Last month I juried a photography competition. Since I know many of you submit to these I thought I would share with you how it works.

The one I judged was an "open call" meaning simply that there was no theme or  definition, you could submit anything you wanted. The structure was set up through the Cafe system:

This allowed me to see each submitted image as a jpeg on screen, along with an artist statement and the size of the photograph. The use of Cafe is ubiquitous across the industry. This is important as you will be lumped together with everyone else's submission in each competition with no way for your photographs to stand out, be regarded individually or regarded as something special in any way. It matters little whether you make platinum prints, print on the best of water color papers, or emboss your photographs so they have actual depth. The Cafe system democratizes all submissions, universalizing all applications into one thing and one thing only: the image. Work in large format, make prints of excrutiating quality 5 feet across? It doesn't matter. Gold-tone your analog prints with a proprietary formula that adds spacial depth and a haunting hue to your prints? It doesn't matter.

As a judge, I got fatigued and sloppy after a long session looking at hundreds submissions. It became difficult to value each one, to regard it separately from others, to respect the artist's intent, to judge on its own merits, to avoid categorizing it as another portrait, landscape, collage, night picture, wildlife, etc. I found I needed to take a break, go do something else and come back to the task fresh. It would be easy just to blow off the job, pick images randomly and disregard any effort to determine a hierarchy of photographs, from superior to inferior.

In the past, I have judged many photography competitions, but always in an actual space or a gallery with framed prints unwrapped and leaning up against the wall or sitting on tables. This allowed me to position them, to basically curate a show with photographs I'd chosen.

Looking at real prints allows a judge to see the quality of the image, to evaluate the artists' craft. With the Cafe system that is effectively gone. Grainy, unintentionally blurry, streaked or camera shaken, poorly printed, oversaturated or over sharpened? It would be difficult to tell using Cafe. 

Let me make this statement so I am not misunderstood. It is clear there is a need for judging to be streamlined but the Cafe system (or any other that reduces your work down to a jpeg file) is terrible. To take a process whose very core is individuality and universalize it is just plain wrong. You aren't making your art to become anonymous, are you? The expressive medium of photography reduced  to just a jpeg representation on a display is a travesty. This is art, being boiled down and  smoothed over by digital means to 72 dpi on your screen. This is no way to determine the inherent quality of photographs.

As an applicant I understand your predicament, either conform to the system or do not submit. Photography has become very big, hundreds or thousands of applicants, many competitions to submit to and prestigious judges reviewing your work. The Cafe system is a poor substitute for actual eyes viewing your prints. This makes portfolio reviews stand out as being far better.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted October 11, 2019