About the Print Contest Judges

November 18, 2022

Judging print contests, which I regularly do, is not what it seems. Far from there. It’s not just a matter of looking at a print and quickly deciding whether you like it or not.

Photo: Lester Picker.

The best photo proof judges I know have decades of experience in the art of photography. He may not be a great photographer, or even a photographer at all! Good judges have studied past and current masters and understand the value of a photographic print. They understand and subscribe to the idea that with judging contests come responsibilities. They teach and raise the art as judges.

There seems to be a trend of camera club umbrella groups offering training courses for potential competition judges. These men and women end up with a certificate ostensibly qualifying them as judges. In their training, they are usually given a rubric of things they should consider when judging an image or print. Trying to codify a set of criteria is good, but I argue that a checklist doesn’t go far enough.

Is it important that the contest judges are competent photographers? There are photographic art historians and curators who competently judge competitions and who could care less about the mechanics of photography. But, in terms of judging a particular print contest, shouldn’t a judge understand the challenges of laying down a beautiful print on a range of fine art papers?

These are probably secondary concerns to the real issue of press contests, which is what is their purpose? Is it to highlight his work? Is it a place to receive valuable reviews? From a judge’s point of view, shouldn’t it be about elevating photographic art?

A photographer from a wonderful photo club called me a few months ago. He complained about how the judge at a recent contest gave no feedback on his decisions. What is it about? Is there a judge so stooped that he doesn’t need to explain his rulings in a way that aspiring art engravers might benefit?

I think we have to ask ourselves the questions: what makes a good referee and how does a club select one? Simply selecting one based on availability is a disservice to aspiring club printers. Many judges, myself included, take their service seriously. Participants put their work on the line. They deserve nothing less than thoughtful feedback.

Well, enough of this rant. I would love to hear from any of you who have had an impression judging experience that you would be willing to share. This includes those who submit prints to contests, as well as those who judge them. Until this week, I have to judge an impression contest for one of the best camera clubs in my state. Wish me good luck!

– This article is written by Lester Picker. It was published in his excellent Substack newsletter, The Paper Arts Collective, which he co-wrote alongside Robert Boyer. The Paper Arts Collective publishes a wealth of great information on digital photo printing, including a free 163-page e-book, The art of art printing.

Lester and Robert are professional photographers and print photography enthusiasts.

Jessica C. Bell