Lens Culture Submission Review: Blood Unquiet (Edit 2)

In the wake of previous post about contests which also mentioned Lens Culture submission reviews (that one gets when entering to their contests in Series category) I thought why not publish the reviews I've gotten so far. This is a review of my work after all and there seem to be no rules prohibiting me from publishing it. So, here's the second one. As an introduction, they are about my series Blood Unquiet, but slightly different edit compared to what's shown here on my website (and another edit was exhibited at Photoville). Please be aware that this is not a review of their service, it's here for the sake of photographic discussion. To be honest, one thing that bothers me is that they don't put a name below the review.

Hello Karel, thanks for sharing your work. Your project is unique and powerful. I love the idea of creating new images of your childhood.
I resequenced the images to create a storyline and to connect one image to the next. Image #1 and 2 establishes the main subject in their environment. The hands and arms in #1 are effective in showing that the protagonist is young.
All of the images are powerful but a few have technical challenges. The perspective in #4 is dynamic but the focus is off, the boy’s face is unsharp. I suggest to re-shoot this and perhaps employ panning the camera to freeze the main subject but also to show blur on the ground. Image #5 is amazing but would be even more incredible if the mirror edges were more prominent. You could play around with switching the focal point from the jeans to the shoes. Image #6 is odd which is its strength but the space is awkward. The foreground is empty, perhaps a horizontal orientation would have been more beneficial. If you do choose to re-shoot this scene, include the label on the bottle. I am curious to know what the young boy is drinking. If you prefer to keep it a mystery, then take the label completely off the bottle and make it a non issue.
The next step in your project is to explore a presentation form that will further push your ideas. You could create a print portfolio. In doing this, type of paper, surface and size will play a big role. Creating a book is another idea. The series gathers strength when the images are viewed sequentially. I can imagine a small artist book working very well. Which ever way you go, I encourage you to consider the presentation form as an important vehicle for your vision to be realized.

Lens Culture Submission Review: Blood Unquiet (Edit 1)

In the wake of previous post about contests which also mentioned Lens Culture submission reviews (that one gets when entering to their contests in Series category) I thought why not publish the reviews I've gotten so far. This is a review of my work after all and there seem to be no rules prohibiting me from publishing it. So, here's the first one. As an introduction, this are about my series Blood Unquiet, but slightly different edit compared to what's shown here on my website (and another edit was exhibited at Photoville). Please be aware that this is not a review of their service, it's here for the sake of photographic discussion.

Karel, this is an interesting submission with some really special images. Your photographs show the innocence and freedom of childhood, while also touching upon the tenuousness of memory. The black and white format works well to impart a feeling of nostalgia and the vignettes that you have recreated definitely succeed in capturing the fragmented, almost dreamlike quality of a particular instant that for some reason lingers in your mind's eye.
I am most captivated by the images that are enigmatic because they spark my imagination and are the most universal and relatable. I have rearranged the order of the submission so that the first seven images are the ones that seem the most compelling and which I can imagine in a sequence that would suggest an unfixed narrative, the details of which could be filled in by the viewer. After sorting the images In this way I noticed that the images that were the most referential with a specific location or a recognizable face that wasn't obscured somewhat by the blur of movement, the darkness of night or splashing water were the least engaging to me. I recommend editing out the last three images because I think it will make the submission more intriguing and cohesive. A tightly edited submission will be more impressive to a juror in a competition and sometimes less is more.
I hope that you continue with this project because I like what you have done so far! Images 1 and 4 in the new sequence I am suggesting are real standouts to me. Image 1 suggests the fear and freedom of falling and therefore speaks to the precariousness of childhood, since it is so fleeting and a child is always heading toward the unknown. Image 4 speaks to a child's acquisition of knowledge by presenting an allegorical narrative that really pulls me in. For further inspiration, check out other photographers who have reflected on the mysteries of childhood including Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Emmet Gowan, Keith Carter and Sally Mann.

On Contests

Without further introduction, these are my thoughts and issues with photography contests formed after taking part in 50 or so of them.

Too many winners, nobody actually wins. There are many contests, which select something like 5 Gold Awards, 5 Silver Awards, 5 Bronze Awards plus Honorable Mentions in every category. This will result more than a hundred pictures or even series being awarded something and actually nothing. No single person will probably browse through all the results, even if he/she has taken part in the competition. The worst that I've seen is that basically all entries are awarded with Honorable Mention - there was more than 5000 of them altogether. This strategy is probably used to get you participating again next time - you feel you got at least something and hope to do better next time. Example of this type of competitions is International Photography Awards. There are several other competitions using the same platform, all looking very similar (Moscow Photo Awards, PX3, etc).

Too few winners. There's a category of contests which announces only one winner and that's all. It's fine if the contest is small and, say, geographically limited. If it's an international contest with hundreds if not thousands of entries, then why not show runner-ups? Aperture Portfolio Prize is a positive example here - there's one winner and runner-ups, but only one winner is published by British Journal of Photography’s International Photography Award (the one image that wins the single image award seems almost a joke, as the whole competition appeals to quite narrow audience, the single image is guaranteed to seem totally random). 

The winner takes it all. There is this funny competition - Black and White by I Shot It, where the winner gets half of the money gathered by all entries (during good times around 15 000$) plus Leica M Monochrom (worth around 8000$), while all the recommended photos (usually around 8-10 are chosen) get 20$ (yes, twenty dollars!) and not in cash but credit for future entries. The popularity of this contest has gone down all the time I've followed it and I can guess why. Baltic Photo Contest is another example of this - the winner gets a pro camera kit and the rest get nothing besides title. Same has to be said for Leica Oskar Barnack Award, although it's interesting contest otherwise (I found a lot of inspiring photography browsing through the shortlists - they list 50 best - and it seems to be quite balanced between hardcore art and more 'general' photography). 

Too broad. There're competitions with tens and tens of subcategories, ranging from abstract fine art to war documentary, for professionals and amateurs, for single images and portfolios. It really makes me wonder about the multitalent expected from the jury members. Can one person really be competent in all those areas? Sony World Photography Awards is one example of very broad competition, although they seem to have narrowed down the categories a bit for 2016 competition and the jury is also separate for Art and Documentary categories.

So are there any competitions that I like?

Although I've been frustrated by several rejections I think Lens Culture competitions are one of the best in the business. They have separate competitions for different topics throughout the year (Portrait Award, Documentary Award, Earth Award, etc), they nominate first three places plus finalists (which is better than nothing and gives you at least some amount of publicity if you're finalist). They even offer portfolio reviews for series entries (although the first one I got was rather meaningless - there wasn't much that could help my work forward).

What Drives Your Photography

I have a friend who devotes about the same amount of time to photography as me. He uses the same camera, has somewhat similar set of lenses. He doesn't do much marketing, just like me. Yet he earns 5-10 times more from photography than I do. Is he more successful photographer than I am?

Well, it depends on what you consider success. Would I like to earn 5-10 times more? Yes. Would I like to do photos like his? Certainly not. Not that he takes bad photos - no, for the average viewer, his photos make much more sense than mine. Would I consider myself a successful photographer if I made the money he does with pictures like his? Again no. I would be happy to earn more money with my work, sure. I don't consider myself successful, yet I'm fairly happy with the work I've done lately and the attention it's been getting. We all have different criteria for success and money is not always the most important one.

Defining that criteria for yourself is actually very important, because it creates what I'd call a feedback loop.

Feedback Loop

Once I got myself into discussion about stock photography - whether it would make sense to try to sell the photos at some stock sites or not. This is where I first came to the idea of feedback loop. Once you start selling your photos at these places and earning money, you'll start creating more and more photos like those which sell best. And what sells? It's a well known joke but "people in suits doing something". Maybe that's exaggerated, but there certainly is some anonymous soulless quality in most of the stock photos. That's not where I'd like to go with my work, quite the opposite.

When you think about it, similar scenario happens almost everywhere you look. You put your picture on Facebook and get 20 likes. Next time you pull the saturation slider a bit and earn 50. Next time you're certain that you've crossed the line with saturation, but you get 500 likes. What's your next picture going to be like?

Recently I saw a film titled  Nightcrawler where the protagonist sold ever more gory self-produced videos of accidents and murders to TV stations for increasing prices - another example of feedback loop. 

These are just a few examples where people tend to optimize themselves or their output according to what they measure and consider to be the criteria of success. You earn more money, reach wider audience or both. Seems like a dream come true, isn't it?

What you measure?

 I've tried the Facebook thing and made pictures that are oversaturated to the point I want to throw up. Yet they're popular and all. In the process I had many inner dialogs where one side is saying "do it again, likes are good" while the other side is like "are you really happy with that work yourself?". I wasn't and I stopped doing what I wasn't satisfied with myself. I even did almost the opposite - I started making more black and white pictures which always loses on the popularity scale. Defiance wasn't the only reason for B&W of course, but it was part of the challenge (the main reason – for the sake of clarity – is that I like B&W).

So what should you measure so that you create a feedback loop that actually advances your work? I don’t have answers for everybody and some are certainly fine with optimizing their work to make more money. But I’m here not for money; from financial perspective I’d be happy if my photography could pay for itself – which is not the case either.

Some say reaching more people is better, but then again, I’ve noticed that some likes (as in Facebook) are more valuable to me than the others. It’s not like some people are less valuable, it’s that I respect some opinions more than others – some are experts in the field and some or just people who randomly saw your picture.

In some communities the exhibitions are considered to be the cornerstone of how good artist you are. Having done several exhibitions, I admit it’s a fantastic feeling seeing your work beautifully printed and framed and lighted in a gallery. And I want to have than feeling again, just for myself. Yet, in the big picture. exhibitions are another shot to reach the audience, throw your work at the crowd and see who it hits. But if I ask myself, would I shoot the photos knowing they’ll never be exhibited, the answer would be ’yes, of course’. Early in my career I never dreamed of exhibitions, I just shot what I found important.

Contests are a good way to reach wider audience – should you win (or at least a narrow, but important audience – the jury). There’s a certain satisfaction in winning, being better than others, but once again you should ask yourself the question if you would have shot those photos without knowing anything about the competitions.

Speaking for myself – I would. It’s about creating something. It’s about self expression. Something others cannot do not because they don’t know the places or people or how to use some specific lighting schema, but because they’re not you. And the criteria for the feedback loop would be – does it express ideas uniquely mine and do so better than before?