Monday, January 14, 2013

Reflections On Rejection

Photo: Stan B.

Meg Shiffler, the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries Director, was most gracious and kind to engage my wounded pride recently when my entries were rejected for an upcoming PhotoAlliance group show.

Before presenting the enclosed correspondence let me just say that rejection has been a long standing dance partner and drinking buddy. Many moons ago when I abandoned any thought of a professional photography career, I figured that I would nevertheless continue to pursue photography, and get published and exhibited once every couple of years or so in some minor publication or group exhibit. I mean, that's a fairly realistic goal, right? Right? Reality didn't think so.

I don't enter many competitions, I stay away from the more commercial ones (especially those that promise first class RT tickets to your own 5 star hotel suite atop your very own gallery in NYC). Your chances of winning those are the same as winning the lottery, and many will claim some kind of (if not exclusive use and) ownership of your work (always read the small print). Forget winning, you end up losing the contest, your entrance fee and... ownership of your own work!

Some competitions are going to be less open to a particular style, presentation or look (research the judges, and past winners). I know I'm a dinosaur, so when someone like me, who clings to the belief that a photo or two still deserves to be seen on occasion, gets rejected from a local show (ie- smaller gene pool), with a very sympatico theme that can fit my particular style- it's a tad different than being rejected at twenty five. It's more like... we didn't let you in the club when you had both barrels blazing, what makes ya think we're gonna let your sagging ass in now- on any level, for any reason? Help! I've fallen and I can't get up...

So, you yung 'uns, lissen up, and... Better luck than me!

Always interesting to see what artists think about this process. I know it’s crazy hard. I apply for freelance curatorial jobs and wonder what kind of hot shit curator they hired instead of me!  However, the jury process is always more than it appears. I’ll let you in on a couple things from our end . (Note I reviewed all the images submitted, but was too sick to participate in this particular jury process.) I’ve been a guest juror for other spaces, as well as a juror for the spaces that I oversee, literally hundreds of times. There are many opinions that have to be managed. You don’t know if someone on the jury was fighting for your work, and lost the argument. I’ve loved work by an artist, but my fellow jurors have felt otherwise. That means that there is a curator out there that has seen your work and will log it in the old memory bank for the future. I’ve asked artists I’ve seen at portfolio reviews or in jury processes to be in exhibitions later. Also, building an exhibition through the jury process isn’t always about choosing the “best” work. It’s also about making an exhibition. There was a show that I juried once where 50 % of the works submitted were images shot in India. The show could only handle so many pics of India, so we had to narrow a selection of those works, and include works on other themes that rounded out the show. I suppose we could have created a show about India, but we decided to go in a different direction. When you see the final results, you need to refrain from thinking, “My work is better than that, ” because the work that was selected was chosen for many reasons  - the theme, the skill level, the dialogue it will have with the other works in the show, the cohesiveness of the works submitted (are they from one series of work or are they individual images?), the relevancy to the call, and any quirky personal reason a juror has. In rare instances images have all of what I just listed. More than likely the selected works hit some of the list and adds something to the overall show that is created.

Soooo, for what it’s worth, that’s a little insight into what goes on behind the scenes. I know rejection is hard, but don’t dis the jurors because they may be your advocates in the future. 

Thanks, Meg- very kind of you to be so generous to take the time and effort to respond (and I really do mean that)- and realize that much, if not all, of what you say is quite true... although you did leave out the part that artists known to judges also have a curious way of being included more often in the final judging. I'm not at all saying that's what happened here- just that it is also a part that should be mentioned if we are considering the whole gamut of what can happen during at least some competitions.

First of, I just want to clarify that I do not overstate or overvalue my own work. I've been going to photography galleries since the early seventies- when 35mm Tri-X was both the norm, and the cutting edge rage. Obviously, since those are the tools I use to this day- I'm not exactly in the current vanguard, say since... '76 with the advent of color. But I do know what's out there, great and small- and I realize it's a very small niche where my work has the slightest chance. So when there's a "local" show, showing "local" artists, that fits a particular theme for which your work is particularly suited- yeah, what's chosen  better be well above and beyond anything you can imagine... or you're bound to be a tad flustered when rejected.

I was in one of their shows back in 2007, the quality quite high, some of it quite excellent to superb. Which is why I doubt the quality this time around will be significantly different- perhaps, as you suggest, my particular work didn't fit into the overall character of their finalists. But as you also no doubt know, many group shows tend to exhibit the various range of spectrum within a given theme (as the one in '07). And since I haven't entered any of their exhibits in the intervening years, I don't think it's a question of my trying to hog their exhibition space.

To this day, there's nothing that I "enjoy" more than going to an exhibit where I am truly humbled and even embarrassed to be seen with a camera. Most exhibits fall into three basic categories: those that are clearly above your league, those somewhat above or on a parallel level (perhaps using more current "vernacular"), and those that are the au currant flavor of the day. Clearly, my exhibition possibilities are limited, so on the few occasions I do venture forth, I guess at my age it comes off more a slap in the face, than a "learning experience."

That said, there is also much to be said concerning the judging process itself in most competitions, how it can be improved, and actually become- a true learning experience--- and this is the way to do it.*

I think you make some valid points. Sometimes judges do sometimes sway a bit to artists or works that are familiar. They have a broader depth of understanding when the work flashes before them during the jury process.  When reviewing work by over 160 artists, familiarity can play in an artists favor, however I've never been on a jury that bypassed integrity to make that choice. Back to my previous email - one way to become more familiar to curators in the community is to come to portfolio reviews and enter juried shows. There are four people who know your work better now! 

There's no way that I can change the personal and emotional aspects of the jury process for submitting artists. It may seem like a small thing, but I personally contact every artist who is both selected and not selected (which is not a standard institutional practice). With 160 plus artists, this takes a good amount of time, but I want the artists to know that I/we truly appreciate the effort (and emotional vulnerability) it takes to enter into a process like this. I also want artists to know that even though it stings a bit, this is only one opportunity, and that there will be others. There was extraordinary work that was entered - truly remarkable - that didn't make it in for one reason or another and I would love to consider it again. 

You have a lot of years and experience under your belt, however you can always ask a jury why your work wasn't chosen and you just might learn something. Again, I wasn't on this jury, but I see that they mostly chose works that are part of a cohesive series/essay, rather than individual works. I find that it is always stronger to submit works in a series. (Sorry, you can choose to view this rejection as a "slap in the face" but I entered into this dialogue for two reasons - to force a learning experience, and to give a voice to any jury that an artist tells to fuck off, which is a slap in the face.) You cared enough to enter, curators know your work better, and you and your work are appreciated.

*Funny– The only time I’ve ever participated in a jury that was open to the public we were screamed at by an artist, two other artists stormed out in tears, and the rest left demoralized by listening to the jury critique their art (in a very professional, but honest manner) without the ability to converse. I’m not sure it’s a good thing, but I think they’re brave to open the process. 

Well, I just want to thank Meg Shiffler again for taking the time to share some very valuable insights with this angry young grumpy old geezer. I've certainly learned that one's never too old to get, or feel, rejected (sorry, couldn't help it). And not that anyone asked, but there is one piece of advice that I can give- don't go into any competition expecting to win. It's not anywhere near the same thing as believing in oneself, and one's work. I allowed myself to think that I was going to get into that show; my work was good enough, the theme right down my alley- this one had to go down, karma owed me (big time)! I set myself up. 

And sometimes, sometimes it just takes someone to remind you what you already know...

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