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An interview with juror Aline Smithson


Smithson by Dudik

Aline Smithson, © Dudik

Amanda Dahlgren: You are such a busy artist, curator, writer, and mentor who thoughtfully and generously lends your time and expertise to so many endeavors. How many shows do you typically jury in a year and why do you make the time to do it? What do you enjoy the most about the process?

Aline Smithson: I actually enjoy looking at work and seeing how photographers interpret themes. I consume so many photographs on a daily basis for Lenscratch and for my teaching; juroring just adds to my broad perspective of the contemporary photography landscape. I am very open minded and gravitate to all sorts of approaches. In fact, I just got home from a 9 hour group jury session for a major documentary grant. It was fascinating to juror with a group and to look at significant documentary work in mass. 

I think I juror about 5–10 calls for entry in a year—the experience allows me to see lots of work and connect with some wonderful institutions.

 AD: When you jury a typical show, how many images do you look at and how do you view those images (on your own, at the gallery, etc.)? How many images did you look at for the Self-Portrait exhibit at PhotoPlace Gallery? Are there ever instances where there are so many submissions that someone else helps you with the first cut?

Aline Smithson: It ranges from 300 to 3,000... For the Self-Portrait exhibition, I know that several hundred photographers submitted work, but I'm not sure how many images there were all in total. For this call, I received a folder with many hundreds of images and I had to open each one (more than once), consider it, and move the ones I accepted to a new folder... and then start the process all over again, until I hit the amount of images needed. Losing the last 20–50 images is the hard part as most could truly be part of the show... I don't think the photographers realize what the juror goes through when they have to cut great images or projects... it's a true loss.

Most institutions will not cut any work prior to me seeing it, as the juror might find something interesting that the institution might pass on. There are some large award competitions that will have a small group of pre-jurors, but even after those cuts, we still have 2,000 images to get through. Last year, I was given 750 portfolios to look at in just a few days and select two... that almost killed me!

AD: I’m aware that PhotoPlace Gallery does a blind jury process, where you see just the images in the order the artist submitted; is that standard? Without naming other galleries or institutions if you don’t want to, can you talk about how the process can differ and how that might affect your methodologies or the outcome? For example, in cases where the process is not blind and/or more information is provided (such as artist statements, artist’s websites, etc.), do you still only look at the photographs to see how well they communicate on their own or do you also look at that additional information (either provided by the artist or researched on your own by searching the artist online, for example)? 

Aline Smithson: With most competitions, we are doing blind jurying—no titles were with this call for entry... only numbers. With other organizations, occasionally I will get a folder of images with the name of the artist in the file info, but that is very rare. If I am familiar with the work or the artist, I try to pretend I don't know them, and look at the work in the context of the theme or what the organization is looking for. The only information I get from jurying a PhotoPlace call-for-entry are numbers, but I am able to tell how many images the same artist submitted.

When I am jurying whole portfolios, with the artist's name and statement, I look not only if the project is strong and the work cohesive, but also if the articulation is eloquent. Today, the articulation of the work is critical to its success. When a statement isn't required, sometimes I wish I had more information on certain images so I can better understand the photographer's intention.

AD: With all the work you do on Lenscratch, not to mention mentoring artists and doing portfolio reviews, I’m guessing you sometimes recognize work even when the jurying process is blind. How does that affect your process?

Aline Smithson: If I am familiar with work, it doesn't change how I juror... I don't play favorites as I want every artist to have opportunities. I recently jurored something where I knew 75% of the artists—and not just their work, but many of the photographers personally. I didn't let that get in the way... and I'm sure I disappointed some people, but I truly went with my gut feeling about what work should be selected. I try to be as ethical as possible, as I am a representative for the organization, not for Aline Smithson or Lenscratch.

AD: PhotoPlace Gallery states that “Your images will be viewed by the juror sequentially, in the order you created during the upload process. They will always be considered as individual images—never as a group.” I’m a bit confused by this. I understand that you typically only choose one image from each artist in a show like this and that each image is judged on its own merits, but doesn’t seeing the group of submissions from each artist help you understand the work and also make sure that the artist’s work is consistently strong? Can you explain? Also, perhaps you can talk about how this may differ from other juried shows in which the juror is looking at bodies of work?

Aline Smithson: PhotoPlace Gallery is often looking for singular approaches to a theme... so let's say the theme is Snow. The photographer can submit an array of snow images that don't all have to come from the same project. As a juror, I am looking at each submission as a single image, not needing to connect to the other images in that submission. Some institutions’ calls-for-entry will ask for 5 to 20 images from one body of work, often with a statement included, but this is not the case here... 

AD: I read your juror’s statement, in which you advised artists to “bring something fresh and new to the conversation.” You also talked about certain ideas that you saw repeatedly (hands over faces, window reflections, bird cages, and white nightgowns) in the submissions for this Self-Portrait exhibit. Do you have specific and practical advice for helping artists get past the emulation phase and into work that is uniquely theirs?

Aline Smithson: When we start out as photographers, we often emulate those who have come before us... I would suggest getting inspired by more than just photographs—look at paintings, read poetry, listen to music, and let visuals in your mind inspire you. We all come to our art making with a rich well of life experience—use what is uniquely yours... and not someone else's ideas.

AD: When putting together a juried show, I’m guessing that you are balancing unity and variety in your selections, perhaps avoiding work that is too far out there and—as you talked about—avoiding repetition. Can you talk about what that process actually looks like from a practical standpoint?

Aline Smithson: For me there are always considerations; first and foremost is the quality and artistry of the image. Then I consider if there are too many similar approaches... there were lots of images with mirrors... how many can I show and keep the exhibition as a whole interesting? How many nudes, how many constructed images, how many images of men vs. women... it's all a balancing of ideas, imagery, and subject. Very often, there will be two images almost exactly alike, and I can only choose one of them. I once jurored an exhibition on the color red and there were 4–5 images of a red rose that were almost the exact same image from 4 or 5 photographers... I picked one, but truly, any could have worked... but I couldn't have an exhibition with 5 red roses.

AD: Natasha Egan from the Museum of Contemporary Photography once brought up Roland Barthes’ concept of punctum when talking about why she chose a particular image for a juried show, saying that it “pierced” her because it reminded her of her father. If I remember correctly, she was saying that she felt a certain amount of freedom when jurying a group show for an organization other than MoCP. Can you talk about how your own personal subjectivity may come into play when jurying a show like Self-Portrait? Are there any photographs that you chose for this show (or others in the past) that you just can’t quite explain why they stuck with you? 

Aline Smithson: I am always a sucker for a square image—I like the simplicity and the formality, but that doesn't mean I am not drawn to other approaches. I tend to select images that are singularly strong, that can stand on their own and tell a story in one image. A lot of the work selected felt mysterious to me, work that had its own narrative.  

AD: In thinking about the Self-Portrait show at PhotoPlace Gallery specifically, can you identify any commonalities in the work you chose? And, more instructively perhaps, can you identify any commonalities in the work you didn’t choose? More broadly, what advice do you have for photographers working in self-portraiture?

Aline Smithson: Self-portraiture is such a broad genre... truly, anything goes. I was looking for work where artistry was present. I was looking for work that challenged me, excited and delighted me, and that was elevated on a number of levels. When I juror themed work, there is often a lot of sameness to the submissions... in this case, there were a lot of nudes (most were from men!), a lot of hands over faces, a lot of reflections in windows or mirrors, white nightgowns, bird cages, metaphors that have worn out their welcomes... so I selected the most artful images from those arenas—where the photographer transcended the norm. The key to creating any kind of photography is to make it uniquely yours, not borrow from what has come before.

AD: Can you please explain how you decide which work goes into the Exhibition Gallery and which work goes into the Online Gallery?

Aline Smithson: While both groups were certainly wall-worthy, I felt the work selected for the Gallery Walls would create a lovely exhibition to be seen in person... trust me, it was tough to make that distinction. 

AD: Please tell us more about the piece you chose for the Juror’s Award, JP Terlizzi’s Ralph and Douglas, from the series A Double Life. You mentioned that you appreciated the honesty of the “heart breaking story of living half truths”. The photograph itself is so moving, but, for me, it’s the writing on the journal page that takes me into a deeper understanding and appreciation for this artist’s truth. Without artist’s statements (or journal pages), do you ever worry that you’re missing something?

Aline Smithson: Your question is spot on... the addition of the text in JP's image really elevated the emotion for me, and I do think that sometimes looking at images without context is difficult... but when that happens, I still try to find the power and emotion in the work. Often times, something simple like a shaft of light or a particular gesture, or something that elevates the image to more than just what a photographer sees through the lens is what make it special.

AD: The hope for many artists who enter juried competition is not only to get work in the particular show they are entering, but to attract the attention of the juror for other opportunities. Can you think of examples where you have seen an artist’s work for the first time in a juried show and been so impressed that you somehow championed them for other opportunities?

Aline Smithson: A perfect example is when I jurored a Self-Portrait show for the PhotoPlace Gallery maybe 8 years ago?  A number of the artists reached out to me, to thank me for including them in the exhibition... and we became friends. Heidi Lender, one of the photographers, became a member of our Six Shooters Collective, and Honey Lazar and I still communicate regularly—in fact, I just shared a new project of hers on Lenscratch. I have often been intrigued by a photographer's work and have gone on to feature them on Lenscratch... and since I regularly exchange information with curators and photo center directors, I share work I have seen in shows. 

AD: I know that at this point in your career, you have the jurying process down to a science, but would you be willing to share some early “mistakes” or ways in which your process has evolved over the years?

Aline Smithson: Ha! I'm not sure that is true... I have had to deal with some really clunky jurying programs in the past... with one in particular, when you hit a certain button, you lost the ability to ever get the image back. I know I hit that button a few times by mistake, on work that should have been in the exhibition. I also have a hard time rejecting work—as someone who also submits to competitions, and just like everyone else, gets rejected, I know how that feels. Each time I have to cut an image, I feel badly... I am trying to not get as emotionally attached to the images!

AD: Is there anything else you’d like to share to help demystify the process of jurying or entering juried shows for us?

Aline Smithson: I can't speak more strongly about how subjective the process is... and that each juror brings a unique perspective to the experience. Four years ago, I was asked to juror the Slow Exposures Exhibition for the festival in Georgia, along with Alexa Dilworth, from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. The Slow Exposures organization always selects one juror from the South and one from elsewhere (I was the elsewhere!). Alexa and I each made our selections independently and when we met via Skype to discuss our selections, we discovered we only had 25% of the images in common... and then the fun of fighting for our selects began. This year, we were again selected to juror together, and since that first experience, we have become dear friends and often discuss photography together, so I surely thought we would have lots of work in common. But alas, we again had only 25% of the images in common, and again, we had to argue our favorites, but the process made us both look at each other's picks in a new light. So the irony is that what one juror might not select, might be picked as the winning image by another juror. It doesn't make the photograph have any more or less value, it's simply one person's reaction to it. Artist's should not take rejections personally!

Amanda Dahlgren is a San Diego-based photographic artist whose work opens dialogues about the way we live as a society and what we choose to value. She is currently an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Grossmont College, a Gallery Educator at San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts, Lead Producer for OpenShow San Diego, Contributing Writer for Lenscratch, and Chairperson for the West Chapter of the Society for Photographic Education.