Of competitions, judges and space in pictures! April 2012

I blogged a little while back that I’d entered a competition cunningly titled “4 on a board” at the local camera club. I was better pleased with my entry than was the judge – but that’s the way it goes I guess – can’t be seen to argue with the referee! I was intrigued though with his response to the first of the four, entitled “unlocking Leeds” – I’ll post it here.

Unlocking Leeds

He was complimentary about basic competition, focus and so on; critical though of the lack of interest in the sky, and suggested that the image would be better if cropped about half way up to remove the bulk of the canal which “isn’t doing much”. Now I’ll come back to the latter comment shortly – but the sky thing? Yes, big dramatic skies are great – perhaps; or maybe they are becoming as much a cliche as the milky water in long exposures of waterfalls. Both of them seem to be things that “judges like” …… but maybe judges should be encouraging lateral thinking and difference rather than simply and safely affirming cliches.

There were only 7 entries in this competition! The immediate consequence of that was that after the tea break our friendly judge (and he was friendly and indeed is an old and well respected friend of the club) showed us some of his own work. Now that was interesting, particularly in that he showed us how in the first 3/4 images he put up he had photoshopped in various elements to, as he saw it, improve the image. One of these was a seascape taken I think at Morecambe on the west coast which had a pier neatly on the left 1/3 line, and a relatively quiet sea with a horizon stretching across 2/3 up the picture. He hadn’t seemed to like the empty horizon though (or perhaps feared that “judges” wouldn’t like it) and had cloned in the tourist boat “Endeavour” which offers sea trips of Whitby on the East coast to break it up! What I would like to know – and he couldn’t really give me an answer except in terms of the opinions of “the judges” – is why not have space? Why not allow the viewer space in which to imagine and reflect – surely one of the most impact-ful features of a seascape is its bigness and emptiness, its relatively huge scale which can give a perspective to our being and emotions.

I have the impression that to be a competition winner, a picture has to be technically correct, dramatic, and simplistic. It mustn’t present judges with any sort of challenge or disturbance, but must convey its message and its worth with an uncomplicated immediacy. That may or may not be true, and the extent to which it is or is not true may vary at the level of the competition. I can’t help feeling though that if it’s true at all, then competitions and judges are not to be taken very seriously as an assessment of artistic merit. I think the way forward is to continue to put entries into club competitions – but to be clear that it’s only for fun – in the spirit that if “the judge” doesn’t like them, that’s his or her problem!!!

By the way – the canal in my pic? Canals have been the commercial arteries that have born the lifeblood of these northern cities carrying raw materials and finished products back and forth. Their role has of course changed, but in that picture the canal is the foreground because it’s the way into the city; it’s the way to approach the great wooden gates which literally unlock the city of Leeds. That’s the narrative that was in my mind in the making of the image and to crop it our would deny the journey – so I won’t!

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