“Fluffy Gray Kitten” is a photograph of a straggly-haired blue-gray kitten with white paws and chest. The cat, borrowed from a Glendora pet store, leans on a log and is backlit so that a halo of bright light appears behind it, and its hair appears fuzzier — fluffy. Its head is cocked to the side, and it has that serious, confused look that kittens get when they pause for a moment from being completely silly and frantic. You’ve seen this kind of photo countless times: on posters, calendars and gift cards, and on the sweaters and mugs of some obsessive cat lady in your office. This type of image is so familiar that it’s nearly impossible to judge any single example, like this one, on its own merits. You see it and, if you think of it at all, you just say to yourself, “There’s another one of those cat pictures.” But this particular picture of the fluffy gray kitten was judged, carefully, and it won the gold medal at the most prestigious amateur photo contest in the country. The award made its creator — Joanne Stolte, a business consultant to ophthalmologists — so proud that she could only scream and jump around when she found out she won.

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Stolte’s victory is particularly sweet because she is so new to the amateur-photo-club circuit. She only began seriously entering competitions last year and, at 59, is quite young to be in a photo club. Most members are retired. But, encouraged by her early success, she is determined to become one of the highest-scoring photographers in the entire Photographic Society of America, the parent organization to thousands of small, local photo clubs.

Recently, Stolte was my host at a meeting of the Glendora Color Slide Group, which gathers on the first and third Tuesdays of the month. In person, she looks even younger than her age. She has short, untamed curly hair and wears no makeup. I watch as Stolte and a couple dozen other enthusiasts set up a slide projector and metal foldout chairs inside a large hall in a bank in San Dimas. Each member brings in three or four slides for that night’s categories. It might be nature and travel one meeting, photojournalism and color slides the next. A member of some nearby club comes to judge. On this Tuesday, Stan Watt says a few words about each photograph and then gives a final score between 3 and 9. There’s a lovely picture of a mountain covered in trees, and Watt says, “This is the kind of shot that makes me want to go there. Um, 8 points.” Then a shot of fishermen and some colorful boats in a marina. “It’s always fun to see how people work. But the slide is busy. 7.5 points.” There is a sameness to many of the photos. A lot of shots of mountains standing over their reflections in lakes; surfers; bucking broncos at a rodeo. On other nights it’s mostly kittens, puppies and birds. That’s because club members often travel on shooting trips together or share suggestions about photogenic places to visit. They’ll share a kitten for an evening and take turns shooting it.

It’s strange that Stolte seems a bit nervous. She’s already won the biggest award in the nation; why does she care about her scores at this small gathering? But she does. Everyone does. That’s what being in a photo club is about. She explains the many parallel and Byzantine scoring systems clubbers use to compare themselves to each other. Each local club gives scores every session; those are added up at the end of the year, and the highest scorers receive awards at that club’s annual banquet. At the same time, photographers from around the world submit their photos to international competitions. U.S. photographers who place high in these competitions then apply for special recognition from the Photographic Society of America, which, of course, has its own competition, the one Stolte won. Club members teach each other the principles that ensure success at these various contests: Shots of animals or humans should have a speck of shiny light in each eye; vistas must have the horizon above the centerline; the point of interest is best above and to the left or right of the picture’s middle. These guidelines set up the boundary within which each person can explore his creative vision.

All this seems so far removed from the image I have of photographers. I think of Ansel Adams, alone on a mountaintop; his only judge is himself. Or those photojournalists at the World Trade Center or in Bosnia, trying desperately to take a shot completely different from anyone else’s. But the judgment and rules of photo clubs offer a safe place for non-artists to create. These ophthalmology consultants and microbiologists and locksmiths learn how to take slides that look just like the professional ones they see on calendars. And, if you went to a meeting, you’d see how happy and proud they are to have accomplished this, and you’d be glad that these clubs exist.