Did you get in the show or not? Why didn’t I get in? Who was accepted? Who are the jurors? These are the common refrains surrounding a juried art exhibition. I’ve heard these types of comments from all the major juried shows in the state: Artists of Hawai‘i, Art Maui, the former Image Foundation exhibitions, and currently with our annual Pacific New Media Contemporary Photography Exhibition.
Perhaps this conversation can be framed differently. Offering photographers a chance to showcase their work is only one of the aims of the exhibit. Mostly it was created as a survey exhibition to investigate who and where are we as an artistic and photographic community. A juried show can reflect our regional strengths and limitations. What is present and strong in the show; what is notably absent? Where do we find our influences and inspiration? Who are the emerging stars? How do we influence each other? How are we different from other arts and photographic communities? Where do we need to grow as a community and as individuals? With the absence of any critical writing about art in Honolulu, we need survey shows like this to examine ourselves and generate public dialogue about art and photography.
The show is not then just about individual artists; it’s about the community of which we are a part. The exhibition was created from the entire field of entries. All who submitted contributed greatly to the process of creating this survey. What is not present in the exhibit says as much about our community as what did make it into the show. If your work wasn’t accepted, think of your work like an iceberg, the majority of which is underwater but fully supports the tip which is above water and visible. You are part of this community and helped form this show; and for that, you are an integral part of the exhibition. This year, you formed the support structure, next year you may be the visible tip and others will provide the underwater base.
I have been present for the jurying process of all seven of our annual exhibitions and, in some cases, was the co-juror. I have been struck by how similar the work was viewed and evaluated by the jurors. In every instance, editing hundreds of entries to the first cut was very easy. The jurors could not help notice the stronger work, of any genre, rising to the top. In the first cut, much work was edited out for obvious reasons: technical insufficiency, clichéd subject matter, lack of any meaningful content, and all of the “overs” — oversaturation, over-sharpening, overly done HDR (high dynamic range), and over-the-top effects. Much of this looked overworked. Editing the remaining images to 50 or 60 for the exhibition was more difficult.
Although the jurors did not know the names of the photographers, PNM indicated to them how many selected images were from the same person. We chose, in past years, to have no more than two images from any one photographer. This year, with tighter space considerations, we chose to only exhibit one image per photographer, not matter how strong their group of entries. After editing the several images from any one person, now we’re down to say 75 images and we need to pare down a few more. Here is where the individual taste and opinion of the jurors come dominantly into play. All of our juror’s have been remarkably democratic, capable of responding to many different genres of images. However, they all do have individual preferences and these were employed at this stage in the process. Also, most of the jurors considered the look and diversity of the show as a whole.
There were many strong photographs by many good photographers submitted to the show. Making the final selections in the last round was extremely difficult and time-consuming. And I think the juror was as fair as one can be. The fact that your work did not make the final cut should not be a reflection on you as a photographer, but simply a reflection on those particular pictures being viewed by that particular juror. I’ve been a photographer for 50 years and a writer for half that time with a pile of rejection letters from shows, publishers, and literary agents that could wallpaper my entire house.
The purpose of entering a show is to spur your work forward. The process of completing an entry and developing a body of work is, or can be, fulfilling enough. Trust that when the work is ready, it will be seen. Somehow. Somewhere. Good and compelling work finds its own audience and its own level, like water. If you’re work didn’t make the exhibit, what can you learn from this? Maybe showing this particular work is premature, that you have not developed your ideas sufficiently— and you will develop them out more fully in the future. Or maybe the work lacked interest, or content, or solid execution. Try to impartially examine and see what is true about your work. Or, as can be the case with established photographers, maybe you submitted too few pieces and other images in your body of work are stronger and more compelling. Having another set of eyes –—other people, trusted advisors –— can help. Photographers are the worst editors of their own work. Trust me. It’s true for all of us. Or maybe your work and the juror’s commitments did not match this year. Please use this as a learning experience.
One thing has been notably true in the seven years that I’ve seen all the entries: there is a clear division in the work between those who have had substantial visual training and those who have not. It is the first and most obvious demarcation in the submitted work. An amateur does something for the love of doing it and is not necessarily thinking about communicating to others through the work. Self-taught artists can be limited in their understanding and command of the medium. Education is key. Learning and seeing are fundamental. Do you know what you don’t know about the medium or visual expression? It takes rigorous self-examination to explore this question. The concern of many people I observe is simply how to make a good picture. A good picture is about something. The accepted photographers, without fail, had one thing in common: they had an idea, were exploring their world, or cared about something that came through in the submitted work. They were trying to show us something about the world or about themselves, inspire us, challenge us, disrupt our habitual thinking, and use the camera as a means of revealing their personal truths. Their work showed a high level of engagement.
Actress Keira Knightly recently made the observation that photographers who came from the film era, with a solid background in the medium, were more engaged and more attentive than those that entered photography in the digital age. “I’ve noticed that the people who started on film still have the ability to see the person in front of them. Whereas for a lot of photographers who have only ever worked in digital, the relationship between the photographer and the person who they’re taking a picture of sort of doesn’t exist anymore. They’re looking at a computer screen as opposed to the person.”
No matter if you work with film or silicon, one of the lessons that a camera teaches is that the world and others need our deepest attention and care. Developing one’s ideas and vision, and engaging the world, is paramount to becoming a successful, contributing artist. It is one’s heart and mind, coupled with skill and solid technique that can spring your vision to life. Many images submitted to the show moved me, astonished me, or brought me to a fresh or humorous or new understanding of something. Yes, pictures are about something. Can the growth of our craft become a flowing river through which the currents of our understanding and worldview can be expressed?
Let’s put the emphasis on our ideas and vision first, and allow the rest, even the idea of a good picture, to flow from that one fundamental fact— the exploration of the question of how we see the world. The pictures that grow from this place; these are the pictures that matter. Any show is merely a single marker on our hopefully fruitful and long process towards artistic maturity. Shows come and go. The process of developing your work and harvesting your ideas exacts its own rewards, fulfills our humanity, and gives us a voice through which we may contribute to the dialogue of our times.
— David Ulrich
Contemporary Photography in Hawai‘i: The Seventh Annual Survey Exhibition opens at The ARTS at Marks Garage opens on April 3, 5-8 pm. The exhibition is on view from April 3-25.
PNM’s juror this year, photographer and teacher Elaine Mayes is visiting in late March. Don’t miss her talk, A Life in Photography, on Thursday March 26 at 7 pm and her inspiring workshop, Finding Personal Vision in Paradise on Sat/Sun March 28-9 from 9am-4pm.
For an excellent recent interview with Elaine Mayes: