So Where's the story ?

by ralph

It's safe to say that the one aspect of camera clubs that members find the most to complain about is the quality of judging in competitions. Of course it's all too common for picture makers to think their images are great just because they were hard to produce. 'Taint so of course - except in the case of the rare, important news photos where quality is of secondary importance . It's also common to feel that a picture is great because of the idea the maker sought to convey with it - but unfortunately the idea may not really be well expressed in the image. Still we see many excellent images that are struck down on minor technicalities or what looks like failure of the judge to use a bit of imagination.

In the larger world of professional and advertising photography to say that an image looks like a "camera club" image is a definite put down. Why should this be? Well it seems that the more rigidly the rules are applied the more predictable and boring the picture can become. For instance does every road that "S-curves" its way into the distance have to have a man in a red jacket just before the vanishing point?

We've all had the experience of looking at the work of famous photographers and realizing that faults in the image would limit the score to no better than a 5 or 6 in competition. Does that mean that the well known photographers are overrated --- or that we're all underrated? The real answer seems to be that there are simply many kinds of "good" photography, that different standards and criteria are applied in different fields.

What makes pictures acceptable to many photo magazines and galleries is so off the wall that there seem to be no rules. There the "chosen ones" are simply expressing themselves and once they're in under that indulgent umbrella almost anything goes.

But it's the photography we see everyday in advertising and editorial use that really sets the style that we instinctively want to follow. It seems looser and freer and yet the meaning or purpose of the image is usually quite clear.

Ah of course, that's it, these pictures tell stories and they succeed or fail mostly on the basis of how well they tell stories. I don't mean stories like plot-characters-climax-etc. but often just images that convey a mood or a moment that is more complex than a static and perfect composition.

Stories almost need the interplay of several "ideas" or picture elements but the camera club judge seems to be offended by any image with more than one item - or one specific pattern. This rigorous exclusion of extra information tends to dry up any story telling power a picture might have. In fact in some competitions I've been struck by how blind some judges have become to the storytelling aspect of the images they're looking at.

I can recall some specific cases that flesh out what I'm trying to say. Quite a few years ago a trio of judges in Ocean County camera club were shown a very well done B&W print of the edge of the waterline on a beach. The sharpness, tonality, depth and light were all excellent. In the foreground was a large (close) seashell and trailing away beyond it were others forming a pleasing pattern leading to the distance where the beach trailed off. The image told a lot about the ecology and ambience of the shore. After a pause the judges were near unanimous that most of the background was extraneous and the picture should be cropped to the foreground shell. What would the result be? Probably a nicely rendered seashell and nothing more.

Around 12-13 years ago I met an enthusiastic amateur named Mike who did some interesting B&W work and made excellent prints. One print he brought into a competition really caught my eye. It was a very photojournalistic, ambient lit, interior of a busy Irish pub. It was full of groups of men smoking, drinking, arguing and playing games. The background showed the diversity of all
th
ese activities and the foreground was anchored by a few interesting characters. Swirls of smoke and sparkling print quality brought it to life and told a rich, ethnic story. The judge blew it off with "5 - too much" and Mike never came back to the club. Would the judge have been happier if Mike had cropped the image down to one man with a pipe? Probably --- but wouldn't something have been lost?

The work of Henri Cartier Bresson is a good if extreme example of this. In his typical images many disparate things are happening at once. They may be unrelated or loosely connected as if in some grand master plan. It's clear that most camera club judges would drag out such old chestnuts as "too much going on" or "no center of interest" and if it were up to them Cartier Bresson would have been consigned to the dustbin. The fact that he is so highly prized shows that both the public and critics have always liked a good story teller.

A couple years ago when I was on the campus of Brown University in Providence I was about to walk through a large, ornate iron gate when I was struck with a scene of extraordinary contradiction. Across the street was a stately, old Victorian house which contained some college offices and parked directly in front of it was a sleek blue sporty Saturn. The differences of old and new styling were so extreme that I couldn't help but shoot a slide of it. Predictably the image earned a couple of 6's and in one case the judge spent time deconstructing the image saying that a picture of just the gate, the car or the building might have done better --- totally missing the story that I hinted at with the title "Visit From Another Age".

Center-of-interest mania is another affliction that blinkers the vision of most judges. Does every field of red tulips have to have one yellow tulip a third of the way in from the corner? Tactile, beautifully rendered textures have long been popular subjects. The peeling paint close-ups by Aaron Siskind imply a story that pits the ravages of time against mankind's attempts at preservation. They have no detectable center of interest beyond the appeal of the whole image and would probably also get a 5 or 6 if the judge weren't tipped off to the fact that it was produced by a famous photographer. One of Ansel Adams celebrated images shows the edge of an aspen forest - beautifully lit and superbly printed but the smooth textured stand shows no clear center of interest. Yet doesn't this picture of the edge of the woods say more than an image of just one tree.

Of course there are still many images that show unrelated elements, distracting back-grounds or poor technique that actually deserve a low score but when many elements are woven into a coherent story it's a major frustration when the judge fails to see the whole instead of a collection of parts.

Should camera clubbers be concerned about this blind spot in traditional judging? Is it justifiable for the purpose of maintaining a "genteel tradition". Certainly the insistence on image quality and a basic awareness of good composition are all to the good, but with that as a starting point isn't it about time that camera club photos began looking more like the work in the "outside world". At least some clubs and the PSA have a category for photojournalism, a step in the right direction, but that seems to have had no effect on the rest of the work.

This situation has come into existence because of the rather inbred way that judges are produced. They were all beginners at some point and those that thoroughly absorbed the limitations of the camera club style became the most successful and most likely to become judges themselves, thus perpetuating the system. They generally have not had any formal training for their acquired position. Some academic input might help to expand their visual horizons

What can we do to break this self sustaining cycle? Just as we now have special competitions for portraits and wildlife we could also have one
for st
ory telling pictures. It would not have to be strictly defined since this category would require some growing into. It would just provide "cover" for those adventurous photographers who have an image that might fit the definition but would get killed with conventional judging. The judge would be tipped off about what to look for in this "new" category and the result would be to expand the horizons of both the judge and all participants. Of course we will have to shop carefully for such judges as some might totally reject the idea. A bolder next step would be for the OCCC to host a seminar specially for judges, to introduce some new ideas into their repertory of creative criteria. This could be a one time affair or even an ongoing class that continually recycles fresh ideas from participants.