Judging print competitions, which I do regularly, is not what it appears to be. Far from it. It’s not a simple matter of looking at a print and quickly deciding whether or not you like it.
The best photography print judges I know have decades of experience in the art of photography. They may not be a great photographer, or even a photographer at all! Good judges have studied the past and current masters and understand the value of a photographic print. They comprehend and subscribe to the notion that with judging competitions comes responsibilities. They teach and elevate the art as they serve as judges.
There appears to be a trend where camera club umbrella groups offer training courses for potential competition judges. These men and women end up with a certificate ostensibly qualifying them as judges. In their training they are usually given a rubric of items they should consider when judging an image or print. Trying to codify a set of criteria is good, as far as it goes, but I argue that a checklist does not go far enough.
Is it important that contest judges be competent photographers? There are photographic art historians and curators who competently judge contests and who could care less about photo mechanics. But, in terms of judging a print contest specifically, shouldn’t a judge understand the challenges of laying down a beautiful print on a range of fine art papers?
These are probably secondary concerns to the real issue of print contests, namely what’s their purpose? Is it about showcasing one’s work? Is it a venue for receiving valuable critique? From a judge’s perspective, shouldn’t it be about elevating photographic art?
A photographer from a wonderful camera club called me a few months ago. He complained about how the judge at a recent competition gave no feedback on his decisions. What is that about? Is any judge so vaulted that s/he doesn’t need to explain their decisions in a way that aspiring fine art printmakers might benefit?
I think we need to ask the questions: what makes a good judge and how does a club select one? Just selecting one based on availability is a disservice to aspiring club printmakers. Many judges, myself included, take their service seriously. Entrants are putting their work on the line. They deserve nothing less than thoughtful feedback.
Well, enough of this rant. I’d love to hear from any of you who have had a print judging experience that you’d be willing to share. This includes those who have submitted prints to competitions, as well as those who judge them. In the meantime this week I have to judge a print contest for one of the best camera clubs in my state. Wish me luck!
– This article is written by Lester Picker. It was published in his excellent Substack newsletter, The Paper Arts Collective, which he co-authors alongside Robert Boyer. The Paper Arts Collective publishes a wealth of terrific information about digital photo printing, including a free 163-page E-book, The Art of Fine Art Printing.
Lester and Robert are professional photographers and passionate aficionados of printed photography.