Adding a new twist to my annual March Madness photo tournament this past spring, I gave participants the chance to help me select which images I would submit to the 2022 Iowa State Fair. The bracket was divided into themes to coincide with each of the four categories I planned to enter (Iowa Landscape, US Landscape, "The Open Road" Special Division, and Black & White Landscape) and people voted in head to head pairings to choose which photos would advance through those respective rounds until a champion was crowned in each.
The following photos were chosen best of the crop, based on total votes from newsletter subscribers and friends on social media...
IOWA LANDSCAPE- "Weathered Soul" (Cedar County)
U.S. LANDSCAPE- "Buffalo River" (Ozark National Forest, Arkansas)
"THE OPEN ROAD"- "Right Hand Fork" (Cache National Forest, Utah)
BLACK & WHITE LANDSCAPE- "Storm Clouds" (Cedar County, Iowa)
Just for fun, the four category winners were then matched to decide the 2022 tournament champion, and "Weathered Soul" was picked favorite overall. This was really touching to me- while all of my photos are meaningful, "Weathered Soul" is one of those that taps extra deep in terms of personal significance. (I wrote about the reasons in a follow-up essay, which you can read HERE.) As noted at the time, however, while the vote winners in each category would be given heavy consideration in deciding which photos I'd send to Des Moines, ultimately I reserved the option of making alternate selections where I saw fit. Ironically, that photo ended up being one of those cases.
In hindsight, I think I overthought things. While I love this photo and it meant so much to realize that it resonates with others too, I've also served as a judge for a number of photo competitions and know the conversations that go on behind the scenes. Unfortunately, there is often at least one person on the panel that is overly opinionated and capable of swaying the consensus; and in my experience such folks love to bolster their ego by being ultra critical of elements that could be deemed as "cliche." (Please know that I am not saying this is necessarily the case with Iowa State Fair judging... I do not know who the judges were for this year's competition. It's just something that I've personally seen play out- frequently- in my insiders view of other photo contests- and I probably let that get in my head a bit too much here.)
I could just imagine someone turning their nose up at this image- as a contest entry- because it's a barn and a rainbow. I can almost hear them describing these features as cliched. I disagree whole heartedly, mind you. To me, photography is all about preserving special moments in time; and there are few things capable of stopping us in our tracks, making us take pause and notice, and feel a deeper unspoken connection with the magic of life as the sight of a rainbow. (So please keep photographing them, keep recording them, keep sharing- and know they'll never fail to touch those who take such things to heart...) I really regret that I let that get away from me with this submission. It's rare anymore that I let the perceived opinions of others influence my decisions, but in this case I was playing the odds in terms of the competition. I had a goal of trying to get all four entries chosen for display at the fair, and while it wasn't a choice made lightly I did end up selecting a newer image that required a bit more technical skill, and which I was feeling good about too.
My submission for the Iowa Landscapes category was "Country Road (Take Me Home)"-
For what it's worth, "Country Road" was photographed while standing right beside the barn (actually it's a corn crib) featured in "Weathered Soul." And "Storm Clouds" was photographed from the road right here- for that shot I was standing in the ditch just down from that hay bale. Looking back through my portfolio and across my photography career it's pretty incredible to know how many of both my, and my audiences, all time favorite images were photographed within a half mile of my childhood home. It just goes to show that we don't necessarily need to travel far and wide chasing iconic scenes in our photography- beauty can be found anywhere that your heart is open to seeing it.
Believe it or not though (and I'm probably sounding like a hypocrite here) "Storm Clouds" was the other image I called an audible on in selecting my final fair submissions. Since I usually don't print in black and white, I went ahead and ordered a few small 4x6 inch trial prints of my various options, and in those comparisons felt that "Half Dome" (Yosemite National Park, California- seen below) was clearly better. I ordered that in an 8x12 for the fair, but at the same time received a client request for "Storm Clouds" and another from the tournament "Tangled" -so I had those printed in the larger size too. Sometimes it just takes seeing a photo printed larger to really appreciate it, and upon getting those final prints I was definitely second guessing my decision. But the fair deadline was looming and I didn't have time to place another order, so "Half Dome" went to Des Moines, and the other two turned out to be awesome new pieces for my clients home.
"Half Dome" (Yosemite National Park, California)
"Tangled" (Cache National Forest, Utah)
The deadline for Iowa State Fair photo entries is early June, judging takes place a few weeks later, and the first hint of results arrives in entrants' mail boxes sometime after the Fourth of July. Complete results aren't released until an awards ceremony on the eve of the fair in August, but yellow post cards are sent out to let people know if any of their submissions have been chosen for display; and if there are any place winners among those entries a small "Award" sticker will be attached indicating such.
If you follow any Iowa-based photographers on social media it's not hard to know when these announcement cards start to appear. People eagerly post pictures of their results, usually with some commentary of disappointment or joy- though of the photographers I know and follow, it's pretty universally accepted that simply having any of your images chosen for display really is an honor. Despite being a venue known for prize winning hogs, butter cow sculptures and fried you-name-it on a stick, this really is a high caliber photography competition. Each year it draws thousands of entries from all over the country and even around the world, and only about 20-25% of all photos entered will be put on display at the fair.
I began seeing friends posting their fair results a couple weeks ago, and texted my Mom to remind her to keep an eye on the mail (I listed my entry under my family's Iowa address- it's a pride thing, much the same reason I still display Tipton on my show banners. I'll probably write a more thorough explanation someday, but long story short it's just a way of honoring where I come from, and putting my best forward in wanting to represent that well.) She sent the following in response-
Not necessarily the results I was hoping for, but again, there's certainly accomplishment in having anything picked for display at all. And also drawing on my own experience as a judge, I know how subjective these decisions can be, and how dramatically contest results can be swayed by the taste and opinions of just one or two individuals. On the contrary, I had many, many of those who take interest and follow my work provide excellent feedback and literal votes of confidence for the images I submitted (even those alternates I entered had proven their appeal and advanced to the final rounds in this spring's tournament.) All told it was a fun way to further engage my audience, and hey- that Superintendent's Award (having all 4 of your entries chosen for display in a given year) is still out there as one of my goals on the horizon. I've been really hustling to create new work lately, so hopefully many of you will join in again next March as we sort through another pool of images and determine which will make the cut for my state fair entries in 2023.
(And also- I'm not quite going to get back to Iowa in time for next month's State Fair, so if anybody does happen to attend and wants to check out the photography exhibit- please let me know which of those four photos from the image at the top of this post was displayed. Due to the volume of entries they don't really tell us specifics, so you are left to find out my attending in person or picking up your work after the fair is over. I am curious to know which made it in...)