Over the last two weeks I looked at 606 different photographer submissions for the Critical Mass competition and helped narrow it down to the 180 finalists (here). As you might expect the images ran the gamut from “are you effing kidding me” to “holy crap that’s amazing.”

I tried to only vote for photographers I would hire or that I would put on a list and ultimately since I won’t be doing any hiring in the near term I’m going to share some of the photographers I found with the PE’s that read the blog. There is a tendency to vote for work that would look good on a wall or in a book (the grand prize) but I know the organizers have carefully brought in people with different backgrounds (and that’s not mine) so I tried to force myself to avoid doing this.

I made sure I voted for any photographers who had pictures of people smiling. That was like 1 or 2 votes. Everyone else was either suicidal or staring a hole through my skull (kidding, sort of.)

Pictures of houses and of people standing staring seemed to outnumber empty parking lots and shopping malls which I think is a noteworthy trend but ultimately the majority of the photographs fall in the “landscapes with shit in them” category (i.e. people and objects).

I’m a complete sucker for pictures of kids (unless engaged in a suicidal stare). I have kids as I imagine many reviewers do and it’s an easy emotional connection to make.

I can’t escape the influence of familiarity and novelty on my decisions. If I’ve seen a photographer blogged favorably and liked their work the bias was strong. Same goes for things that I’d never seen before. Also, I found myself on the fence about an image a few times and looked down to see the image title and many times it felt incredibly stupid and suddenly I’m no longer on the fence.

One thing that struck me was the incredible number of original ideas and subjects that just quite didn’t hit the mark. So much originality that if the images were only better executed it would be so compelling. I think some of those photographers just need more time working on it and developing their approach. I hope not making the cut or the top 50 doesn’t mean they will abandon the project.

Finally, when the next round comes for voting I’ll be interested to see which photographers who’s work I loved, missed the cut. Also, which photographers I voted against made the cut and suddenly I realize I made a mistake (or not). When a group of people votes on something there’s inevitably great work that’s left behind. Law of averages people.

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    • @Nathan Eldridge,
      I will post my choices for those that didn’t make the cut (only with permission from the photographer first) after I’m sent the finalists for voting so I can compare that list with my list of selects.

      • @A Photo Editor,

        what about your list of people that you liked but did not make the top 180? where can we find those? or even a list of the original ideas you thought needed more gestation?

  1. Rob gave me beaucoup points for all my photos of smiling kids!

    But seriously, I posted on my blog about some of the finalists work I’ve seen (I’m up to the letter “O” on the list as of today), and I really don’t know what to make of the 40 or so projects that are portraits (technically perfect) of a certain social group, a dying group, a foreign group, etc… I really enjoy viewing them, but can’t tell what makes one better than the other? They are all shot in a similar manner except each one has a different subject to shoot. It seems like if you can come up with a new type of group/subject that hasn’t been done before and are proficient with the technical aspects of a medium format camera, you can make the list?

    I am now off to shoot a series of women on wednesdays in wacky wooly socks, but only blondes. No brunettes. Later I will make my artist statement about how wearing wool socks on wednesdays has affected these women.

  2. […] (or maybe because) I do not participate in photo contests, I really liked this post. A great glimpse into the mind of a professional editor. Reminds me of the days when I was, shortly […]

  3. Rob,
    what percentage of shots/projects were B&W?
    I’m working on a big, non-pretty project that B&W and was wondering if it’s worth submitting to a big contest when everything seems to be Sothian color photography.

    • @JMG,
      I think you just have to go with what you want to do. If you feel its good enough to enter into a competition, then enter it.
      Jeff Wall has been doing some big ugly black and white stuff for a while now, and still seems to be selling the prints for more than most of us here put together probably earn in a year.


  4. I have a question regarding this contest and all contests where entrants pay to enter. A friend who entered (and who I helped edit), figured out that the money coming in from the original entries (606 people at $75 each) is $45,450 and for the second round, (180 x $200) is $36,000 for a grand total of $81,450.

    Where does that money go? How is it used? Does it seem fair?



    • I can’t speak for other contests, but I think (?) in this case it goes towards funding these two items below (free books to 606 people as well as publishing the books? as well as the scholarships)…

      “From these votes, two or three photographers receive book awards and once the monographs are published, everyone who enters and reviews will receive copies of the books.

      We are pleased to continue to give scholarships to pre-selected photographers by geographical region. In 2007, we gave scholarships to Polish photographers, this year the focus will be on photographers from Mexico.”

      • edit: 806 free books including the jurors.

    • Hello,

      I am director of photolucida, and I can shed some light on how the entry fees for Critical Mass are used!

      Foremost, we publish 3 books a year (last year 2) and send a copy of each out to all who entered and all who juried. So, for instance, we are preparing to send out our three CM06 books, and these books will go out to over 700 people, domestically and internationally. So we will mailing out over 2100 books. The production of the books and the postage to send them to this many people is our main expense. We also give a generous amount of books to the award winners. We also send Critical Mass books to 30 Oregon art schools, colleges & libraries so the public can enjoy them.

      Other expenses are: the development of our software to run Critical Mass – we just re-designed it to make it more quick and efficient, both for people entering and the jurors. We have a programmer that we pay real money to – the amount of time/skill it takes to work with this amount of information is enormous – there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work happening with the programming that people are not aware of.

      Other expenses: we produce a CD of the work of all who enter, duplicate it, and send it to all photographers. We produce a CD of the finalist’s work and send it to all 200 jurors along with a booklet of thumbnail images and contact info for the finalists for the jurors to use as a reference tool – tangible material they can refer to down the road or pass around to colleagues. We send these packets to all 200+ jurors, in the US and overseas. We also send this CD to many photography teachers who use it in their curriculum.

      We give “awards” to photographers from other countries who would probably not be able to afford to pay the submission fee. Last year it was to 9 photographers from Poland, this year it is for 5 photographers from Mexico. We are glad to be able to do this and it adds a different perspective to the mix of work for the jurors.

      Critical Mass is pretty far removed from a money-grabbing scheme/pyramid scheme (words I have seen in blog-land)- I encourage people to look at our website for details about what we do (please read the CM success stories as well) and look at the list of great people in the photography world who align themselves with our Reviews and Critical Mass – if we were shady in any way, would these people be helping us?

      To spend $75 to have a pre-screening board look at your work, receive a CD of the work of hundreds of one’s contemporaries, and to eventually receive the books of the book award winners is not a bad deal. To spend $200 (if one is a finalist) to get your work to 200+ people in the photography world is a marketing dollar pretty well spent. If you can do this on your own for less, that is great!

      photolucida is a very small non-profit, with probably the lowest overhead ever. I am the only paid staff member (part-time at that) and so much of the work here is done by board members who donate their time and skills. In short, our board is comprised primarily of photographers who have decided to try to do nice things for other photographers.

      Hope this information is helpful!

      Laura Moya

      • taking entrants money to spread books around…hmmm sounds like socialism to me. ;)

      • @Laura Moya,

        Thanks for responding with a direct and easy to understand statement about this issue. Its nice to see a comprehensive explanation all in one spot. Might I suggest you make it part of your call for entries next year or at least more up front on your site. I think it may help avoid any worries people may have and help them make a good decision about participating or not.

    • @Curious,

      What does “fair” really have to do with it, anyway, since no one is compelled to enter the contest, having read the terms of entry?

      Even if the entry fee was four million dollars, no one would have cause to wonder about “fairness”, since entry is voluntary.

      Is there something else here I’ve missed?

  5. @ 5:
    this happened in the music industry.
    I’m dubious of these big contest things as little more than money grabbing schemes. I feel, even as someone who has shown in NY that the photo-art scene especially is insular and it’s all about who you know. Keep your eyes on the jury list. the same names will invariably pop-up.

    • @JMG,
      Have you considered how much time and effort the jurists and pre-screeners put into this without a dime in compensation. I can understand the contests where there’s a panel composed of people who put the contest on but you’ve got to be kidding here. $275 and you are guaranteed that 200 people will look at your work. How much do you spend on promo cards?

      • @A Photo Editor,
        It’s super cool that Ms. Moya took the time to breakdown what up with CM. You have to admit though, there are a lot of contests out there that yield little return on your investment. And it get exhausting after awhile. At this moment, I spend $0 on promo cards. I don’t beleive in them, I think it’s like using telemarketers. As a business, I keep my expenses super low by using my head, coming up with stories clients want and hooking up with writers for collaboration.
        So far so good.

  6. Personally I did stop the contribution to photo contests (for various reasons)

    BUT (maybe):
    What makes contests like Critical Mass (and The Spider Awards as well) special is the judging panel.

    As Rob has stated it above: it shouldn’t be seen as a competition primay. It’s more a way to get your images/folio in front of some
    interesting people. If it works out at the end for the individual photographer ? I don’t know. But at least it’s a chance, or an alternative to the usual promotions.

    As you can see in Rob’s intro-post. He was impressed by some new and fresh ‘smiling’ work (and by kids pics *smile). If he would be still an editor he maybe would have hired one of those young guns. And with a $200 editorial job (we are heading into a new depression and soon all photogs will drive along the route 66 looking for ‘Photographer Wanted’ signs *smile) the balance would be decreased to – $75 :-)

    To follow all the numerous contests out there one would need an assistant and some 1000’s bucks a year for prints, entry fees, shipping …

    Titles, merits, nominations, acceptations, etc. usually do mean nothing (moneywise). They will not buy you any food. A close friend is a a PSA-5-Star photographer (his wife has a 2 or 3 PSA rating and she was one of those ‘Black & white photographers of the year’ anno …). To get this rating one must contribute to numerous contests for decades ! Their cellar is full of these catalogues. Never ever somebody offered him a job or bought a print from him. The only way he did some money: when he winned a cam or a lens that he could sell thereafter :-)

    However, your milage may vary …

    The other way to finance a high class contests is to find a patron like Sheik Al Thani of Quatar. Although they have entry fees there as well. But at least their catalogue is a coffee table book of highest quality (worth the entry fees) – and $ 80.000.- cash for the winners, the usual Leica cam *smile and an invitation to Doha (no, you don’t have to pay for you seat there …)

    @JMG … If of interest, the similar spider awards run a seperated black&white and color competition. But high entry fees as well and I’m not sure about the reward of this contest.

    Best, reini

  7. Such a weird concept. Pay to have your photos looked at, if you do good in the first round you pay more to have them looked at them again. This may be why we’ve never entered a contest. Who wants to start our own “photo contest”? Winner gets a 12 pack of Pabst. Entry fee… $90.00.

    • @day19, the first group of jurors is small group and only has people like rob on it. :0 the final round is 200 jurors with bigger names on the list. I think it’s different.

      • @the cinemascapist,

        no for real. more people should start contests, for beer.

        • @Day19, but Pabst? I’ll take Genny Light over Pabst. Let me know when these contests start!

          • @the cinemascapist, OK. If we get enough entrants maybe we can even splurge for some fancy foreign beer. I need some help though, I can’t run this contest by myself.

  8. @ the cinemascapist: “the first group of jurors is small group and only has people like rob on it. :0 the final round is 200 jurors with bigger names on the list. I think it’s different.”


    Rob is a big name and he is on the final list of 200+ reviewers as well! He also is doing the “Reviewer’s Scrapbook”.

    Honestly, I don’t understand all the talk about Critical Mass being too expensive. It costs more than $275 to go to New York for a week to see a half dozen editors. With Critical Mass some 217 editors, gallerists and publishers see your work. This is one way to jump start your career, by getting your work out and getting people talking about it. Seems like a bargain to me.

    • @Davin Ellicson, I’m a kidder… See above socialism jab. I guess I should have added an emoticon after that comment. :o

  9. the cinemascapist

    oh, ok, I hadn’t read the post.

  10. Hey Rob… Cool to hear what it’s like to be on the other side of a photo competition. So nice to hear that you support photo’s with happy smiling people too. I tend toward the fantasy that life really is worth living, and taking happy pictures makes me happy. Maybe I will start entering some contests after all.

  11. Hi Rob, interesting to hear from a juror’s experience. Are you ready for hundreds of photos of smiling children next year?
    I entered & didn’t get through to the second round. I was still happy to do it so some people got to see my photos who wouldn’t otherwise. Photo Lucida is a great concept.

    off to find some happy kids …

    Or how’s this for a concept to document a social group – I contact people who just found out they didn’t get selected for Photo Lucida & take colour 4×5 shots of them looking glumly at their computer screens?

  12. I was so happy to see Reinfried Marass point out that Critical Mass is not really a competition. Our vision for Critical Mass was to enable photographers to get their work seen by every useful curator and publisher in the world for as low a price as possible. (Oddly, in actual practice, it turned out that a few curators didn’t want to participate.) A core principle was to make sure that every single entrant got their money’s worth.

    The first year it was 50 reviewers for 50 bucks, those reviewers each looked at all 600 entries, and we only had a little grumbling about the number of portfolios we were asking them to look at. The second year we went up to 200 reviewers, who each looked at 450 entries, but we had a lot of complaints of reviewer fatigue. We instituted the book publishing for this second year, in order to (a) make 2 or 3 photographers ecstatically happy, (b) to have something cool to send to the other 600 photographers, (c) to have something to bribe the reviewers with to keep them happy and willing to keep reviewing and to give them a feeling of satisfaction that their Critical Mass participating made these books happen. For the third year, to keep our reviewers from jumping ship, we added the prescreening and drastically dropped the number of portfolios – to 150. This year we redesigned and streamlined the voting process and crept the number of portfolios back up a tiny bit – to 175. The good news and the bad news is that there were more than 150 and 175 solid portfolios submitted.

  13. I would like to participate in a photo contest, but I don’t know how to discern if it is legit or not. Can you give any sites out that would help me learn about the right way to participate or not? I’m not paying any fee to submit a photo. Thanks. S

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