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By: John Owens, Communications Specialist, PPA
I've always been a "believe it when I see it" kind of guy.
As I boarded the bus with the rest of the PPA staff for our field trip to Gwinnett Tech, I wasn't sure what to expect from my first photographic competition. I'd written about the 12 Elements of a Merit Image and felt I had a firm grasp on them, but I hadn't seen them in action. They were just a list.
On the ride over I kept envisioning an American Idol-esque judging panel, or a Gordon Ramsay-type screaming at a helpless puppy in a photograph. My competitive background is in hockey, and I felt fairly certain that no one would drop the gloves, but who knows how heated the judging might get? What if someone attended and disagreed (strongly) with not earning a merit? If an image doesn't merit, does it get shipped off to an island of misfit images?
So yeah, I was excited for the International Photographic Competition, if a little misguided.
We arrived at Gwinnett Tech after a 30-minute drive from PPA HQ in downtown Atlanta. We entered the cafeteria where staff member and former PPA board member, Rich Newell, M.Photog.Cr., and chairman of the Photographic Exhibition Committee (PEC), Randy McNeilly, M.Photog.Cr., MEI, API, gave us the rundown for the IPC.
"For some members, this is why you're involved," began McNeilly. "I think you're going to see this event grow quite a bit in the next few years."
As they started to rattle off some numbers, it seemed like the growth was already in full-effect. At this year's IPC, nearly 5,000 images would be judged during the week. In the first year of IPC, eight images were judged.
For the first time this year, participants could sign-up for text message alerts to be immediately notified when their image was judged. The new feature was so popular, 1,200 text messages were sent in the first day, which was no doubt also a credit to the judges' efficiency.
In addition to the judging of the images, a record 1,500 images also requested individual critiques--a 250% increase over last year. Needless, to say, the IPC judges were in for a busy few days.
Then we learned that on top of the judging and critiques there was also a Judges Workshop taking place, where 38 students were taking the program to join the prestigious ranks of an IPC judge. So there was plenty going on! After our briefing, the staff was released to (quietly) roam the halls and pop into rooms to soak it all in.
I first headed into the large lecture room where the Judges Workshop was taking place. The room was dark, save for the light of a half-dozen Mac computers in the far right corner and a lit canvas in the left corner. The student judges were split into two groups, the left practicing the judging of print images, while the group at the Macs was mock-judging digital images. The 38 prospective judges was an impressive number, because as I learned from McNeilly, they can't exactly just show up. Even just being a student judge is actually years in the making.
They are entered into the program after they take the 40-hour Judges Workshop. But no, this doesn't mean they are a judge yet. Before they can become a judge, these brave photographers must earn their Master Photographer degree. It takes 13 merited images to achieve a Master's degree, and with a maximum of four submissions per year (none of which are guaranteed to merit), it can easily take six years or more.
Next they must start seeking out state competitions and tell them beforehand that they would like to be a judge. They spend three years judging at affiliate competitions and are evaluated by the existing judges. A committee then looks at the evaluations and votes on who can enter the fold.
Prospective judges must meet the minimum of three state competitions and have received five critiques, but no one gets in with the minimum. There are currently 114 total official judges. About two make the cut to join them each year.
But it's not just about becoming a judge for those attending. It's just as much about gaining an inside perspective to the competition.
New Jersey photographer, Mike Dill, CPP, was among those who, more than anything, came to improve his own photography.
"I wanted to see and learn what goes into the judging process so I could do better in future competitions," said the action and sports photographer. "I've watched competitions live before, but this gives me the opportunity to go behind the curtain and learn what goes into a winning image.
"It'll be a huge help to my photography to be able to evaluate my own images as well as become a judge in the future."
After a few more rounds of mock judging, the group took a break, as did the rest of the judges who were scattered in classrooms around the school. I immediately got the sense that they all knew each other, it almost felt as if they were attending an elite photography summer camp.
They wore matching black, short-sleeve, button-down shirts and gilded medals hung from their necks. Some had just a few pinned to their lanyard, but others had medals going all the way up the ribbon to their necks. They were the rewards of years and years of competition and merit earning, and the judges wore them proudly (in fact, I learned later they are required to). I could see them eyeing each other's tally, much like myself and the rest of the staff were, to see who among them was the best.
That's right, at the IPC, there's even competition amongst the judges--each striving to fill their lanyards to the brim like the lifetime members among them. But for these few days, they volunteer their time and fly out from all over the country to name the best of the best, and to push those who ordered critiques to be better.
After the short break, the judges went back to their respective rooms. I followed a group to a room for print submissions. I guess you could say submitting a print image is the old school method of competition, since printing and mailing four images can cost up to $800 versus just emailing some high-res JPEGs. But certainly from a spectating standpoint, the print submission room gave a better feel for what the competition was all about.
This batch of images was in the first round of judging, and would either merit or not merit. That means their brave owners decided to skip their district competition and submit directly to the IPC. Those images that earned an electronic seal (80 or above) at their respective district competitions go straight to loan judging. The difference in the judging is, at the IPC, there is no numerical scoring like there is at district competitions. Here it's either a yes or a no.
This room is much like the left side of the Judges' Workshop. The only thing illuminated is a large canvas, with a rectangle cutout in the middle to display the image. Images are clipped onto a three-sided rotating easel by white-gloved volunteers. The dark, the quiet and the lack of fingerprints gives a real weight to the competition.
The panel of six judges sits in a row maybe five feet from the displayed image. A seventh judge, sat to the side, announces the name of the image before it is displayed and oversees the scoring. As an image rotates into view, judges take turns approaching the image, getting within inches to examine every corner, every detail of the frame. Glasses on, glasses off, and then return to their seats to record a yes or no on an iPod.
The first two images do not earn merits, and then a third. A pattern starts to form as a fourth does not merit, but then it happens.
Total game changer. If a judge voted against the majority decision, they have the opportunity to challenge the result and argue their position, either for or against the image earning a merit. Then each judge says how they voted and why, highlighting details in the image they love or elements they find lacking. It might be the tiniest detail that they love or hate, every aspect of the image must have meaning and must be perfect. A judge might love a particular image, but that still might not be enough for them to vote in its favor. Their respect for the industry outweighs their passion for an image they're seeing for the very first time.
After they've all taken another look and discussed their thoughts, the judge who offered the challenge gives his or her rebuttal. Then they re-vote.
The constructive debate format takes the judging to another level. Their careful care examining each image is part of the reason only 30 to 40 percent earn merits each year. After about 20 minutes, the judges rotate to be sure they are seeing images from every angle. The judges complement each other on strong challenges that reverse the group decision and always offer thoughtful descriptions of what they're seeing. Color, texture, focus, exposure, depth, light, sharpness, technique, presentation, impact, tonality and design were all used in the discussion for a single image.
Those complete images that earn merits move on to another round of judging for the Loan Collection. This round, the finals, if you will, is even more tightly scrutinized. Here, a great image is just that, it takes more to enter the Loan Collection. The challenges are even more passionate, and discussions even more in-depth. In the end, only 682 images entered the 2013 Loan Collection and will go in the Loan book and be on display in Phoenix at Imaging USA.
From the print competition I headed over to the critique room. Patty Geist, M.Photog.Cr., a little Nebraskan photography sparkplug, was one of a few judges scattered in a Mac lab reviewing images. Wearing a headset, she told the image creator what she liked and didn't like about the image. Where it excelled and where it needed improvement. She offered suggestions and showed the image owner specifically what she was talking about with her cursor. It might not be her favorite part of being a judge, but Patty appreciates the value in the critiques and offered an easy answer to anyone thinking about getting one in the future.
"If you haven't submitted an image to competition before--of course!" she said. "If your image didn't merit, it's the only way you're going to learn why."
Judges giving the critiques are generally seeing the images for the first time unless they were on the panel by which the image was judged. If they were, this gives added value to the critique, because they have already seen it and judged with the help of five others.
"That way my individual paradigm isn't the sole influence," said Patty.
At the end of each critique, the judges encourage the image owner to go to Imaging USA for one-on-one sessions with an official judge.
"Here it's just a one-way critique, but there we can answer the specific questions they might have about their image. We told them what to fix, but there we can tell them how."
After another morning of judging and critiquing upwards of 1,000 images, everyone took off their judging caps and once again became friends at camp as they broke for lunch. One hundred-some photographers brought together in the same room by the great unifier--pizza.
Although I'm not a photographer, I can sense when I'm around greatness, and they had the medals to prove it. The International Photographic Competition is the past, present and future of photography all at once, and judging by the passion and camaraderie of those esteemed photographers, they all seemed to be aware of it. You'd have to see it to believe it.
So why enter? Why get a critique? Why attend? To get better. To be a part of the present and the future. And hey, maybe it will inspire you to be more.
For my part, maybe the 12 Elements extend beyond just photography. Did I touch on them all?