The other day I read that the admin for a group on Flickr.com had won the first prize in the nature category of a National Geographic contest. The wining photograph was of a cow. It was, in my opinion, a very good photograph of a cow, possibly the best I had ever seen. The lighting, composition, focus and background all worked well to bring out the subject, but it was the expression – that blank cow expression – that came out very well and made the cow appear almost nobel. Clearly the judges agreed. They praised the image for the expression of the cow as well as the other attributes. Many comments praised the photo and the author provided links to the NG site where viewers could read the comments. Also, perhaps magnanimously but also perhaps to point out the sour grapes people, she provided a link to the blog that decried a cow photograph being chosen as the winner.
I went to that link and found the blog title “I Was Robbed”. The blog post described the feelings of a person who felt a cow was as dull a subject as one could imagine and that it was chosen as the winning image in the nature category was almost insane. Now, I have to disagree with the idea that cows are boring, not because I have any particular attraction to the bovine species but rather I think any photographer who shoots an everyday subject in a way that excites emotions in the viewers of the photograph is doing a great job. Part of the talent of a photographer is to capture ordinary things in an evocative new way. But I do agree that the cow photo is not a suitable entry in the nature category. As I see it, a cow is an agricultural symbol. Sure it is an animal and its DNA ultimately a product of nature. However, cows are not exactly wild animals. There once was a species that roamed about grazing in the wild but they were domesticated long ago and their DNA altered through the ancient practice of genetic engineering known as breeding. As a nature subject I don’t think the cow should have won.
But you never know what the judges are thinking. I can imagine that they had viewed thousands of typical images such as deer in morning mist at sunrise, bear catching fish at Brooks Falls, moose and autumn foliage, wolves, flowers, scenics, and an army of photographs of African safari animals. For the judges they want to see something that stands out, and I think the cow photo did for them. Perhaps they debated its validity as a nature subject but in the end they agreed it was a natural creature and as it was unique among the entries it deserved first prize.
This reminds me of a nature category first prize winner I saw in a prestigious magazine some years ago. The image was of a mushroom in the forest. The scene was for the most part quite ordinary: a tree, some brush, a moss-covered log and a mushroom. What was remarkable was that the otherwise small and insignificant fungus had caught with its cap a stray sunbeam and the whole cap had reflected the sunlight into the lens and burned out the film. It was a white glow like a tiny sun on the forest floor. Surely it was an interesting photograph, unique and perhaps one could even say novel. But was it worthy of the first prize? The judges in all their mystery felt so.
I can never really understand what contest judges are thinking anyway. But perhaps I can see the method behind their madness when I consider an episode from my own experience. I once visited Abashiri in Hokkaido during the period the ice floes from the Okhostk Sea drift down to northern Hokkaido. My hopes were to photograph the drift ice at sunset and twilight and capture the movement of the ice with the colours of the sky and reflections. Unfortunately for my hopes, a thin winter haze came in during the afternoon and by evening it was thick enough to swallow the sun completely. There was no sunset light to thrill over. I shot a number of scenes in a dull grey/blue light, my results nothing to be excited about. On the way back to the car in the dimming evening I saw a nearby hotel shining coloured lights over the ice. The scene was not natural but it looked pretty and so I made a couple of exposures.
Later that year I entered the best of the photos in a photo contest and after the results were published I got news that my photo had been selected for the grand prize! This was an unexpected honour. My girlfriend and I flew to Hokkaido and drove to the Okhostk Sea Ice Science Center in Monbetsu. It was March and there were still great ice floes on the beach and in the water. We spent the morning capturing views along the beach before heading off to the awards ceremony. At the center I looked at some of the other winning and selected photographs and I saw what I had hoped to find on my previous visit. There were stunning photos of morning light making whispering snow mists glow. There were jewels of ice catching the morning sunlight and making a winter landscape of gold. There were oddly shaped ice formations and other inspiring creations. I was envious to say the least. I did, however, recognize one thing: despite the fact that I felt my photograph was a kind of consolation prize – a photo I got instead of what I really wanted – I also noticed that my photograph was the only one shot at evening in artificial light. My entry was unique.
When the local papers asked the winning photographers for their opinions an elderly man spoke out at length. He said that it was fine that I had managed to get a good photograph in the artificial lights of the hotel but anyone could get such a photo on any night. In order to get a really good photograph of the ice one had to get up early every day and check the weather conditions, then go down to the shore and look for the right location, watch the sky, and wait. Every year he and a devoted group of ice lovers spent the weeks of the ice going out hoping to get that definitive shot. He looked at me, not only a visitor from Saitama who had shown up one evening, grabbed a shot and won first prize with it, but also a youngster (I was 30 and all the other photographers looked to be over 60) without years of experience (I had been shooting for 12 years at the time), and I felt his expression was saying, “I was robbed by a photograph that anyone could have taken easily.”
So I spoke up. My Japanese is not so great now and eight years ago it was much worse. However, I did my best to express myself and here is basically what I hope I conveyed. I said I wished I could have taken such photos as the ones I saw displayed in the gallery. I had come all the way from Saitama and had hoped for just one evening of beautiful light. But alas, it was not to be and the clouds came in and erased my chance. I made many photographs that evening but none were what I wanted. I was disappointed. My photograph of the ice in artificial light was not the message I wanted to capture but it was the best I could get under the circumstances. Those that could go to the shore every morning and hope for good light and beautiful ice were lucky. I wish I could do the same.
My broken Japanese message seemed to get through. I saw the reactions of some of the other photographers and they nodded and appeared to understand and sympathize. The elderly man who had spoken out did not argue. He may not have been pleased with the judges’ decision; however, he withdrew his case with a grumble on the edge of his lip.
No, it is hard to know what the judges are looking for and what they will choose for the winning photograph. But if one thing can be learned from all this it is that a unique image has a better chance than an excellently captured extraordinary photograph.