Photo Contest Judging Criteria
Every year thousands of photographs are submitted to pictorial photographic exhibitions by entrants who hope that their pictures will be considered good enough to be accepted for hanging. The experts chosen by the organizers to perform the task of selection are called judges (and sometimes also selectors, jurors, or critics). Their function is to consider the pictures submitted and select those which in their opinion possess the highest merits.
The selection of a picture for hanging is not decided by the whim of the judge; there are a number of systems for arriving at a fair assessment of the merits of a print. There is usually a simple explanation for any apparent anomalies. For example, an entrant may have his picture accepted by one well-known exhibition and yet rejected by another. In such circumstances he may quite well feel that the judges cannot be right in both cases and that he has a legitimate grievance. But he may not be competing against prints of the same standard on both occasions, and the best at one exhibition may be the second best at the other.
The number of prints accepted varies from one exhibition to another. Any pictorial exhibition approved by the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain in this country, and by the Photographic Society of America in America displays all accepted prints so that they can be properly seen by the general public. But the space available varies from large wall spaces in a first-class art gallery to comparatively few screens in a small local hall. The organizers of the exhibition at their preliminary meeting have to weigh the space available for their final display against the total entry they are likely to receive and the proportion of this entry it is advisable or possible to hang.
The average open international exhibition ("open" in this case meaning that the exhibition is not confined to members of a particular society or club) receives on the average from 500 to 1,000 entries from all over the world. Bigger exhibitions may receive anything from four to six thousand prints. As in neither of these cases will more than two or three hundred prints be hung in the gallery space available, the percentage of entries displayed is naturally small. Acceptance at such exhibitions is therefore more highly prized. The average provincial exhibition usually hangs one in three or one in four of the prints submitted, unless, as occasionally happens, the standard is unusually low. So it follows that a print rejected from the major salons may quite well be accepted in a less well-patronized exhibition.
Sometimes there is only one judge, but generally a panel of judges makes the selection. A panel consists of an uneven number; say three, five, or occasionally seven, so that in a case of dispute they can return a majority verdict.
A good judge must be an experienced critic, able to make up his mind quickly. He should be able to see at a glance whether a photograph shows evidence of original thought or is merely a slavish copy of somebody else's previous exhibition success. And he should know what constitutes a generally accepted standard of good pictorial photography. The judge must also be free from prejudices against certain types of subject; he should be open to new ideas and not hide-bound by tradition. Even so, in the end much depends upon his personal taste in pictures.
It is not always appreciated that judges give their time freely in return for nothing more than their out-of-pocket expenses, and there are not many experienced judges who have enough leisure to travel from one part of the country to another on this arduous work. The soundness of a judge can be proved only by the resulting exhibition and while it is not possible for the judge to please everybody, he soon loses his reputation if the majority of experienced photographers consistently disagrees with his selection.
Amateur photographic organizations in some countries maintain lists of judges prepared to give their services free (excepting expenses).
The A, B and C Method
There are various methods of judging, but the most popular is what is known as the A, B and C method. Under this system there is open discussion between the members of the panel. The pictures are put up one by one in front of the panel and each member in turn classifies the picture as A, B or C. A signifies that they consider it well up to the standard required, B that it is not quite equal to the A standard, but is worthy of further consideration and discussion, and C that it is below standard. If with a panel of three there is one A and two B's, the print will go into the B category and come up for further consideration, whereas if there are two A's and one B, the print will be classified as A. C prints are not generally viewed a second time.
When the first round has been completed, the total number of A's and B's is counted and if for example the organizers have a thousand entries and decide to hang two hundred and fifty pictures and there are only one hundred A's, then the B's are gone through again and the best of these selected. If the total number of A's and B's does not reach the desired number on this round, the organizers will have to put up with a smaller number, and this often happens. For example, the gallery accommodation may be sufficient for two hundred and fifty pictures, but the total A's and B's may not add up to more than two hundred. In such a case only two hundred pictures will be hung.
Some judges prefer to allot marks, say from one to ten, to each print, according to their opinion of its merits. The total number of prints selected for the exhibition is then made up by going down the list of each category and taking all the tens, then all the nines, and so on down until the total number desired is reached. The objection to such a system of judging is that it is impossible to attach numbers to abstract qualities with any degree of accuracy.
Push Button Method
In the third system, known generally as Push Button judging, each judge has an electrical device consisting of three push buttons, or a three-position switch for the A, B and C categories. The voting is done secretly and one judge does not know which way the others are voting. Those who advocate this method claim that it prevents any one judge from dominating the others, but those who oppose it say that it is fairer to the entrant to have a free discussion amongst the judges on the merits of the picture and that in any case a judge who allows himself to be dominated by others will not maintain his reputation very long.
Another idea that has been tried without much success has been to provide each picture with a sheet listing a large number of qualities to which the judges allot points. The various qualities may reach as many as twenty and include among other things, technique, presentation, originality of ideas, composition, and emotional impact. With twenty such categories and a maximum of ten marks in each category, the ideal or perfect print would have a possible two hundred marks. The difficulty is that no one can dissociate the various qualities that go to make a good picture, or say that any one quality is more important than another. Finally, even if the judges were skillful enough to consider each print in this way, to do it conscientiously would take up too much tune.
Occasionally attempts have been made to submit the judgment to popular vote, leaving the visitors to decide which prints are the best. The usual procedure is to give each visitor a form in which, for example, he is asked to place say the ten best prints in order of merit. Unfortunately in this as in many other branches of life the mere counting of heads does not produce wisdom. Certain types of pictures are "sure-fire winners" in popular voting. Young and helpless looking kittens and puppies; children with their hands in jam-pots and with jam-covered faces; cats in baskets; kittens in boots; very small children with a highly sentimental or somewhat sugary appeal.
There are certain conventions that the general public expects the photographer to observe. For example, the sharper the picture, the better; a broad treatment of tones, or any picture which faithfully reproduces the soft mistiness of evening light or early morning fog will be peered at closely and dismissed as "not sharp".
No method of judging prints is perfect, but it is generally agreed that the A, B and C system is the best available and it has now been adopted for most of the exhibitions both here and abroad.
Judges for Photographic Exhibitions
Most photographic exhibitions are judged by qualified persons having no direct interest in the organization holding the exhibition.
It is common for well-known photographers, picture magazine editors, and artists to be invited to judge photographic exhibitions. Provided that the exhibition is of a reasonable standard and size, a courteous letter will frequently produce agreement to judge an exhibition; but adequate notice must always be given.
Invited judges sometimes prefer to have the exhibition entries sent to their home or office for selection; others may visit the organizers' headquarters for the purpose. Always, however, selection is carried out at least a few days before the exhibition is due to open so that the uncatalogued can be prepared and printed. Frequently the judge will also attend the opening of the exhibition.
At all times, the decisions of the judge must be sincerely respected.