Passing Judgement

“We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.”
    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Marla “Ma Brown” Robbins is the president of the Hot Springs Artists Society and runs their On the Wall Gallery in Hot Springs, Montana. I don't know Marla well, but we'd met a few times at one art show or another. At the end of November, 2011, she sent an email in which she asked if I'd judge a photography exhibit that would hang in the On the Wall gallery in early 2012. As an incentive, Marla offered to put my wife and me up in a local hotel for the night before the judging.

Just Say No

My first thought was to decline. With art, as with most things, I know what I like. My wife and I have filled the walls and crannies of our house with exactly that—artwork we like, without regard to the opinions of others. Our shared taste is a bit stark; we prefer uncluttered, “minimized” art. We finish our photos and paintings in unadorned mats and frames. We tend to leave pieces where we hang them for years, without changing or replacing them; our home isn't an rotating exhibit. I've always taken that as an indication that we generally get it right, although it's very possible others might disagree. Naturally, we've judged every piece we've purchased. Otherwise, we'd not have bought them!

Those judgments have, of course, been made through the filter of our own taste in art. This is very different from judging other peoples' work on its own merits, without regard for my own tastes. After giving this some thought, I determined I could judge any photo on its technical strengths and weaknesses. For the picture itself, these include exposure and control of light (including appropriate use of filters, flash, and studio lighting where applicable), contrast, and focus. For the final print, technical criteria include appropriate media choice, color accuracy, proper sharpening, and proper print handling (or rather, a lack of evidence of poor print handling). I knew some of the photographers would have their prints made by an outside service, giving up control of that part of the process. Still, there's no excuse for displaying a poorly-crafted print; the artist examines the print and decides whether it is of acceptable quality. A crummy print of a lovely image probably won't do well. I also consider the quality of the final presentation, that is, framing, matting and glass used (where appropriate), or a properly stretched canvas, along with how well it's all assembled, to be part of the technical package. There is, of course, some cross-over here. A beautiful print in an awful frame, regardless of quality, isn't going to get high marks.

Er, Yes

OK, so I could judge the technical part of the photos; that wouldn't be difficult. What about the artistic content? This is the part with which I was least comfortable. Am I really in a position to say this photo is good, that photo is not? Do I know what good is? For a number of years I've been involved with several groups of photographers, sharing images with them for fun, but more importantly, for peer review. Within these groups we know each other well enough to get away with being honest without leaving hurt feelings, and to know how seriously (or not) to take the comments and criticisms of others. Based on that experience, being both judge and judged, and the experience of years of collecting and studying art, I decided to accept Marla's invitation. I expected judging the artistic qualities of the work would be difficult. It very likely would be fun, too, and I'd have an excuse to see the On the Wall Gallery (and Hot Springs), which I've wanted to do for some time. I think we tend to judge our own work by judging others', perhaps without being aware we're doing it. No doubt this would be yet another learning experience.

Hot Springs, Montana

Hot Springs isn't far from home. By air it's not more than 20 miles (32 km); there being no direct route over the mountains, the drive is about 45 miles (72 km). Much of the drive is through beautiful country, rolling expanses of sage and prairie, large ranches punctuated by typical farm houses, decaying barns, and fenced pastures. It's been dry, so despite the late February date, there was little snow. The usual gray winter sky was firmly in place, but it was cold and windy to make up for that.

On the drive to Hot Springs, MT

Prairie and mountains around Hot Springs, Montana, on a blustery February day.

Hot Springs has, according to its Chamber of Commerce Web site, about 600 residents. When we arrived on a Sunday afternoon, the town was dead-quiet; perhaps some of those 600 spend their winters elsewhere. It takes about 90 seconds to drive most of the roads around town and see it all. It reminded me of Ciciley, AK, the fictitious town that was the backdrop for TV's Northern Exposure series from the early 1990's. That show was filmed in Roslyn, WA, to which we've been. Roslyn is a tiny town of aging homes and double-wides surrounded by decaying cars and appliances; Hot Springs isn't quite as nice, but to be fair, no small town looks its best in the dregs of winter.

Window at Symes Hot Springs Hotel

A Tri-X moment. This is a little piece of Symes. The rest looked pretty similar.

We arrived too early Sunday to check in to the hotel, so we looked around a while. Driving in on Montana State Route 28 we'd passed a number of old farm buildings, some of which will be excellent subjects for my “Gravity” series. Although the light wasn't good, we drove back to several near Hot Springs. I made some test photos, just to get a feel for the subjects (and to kill some time). I'll be going back when lighting conditions are more like what I want for this series

Symes Hot Springs Hotel and Mineral Baths (the full name of the place) is ancient, quirky, crumbling, and on the Nat'l Register of Historic Places, which means even if they had the money (they don't), there'd be limits to what kinds of restoration they could do.

Walking the grounds and halls of the place, I felt like I'd been transported back to the 1960's, to an alternate culture of healing crystals, questionable aromas, frighteningly dilapidated vehicles, and scraping by as needed to maintain that lifestyle. You'll find similar comments about Symes on any of the travel-related Web sites.

We had a very good dinner at the hotel, slept little thanks to the usual morons who don't realize there are other people on the planet who might prefer sleeping at 2:00 AM, and also due to weird "old building" noises that went on all night. Monday morning we had a soak in the mineral baths outside (25°F (-4°C) and snowing, but the steam rising from the 125° (52°C) water melts that before it gets to you), had breakfast, and then drove the three blocks to the gallery to judge the show.

Here Come da Judge

The On the Wall Gallery is a very nice space in a modern building that also houses a handful of other businesses. Marla had established ten categories for the work in the show. Among them: landscape, still life, western-themed, portraits, flowers, black and white, abstract, and a few others. To Marla, a painter, these are reasonable categories. For a photography show I think it's too many; it could have been simplified to four, perhaps five. In any case, she'd selected these categories, and as work came in for the show, the photographers were asked to choose one of those pigeon-holes for each of their pieces.

On the Wall Gallery, Hot Springs, MT

On the Wall Gallery, Hot Springs, MT

Marla asked that I select a first place and a runner-up in each category, and then choose a best-in-show and a second-place photo, without regard to category.

There were 79 pieces in the show. The quality of the work was widely variable, but the good stuff was very good. Pricing spanned quite a range, too. One gentleman had two pieces, probably 20 x 16 inches, marked $750 each. One was very nice, the other, mediocre. Pricing for the rest ranged from $10 to around $200, along with a few “not for sale” pieces. I had never met any of the photographers. The judging took perhaps 90 minutes.

My prediction that judging the technical aspect would be easy but the artistic merits difficult, proved to be partly correct. Selecting a first-place photo in each category was easy; in nearly every case, those photos were clearly superior, both technically and artistically, to the rest. Choosing second-place, however, was more difficult. Once the best had been selected, most categories had several photos I considered good candidates for number two. Selecting these is where I spent most of my time. Similarly, best-in-show was an easy choice, while picking the runner-up was challenging.

The opening reception was the Saturday after the judging. I wasn't able to attend, which is probably just as well. It might have been interesting to hear some of the reactions to my choices. On the other hand, maybe not!

February, 2012