James Estrin posted a very interesting blog February 10 on his New York Times LENS. The subject centers on photography awards. His lead is:
“I have always thought that photojournalism contests lead to bad photography. They encourage young photographers to make images like the ones that won in previous years instead of pursuing their personal vision….Following your own passion is more likely to lead to important photographs.”
The totality of his second paragraph is:
“Also, judging is far from a science. One panel of distinguished judges will come up with different results than another equally impressive group of judges.”
Estrin goes on to talk about an apparent state of confusion regarding the announcements of the winners of the current POY International. For some reason there exists a delay in naming names, even though, as Estrin points out, “…the judging is Webcast live anyway—in what amounts to a drawn-out reality TV show, ‘The Next Great Photojournalist’ –they should just post the names as they go.” I loved that.
I relate to his blog because I’ve avoided photographic competitions since the late 1960s for what I have always believed to be good reasons, some of them drawn from personal experience.
In my first year as a professional photographer, part of which was spent as a photographic intern at National Geographic Magazine, I was judged Magazine Photographer of the Year at the University of Missouri Pictures of the Year competition for 1965.
I never did know who the judges were with the exception of one but he was pretty important, I guess, because the day following my selection for the top prize, he convinced the other judges to re-judge the competition and I came in runner-up. I know for a fact how and why the decision was reversed because a long-time acquaintance of mine was there at the University of Missouri as a student and witnessed the action of the judges. It’s not important who finally was announced as the winner. What was important to me was that after hearing what happened I didn’t think I wanted to get very much involved in that kind of thing anymore. And with the exception of another year or so with POY and with the White House Photographers Grand Award competition, which I won and still tote around in my hunting bag a pair of 8 x 30 Zeiss binoculars, the most useful photo competition prize I’ve ever received, I stopped entering any competitions. I have a box full of plaques engraved with First this, Second that, out in the barn; awards from those first few years in the profession. They’ve never been out on display.
During my first couple of years at National Geographic I remember watching and hearing my colleagues putting together their POY entries based on what they thought the judges wanted, not what they as photographers with the opportunity to
show the work they really believed in, wanted to show. I kind of thought then that entering contests was Ivory Tower Time, a chance to show everybody what you think is your best, regardless of what your editors thought or eventually published. It sounds simple but maybe not. Evidently not if your biggest concern is winning.
As time went by I came to believe that I’d rather have one picture accepted to be hung on a wall in a fine gallery, if even for so momentary a time as an exhibit consists of, than to have all the walnut plaques with the engraved metal plates in the world. The other thing was, do you really need a panel of judges to tell you you’re doing good work? The answer to that is of course, because it’s encouraging and a reward in itself, but still, as Jim Estrin observes, “…judging is far from a science.”
With the exception of the Pulitzer, I wonder if winning a major photographic competition in the ‘60s and ‘70s perhaps carried more weight than it does today because a ladder leading upward due to a big industry win existed then that is more or less gone now. Then it could lead from newspapers to magazines, if that’s what one sought.
When I arrived as an intern at National Geographic in June of 1964 the large photographic staff had a number of former Newspaper Photographer of the Year recipients, probably almost as many as there were divorced photographers; I think some actually held both titles. That could be a tough place on marriages. The point is that winning the top POY award for a newspaper photographer back then just might hoist he or she up to an offer from one of the many magazines that existed and were always looking for talent. That was then, of course, this is now. It’s not that winning a major photographic award today won’t get one attention and regard, it’s just that there aren’t many publications left to respond.
I’m certainly no purist. Many years ago I had let it be known to the people at Geographic that when POY time rolled around, I didn’t want to be involved. Nothing against anyone who did, it just wasn’t something I wanted to do. But sometimes things go on that one has no control over. One day I was told I’d won the POY Sports Picture of the Year. That was back in, I think maybe 1995 or ‘96; the plaque is in that box in the barn and it’s cold now and I’m not going out to look. It was for a picture I made in Arles, France, of a white clad razeteur leaping over the plaza de toros wall and into the crowd to avoid the upright horns of the Camargue bull chasing his ass. But I hadn’t entered the picture. Forgetting or ignoring my choice for abstinence, the director of photography at Geographic entered it, I was told. Given the great images some of my sports photographer friends regularly produce, I could only think that it must have been a very lean year for POY sport pictures. I mean, it’s a good picture. But Sports Picture of the Year?
There are competitions, some which one enters, some which are received unexpectedly, that I care about and of which I’m proud. On top of a book case in our music room is a smallish bronze of a cowboy on a horse, a lariat in his hands and the brass plate on the base of the bronze has my name engraved as recipient of the Western Heritage Cowboy Hall of Fame Wrangler Award for Outstanding Western Art Book of 1983, given for my first book VANISHING BREED. It was the first time the award was given to a photographer rather than a painter. I cherish that award. I had no idea my publisher, Little Brown, had entered my book. I didn’t know the awards existed.
My 1982 Leica Medal of Excellence “for outstanding achievement in humanistic photojournalism” came about because another photographer, without my knowledge, nominated VANISHING BREED and they gave it to me. That plaque is on the wall by the fireplace, along with the NPPA Joseph P. Sprauge Memorial Award for 2002, also unexpected. In 1994 the regents of the University of Minnesota named me a recipient of the Outstanding Achievement Alumni Award and engraved my name on a wall with others outside the Alumni building on campus, and that came about because my former teacher and mentor, R. Smith “Smitty” Schuneman nominated me.
And just last month I got one that in some ways is the best of them all. At the annual National Geographic photographers’ seminar, George Steinmetz, president of the National Geographic Photographers’ advisory board, announced me as the 2010 recipient of the first annual National Geographic photographers’ “Photographers’ Photographer Award for advancing the possibilities of our medium.” For someone who normally has no problem speaking out, making proclamations on various subjects with sometimes more than needed intensity, this totally unexpected award left me speechless because I knew if I tried to express my gratitude to my colleagues in that auditorium that afternoon I was probably going to embarrass myself. That piece of engraved glass is now on my mantle and probably always will be.
It’s always nice to win something, I suppose. But it’s extra nice to be awarded recognition from those you respect especially when it comes for simply doing what you’ve loved to do and would do happily were there no one even watching.
With that said, I extend my congratulations to all those out there who are following their passions and doing work they seek to be recognized because in doing so it may create a greater awareness of the plights that exist within our world whether that be down some scary back alley, in a hospital ward or out there in some other danger zone of our natural world. Important work needs to be recognized and I guess sometimes one has to go out and ask for it.