The CPA recently completed the judging process for our upcoming juried exhibition. There were 696 photographs submitted by 165 artists. Huntington Witherill and I ran Lightroom while Al Weber picked 77 images by 70 photographers for the show. There were submittals from many famous photographers as well as people with more modest recognition, and, perhaps, talent.
Big surprise (to me, at least): many of the name photographers didn’t make the cut. I’ve spent the last few days thinking about what the reasons might be. I don’t have anything conclusive, but here’s what I’m thinking.
- There is a high degree of arbitrariness in any one person’s opinions. See my reports from PhotoLucida, especially this one. I expect that there are some persons to whom this doesn’t apply, but I’ve not encountered any in circumstances where I had the opportunity to tell.
- Some mature photographers submitted a single image. Given the arbitrariness, that stacks the deck against them.
- Some mature photographers submitted work from a new or experimental series which may not represent the work for which the photographer is known, and work which, over time, may not stand with the rest of the photographer’s oeuvre.
- Mature photographers are, in general, great printers. It’s impossible to get a good sense of print quality from looking at a 35mm slide or a computer file, so that skill doesn’t give the skilled printer a leg up.
Here’s the big one. When jurying a show (at least the way we did it), each image is stripped of almost all context. The juror does not know the name of the photographer (unless he recognizes the image or the style), the title, the relationship of the image to others in the same series, the thesis of the series, or the relationship of the image to the rest of the photographer’s work. All that information is valuable as a framework to judge the image. Without the framework, any image is less richly nuanced, and images by mature photographers suffer more from the loss of context.
Here’s a simple—almost trivial—example: one of the photographs submitted was of the lower Manhattan skyline from New Jersey, with the twin towers prominent. The title of the photograph, which Al did not see, was “September 10, 2001.” The title changes the way I see the picture, and that’s probably true for most people.
Similarly, but more generally, there are many photographic subjects, or approaches to photographic subjects, which have over the years become trite. However, knowing that you’re looking at the first image ever made of, say, dried mud changes your way of appreciating it. I remember seeing an exhibit of a George Fiske’s nineteenth-century pictures of Yosemite. I remarked to a photographer I was with that Adams had taken almost-identical pictures, and done it better. He pointed out that Fiske was first. That counts for something. Had some contemporary photographer made the same images as Fiske, no one would put them up on a gallery wall. If a mature photographer submits an old image which has since become common, that photograph doesn’t receive its due.
For any photograph, there are two important things: the content of the image itself, and the ideas behind the image. In some cases, the image is sufficiently self-contained to carry most of its intent. In others, we need a lot more information to completely appreciate the work. Classic West Coast landscapes are in the former camp (but probably only because we have all looked at a lot of them); Robert Adams’ landscapes are in the latter. An Edward Weston still life doesn’t need much explication (but probably only because we’ve all seen a lot of this photographic genre; many of the still lifes were controversial when they were created), but we need more help with some of Joel-Peter Witkin’s. Mapplethorpe flowers seem to stand alone (as members of a long tradition); some other Mapplethorpe images, to someone with no knowledge of the society portrayed, are difficult to appreciate.
I suspect that many single images from people like Garry Winogrand, Bill Brandt, or J. John Priola would do poorly in a exhibition juried by someone completely unfamiliar with their work.
There is a purist perspective that an image ought to stand alone, free of context. While I appreciate the legitimacy of the point of view, it’s not the way I look at pictures. For better or worse, my judgment of every image I see is informed by every previous image I remember, and probably some I don’t.
I conclude that jurying an exhibition, while fair according to its internal standards, is a limited form of image appraisal.