Thursday, September 3, 2009
The 5th annual Art of Photography Show features 111 winning photographs that emerged from an international pool of 16,000 entries. It is one of the largest juried photography competitions in the US and by far the largest juried exhibition in San Diego history. We'll talk to the woman responsible for selecting the winning photographs.
The Art of Photography Show is currently on view through November 1st at the Lyceum Theater in downtown's Horton Plaza. You can see some of the winning photographs on the KPBS arts blog Culture Lust.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. San Diego's Art of Photography Show is emerging as one of the premier international photographic competitions. This year, more than 16,000 photographs were submitted. There are 111 winners, which are now on exhibit at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza. There was only one judge for this 5th annual Art of Photography Show. My guest, Charlotte Cotton, examined and evaluated the thousands of entries. The winners she chose are both technically brilliant and artistically compelling. Charlotte Cotton's real job is as curator and head of the photography department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And, Charlotte, welcome to These Days.
CHARLOTTE COTTON (Photography Department Curator, Los Angeles County Museum of Art): Oh, thank you very much for inviting me on.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, the first question that comes to mind is how do you possibly look at and judge 16,000 photographs?
COTTON: Well, you need a good few days. I went to a hotel room, we darkened it, and we projected all of the images over the course of a few days. So it was a little bit of a marathon but it was a unique experience and I'm really glad to have had it.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, I guess you had to kind of organize, a certain criteria…
CAVANAUGH: …you know, in order to just get through the first couple of thousand. What kinds of criteria did you use?
COTTON: Well, the most important thing is that the Art of Photography prize is pretty unique within contemporary art photography competitions because it is a truly open competition. I mean, typically, for a contemporary photography prize, you might expect to see two or three thousand submissions from people who, in the main, are coming through MSA programs in art schools. And this prize, because it's – I mean, as the numbers reflect, it feels really open to anyone whether you're an amateur, whether you're a professional, if you have some independent practice, whether you're a journalist or whether you're a fine art photographer. So the most important thing was to think of a theme which didn't immediately exclude anyone who had entered into the competition. The theme that emerged for me actually very quickly within the process was one which I'd say without sounding too much like a hippie was about wonder and human experience, which is obviously, you know, the enduring capacity of photography, whether you're a professional or amateur, which is to capture your experiences to speak of human life. And that really emerged as the theme for the final selection.
CAVANAUGH: And did anything surprise you about what it is you saw. You say that there was – you perhaps got a rebirth of the wonder about photography.
CAVANAUGH: What is it about the photographs that made that renaissance inside of you?
COTTON: Well, I think part of it is just, you know, that does – as with all visual artists, you know, whether you're working, you know, in isolation or within a big artistic community, I mean, part of being an artist is being really sentient to what's going on in the world like you are a chronicler of the world. And I think that, you know, in the last couple of years, looking at batches of contemporary art photography in the kind of unsolicited portfolios that I see, certainly I think the idea of returning to some very profound and human and personal experiences seems really high on the agenda. You know, whereas a few years ago, I think photographers were very caught up with new technologies. I mean, moving towards digital photography and the idea that within Photoshop you can radically reshape or you can make an imagined world. That seems to have dropped off the agenda and it seems the last couple of years the idea of being able to very – in a very distilled way and a very meaningful way communicate where you are and who you're with seems very important again.
CAVANAUGH: I want to start talking about the photographs themselves because I think – you know, that's…
CAVANAUGH: …that's at the heart of all of this.
CAVANAUGH: And when we start talking about winning photographs and so forth, I want to let people know that these photographs are online at KPBS.org/CultureLust so you can take a look at them either while we're talking about them or later today. Now the winning photo is called "A Stranger 53 Years Old."
CAVANAUGH: It's by a photographer named Benoit—I don't know how to say the last name—Paille?
COTTON: I guess, or Pa-ya (phonetically), yeah.
CAVANAUGH: …Paille from Montreal, Canada. Can you describe this photograph to us, Charlotte?
COTTON: Well, the actual photograph is a scene in a kitchen, a very old-fashioned kitchen and there's some beautiful ambient light falling across the floor. And in the center of the image is a 53 year old man, sitting in profile naked on a child's chair. So that's what it looks like. It's a very striking image. And I think what's so striking about it is just, you know, that he's quite a big man and he's got rough skin and he's a bit unkempt but there is this absolute beauty and fragility about this human being, which is just beautifully captured in this photograph.
CAVANAUGH: And one of the most, I think, profound things about this photograph is its back story.
CAVANAUGH: What – Tell us how it was made.
COTTON: Well, Benoit is someone who specializes in photographing strangers, which is no mean feat. He's obviously a very charming man and manages to convince strangers to sit for his camera. So he approached this stranger in the way that he approached many of his subjects and asked if he could take a photograph of him, preferably in his own environment, in his home. So Benoit went with him to – went with the stranger to his apartment, and the story emerged that this guy had lived with his mother who had passed away a few years before. He'd lived with his mother all of his life. And he was clearly terrifically lonely. And at a certain point in sort of setting up the photograph, I mean, obviously Benoit was thinking about this very old-fashioned kitchen in essence being about the absent mother and saw the child's chair and asked him to sit in the child's chair. But the subject's choice to undress for this photograph was entirely his own. It was not something that Benoit asked him to do. So I think the magic of this photograph is, even though Benoit's obviously a really great photographer and a great coercer of strangers to sit for him, something entirely magical and photographic happened in that moment, that that sort of forced moment of trust and intimacy and, you know, created a situation where the stranger really exposed himself, literally did want to portray himself. It's a really magical photo.
CAVANAUGH: And, Charlotte, going back to the original questions I asked you, as you were sorting through the – all these 16,000 submissions to the San Diego Art of Photography Show, I'm wondering what your first reaction was to this photograph?
COTTON: The first reaction was it just – you know, it was like, clearly, I said to everyone, okay, let's stop and look at this photograph because it was one where you could really – you just could feel the layers of meaning and also that something amazing had happened in front of that camera. So, I mean, it's pretty gut – gut level…
COTTON: …but it really was there. And so it was a photograph that we came back to over the course of the days and it just endured like it – it wasn't a sort of a one-trick pony photograph. It wasn't just that initial couple of seconds, it had – it resonated every time I saw it.
CAVANAUGH: So that was the winning photograph…
CAVANAUGH: …but the second place prize went to a series of photographs called "The Bureaucrats," which is really…
CAVANAUGH: …quite amazing. Tell us about this series.
COTTON: The series is by a photographer called Jan Banning. He's a Dutch photographer. And basically over the course of a number of years and with of all of his traveling around the world, which, you know, he's both traveling as a photojournalist but also for this project, he basically set up these what looked like very flat-footed photographs of bureaucrats sitting behind their desks. And as much – as practic – as much as practically as possible, he's photographed each of the bureaucrats in all of the countries he visited, which includes Bolivia and India and Russia and Yemen from the same vantage point, which was almost as if he was walking into the room and he was faced by this bureaucrat sitting behind their desk. And it's – I mean, it's just brilliant. I mean, it's funny on one level. I call it these sort of idiosyncratic homemade buildings of a sense of officialdom…
COTTON: …you know, and how that played out in different countries. But it is also, I mean, just incredibly observant. And, I mean, one of the points was, is that although this prize was primarily about choosing individual, singular pictures, you couldn't get the meaning of this series without seeing it as a series, as a taxonomy of bureaucracy.
CAVANAUGH: And one of the things that's so startling about these series of photographs is that all of the rooms sort of look alike.
COTTON: Don't they? So it's obviously a baseline of officialdom.
CAVANAUGH: It's just really amazing. Now I wonder, can the concept for a series of photographs be so good that you overlook certain technical deficiencies? Or does everything have to come together?
COTTON: Well, you know, I'm – I don't think there is a right or wrong on technical in the sense that photography is obviously – one of its great senses is it, on one level, it's an incredibly easy medium to use. I think it's not so much that we were looking for sort of a professional standard of photography because that would have cut against this idea that we needed to create a scene which somebody who had just an Instamatic could justifiably be part of the selection just as much as somebody who had a professional camera. It's more that, I think, I was convinced with all 111 photographers and many more, I have to say, that the technique just automatically leads you to what the pictures are supposed to say, that they don’t jar with it, so there's not a sense of, oh, wouldn't that have been great if they'd done that in black and white, or, you know, there was – there's not a particular – there are not many people using very explicit Photoshop, for example. It's just like the pho – I thought with all of those people, they understood how do you get to the message that I want to give in the simplest and least complicated and least kind of fussy way. And that really does carry through the whole of the selections.
CAVANAUGH: Did you have a lot of black and white entries?
COTTON: Do you know, no, and less than I'd seen in previous years and previous competitions. And I guess what we're really seeing is that photographers are moving over to digital capture, i.e. digital cameras, in increasing numbers. And digital photography is obviously an inherently color process, you know, that you would have to…
COTTON: …actively kind of turn digital into monochrome whereas analog photography and analog capture was really essentially a black and white medium that gradually became, in the 20th century, color. So, yeah, there was less. There was less than I'd seen in previous years, which does suggest, as I say, that photographers are literally buying different cameras now.
CAVANAUGH: Well, one of the top winners in the San Diego Art of Photography Show is definitely not in black and white. It's a very, very colorful photograph called "Sleepover."
COTTON: Oh, lovely.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about that.
COTTON: It’s a photograph by a French born photographer Martine Fougeron. And it was really nice to see Martine's work in the competition. I've know her for a number of years. She was one of the very few photographers submitting that I did know. And it's a series that she's been working on for maybe like seven or eight years which concentrates on her two sons and their friends. And I think what I love about the series is as a whole you get to see these boys, these really beautiful, you know, romantic, partly-French boys growing up and a sense of a mother, you know, really allowing them to do that. You know, acknowledging and enjoying their beauty and their youth but at the same time not sort of restricting this great pattern. Martine came to photography as like a full time thing for her quite late in life when she was middle-aged. She had a very successful career as an art director in New York, and I think what you get in her photographs is this really nice combination of someone who's got a very mature sensibility like she really knows how to make pictures and how pictures work on our imaginations. But at the same time, there's still thing energy of someone of that sort of first flush of discovering photography for yourself, so the photographs are really brilliant. They've got that quality to them.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I'm going to ask you, you know, after seeing all these photographs, is it possible that now you might be able to describe the difference between what people assume makes a good photograph as opposed to what really makes a winning photograph that you want to go back to time and time again?
COTTON: Wow, that's a good question. I think that the photographs attracted me were ones where there was some basis in a real human experience or observation and that there wasn't – I think the work that maybe just didn't appeal to me was when I felt people were taking an existing convention and just proving that they could also do that. So, you know, I was less drawn to a photograph which was essentially saying I can make a landscape photograph as good as Ansel Adams or, you know, something that's more generic. I don't think there's – you know, there's less power in that. And what was more interesting to me were photographs where somebody noticed something, on the street, in their family life, you know, while they were on holiday or whatever the circumstances but they were really looking photographically. Their starting point was the real world.
CAVANAUGH: And I wonder since, as you say, the technology is so available now to so many people…
CAVANAUGH: …if that isn't the direction that photography will go where, you know, you don't have to have this great historical knowledge of photography in order to notice these things that are going on in your life.
COTTON: I mean, I definitely – I mean, I would say this but I definitely think knowing your history is a really great backup…
CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh, yeah.
COTTON: …for making photographs.
COTTON: And actually, you know, many artists do rely on the history as one which gives them permissions to move it forward, drive it forward. I think what has happened, though, is this – something which I'm really thrilled about which is the rise of the idea of citizen photography being the way that we see the world. That's the revolution of, you know, the late 2000s, rather than the idea of photography being these series of small cliques, some professional, some amateur, some social, which don't have – which kind of have their own rules and regulations and it's a little bit difficult to negotiate a place within that. I think photography feels so relevant as a kind of model for bringing a lot of photography together because it is now this broad church of photography. It's just much more on a level playing field than it's ever been.
CAVANAUGH: And, you know, I hate to do this to you, Charlotte, but I'm going to ask it. Do you have any advice for a photographer who is interested in bumping up, perhaps, their art, their ability to take good pictures? How can they elevate their work to perhaps something that's more than just a nice snapshot?
COTTON: Well, I mean, part of it is practice. I mean, practice in a really sort of mundane sense of the more you do something the more you understand about what you're doing. And that's probably the trick, is that really wonderful moment where you've done enough where you knew how you got there. The picture that you make that you really like and you're really pleased with, you kind of understood the process rather than what often happens when you begin photography which is there's a little bit too much luck. You know, that feeling of, oh, my God, I did that. So I think practice in this very mundane sense is really, really important. And, of course, there are pictures waiting to happen out there in the world all the time so there's – there's no excuse for procrastination when it comes to photography. You just have to get out there and…
CAVANAUGH: And do it.
COTTON: …just do it, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much for talking with us today. I really appreciate it.
COTTON: It's been my pleasure.
CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Charlotte Cotton. She judged the San Diego Art of Photography Show. And the Art of Photography Show is currently on view through November 1st at the Lyceum Theater in downtown's Horton Plaza. You can check out the photographs at KPBS.org/CultureLust.