Posted by: kerryl29 | February 25, 2019

No Contest

Years ago–15 or thereabouts–I started entering my work in art “contests.”  (I’m not talking about international photo contests that solicit digital images from all over the world.  These were local exhibitions, involving framed prints.)  I don’t even remember spending any time thinking about it; it just seemed like the natural thing to do.  It was a way, I thought, to gain some exposure from my work and there were cash prizes to be won.

White Birch Forest, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

At first, I entered pretty much any local contest that came down the pike.  But over time an incremental attrition began.  The first thing to go was the “mixed media art competition” category.  It became clear, fairly quickly, that judges of these shows simply didn’t regard photography as being as worthy as other forms of visual art, such as painting, drawing, sculpting and the like.  I did win some awards at these shows, but one judge told me, directly, that a photo had to be far “better” than another form of art for her to award it.  I think she regarded this statement as a compliment, since she did assign an award to my photo, but I saw it as bit of backhanded admiration, at best.  After all, if I wasn’t going to be competing on an even playing field, what was the point?  It wasn’t long after that that I ceased entering mixed media shows.

Cataract Covered Bridge, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

There were still plenty of photo-only competitions and I continued entering work in them, with my share of “success.”  But I started becoming uneasy about the results and gradually, slowly, started to drop certain exhibits.  What was the source of my discontent?  I increasingly felt that the entire notion of specifically which works were selected for awards and which weren’t was, well, almost random.  This was how I felt whether my work was awarded or not.  There didn’t seem to me be any rhyme or reason to what was chosen and what wasn’t.  An extreme illustration of this presented itself when I had an image that didn’t even clear the jury for one show that was chosen best in show at a subsequent exhibition (one that had more entries and was widely considered more prestigious).  While it was nice to win best in show, I couldn’t get the notion out of my head that the same image that was apparently so good that it won that award had earlier been deemed so bad that it wasn’t even included in a show with ostensibly “inferior” submissions.

You can probably see where this is going…

The Light, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon National Park – North Rim, Arizona

After whittling the number of shows down to just a few per annum, last year I decided to end my participation in all shows and that’s where I am today.  I realized that I had reached a point where the only reason I was entering any shows at all was to try and win prize money, and that simply didn’t seem to me to be a sufficient rationale to continue the practice.

I had determined, years earlier, that the “prestige” of winning was really non-existent.  Selection of one’s work for an award really, in the end, means nothing more than that a particular judge likes that person’s photograph more than the others that were entered.  Unless there are technical issues–sharpness, exposure, etc.–that distinguish images (very rarely the case in these contests), it’s merely one person’s obviously subjective preference that’s at the heart of what wins and what doesn’t.  While it’s nice when someone else likes my work, that’s where it ends with me; I don’t feel better about myself–or my work–based on whether one of my photos is selected for an award by a contest judge…and I don’t feel worse about myself–or my work–if it’s not selected.

Pilings in Morning Fog, Tillamook Bay, Oregon

Beyond my increasing sense of the vapidity of the contest experience, there was one other reason I decided to end my participation in photo contests.  I began to question the very idea of an art contest.  The aforementioned subjectivity of art–and aesthetics is, in my judgement, inherently subjective–makes the very notion of a competition seem to me, upon full reflection, kind of odd.  It’s admittedly a bit of a metaphysical consideration, but does it make sense to compete over art?  To me, it seems essentially antithetical to what art is all about, and I’m more than a bit chagrined that I didn’t take the time to think about this a long, long time ago.

Heart of the Dunes Black & White, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico


  1. Great photos! Thank you for sharing!

  2. Wonderful, thought-provoking posting with awesome accompanying images. I have much less experience with competitions, but the randomness of the “winners” seemed apparent to me. For me, art is almost binary–either I like it or I do not. I could never be a judge, because it would be completely artificial for me to try to give a score to a submission or to hierarchically rate a group of pieces. I like where you ended up in terms of philosophy, i,e, that art is essentially not about competition.

    • Thanks, Mike!

      Nothing inherently wrong at all with being binary. As I’ve noted in several past posts, this is exactly how I begin the process of assessing imagery–letting myself react to it. From there I go through the process of determining why I have that reaction. In that sense, I might be able to judge a submission, but it would still be nothing more than my judgment; it remains a subjective exercise. And, in the end, I’m not sure why that assessment should be of any consequence to anyone but me.

  3. I stopped entering juried shows too. It was a waste of money since over half of my entries didn’t get hung and the money isn’t refunded. I tried for years and never got a sale. In the end a gallery employee put a piece of cardboard on the back of my painting with the words “living room pillow art” which I think was an anonymous critique and seemed catty. When I critique art on my blog everyone knows I said that.

    • Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

      That’s an interesting “critique” that you were given, to put it mildly.

  4. Oh my! 😮 That second picture of what looks like a bridge? Is GORGEOUS!

    • Thanks!

      Yes, that’s the interior of a covered bridge in west-central Indiana.

  5. My recent experience of joining a camera club (ah, the stories I could tell) has led me to a similar conclusion. Though I still have things to learn and will probably join a slightly better one, in the end I couldn’t agree more and there will come a point when I will have had enough and I just have to trust my own judgement and enjoy my own photography. Thank you.

    • Camera clubs. I used to be a member of one myself (I left 16 years ago). I have my own set of…interesting…stories; perhaps I’ll share my experience in a future post.

  6. I agree with the statement about competing over art. I think I got a lot out of a critique where one of my photos that I was happy with was “raked over the coals” by three critics and it was giving me a bruised ego until one of the critics said that he had some of his favourite work put down, but he decided that although they were not liked by a few, they were HIS favourites and it would remain that way, regardless. I found this enlightening and gave me the courage to please myself rather than entering contests to place and please others. Ironically, I am entering prints this month, but fitting the criteria is not worth the pennies unless I really want to develop the images for my own use. Judges have their own tastes and biases and I notice that certain looks go in and out of style in photography and painting. I may or may not want to follow the trends.
    I have always assumed that you sell your work and make a living from it. Am I correct? How do you find what works best for you regarding making a living? I am quite taken by the beauty of the last two images, Over time looking at your images and reading your blogs have taught me a lot about what images work and why. Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge.

    • Thanks, Jane, for the kind words…and thanks for sharing your experiences.

      No, while I do offer my work for sale, I don’t make a living from it. I never have–not even close. Selling photographic prints is becoming increasingly difficult, and not just for me. Literally everyone I know who has engaged in the sale of prints has seen a significant diminution in sales over the last five-plus years. I’ve never really worried about sales potential when making images, and I have no regrets in that regard. I’ve always simply tried to photograph what interests and appeals to me and, if that resonates with others, that’s great, but it’s not a primary, a secondary or even a tertiary consideration for me.

  7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. Art is art…each person will have her own emotional reaction. I know what I like, and I’m getting better at being able to articulate why I think a particular piece of art (photograph or other medium) works or not for me personally. Others may have a totally different response.

    How much does the approval of others mean to our own art? It’s an interesting question.

    • Thanks, Ellen. Re your attitude on this subject…I couldn’t agree more.

  8. It’s true, those contests, and many shows, have very little meaning, and at some point you have to decide how you want to spend your time. And what gives you satisfaction, and why. I think each person has to work through it themselves, and there may be one answer at one point in life and another at another point.

    • That’s an interesting perspective–the notion that the response to this topic may be dynamic. I’m going to have to give that some serious thought.

      Thanks for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

  9. I really love that picture of the Grand Canyon.

  10. Quite thought provoking (I could say- as usual!) 🙂

    Things do seem to evolve (as Lynn suggested). I’ve struggled with that feeling that I ought to be better at the technical stuff or carrying a tripod -(it’s those voices in my head!) I admire your skill and art to the utmost, but I believe I’m finally learning to simply enjoy what I have instead of struggling to emulate you and others who are far beyond me in technical skills. In a sense it’s freeing me to simply (?) dive into the experience of capturing the beauty that surrounds me in the best way that I can. A sense of freedom I’m finally giving myself.

    That shot at Point Imperial is mind bending. I’d have to say I think it’s one of your best (so far!) 😀

    • Thanks, Gunta.

      If you’re happy with what you’re doing, keep doing doing that, whatever it is. The focus on the trappings–technique, for instance–is simply an emphasis on a means to a particular set of ends; it’s a way to help people who *aren’t* happy with what they’re doing to get past dissatisfaction with their output. If that doesn’t describe you, then such a focus is only going to make you miserable…as you’ve already seen. So just keep doing what you’re doing. 🙂

  11. This post says it all and I couldn’t agree more. Quality art and especially photography is a matter of opinion. Good or bad it should not influence one’s reason for creating what makes one happy.

    • Thanks, David…and, agreed!

  12. You have some stunning images. There is an art prize in Australia they advertise as “The Melbourne Cup of Art’. (A horse race) They advertise it as a race! Go figure.

    • Thanks. And thanks for letting me know about the art prize in Australia; that’s very possibly the most extreme case of viewing art as competition that I’ve come across.

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