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A fair is picture perfect
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Flowers. Have you ever really looked at flowers?
How about kittens, have you ever really looked at kittens?
How about dogs, you know, cute, cuddly puppies?
Little kids? Brothers,? Sisters? BFFs?
The Royal Gorge? Grand Canyon? The St. Louis Arch?
If you’ve ever judged 4-H and/or open class photography at a county fair, you have – over and over again. As the Barton County Fair gets rolling this weekend, it signals the start of the fair season.
Some years back, I was contacted by an area county extension agent to judge the photography entries. My name got on a list and now I get asked by counties as far away as Dickenson. I have been to Ellsworth, Lyons, McPherson, Hutchinson and Abilene.
This endeavor has taken me to a sweltering, somewhat smelly barns with only one of those big wind-tunnel-sized fans to circulate the air. It didn’t help much.
I had no idea what to expect. I mean, I have been a photographer since I could hold an old Kodak Brownie. I went to college with plans to make taking pictures my career. I have been accused of having a camera surgically attached to my hand.
I love the medium and I love photographic imagery.
I used to use film for God’s sake. I developed this film, made contact sheets and prints in safe light-lit darkrooms.
But, a bachelor’s degree and 20 years of photo-snapping experience did not prepare me for this. For those of you who have never judged county fair competitions, let me give you a primer.
First, you sit in an uncomfortable folding chair in the above mentioned barn. Next, a pleasant volunteer (often a kid) drops a stack of matted photos wrapped in plastic bags in front you. Now you start judging? No. Next, the doe-eyed youngster whose creation you are about to critique sits across the folding table from you, often accompanied by their parents.
You have an audience. Well, it’s more than an audience. You have little angelic faces, some very young, starring at you, waiting to hear they will become the next Ansell Adams. You have the mom or dad, obviously tired and stressed from the heat and from dealing with their children and their children’s livestock, starring you.
Now, you judge.
You carefully remove the pictures from their baggies one at a time, look at the flower or butterfly or kitten or whatever, rub your chin and say “uhmmmmmmm.”
It may be in focus. It may not be. It may have been properly exposed. It might not have been. You might be able to tell what it is a picture of. You might not be able to tell.
Before I go any further, you must realize these kids may have just picked up their mother’s little point-and-shoot digital camera a matter of weeks ago. Some counties have a 4-H photography leader who offers guidance on such matters as composition and lighting, and takes them on photo safaris to some botanical garden or zoo. Some do not.
So, these kiddos are often released into the wide world of photography with little instruction. You don’t want to dash their dreams or crush their aspirations. You don’t want to incur the wrathful gaze of the parents.
You carefully, and artfully, chose your words. You learn to quickly spot the photo’s strong points and highlight them. Then you award ribbons, ranging from blue being the best to white.
In all honesty, most kids and parents take whatever you save very well, and there are a lot of stunning photographs in these competitions. These kids work and try hard to do their best.
That is why I take these judging gigs seriously. Since I am a camera guy, it is my raison d’etre to spark others to take up the art form. If I can offer a few words of encouragement, point out areas of possible improvement and provide a little bit of inspiration, then it is all worthwhile.
Most county fair organizers are desperate to find judges for anything from rabbits to vegetables. They are very appreciative of your efforts and, in most cases, provide a meal, a small stipend and reimbursement for mileage.
You should check into it. It is a chance to see our youth in a positive light and help give them some positive influence.
And, if you get a chance, head out to the Barton County Fair. It is worth the trip.
Dale Hogg is the managing editor of the Great Bend Tribune. He can be reached at