Let’s start with three critical thoughts for any photographer: 1. You cannot show what you have not shot. 2. What gets seen is only what you choose to show. 3. What you choose reflects you as much as what you shoot. The more I think about it, the more I think what differentiates a really great photographer from a mediocre one – at least the perception of greatness – are their curation choices. I’ve written about curation in the past but not said that much about the criteria I use to determine in or out – that’s the purpose of today’s post.
I’ve had the honour of judging a number of photographic competitions in the past; sometimes as part of a panel, sometimes as head judge with veto rights. And the most common limitation I’ve noticed in all entries is that very few of them actually fit the theme – whether it’s because it was not considered at all, not understood or understood but not well interpreted due to limitations in skill, I can’t say. But you’d be surprised how few eligible finalists we land up with after simply eliminating those which don’t even begin to address the topic, let alone do so in a creative and intelligent way. This might be a rather obtuse place to start, but it’s relevant: if you aren’t sure why you’re shooting, how are you going to decide if an image is a keeper or not?
Forget all of the technical stuff: as much as I go on about putting ever last one of my pixels to work, I only do so because I know that I can express what I want to express in my image. I have enough experience and practice that I know how to arrange a composition to suggest a certain narrative or emotion over another, and be able to execute it. I shoot enough and have an existing portfolio consistent enough that near misses on any front get nixed – it’s not an ‘obsession with sharpness’ as some readers have put it; it’s knowing that compromises to one image in a sequence of ten, twenty or however many large/high resolution prints – which is how I’d ultimately want them to be seen for reasons of transparency – will be very obvious and weaken the whole body of work. Why cut corners if you don’t have to? It’s an attitude thing: you can’t improve if you’re willing to settle.
How is this relevant? The order of priority for curation should actually defer to the main weakness of the photographer: if you are strong technically but weak conceptually, then you should cull those with an unclear idea first. If you are strong conceptually but weak technically, the opposite. This forces you to up your game so that taken holistically, the work both conveys what you intend it to convey and continues to improve. The clearer the idea, the easier it is to execute because you can quantify what you’re trying to translate into an image. The more controlled the technique, the wider the visual vocabulary you have at your disposal to communicate with. Remember, photography is not really about an image: it’s a conversation between photographer and audience, with subjectivity of interpretation thrown in on both ends – actually, it’s really a study of human psychology in a nutshell. Being able to anticipate a typical range of responses in your expected audience is therefore extremely helpful in selecting the images that are likely to be ‘successful’ to begin with.
There are of course two schools of thought here: the artist should keep it ‘pure’ and just show what he or she thinks is work that meets their own standards; the other is that they should show what is likely to be popular. I do not personally agree with the second curation strategy for the simple reason that it leaves you feeling as though the selection was a compromise at the end. I suppose this is the perpetual conundrum for seasoned competition entrants: do you enter what you like, or what you think the judges will like?
In short, I’m looking for four things when I curate: firstly, adherence to the theme/idea and overall clarity of conveying my interpretation of that theme – think of it as suitability for purpose. Secondly, there must be a certain aesthetic – I guess it’s best interpreted as ‘balanced’ or ‘harmonious’. Next, the image must be the most technically proficient image and deliver the maximum image quality I can expect to get out of that particular situation; it is because transparency requires both information for a certain flexibility of presentation and to tip over that threshold of believability required to fool our eyes into thinking ‘there’s more’ – in the same way as a real scene. Finally, there’s the concept of relativity: is the image I’ve selected better than the other ones I’ve taken containing the same idea, subject, aesthetic or combination of the three? Looking at the final set, there should always be some degree of distinction between each image – at a glance, one should not be mistaken for another.
I also find there is an optimal temporal window in which to make the selection: it has to be long enough after capture that your judgement isn’t clouded by the effort expended (or not) at the time of shooting; you’re more likely to remember an image that took more effort to produce than one fast and spontaneous – even if the latter image is a ‘better’ one. Being too emotionally involved clouds one’s judgement. On the flipside, if you leave the curation too long, you may forget what the intended idea was – this matters especially if you are curating before post processing (which makes sense, given the effort required to process all images before selecting) – it’s very possible to forget what your vision was at the time of capture especially if you’re a prolific shooter. Of late, I’ve been trying a new curation approach – I make one set of selections close to the time of capture, tag them as such, then a second set perhaps a few days later; those that overlap are the ones that make it into the final cut. The more you shoot and go through this exercise, the shorter the wait between capture and curation can be.
Of course, the most important thing is to go into the shoot itself with a relatively defined idea of what you want to get out of it – this way at the point of capture you can ask yourself whether the scene in the finder meets those expectations or not, and if not, why your camera is pointed in that direction 🙂 I’m going to close with an explanation of the images in this post: they were curated from about forty similar ones for a project tentatively called ‘Paradise Lost’; they are intended to be viewed together with the other sections of the project (still work in progress), but the intended idea was to convey a sense of confusion and decay. Compositions and subjects that appeared too ordered or structured were thus rejected, as were those that appeared too ‘clean’ or required color to work – these did not fit the concept. More discourse on the subject of portfolios and projects soon. MT
Curation is covered in further detail as part of Photoshop Workflow II.
Ultraprints from this series are available on request here
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