than their minute of fame before the eyes of some judge.
Still, whether our guidelines in one situation or another are useful or not, they can be turned into excuses for criticizing perfectly fine pictures.
How many times have we seen a judge stand before a contending photograph – blabbing away mindlessly about how nice he thinks it is, but obviously just vamping until he finds the words he wants? And, then, suddenly, pow!, he discovers something valuable to say -- typically of a destructive nature: "Oh, a toe has been cut off – 75." "This is the unkindest cut of all." [note: in WPS contests a score in the 70s is equivalent to "poor."]
Recently I attended a
competition in which the judge passed every photo through the sieve of
rules, damning those that couldn’t pass his test to picture purgatory.
Even worse, one photo reminded this judge of a painful event,
and penalized the photographer for having submitted it.
Any skilled observer of how amateur photography competitions are judged
must at some time come to the realization that these "rules" play a
diminished and diminishing role in identifying images of interest or
importance. In fact, while they may succeed at identifying images of grace
and beauty, they fail to determine which images deserve more attention or
have a chance of making a noteworthy contribution to the genre.
Competitions can also become a game of gaming the judge. It is not a secret, but some of our members keep dossiers on our judges’ aesthetic preferences, and when able, choose their own competition entries accordingly. To combat this game WPS recently made the schedule of judges top-secret, only one person knows who is on the agenda for a given date.
Robert A. Baron -- Home Page