As I prepare to submit to another call for a juried show at PhotoPlace Gallery, I came across this statement from Brett L Erickson, fine art photographer and juror of the Man in the Landscape exhibit. I greatly appreciated the time taken to share such a thoughtful insightful point of view. Perhaps you will too...
Robert Adams, in his excellent essay called “Civilizing Criticism,” asks, “What are legitimate bases for the judgment of photographs?” Perhaps an equally intriguing question might be, “In an emphatically subjective process such as a juried show, what is the meaning of successes or failures?” I will not attempt such a Quixotic endeavor as forwarding a universal answer, for any cursory survey of history will show critics have nearly always been lost to time, in comparison to many artists now immortal who were judged errant in earlier days.
Photographers also brave risk in shows. Conversely, jurors toil little, and risk less, in comparison to the emotional vulnerability and personal sacrifice photographers trade for revealing images. All a critic can offer is an explanation of his or her process, the method of reconciling one’s internal sensibilities with the selection of a set of resonant images from the stock at hand. Here, then, I explain my own methodology of selection, and suggest caution in any inference of success or failure. I have witnessed, and have been party to, groups of selectors who, upon reviewing a body of work, found little commonality in the photographs each deemed “best.” The lesson: Keep shooting, take each show result with a healthy dose of salt, and be bold.
Ultimately, a juror’s job is one of exclusion by way of questions. I prefer to ask six, in order. Does the image fit the theme? Is it technically sound? What was the photographer trying to do? Was it successful? Does the work ask good questions? Is it New and Poetic? Elements such as these aid in how photographs can both resonate—though seldom universally—and challenge.”
A group photography show is thematic, because there must be a cohesive vision among the images to be displayed, and thus necessitating the question of “Does it fit?”. Similarly, a show should be unified in a standard of technical achievement. A first-year art student’s painting may seem disjointed and weak next to a Pissarro. But while the subtleties of expression and technique are still developing, it does not mean the art student is without skill or merit (Cézanne thought of Pissarro as a father). But the two works are at different points of development at that point in time.
Strong photographs must also find, ask, and suggest answers to questions. Such interrogations of the visual and physical world can be complex or simplistic, profound or superficial. Good photographs expose metaphors, chide us with doubts and wonder, or make us ponder the nature of our existence and purpose. They compel us to reconsider our place in the world.
Novelty is self explanatory. No photograph is new, so I ask, “Has it been done before in the same way?” The poetic is more elusive. On its face, a visual poem is simple, elegant; upon closer scrutiny, the complexity and tension begin to emerge. Is there more than a tension between a protagonist and antagonist? Are light, shadow, and Form players in this poem? Is it beautiful, even if it is also Terrible? Does the image stay with us long after we have left its physical presence? Moreover, are we compelled to return to it?
In a world where photographs are becoming even more ubiquitous, more fleetingly present, I find images that haunt in their Form, beauty, questions, and metaphors even more necessary. Numerically, in the proliferation of iPhone and Android snaps which inundate the digital landscape, they are becoming an increasingly minute percentage of the visual chaff we perpetuate. As photographic artists, we reject this trend.
Joyfully, many of the images submitted to this show were in that fraction of the whole, for they moved me deeply; selecting the show, online gallery, and best in show image was extremely challenging. A good deal of them will stay with me forever. The best in show image, that of four boys trapped in the geometric wasteland of fecund runoff and concrete, their gazes trapping me within the image, haunted me most. It asks questions of humanity and progress, of inheritance, and of exclusion. And yet it is beautiful in its balance, its forms, and its color. It is truly Poetic.
I congratulate all those selected, and offer my thanks and deepest appreciation to everyone who submitted. In closing, I return to my initial question of success, and offer an answer: Keep creating, for our only failure in photography is when we silence our voices.
Brett is considered one of Nebraska's finest artists. His work featured at NationalGeographic.com, National Public Radio, American Public Media, and Nebraska Educational Telecommunications.
Great reason to get to the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops to learn more from this guy...