The following are thoughts presented by John Nagel before his judging and commentating at the September 16th Monochrome Print Competition. These items may be helpful when reviewing and selecting images for competition.


Thoughts about appreciating photographs

I taught photography courses at the college level for nearly 35 years. All the classes necessitated periodic critiques, where students presented their work for evaluation. And having been asked to judge several competitions in the past few months, I have been giving a lot of thought about the process of evaluation. Regarding photographs in particular, I have come up with a method of analysis and reaction that I follow when looking at pictures.

1. Interest: is the image visually interesting? Do I want to look at it? What did the photographer see? Does the subject attract me too?

2. Composition: is the image structured favorably?

Often there are elements that distract from the message of the picture, such as large vacant areas that do not contribute to the message, elements too close to the edge of the frame that prevent easy eye movement, a desire to see beyond the containment of the frame. With regard to “rules of composition” Edward Weston said, “To compose a subject well means no more than to see and present it in the strongest manner possible.”

3. Relevance: if there is a theme to the competition, does the image relate? For assignments or competitions, there is often a theme that the artist was asked to follow. 

4. Uniqueness: is this a predictable solution or an unusual one for this subject?

The element of surprise is one of the most enjoyable discoveries in images. Seeing something in a new way provides great rewards for the viewer; while seeing something as it has been seen many times before fails to generate any excitement.

5. Do I like it? This taps into the subjective preferences of the viewer.

Ultimately the personal biases of the viewer enter into the process of evaluation. The best critics are probably those with vast experience in looking and reacting to photos. The more you see the more sophisticated you can be. But the personality of the evaluator may just not resonate with the efforts of the artist. When being evaluated, bear in mind that personality differences play a part, no matter how neutral the judge may try to be. 

6. Quality of rendition: focus, resolution, density, contrast

When critics challenged Jullia Margaret Cameron that her photographs were out of focus, she responded, “What is focus and who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?”

All pictures do not have to be needle sharp, but it is generally agreed that there are conventions of quality that, if violated, require substantial justification.