17 November 2010

Photo Contest Photo Contested

I'd actually love to judge a photo contest, but I don't have thick enough skin. And you need it, because while there is no disputing matters of taste, everyone will dispute your taste. There are no good or bad photos, it seems, just good or bad judges.

I think anyone who is foolish enough to host a photo contest gets what they deserve, and the British Journal of Photography was given both barrels this past week for the winning image they selected for the single image category of their International Photography Award:

Man asleep on the Golden Mile, Durban, South Africa, by Michelle Sank

There are dozens of negative comments posted in response to the original BJP announcement and their subsequent defense of their choice. Their basic defense is that this image "defies simple photographic convention" and challenges the viewer. In saying that it "defies simple photographic convention," what they actually mean (I think) is that it's technically unimpressive and ambiguous. That is certainly the critical consensus.

Being unconventional might or might be a virtue for the judges. Commentators and bloggers have effectively said it is in fact very conventional, a conventionally unsuccessful photo. A prizewinning photograph, they say, especially outside of a body of work, has to provide its own context to be intelligible. It does that both by choice of subject and its technical execution. And ambiguity is not necessarily polyvalence or depth. A photo that can communicate anything communicates nothing. The original announcement called this a striking "image of poverty," but that was later revised because there is nothing to indicate that the subject is a poor person (the photographer indicated otherwise). The subsequent defense, by one of the judges, makes this lack of clarity about the subject a virtue.
He says, it "challenged my assumptions about photography." Critics say it certainly challenges assumptions about good photography, if we were to all agree this is good.

Much of this furor is just a collision between artworld and realworld. The judge's comments make this plain enough. But few photographers are interested in artworld photography and its frequent eschewal of traditional photographic values. And after all, this photo was given a photography award by a photography magazine, not an art award by an art magazine. No sane editor could present this to a body of photography enthusiasts and expect a positive response. I don't think it succeeds even as art. I expect the panel of judges were photographers trying to select something that looked like artworld art, not artworlders who happened to settle upon this photograph.

Though maybe this is just another referendum on the futility of photo contests. As one commenter says, "This is why photography contests, in general, are quite stupid. . . . On the one hand you get judges who get their jollies from picking bland and impenetrable pictures and on the other, literalist morons (see this comment thread) who can understand postcard shots but not much more. In the end, no one comes out ahead."

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