One striking thing about observing the judging process was how each judge was willing to pass over their personal favourites in order to pursue a different quarry. The difficulty at the heart of the decision-making process appeared to be defining the essential considerations that constitute the success of a single image. The formal qualities of composition are of course a factor, which would presumably be equally true of judging a painting. The technical competence of the photographer mattered too, and the panel benefitted from the prowess of Simon Norfolk in relation to how not to use Photoshop, who cited the need “to take images past Photoshop as a means of editing, […] to take photography beyond Photoshop.” Originality was a key concern for all the judges, with many comments about the derivative quality of many submissions (“looks like a Hannah Starkey” “is that a Hans van der Meer? If not, why is he copying his style?” “There’s now an Oxford Dictionary definition of a Martin Parr photograph” etc). It’s important not to discount the particularly subjective aspect of the evaluation process, which is encapsulated in the first-sight response in the first 10 seconds of sweeping one’s gaze around the gallery. Yet the consideration that each judge returned to, and that became the deciding factor, was the context of the image. Would the same compulsion to know what the image is about prevail in a fine art context, or, despite the Summer Show’s ‘open’ remit, were the judges (and indeed our choice of judges) influenced by the Foto8/8 magazine commitment to documentary photography and photojournalism? Certainly, the initial cull from 2,300 images to the 120 for display by the Foto8 staff was based on the image alone, with no clue as to subject matter or photographer.
I would hazard a guess that one of the key reasons Weiss’ image won is that its context is implied, though beguilingly uncertain. It was certainly a very close call indeed between the winner and the – let’s be honest – rather lovelier photograph by Nick Ballon of the Chacaltaya ski lift imported to Bolivia from Switzerland in the 1930s. As Graham Woods said in relation to the portrait of Mr Bohr (which was also his own personal favourite):
“It’s asking questions. The assumption is he’s in prison, but he may not be; he might just be lonely. It is interesting that the obsession of collecting and displaying images usually involves women and endless pictures of breasts and yet here this is not the case. There are just faces. You imagine it is sinister, yet these are images from everyday magazines. It’s the way the guy looks which makes it sinister. Not many pictures are asking so many questions. I feel I could keep coming back to this and asking more.”
The image by Ballon was Simon Norfolk’s personal choice. “There is a surreal element to the story,” he said. “There is nothing particularly special about the building, so why was it worth transporting in its entirety half way across the world? It is a beautiful, muted print, its shadows hold a certain sweetness. There is also something sweet about the metaphor.
Andrea Stern was captivated by Charlotte Player’s photograph of a girl on a horse in Northern England, which carried with it the air of the Appalachian mountains, as well as a nod to the enduring legacy of Diane Arbus. “This girl has a wonderful face,” she said. “There’s something about the whole feeling of the image. It’s the slump of the body and the horse. They belong together.”
For Richard Kalman, it was a sense of being transported that inspired his personal choice, Madame Niepce’s home, the Winter Garden, by Antonella Monzoni. “The beauty of this image intrigues me. There is something romantic about the fading grandeur. I want to be there, in that location.”
Diana Ewer chose Joakim Eneroth’s Tibetan Monk, which for a while was a contender for overall winner (despite one member of the panel describing it as ‘histronic’). Diana felt it was “an interesting approach to an emotive subject. I like the use of classified objects. We are not sure what they are. The structure/ layout heightens the sense of entrapment, the imprisonment of an individual. The literal cuffing of his head means that we cannot identify him. He is literally screaming out of Munch. The grid is restricting, bringing a sense of captivity to mind.”
Other pictures that provoked detailed discussion (yes, that’s a euphemism for argument!) included On a Clean Well-Lighted Place by Andrew Bevington, the bus shelter by Maciej Dakowicz, the wedding dresses in Albania by Robert Hackman, the glacier with light by Corinne Vionnet, the battleship by Charlotte Rea, the outdoor feast in Sienna by Rupert Sagar-Musgrave and the People’s Choice (though the judges didn’t know this at the time) Boy with Painted Suit by Sofie Knijff. Overall, there was a sense that the judges were looking for something surprising, something that took them away from what they already know (an element that Richard Kalman didn’t think was present in the winning image, interestingly).
If the judges’ comments are heeded, next year’s entrants might want to close all their Greatest Ever Photograph books, and turn their attention and passion first inwards to find out what interests them as opposed to what they think ought to, and then outwards again, using the camera first and foremost as a tool engaged in the spirit of enquiry.
Many thanks to all the judges and to everyone who voted for the People’s Choice (except the person who voted for their own image a hundred times, like they did last year).