As I prepare to create a post including some of my favorite photos from 2010 there is something that bugs me about seeing the "Best of" postings around the internet that get posted on photographer websites, media blogs, and twitter and facebook postings.
As defined by Webster.com
best adj \'best\ superlative of good
1 : excelling all others <the best student>
2 : most productive of good : offering or producing the greatest advantage, utility, or satisfaction <what is the best thing to do>
3 : most, largest <it rained for the best part of their vacation>
Best is a definitive term but photographs are subjective. As much as a photojournalist tries to be objective in the moment of taking a photograph everything around them changes how and what they produce. Heck a photographer’s existence can influence without intention a subject’s actions and reactions.
Admittedly I've fallen into the trap of “Best of” postings myself and so do many photographers and companies as they try to quantify a previous year. I edit the thousands of photos I created down to a few every year not for the joy of it because honestly it ends of being a bit agonizing and difficult to decide which of your children to leave out of your "best". I do it to get ready to enter a couple photo competitions and because I want to display good examples of my work from the past year in one spot. It also helps me learn how well I did and where I need to explore and improve.
Every year I shave the selection down to about 40 and then it becomes exceedingly more difficult to separate out photos that are technically good from photographs I like for one reason or another. Perhaps it was the obstacle I maneuvered, the adventure I took, or the feeling I had when I took a photograph but I often find those reasons coloring my final selections.
In one of my first portfolios back in college as I was searching for my first real paying staff photography job, I had one photograph in it that I wasn't in love with but everyone around me said was one of my best. I took the photo on a trip to Las Vegas with the the Bowling Green State University football team as they prepared to play in a bowl game. One of the Flying Elvi parachuted into a pep rally near a Las Vegas landmark and I captured it in black and white. I liked the photo, but I wasn't sure it was one of my best. Their comments influenced me to keep it in my portfolio.
So best? What is this "best" thing. When I'm editing my own work technical merits come into play but so does the emotion of the moment. Whether it is the emotion held by the photograph or the emotion I'm having at that moment in time. There are days when I prefer the happy photos and there are others when I prefer the sad photos. It is all subjective. Even the technical merits can be argued by those who want to delve deep into why a photos is technically good.
I judged a local monthly photo competition a couple years ago that one of my friends judged a few months prior. After the competition was over I was asked by several entrants why I had chosen one of the images as a winner. It turned out a contestant entered the same photograph of a lily in a vase on a black background into both competitions. From me I judged it as one of the award winners because I liked the use of lines and the contrast of the black and white. To my friend it wasn't even in the final selection and knowing this individual I know he doesn't find photographs of flowers to be all that compelling.
If there is one thing I've learned from being a judge and watching judging is that the final selection is subjective. Sitting in a darkened room while watching judges make their choices I’ve heard comments from seasoned veteran photographers during and afterward that disagreed with the final selection. If you sat a panel of different judges in the same room with the same photos you will discover that those same photos will not win the second time around or at the very least they will not be in the same winning order.
There was a photo a few years back that won first place that was clearly out of focus but was a decisive moment of a cycling event as a deer jumped out of the bushes and ran across the biking path. To the photographers I worked with and talked to, we were confused at what the judges saw and even wondered how it made it into the final pick. All we saw was that it was out of focus from movement of the camera or not being focus sharp in camera. Was the decisive moment enough to put it above the rest of photographs for that category?
I’ve personally had photographs that win first place in the Ohio Newspaper Photographs Association monthly contest but in the annual competition are dismissed in the first round of editing by the judges. I’ve even had a photograph I loved which did not place at all in monthly competition but took second place in the annual competition.
Judges are subjective. So are photographers when we make our selections. We are affected by our environment, our emotions and our subject’s emotions as we create the photographs. It is natural that despite all good intentions of bringing objectivity to it that our favorite photographs are subjectively chosen from the moment we click the shutter. So best is really the wrong terminology to use. I understand why though. It was started decades ago because It is descriptive and more definitive term than saying “Favorite Photos of 2010” or “Top Posts of 2010”.
I’ll try not to let it ruffle my feathers, but everyone should know the best isn’t the best all the time. They are simply someone’s favorites of the moment.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think.