Lessons learned jurying a photo competition

I recently had the privilege of jurying the work for Car Culture competition for the PhotoPlace Gallery in Vermont. It was real education, both in terms of photography and learning about the global world of cars. As a photo-educator, I look at moments like this as “teaching moments” and so I wrote this blog entry about the jurying process. (As I also wrote the “juror’s statement that will accompany the final exhibition of prints that will opens at the PhotoPlace Gallery today, November 8th.)

I thought I knew car culture, since I grew up in Southern California, spent time with family in Detroit and have undertaken my fair share of road trips. Yet, the breadth and depth of the work in the nearly 1,000 submissions that I reviewed reminded me of the incredible variety of what we collectively think of as car culture. The best work went beyond just showing me a person, place, or thing within car culture. The outstanding work used the best photographic tools and techniques to make me look at car culture with a new eye.

We know that car culture is global. Before this, I hadn’t fully appreciated just how global the culture of photographing the car has become. The work I saw and the show you are viewing remind us that internationally, the car can be a symbol of an freedom, a tool for mobility, a rusting leftover, a mark of wealth, a blight on the urban landscape, or the handiwork of a master crafts-person.

Just as car culture has clearly gone global, so the tools and techniques of photographing that same culture have spread across the planet. The best photographs that I viewed (and selected) had elements of the local culture, great use of the photographic tools and interesting subject matter. Collectively, these elements resulted in images that conveyed a mood as much as they simply “showed me” car culture.

(As a photo-educator, I look at moments like this jurying as “teaching moments.” If your work did not make it into the final exhibition(s) and you look at the winners and say “my work is as good as that,” you may be right. Making the final selection was very, very hard, because images that were of similar strength and drama were often different in very subtle ways. For example, an odd element in one corner of an image or less than perfect lighting an another could be the difference between the selected images and the images left behind. The best way to learn from this is to look at your own images and the winning images which are similar and figure out the subtle but important differences. That will help you grow as a photographer, which is what photographers across the globe should all want to do.)

As for the actual procedure:

I did a first rough cut from 991 images to 186 images in one afternoon. The NEXT day I cut 186 to 75 in the morning. Later that same day split that 75 into the two groups. Periodically, I would have my image browser re-sort the images by name, type, date, randomly, etc. so I kept looking at them in different order.
The most common style of shot and thus the most competitive genres were:

The so-called “beauty shots” showing off the great paint/colors while looking/photographing the car as sculptural objects. Some were old cars, some were new. Some were in luscious color and others were in delicate black and white. Some were shiny clean and others were old and rusted. Since there were so many of these images, this was where small differences in the image made a big difference in terms of who was “in or out.”

Another area with numerous entries explored the continuing use of classic cars in Cuba, where very old cars are still on the road, despite the lack of spare parts due to the American embargo of Cuba. The best photos in this category did not just show me the old cars but took the narrative one step further.

Issues that really hurt certain entrants were:

Some entrants sent images that were smaller than the suggested image size, so I could not look at them bigger than snap shot size. If I enlarged them, the “artifacting” ruined the image quality.

Entrants who put black space above and below their images to make horizontal images into squares, which is what some OTHER competitions ask for but not this contest. That extra black space detracted from the image’s impact.

The strongest work had a few elements in common, which were:

Entrants who submitted a series of images that were stylistically unified from a project on some aspect of Car Culture often did better. Not just because I like series of images. Rather, an entrant who had photographed some idea about Car Culture over and over till they “got it right,” usually went further in developing their aesthetic, their point of view, etc. The resulting images were often more sophisticated and dramatic, which made them more interesting to look at and harder to winnow down.

Though many images involved, filters, presets in Lightroom/Photoshop, special lenses, photo processing apps, etc., the best images used those tools in service of the photograph. The worst examples of this were where the tool seemed to run rampant and the “effect” dominated, rather than a situation where the image had a bit of the “effect.”

The most successful entrants were those photographers who could momentarily step out of the world of Car Culture to make images that anyone could get. They did better than entrants who presumed the audience knew something about the specific subject/car/venue being portrayed in the image.

The best photographs were like any great photographs. They have a universal appeal yet they take us inside the imagination and eye of the photographer. They enable us to partake of some part of car culture through an image that is both intellectually interesting and emotionally evocative.

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