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Jurying the Far Away Places competition

I was asked to be the juror for a photography competition on the theme of Far Away Places. As I reviewed the work, I tried to keep in mind the summary of the call for entries: From the far corners of your backyard to the far away country it takes weeks to traverse to, we want to see where you end up when you go “far away”. As I was editing, I was thinking how could I explain to those photographers who did not make the cut, why that had happened? So I kept notes as I went, which make up this blog entry, one that ideally would serve as the answer to those photographers who did not make the final cut.

The Far Away Places competition was organized by Vermont’s Darkroom Gallery, which they describe as “dedicated to recognizing photographers and exposing their work to the public.” As I was selecting the winners, the submitted photographs took me on something of a FASCINATING journey around the world. The places that people go to with their cameras is simply amazing. I loved going along with the 114 photographers who submitted 632 images.

As I always do when I do this kind of jurying I went through all the work initially to get a sense of the range of work. By range, I mean stylistically, geographically and especially in terms of skill level. To make it past the first cut, each image needed to be technically flawless and perfectly composed. Extraneous elements often ruined otherwise strong images.

It is not enough to go to some visually compelling place and snap a photo. The best photographers went to interesting places and then added at least one more element, be that a dramatic quality of light usually shaped by the time of day, an unusual angle or a bit of post production that supported the narrative in the image.

Making an image B + W or pinhole or panorama on its own could not save a mediocre image, but if those steps added to the story within the image, they were in the photographer’s favor. Some of the best work was not made in far away, foreign lands either. In my mind, the idea of far away is as much about a mental or emotional journey as it is a physical one. and I juried the work with that in mind.

After the first pass, I was down to 207. The ones I had cut out in the first round had, at best, only one element such as an interesting location or a compelling person but did not have anything else to make the image special. The 207 semi-selects that were left behind all met BOTH of those criteria. Then I took a break and came back to the work to cut it down to 90. That was when it started getting tougher. Cutting that to the final 53 took a while.

Looking back, the best images were technically flawless and perfectly composed. They had the kind of added element I described above, be it an especially dramatic quality of light, an unusual angle, an experiment with time or focus, for example. Some, but not all, then had an element of post production that supported the narrative in the image, be that making the image B + W or pinhole or panorama or the use of some other filtering. These added elements AWLAYS supported the story in the photograph and never looked like they were thrown in to improve an otherwise mediocre image.

Those perfect combination of those various added elements were often the difference. Many landscape images were submitted, but showing me a pretty landscape was not enough. That image had to have another element or two, and that was not necessarily something that was added in post production.

If you look at the winners and say “mine is just like that”, you will learn a great lesson if you pull up your image on your computer and then put it side by side with the winning image that you think is “just like yours.” Look at the two analytically, as if neither is yours (and as if neither was a “winner.”) If you look long, hard and OBJECTIVELY you will see what differentiates the winners from the “almosts.”

The Juror’s Choice goes to an image titled: Ruins Jumieges, Normandy. This has all the elements I noted above, that make it a winning image. The light is magical, the composition dynamic, the birds flying through make it a moment, the choice of black and white adds to the drama and the square format keeps us in the image, unlike a rectangular image, which tends to move the viewer through the image.

The photographer who submitted the winning image might have taken a look at my work in advance and seen how I use the play of light and shadow in much of my work. One reviewer of my work wrote “Wells uses light like a surgeon.” That idea, previewing the juror’s work and then adjusting one’s submission to any competition can improve your chances.

It was a real thrill to go around the world in a weekend (which is how long it took me to pick the winners.) I never had to go through security, fight for a seat or argue with a surly customer service representative. Sure, going all those places would have been a real blast, but seeing the places and the people in the submitted photographs enabled me to go “Far Away” from the comfort of my home.

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