On contests and the passing of years

This was the last year, 1986, you could enter prints in the Pictures of the Year competition. I was in grad school at the University of Missouri so got my first direct connection to a top contest and stellar judges. That year's judges included Peter Howe, Bruno Barbey, Karen Mullarkey and Larry Price. Students holding the prints are Eric Welch, then Pat Davison and Dave Eulitt. Pat's hair is just awesome.© Mike Davis/1986Here we are in the last quarter of the year. How did that happen?

This is a good time to start thinking about what you want to have accomplished with the year, to be able to look back in January with satisfaction instead of frustration. You can’t change the whole year but you can point yourself to the end of the year with greater focus.

For instance, contest entry season fast approaches, for those of you in the story telling realm. What should you be doing between now and the time you hit the send button to the scores of contests you’re going to win this year?

Ideally, you’ve been elevating your strongest work to the top of your archive throughout the year so that at this point you can simply select that layer and have a pretty good sense of what you’ve done so far. If you haven’t been creating a hierarchy in your archive or don't have an organized archive, then do that, now. That’s important in the obvious ways but also because every year should produce a portfolio of work. If you’ve gotten to this point of the year and you don’t have a portfolio, there is time to flesh out what you’ll have done by the end of the year.

Why does having a portfolio from each year matter? First, let me explain that by portfolio I mean that you have a rounded body of work, one that reflects your potential. It does not mean the usual check list of categories of topics - sports, news, feature, blah, blah, blah.

Rather, you should be able to reach the end of a year, or whatever time period, and have a set of pictures of which you can say: This is the best I could have done, this is me. These pictures are your voice, your essence, expressed through the camera. And the group of pictures should have the greatest range of qualities that you’re capable of producing, such as clarity, significance, connection, power, subtlety ...

Having such a set of pictures matters, in the grandest sense, because at some point we’ll get to the end of this roller coaster ride and wonder why we didn’t do more, or ideally we’ll look back and say we did the best we could.

My dad, on what turned out to be his deathbed, said to me: “I had a good life.” That’s a grand thing to feel at that point of life.

So, if you can say of each year that it was a good year for your photography, I suppose you’ll be able to say that of your photographic life as well.

It’s worth noting, too, that contests’ greatest value - given that most people don’t win them - is in assessing your work. You can see threads year to year that are either positive, or not so great. Weaknesses and strengths will be apparent, if you’re honest with yourself or you use the process to get feedback  - being honest about your own work is just as hard as editing your own work.

Make sure you keep a copy of what you’ve entered so that you can easily access it year to year. Or if you don’t enter contests, I’d still suggest that you create a separate project or somehow sort your archive so that you can go to each year’s best work easily. Traipsing through years of work can be a great experience for many reasons: Seeing progressions in your work, triggering memories, making mental notes of things you forgot you were going to improve upon, following up on other threads, patting yourself on the back for all the great work you’ve done in your life, and so on.

If your goal now is to be able to enter a portfolio of work in a contest, here are some thoughts on what tends to get recognized. These impressions come from weeks of sitting on judging panels of a great range of contests. I love to judge contests.

You’ll need at least three varied stories. Four stories is better. A story is more than one picture on a subject - very few people enter just two or three pictures on a subject, which is too bad. You should see if a pairing of images, or three together are strong and include them if they are. Stories don’t have to be four or more pictures.

The single images you present should reflect your way of seeing in as great a range as you can muster. There should be at least 10 single images and probably no more than 20.

Given that portfolios are judged after the single categories, judges tend to collect impressions of what is the strongest work through the single categories and then see those threads come together in portfolios. It’s generally true that portfolios include some work that was recognized in the individual categories and rare that a portfolio won’t have a photo or story that didn’t place earlier in the contest.

There really isn’t that much to entering contests in a way that increases your chances of winning. It just takes precise awareness of what your strongest work is, choosing the best images and sequencing them to their strengths. Piece of cake.

Of course, assessing strengths and building sequences of images is what I do every day. If you need help editing your work, I’m here.

So today, start the process of assessing your year and do whatever it takes to finish the year with a smile on your face as you hit the send button for contests you just might win.

I dare you to try this

Nearly departed?