MAC and Me

Competitions are what you do as a good exercise.
   Maya Lin

In my December, 2010 article, I wrote about photo contests and why I avoid them. Short version: the submission rules to which you must agree often (nearly always) limit in some way your future rights to your own (submitted) work, while giving far too much freedom to the contest sponsor and to anyone with whom they decide to “share” your work, and this applies whether or not you win any level of prize in the contest. For all the gory details, please see that article.

In June, 2014, a friend sent a notice from the newsletter of the Montana Arts Council, a call for art for the MAC's “Percent for Art” program. From the mission statement on their Web site: “The Montana Arts Council is the agency of state government established to develop the creative potential of all Montanans, advance education, spur economic vibrancy and revitalize communities through involvement in the arts.” The Percent for Art program, enacted by the state legislature in 1983, provides an amount up to one percent of capital project appropriations to be used by the MAC to acquire art for new state buildings. The art call asked for submissions of work by Montana-based photographers; the project would provide sixteen prints to be hung in a visitors' room at the State Prison in Deer Lodge, MT. The images were to be of Montana scenes, made by Montana photographers, and would be printed large and mounted on aluminum plates. This would require high-quality image files of sharp photos.

Contest, or Competition? Is There a Difference?

My first thought was, “Another contest. I don't do contests.” But the longer I thought about it, and perhaps fueled by my odd sense of humor, I felt it would be fun to have one of my photos displayed in a prison's visitors' area. Also, the MAC would be paying a nice sum for each photo they chose. While that's not so different from the prizes offered by many photo contests, I felt it raised the bar a bit, making this more a competition than a contest. Splitting hairs, perhaps.

I read the rules and submission guidelines several times. These included most of what one needed to know, but there were some informational gaps, which led to a couple of e-mail exchanges with the woman in charge of the program. Satisfied that the requirements weren't too onerous, I spent several days assembling a portfolio of ten photos of my best, highest-quality images, ones I felt met the criteria for both scenic value and the large file sizes needed to make high-quality large prints. The once-dreaded activity of creating portfolios is now something I enjoy, providing the opportunity to review photos I may not have seen in a while.

I paid the USD $10.00 submission fee and then submitted the photo files via the service the MAC had selected for the job. This was a simple process and worked as expected. The submission rules required producing a description of the image along with any other details the photographer might wish to provide. I chose to include information about the image file including its size and resolution, the equipment used, and the maximum print size I'd expect to make from the file while maintaining a high print quality. I completed this a week or so before the submission deadline, received a message from the MAC that the submissions had been accepted, and then did my best to forget about it.

We're From the Government, Ma'am

The MAC had set a deadline for submissions, and posted a schedule for preliminary jury selection, final image selection, printing of the files, and installation. In short, they planned to have the finished printed images installed in the facility by the end of August. Based on past experiences with other government agencies, I suspected the schedule was optimistic, but I'd finished my part in the process and could only wait.

As expected, there were delays. In late August I got an e-mail indicating the selection process had taken longer than expected, and other issues had intruded to slow the project. People will tolerate a lot if they simply know what's going on. To their credit, the MAC seemed to be doing a good job communicating, keeping those who'd submitted work in the loop. But the delays continued while updates did not; at times I wondered if I'd done the work to create and submit the files and paid the fee for nothing.

Fortunately my wife and I had an active summer and fall of travel, camping, hiking, and photography. This made it quite easy to forget about the Percent for Art project!

After that August update, I heard nothing at all until 2 October, when an e-mail arrived explaining one of my pieces had made it to the “final round”. Now they needed a high-resolution file suitable for printing, as the original submissions had been jpegs under two megabytes in size, too small for large prints. Their budget didn't allow paying for a submission/uploading service that would accept the large files needed. I followed their instructions to prepare and mail a CD with the selected image file, along with a text document provide (again) details of the image, and how I'd like the image title and credit to appear on the picture. With that done, I settled in for another wait.

I didn't have to wait long. On 16 October I received word that my photo, 5(0,000) Snow Geese, Freezeout Lake had been selected for printing and display. The MAC asked for confirmation that I accepted their terms (per the original agreement), and also asked for some tax info so they could issue payment. I complied with the request. On 1 December I received another e-mail indicating the installation of the photos was complete and looked great. And finally, to wrap things up, on 19 December I got a nice paycheck from the MAC.

Thousands of snow geese on Freezeout Lake, Choteau, MT, U.S.

This is late March at Freezeout Lake, with Priest Butte beyond (center). The white you see on the lake in the distance is tens of thousands of snow geese. This is a panorama of six vertical frames. These were captured from right to left as the five geese in flight approached, and timed to capture them within a single frame. This is the best of many attempts over two days. The final print used in the MAC installation is over 60 inches (152 cm) wide and mounted on an aluminum plate.

It hadn't happened in August as planned, but then, I really didn't expect anything when I made my submissions. In the end, the MAC selected sixteen photos from fifteen Montana photographers. Very late in December I received a package with a bill of sale, a small (and quite awful) print of my photo, and a flash drive on which they'd stored a document showing all of the photos selected. Since most of us will never see the visitors' room at the Montana State Prison, I thought it a nice gesture to include that. That document is a .pdf; the file is quite large, I assume because the image files weren't reduced to a more suitable resolution. The MAC has placed that document on their Web site for public viewing.

I think most of the pictures selected by the MAC jury are very nice. Making the selections must have been difficult. There are a couple of images in the collection I think are rather ordinary “snap shots”, the sort of thing typical of post cards or calendar photos. A few others are over-saturated, as has become so common in recent years, but to be fair, the pictures in the .pdf are photos of the prints as hung in the visitors' room, perhaps shot in poor industrial lighting (I'm guessing about that), and may not be very good representations of the originals. But most of the selections are excellent. Congratulations to all of the artists who had work selected for this exhibit. I'm delighted and grateful to have one of my pictures included.

January, 2015