Photo by Joe Rudko/The AS Review

Photo by Joe Rudko/The AS Review

Matt Crowley/The AS Review

For the fifth year in a row, the City of Bellingham and the Whatcom Museum are challenging photographers of all ages and skill levels to find what makes Bellingham special.

The Essence of Bellingham photo competition is currently accepting entries through May 14. All residents of Whatcom County, barring those on the jury, are invited to participate.

The competition seeks to select and preserve photographs that capture the “essence” of Bellingham.

“If you were to try to illustrate 100 years from now what life was like in Bellingham over the last 12 months, that would be key content,” said Essence of Bellingham Coordinator Steven Niedermeyer.

“In the three years that I’ve been on board, we’ve tried to select work that is emblematic of Bellingham as a location, a lifestyle and a community,” said Western photography teacher Garth Amundson. Amundson is one of five jurors for the competition.

“If you look at past years, we can find examples which illustrate physical location as well as political mood,” Amundson said.

Besides the “essence” of Bellingham, judges are also looking for photographic quality. According to the competition website, higher resolution photos will be favored over those with lower resolution.

Those interested may enter online or by mail. Photos must be of subjects either in or related to Bellingham. While photos can be enhanced for quality, excessive “doctoring” of images is not allowed. A complete list of rules and application instructions can be found on the City of Bellingham website.

All entries are added into the Whatcom Museum’s photo collection. “Best of show” and individual class winners are given a certificate and recognition by the mayor and city council and will have their work on public display.

Over 200 entries were received during the first year of the competition and more than 700 were received last year. But despite the high numbers, few Western students choose to participate.

“I think if they understood how easy it was to submit and that the intent of the competition isn’t just the competitive process, more would participate,” Niedermeyer said.

“Having work from Western only makes sense because we are such a huge part of this community and bring a lot to the table,” Amundson said. “I also want as many students to enter in order to continue building bridges with the community we live in.”
Once all of the entries have been received, the jury begins the selection process. Each photo is judged within the class it was submitted (college, amateur, etc.) until a first, second and third place are agreed upon, as well as three “best of show” winners.

“In past years, we’ve made a very concerted effort to award as many honorable mentions as possible in order to encourage participants and maintain enthusiasm for EOB,” Amundson said.

After the photos have been broken down into their respective classes, the jurors begin breaking them into subjects, which are then judged again for “best of subject” awards.

“These subjects are created each year after receiving the entries so they’re not predetermined.  We did this on purpose in case we wanted to add or remove a subject based on the number and type of photos received,” Niedermeyer said. “Participants can look at past years’ subjects, including how many entries were submitted for each, to give them clues on what’s popular or what might be an opportunity to cover better.”

As with all art competitions, Essence of Bellingham showcases local talent, but this competition showcases a community as well.

“This type of competition is an inclusive activity that encourages the community to represent themselves, literally. You can pick up a camera and try to embody what it means to be a part of the Bellingham community,” Amundson said.

According to Niedermeyer, the competition has historic significance as well.

“Many photos are being born and end up dying digital,” he said. “In the past, you used to have a physical photo or negative that could be archived in a museum. However, with digital cameras in play in almost every hand in the community, those images are being lost with hard drive crashes, et cetera.  So one of the goals of the competition is to preserve this glimpse into the life of Bellingham.”