Over the last few days there has been much soul searching and existential angst amongst the modern quilting community as the results from the jury selections for the Quilt Con competition have come back.  Around 1350 quilts were entered, and around 350 were selected to go through, so consequently there were a lot more rejections than acceptances coming back.  Those that were rejected have in a way started to panic a bit, ‘Am I not modern enough?’, ‘What did I do wrong?’, ‘Should I only have made a quilt in solids with lots of negative space?’, and more, especially when some people had multiple entries accepted and many others none at all.

Now I didn’t enter, partly because I’m not a member of the Modern Quilt Guild, so I’m not entitled to anyway, but I still wouldn’t have, even if I had been, because I don’t have the time to come up with something suitable right now.  And here’s the rub, you need to have created something that satisfied the jury that was making the decisions.

I’m going to take a step sideways here, because although I didn’t enter Quilt Con, I did spend a few years in a camera club taking part in their competitions, so I completely understand the concept of someone making a subjective decision on a photo (it was 2 photos per quilt for Quilt Con).  In camera club land, every member of the club could enter 2 images per judged round of competition, and of the 6 rounds each year, 3 were for prints and 3 were for projected images.  There was a league, and at the end of each round the two marks out of 20 that were received for your images were entered in the tables.  Separately from this, at the end of the year there was a final year competition where most people entered their ‘best of the best’ from throughout the year.  Each round had a different trained judge from a different club who presided over the competition, and who gave marks with feedback on every photo entered.  Those were long nights…

Now as a beginner to the club, and as there were no themes to the competition, I just threw in 12 images that first year, some that I’d taken that year, but most that had been taken beforehand, many in the 6 months I’d just spent living in South Africa.  I had no knowledge of the judges, beyond names on the programme for the year, and no real sense of my fellow competitors.  What I did find though, was that the more experienced club members, those in the ‘senior’ section (mostly in age as well as experience!), knew those judges intimately.  They knew who loved wildlife, who preferred portraits, who positively wet themselves over a good landscape, and they entered accordingly.  You could tell, looking at the entries as we went through them, that the Beginners section, bless us, had a rather schizophrenic approach to entering, with perhaps a wildlife shot for one entry, and an architectural shot for the other.  That first year I came 3rd in the projected image league and 7th in the print league out of around 25 (I couldn’t have finished higher for the prints as I’d missed the first round, only coming back from South Africa in early October).

Here are some of the images from that year:

By the second year, I had more of a sense of what judges wanted as far as the format of a photo – things lined up on the thirds, splashes of colour on a dull background (there was a bit of a standing joke about someone in a red raincoat, heading up a path on a hill, standing perfectly on a junction of two thirds, while the rest of the image was greens, greys, and maybe the odd splash of blue in the sky).  There was a defined layout, if you like, and I was starting to view things as ‘good competition photo subjects’, even if I didn’t know the particular subject loves of the judges.  That year I won the league for both print and projected image and also the end of year prize.

Here are some of the images for that year:

The following year I gave up about 4 months in.

Why did I give up?  Well there were a few things, firstly that the job I had at the time was demanding 80 hour weeks out of me, so I didn’t have much time for taking photos, but mainly, since I could have made time for it if I’d tried, because I’d lost all joy in taking photos.  I didn’t want to go out with my camera just to take competition photos, I didn’t really want to touch it at all.  I had gone from being a beginner using her camera on full Auto mode with jpegs (and winning individual rounds of competition with some of those images) to knowing my camera backwards, forwards and inside out on full Manual mode in RAW format where each image has to be processed in the digital recreation of a darkroom.  I kind of felt like I’d cracked it though, or at least I’d cracked camera club judges, and now what…

Now, nearly 5 years down the line I’m picking the camera up again, and even contemplating processing some of the images.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I haven’t taken photos since – I took hundreds on our post Sewing Summit road trip 2 years ago, but I didn’t feel like processing them.  I looked at them again as I started to try and find photos for this post, and actually, they weren’t bad.  I think the issue was, that at the time I was critically viewing them as ‘they weren’t as good as the professionals that camp out day and night and track the weather for weeks’, so therefore I didn’t want to touch them.  I have done that BTW.  Tracked weather and, judged the best time to go out and literally freeze my arse off in the middle of the snow on Rannoch Moor for a good sunrise over the mountains.  Or stood in a lake in freezing temps to get a good sunrise through the mist:

So back to those quilts.  I suspect many who entered have never had to sit there while someone pulled their work apart in front of them to justify a mark they decided to award.  If you can step back and take it abstractedly, it helps.  The judges in both the Quilt Con jury and the camera club don’t know the names of the entrants, so it’s not a personal attack on you, it’s merely that your submission doesn’t float their boat.  That’s the hard thing about subjective competitions, you are appealing to the whim of a judge, and no matter how much distance the judge tries to take from influencing factors, there are internal preferences that will always surface in their decisions.  Sometimes you don’t actually want to hear their thought process either – see that photo of the leopard at the very top?  It won a round during the league competition, but in the end of year exhibition it scored 4 points lower (and out of 20 that’s a lot!).  One of the reasons the judge gave was because it had a silly title ‘Settling Down For A Post Dinner Nap’, and how on earth could the photographer possibly know that?  Well that’s because its dinner was also up the tree a few feet to the right of the photo, you can still see the blood on her nose and I personally saw her eating it…  But you can’t ever talk back to the judges, so you just have to fume silently!

Saying all that about the anonymity, actually there’s a good chance that if you’ve been around for a while and have a style that’s easily picked out, that the judge really does know, whether consciously or sub-consciously, who you are.  Take the Bloggers’ Quilt Festival as an example – it’s a named popularity contest through and through (and I don’t mean that in a bad way, just that if you have loads of friends to appeal to along with good work, it helps a lot more than if you have few friends and good work), but have you ever tried looking at the links in a category to vote and not looking at who submitted them?  Would that ever change your mind about who you voted for?  Or can you pick out the styles of your friends quite easily, and love them anyway over and above people you’ve never come across before?

I guess the moral of my introspective is this – you can’t please everyone when you enter subjective competitions.  If you want to please the judges, then you will force yourself down a road where everything you create is a slave to what those judges define as the ideal subject matter for the competition.  If you do that, you may end up hating something you once loved.  Don’t do that!

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