Why do we enter photography competitions?

Yoga toy soldier and green army men This high contrast black and white photo is my CUPOTY 01 submission last year that made the shortlist in the Manmade category. “Awareness” is from a series of yoga poses with soldiers symbolizing the external forces trying to break the yoga practicer’s concentration. See more External Forces and Yoga poses in the collection called “Seeking Simplicity.”


In 2019, I took a stab at a photo contest that was in its first year of existence: Close Up Photographer of the Year (CUPOTY). I was a fresh, eager photographer desiring some feedback. I made the first cut with one photo that year. Making that first cut thrilled me. Looking at the final category winners, I hoped that my work would rise to that level over time. The quality of the images was stunning.

Now in its second year, here I am again. I watched the organization support and promote the close-up world. CUPOTY was receiving accolades from other larger entities like well-established magazines. I felt akin to them, as we both were working on making our way. I decided to submit more images the second time around. I held my breath in wait. COVID seemed to be impacting everything, slowing down everyone in their tracks. While I waited for news on who would make that first cut again, I also asked myself why I felt the need to compete.



My answer: challenge.

The format of a contest requires that you cull your images, categorize them, and process them as best you can. You must organize yourself to follow the rules and deadlines. Discipline leads to a sense of accomplishment. More than anything, CUPOTY allowed me the chance to see if what I saw resonated with anyone else. In art, it is typical to get swept up in your own emotions of creating.

There is meaning in your images that others will never experience at the same depth. Yet, if an image has some appeal to others, it does make you feel a bit more on track. Not everyone is mobile enough to go out and see the world, whether limited by economics or physical limitations. I’d like to offer a window for them to see and experience, to feel even a drop of what I felt. I remind myself that it is an audience of one. But to that one, it means the world.

While it took longer than I expected, one day, CUPOTY announced the shortlist. As they revealed the first category lists, my name was absent. My logical mind told my childlike-self that all was okay as my feelings of disappointment started to rise. Then, as the categories were dwindling to the last few, I finally saw my name in Intimate Landscapes. CUPOTY selected three of my photos. In the next category, Manmade World, my name appeared again. Again, three shots. I sat in amazement, looking at my pictures amid the other images from across the globe. The collection is a beautiful respite for anyone that needs a visual vacation.

No matter what happens from here, I’ve reaped the benefit. With COVID, I needed a sense of purpose, of having something to look forward to, and CUPOTY gave me that. I worked with this in mind. I learned new skills for processing photos; I became more fluid with my camera. I refined what I saw.


The element that ties all the photos together.

The common element between these six photos is that I took each of them while on a photo workshop. Exposure to something new is helpful in the creative process. Add teaching and critiquing to the equation, and I had profound breakthroughs. Each of these instructors, each talented in their photographic captures, gave me a new perspective. I push myself on my own, but the role of the teacher is to help you see beyond your limits. Each had competence, enthusiasm, and creativity to offer. They each delivered messages at the right times for me to understand how to expand and push past limits.

Manmade world close-up photography category.




The CUPOTY 02 shortlist in the Manmade category with three of my photos selected. The range of ideas in this selection is just jaw dropping. My photos in this category could best be described as decay art.



Intense learning about artful abstracts with Art Wolfe.

The three photos selected for the “Manmade World” category fit into my website category called “Healing the Past: Decay Images.” These three photos are very abstract, which isn’t surprising. They were all taken during an Art Wolfe workshop entitled, “Abstract Astoria Photography Retreat.”

For four days, and for the next several after that, my brain wouldn’t stop. I closed my eyes at night and couldn’t fall asleep because I saw abstracts on the back of my eyelids. When awake, I couldn’t look at anything without trying to find a pattern. I saw abstracts in the foam on the top of a coffee, in the food on my plate, and the tiles on the bathroom floor. Everywhere, I saw abstracts. I feared I was entering a stage of mental disorder.

Art describes this workshop as “an intensive field session.” Intense was the best way to describe what I felt. He opened the sessions with a discussion about different art styles and artists. We looked for Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and Picasso in rust. We sought out impressionism, cubism, and expressionism in peeling paint.

In the field, the subjects we worked with would be objects you’d normally walk past as fast as possible on a typical day. We worked with worn-out objects, equipment turned out into empty lots and forgotten, their usefulness long since history. At one point, a woman interrupted my shooting and asked me excitedly, “Is that Art Wolfe?” pointing towards him in the distance. “The photographer that does the TV show’ Travels to the Edge?’ “She never asked me why I was squatting at the base of a trash can taking photos.

Daily critiques refined my eye.

Daily critiques focused on looking at my choices with care. Like a painter, Art would move the canvas around and round to gather new perspectives. He examined colors. He taught about the importance of how a line affects the mood of the piece. It wasn’t enough to have a technically-achieved photo; it needed transformation into art. He would ask, “where is the picture within the picture?” as he wielded the crop tool to reduce the complexity of what we had produced.

What is close-up photography?

Close-up photography focuses on details but doesn’t include the larger scene. Sometimes, there is a short distance between the object and the camera. For shots where we can get close, such as these three shortlisted photos for the Manmade World, photographers can use a macro lens. This allows us to expand the view. As the viewer, you see the picture twice as large as what your naked eye would see. I love the perspective because it reveals what we miss with our own eyes. This type of shooting also requires attention to looking for the little story.

“Celebration” burst forward to me as two people throwing their arms up in a celebration. I found these “people” celebrating on the back of an abandoned railcar where years of paint and rust swirled in a dance.

Abstract blue and orange art “Celebration” is a close-up abstract photo in the wall art collection called “Healing the Past: decay images.” Within rust and paint swirls, I see two people, arms stretched overhead in jubilation.


“Brainstorming” is a piece that makes me smile from the memory of its discovery. We were exploring an old warehouse, and as I wandered room to room, I thought I’d run into the two guys from “American Pickers.” There was “stuff” everywhere masked with dust and cobwebs. I bent down, looking at an old chalkboard with scratches. One of the workers gave me permission to “go ahead and take it out to the light.” As I worked this piece, Art came up behind me and said, “last time I was here, I found that too. I’m glad you are shooting it.” I felt like I had found a buried treasure.

Yellow lines on black background “Brainstorming” is an abstract photo of what appears to be synapses firing or lightning bolts. Yet another decay art movement example selected by CUPOTY 02 in the shortlist for the Manmade category.



In the final Manmade World selection, I call this image “Optimism.” Radiating the warmth and the energy of the sun, I saw a person floating in this scene. Or a balloon released to its freedom. Or lava bursting up out of the flow. Whatever you might happen to see, the mood is upbeat and free. “Optimism” is a close-up of many paint jobs that have weathered over time, peeling in layers on a 1948 Chrysler.

Peeling paint art with yellow and orange.
This peeling paint art called “Optimism” was selected for the Manmade category of CUPOTY 02. The bright yellow and orange radiate the warmth and energy of the sun.




Intimate Landscape Photography category.

The three photos that cleared the hurdle in the Intimate Landscapes selections came from a long lens, the kind that the layperson sees us photographers and says, “Wow, what a camera.” The camera is the same; the lens becomes the tool that helps us with how we are getting the shot we want. The previous images in Manmade World required that I get as close as possible to the subject. However, water and other landscapes that are, by nature, out of reach, need a different strategy. That’s when a long lens will enable us to get close in another way.

All three of these photos are of reeds growing in the water. Water is a symbol of emotion, and the reed is about surrendering to the universal will and not getting caught up in worldly ambitions. Since these three photos became a group, I could see the gift of the message: to watch for any ego-driven desires and trust that my work is about serving others. I doubt I would have realized the connection without bringing my photography and writing together.

The CUPOTY 02 Intimate Landscape shortlist of my three selected photos. All of the photographers captured amazing little scenes that focus us on places we may be familiar with but haven’t taken the time to appreciate.


Abstract nature photography inspired by autumn in Maine with Nathaniel Smalley.

The first two photos CUPOTY selected for the Intimate Landscapes category were taken in Maine in the fall. “Innovators” shows a pattern of the reeds bent, forming triangles. The triangles point in a direction away from the rest of the reeds. Symbolically, I named this for those that take risks in order to innovate.


Black and white reed photo
“Innovators” is black and white nature photography that was shortlisted by CUPOTY 02. A handful of reeds bend and point in a direction that I symbolically see as innovative.



The second photo selected in the CUPOTY 02 shortlist is called “Shifts,” which shows the transition occurring from summer to autumn. Green leaves in the trees above give way to orange leaves reflected in the water. This setting is the same location as the “Innovators” photo. There were stunning reflection images of autumn colors on the lake in every direction I looked. What is interesting is how you focus on something different as you see the setting in black and white versus color.

Autumn colors and reeds in water One of my abstract nature photographs selected for CUPOTY 02’s shortlist of Intimate Landscapes. “Shifts” represents the transition from summer to fall with the reflection of turning sugar maple leaves.


These were on Nathaniel Smalley’s Autumn Hill’s and Harbors tour, his boyhood home. What was so appealing on this tour were the little scenes he was familiar with down country roads. He would spy a river, a pond, a lake from the break in the trees. Because we weren’t in a populated tourist area, we would have the scene to ourselves.

While it was beautiful to see Acadia National Park and all the harbors and lighthouses, I loved the little islands of nature waiting for discovery down narrow roads. Nathaniel is an explorer who puts in the time to find unique places. All of us walked away not only with memorable images but with inside jokes that still make me chuckle. Outsiders heard our laughter and asked to join in on our tour. He has a special gift for making most everyone a friend. From a photography standpoint, Nathaniel keys in on each individual’s readiness for new learning. Quietly, he guided my eye to see the world in front of me in a new light.


William Neill, the big landscape of Yosemite, and a focus on intimate settings.

The last image CUPOTY shortlisted in the Intimate Landscape category is from my “I don’t want to shoot the same image” moment. That is my photography pet peeve. There were two of us enjoying a private session with William Neill in Yosemite National Park. We enjoyed hearing of his tales of the park, of knowing Ansel Adams, and his perspective on taking and processing landscape photos. Meeting William well before dawn and working through the end of the day, he urged us to look at Yosemite National Park not for the sweeping landscape but rather the more intimate setting within the broader scope.

At the end of our session with him, the sun was beginning to set, and the color started popping. With precision, William placed us for the best use of light by taking us to a pond that held the reflection of Half Dome. The setting was magical. Yet, at the end of a long day of shooting, my energy was waning. I didn’t want us to both go home with the same photo. There was one perspective that made that shot stellar, and I couldn’t find another that did it justice. I walked about, trying to decide if there was another view.

High key reed photo
This high key nature photograph shortlisted in Intimate Landscapes for CUPOTY 02 shows the flowing cursive lines of isolated reeds reflecting in the water. “Language of Mirroring” lives in the Seeking Simplicity collection.

William watched me walk around as he lay on the shore with a piece of grass sticking out of his mouth like Huck Finn. He pointed out the shape of the reeds in the middle of the pond to me. He knew I liked abstracts. I saw the scene and loved the calligraphy strokes in the reflection. William shared his love of place, his depth of knowledge of it, not only of the land but how the light would shift over the day. I appreciated that he didn’t force me to find the Half Dome photo and could see I needed my place to create.

Now it is a matter of waiting for the final reveal from CUPOTY sometime in September for the winners. The challenge gave me many growth opportunities, so I’ve already won. I’ve enjoyed looking at the submissions from my peers and feel amazed at the level of their work. They inspire me to grab my camera and get out there to see what else I might discover in the close-up world I might have missed.

I’ve relived so many great memories from these trips. Reflecting on these photos, I realize how having teachers in our lives bring us towards our goals so much faster than us struggling on our own. Each of these photographers lent their time and expertise to help me hone my practice. My gratitude to you three, and all the others I’ve had the pleasure of working with. I appreciate the chance to share this work and the journey and thank you for learning about the story behind the pictures. Let me know if you have a favorite among these photos.

Photography Workshop Leaders

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