Friday, August 20, 2010

Show entries and photography

Much chatter in the fiber art blogosphere these days about quilt show entries, as many of us are getting ready to enter Quilt National and a few of the smaller art/quilt shows.  On Terry Jarrard-Dimond's blog I've learned more than I wanted to know about JPEGs vs. TIFFs and the potential dangers of image degradation as you use your picture over and over for multiple show entries (or other purposes).  Also discussion of how strange it is that many quilt shows prohibit, on pain of death, any color correction or other tweaking of an image, while shows in other art disciplines don't seem to care.

All this makes my head hurt.

I have chosen as an artist to work in fiber, not photography.  It chops me to be told to worry about the nuances of image quality when I should be worrying about the nuances of my quilting stitch.

Now one valid response to this whine is to say get over it, photographing your work is important if you want it to be seen in public -- whether than means in a juried show, in a gallery, or on your own website/blog.  Photography, whether you do it yourself or pay to have it done, is a vital part of marketing your work, and you remain ignorant at your own peril.  I know this is true, and I have always used professional-quality photographers for my work.

But another valid response is to say that some show organizers are asking entrants to jump through way too many hoops, and the "reasons" behind these requirements may not stand up to scrutiny.

For one, the requirement that all images be a certain size and/or resolution.  (Please forgive me in advance if I don't use the exact technical terms in discussing these issues.  I told you already, I'm neither a photo wonk nor a computer wonk, and I kind of want to stay that way.  I hope you will know what I'm talking about.)  Yes, it's nice for jurors if all the images fill the screen neatly, but it's hardly going to kill them to see different images at slightly different sizes.  And images can't all be the same size, even if people follow the directions perfectly -- if you're supposed to have the longest side no more than 1800 pixels, a square quilt is going to end up a lot bigger on the screen than a long, skinny one.

And yes, maybe it's nice if jurors can see every quilt photographed perfectly -- no momentary frustration because one is a touch fuzzy or the left corner isn't properly lit, no momentary eyestrain because one is shown on a black background and the next one on pale gray. 

But I would like to think that jurors have enough good sense and discernment to look at the quilt, not the photo.  Does that touch of fuzz make it impossible to tell a good quilt from a bad one?  Is that left corner the difference between accepting and rejecting the piece?  I get the feeling that sometimes jurors penalize good quilts simply because of bad photography, and if so, shame on them.

Many of the high-end shows such as Quilt National and Quilt Visions publish catalogs with juror statements, which I always read carefully for insights into what's going on in the field. Or at least that's what I want to read. But for a while I noticed that many juror statements said little about art and much about photography; indeed a few of the statements seemed like insulting lectures to us dummies who dared to offend the jurors' rarefied sensibilities by sending in less-than-perfect slides or images.

Here's a Quilt National juror statement from several years back:  "Slides that were too dark or those showing backgrounds (such as people or furniture) lost their chance of being considered."  Yes, it's amateur hour when somebody holds the quilt up for photography rather than pinning it to a nice clean wall, but what if the quilt was really great?  Take off points, sure, but to automatically disqualify it?  I don't think that's the proper role of a juror.

How about the show requirement that images have no color correction or cropping?  I do agree that it's bad practice to make your quilt square by cropping; the last time I juried a show we were frustrated by not being able to see the edges of the quilt to learn more about construction and finishing.  Yet I wonder if jurors really like to see everything that's going on in the margins of the original image, like the ropes suspending the bar from which the quilt hangs or the edge of the gray felt backdrop.  (That's the way I sent my images in to Fiberart International last year, because they demanded no cropping at all.) 

I don't understand the big deal about color correction.  Even though I wouldn't know how to do this if I wanted to, I take the word of others who say that sometimes without color correction the image doesn't properly represent the quilt.  As an object lesson, see my post from yesterday about the purple sweater.

But who cares?  If a quilt has good design and good workmanship, does it matter whether it's a bluish red or an orangey red?  I've often seen entry images where the detail shot differs greatly in color from the full shot; the jurors may remark on it but it never stopped us from accepting or rejecting a quilt on its other merits.  The quilt shows up and the organizer says "I thought from the photo it was going to be blue, not green" -- so what?  Don't tell me the jurors so closely calibrated their choices that a green quilt will ruin their plan. 

And finally, the requirement that images be submitted in two different resolutions, one "for jury" and one "for print."  This might be for two reasons -- the show wants to use the higher-quality images either to print a catalog or to provide to publications for coverage of the show.  Fine, but why not request images from the people who are accepted instead of from everybody?  It's just like requesting artist statements from all entrants, even though the statements will never be seen by the jurors, because they'll eventually be needed for the catalog or the wall labels.  Or like requiring you to send in not just your CD of images but a printout of color thumbnails.  Since the thumbnails are labeled with your name, you know that's not used for jurying, but presumably is a help for the people who are going to hang the show. 

Translated into English, these requirements mean "our time is more valuable than your time, so race around and give us something we probably won't use just so we don't have to ask you for it after you're accepted."

Quilt National can get away with it, because they're number one.  But can other shows afford to annoy their potential entrants with unreasonable demands?  Maybe artists should vote with their feet -- and follow up with a letter to the organizers saying "I'm choosing not to enter your show because I don't have a color printer and it was just too much hassle to get my friend to print out these stupid thumbnails that you won't need till next year even if I'm accepted."  Hey, maybe it's not too late to send that letter to that show I didn't enter last spring for precisely that reason.


  1. I was genuinely surprised by the response to the two articles I posted on my blog about this topic. The tone and length of the comments were unlike anything I've ever had which told me I was not the only one that feels changes are needed. I appreciate your speaking out on the topic and while I feel changes are needed, your passion always makes me smile. Thank you Kathy for your voice.

  2. I am with you Kathy. I read an article from the jurors of a major show. They said that each quilt gets 3 seconds when they go thru the initial photos. If they do not catch their attention in that time they are discarded. Then in each viewing after they add a bit more time until they are down to the final few and then and only then do they look at details. That bothered me a lot.

    The photography issue is also huge. I can not tell you how many times I have photographed something and once I download it the color is too faded or something. Then I have to start all over instead of just being able to adjust it right in photoshop. They say to photograph outside if possible. Well that is not easy and it is hard not to have a blank background if you are outside. I understand the concern about people adjusting things in photoshop and when the quilt arrives at the show it is nothing near the color or squareness or whatever that it looked like in the photo that it was judged on. However, they usually always have a disclaimer in the rules that the quilt can still be eliminated if upon arrival it does not meet standards. A hassle, yes, but so are all these different rules we have to sort through for each show. It makes me think, how many artists just do not have the knowledge or the equipment to do some of what is required. It may mean we never see some outstanding work that has been created out there.

  3. This is quite the hot topic lately! I agree with most of what you say, Kathy, and I like the way you say it. My main quibble is I think you let QN off too easy. Some of those rules were made decades ago and I think they are a bit out of step with the internet age of blogging, and marketing and showing our work. There is an arrogance there that rubs me the wrong way. BUT, you are correct in that we most likely have to suck it up, because we WANT to be in those shows. I was reading the rules of another show this week, and they require you to send your own rod or hanging device? Really? They've been putting up an annual quilt exhibit for all these years and they don't have poles or a hanging system? That's going to be a pain in the neck to pack. I'm rethinking my entry on that one.
    As to Barbara's comment, the 3 second rule is typical of most any juried show, whatever the media. That's just how they get through the initial sweep. Also, as an example, in a painting exhibit, the jurors don't want to see your living room sofa with your painting hanging over it - they just want to see your painting. So juried quilt shows are being held to a similar standard as other art shows and I'm OK with that - it's part of the business.
    Lots of discussion to come I'm sure! I'm just done cropping and sizing a bunch of photos, so now I'll go back into the studio to SEW!

  4. Hi Kathy, first I'd like to thank you so much for posting on this topic. It's one that is indeed on many minds at this time of year, so I'm hoping you are able to spark a sensible debate on this issue. The way I interpret this process is the quilt is an extension of the artist who made it. Attention to detail, willingness to do a great job, and certain level of compulsivity indicates that the artist truly cares about what they do. It's their names and reputations that will either catapult the show into tomorrow, or kill it today. We've heard one-hit-wonders in the music world... a quilt could be do the same; it could be fabulous, but is is a flash in the pan or is it indicative of the level at which the artist is capable of working at for years to come? Jumping through hoops is boot camp for the super-stars of tomorrow. I appreciate that we have certain venues out there that are willing to subscribe to high standards. Now, at the same time, these shows with high standards must hold a critical eye to what they do in return. I've seen shows that produce awful catalogues, have horrible PR, treat the quilts with disregard, and on and on. It's a two way street. What's an artist to do? Control the controllable is all that can be done... IMHO.

  5. Great post Kathleen. Colour correction HAS to be a non-issue IMO. I have my quilts professionally photographed at a Photography Studio and Laboratory. They photograph against a neutral-beige coloured wall under studio lights, by hanging works some distance from the wall. The CAMERA image of the quilt is fantastic and the wall behind is OF COURSE full of shadows about a metre behind the quilt (because of the blazing lights from the front). The Photography Lab staff then POST-PROCESS the digital image by adding in the white background, making the quilt float, and by COLOUR-CORRECTING the image to the quilt they have in their hand. I am given my whoppingly huge TIFF image on a CD after I pay for this service. If this is how the professionals do it, how can the likes of quilt shows ask for non-corrected images? Do I need to ring around and find a photographer who doesn't post process digital images? Or are none of you aware that is what your professional photographer is actually doing to your images? I have not a hope of reproducing this quality of image - hence why I pay for the service. Hey, maybe its the lazy professional option? Seems digital photography allows short cuts and even the professionals do it.
    As for size - this is also needs to be a non-issue. If they asked for film slides, you would give them film slides which are STANDARD size. If they ask for 1800 pixels wide then provide it.

  6. I love both this post and Terri's since it reflects what I've been thinking all along. I want to add that I believe some of these shows use entries as a way to raise money for the show itself. The more entries - the more revenue. That said, now the jury needs to look at all those entries - in QN they have to wittle near 1000 entries down to a show under a hundred. How are they going to do that? Using some of these complicated rules as a way to disqualify seems to have become part of the solution.

    Now don't get me wrong - I realize that shows are expensive to put on and entry fees are necessary (although I remember the feeling the first time I realize that I had just paid this big entry fee to be told only your work isn't good enough to be in our show - sigh!) But somewhere along the line, this whole process has become about the show instead of the art itself.

    Its a huge shame and one that I think eventually will catch up to them.

  7. I wanted to thank you for tackling this issue. I was surprised to see the "no color enhancing" edict on some entry forms. I have a pretty good photo area set up in my garage with foam insulation boards covered with black velvet, moveable adjustable lights and a tripod for my point and shoot camera and I usually get good pictures. Sometimes though, the colors of the photo aren't as bright as my quilt. One little click of "enhance" or "auto color correct" will make it just right. I wonder how they can tell if it's been done. But I won't do it again.

    I also wish that they would have a standard for labeling your CD's so that your file could be used over again, without relabeling.

    But for all our grousing about it, I am so glad that slides are no longer required. Remember the days of buying expensive slide film.... taking the shots, sending them away, waiting for and paying for the processing, only to get dismal results and having to do it all over again? I used to wish for digital entries, not knowing that it would be so complicated.