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What Makes A Photograph Art?

Audio

Aired 8/25/10

We'll find out what turns an ordinary photograph into art by talking with curator Natasha Egan, judge of the sixth annual Art of Photography Show. The exhibit of 111 winning photographs opens this weekend.

"The Smothering" By Natalie Dybisz. (London, United Kingdom)
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Above: "The Smothering" By Natalie Dybisz. (London, United Kingdom)

Event Information: The Art of Photography Show will be on view at the Lyceum Theatre. It opens on Saturday, August 28 and runs through November 7th. The exhibit is free.

To see more of the winning photographs from the Art of Photography Show, see an interview and photo gallery on the KPBS Culture Lust blog.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. In a world where it's easier than ever to take a picture, what really makes a great photograph? That question is the essence of the Art of Photography show opening at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza this weekend. The 111 photographs on display have been picked from thousands submitted from around the world. There are stark black and white images, as well as bursts of color. The photographs are by turns moving, provocative, ironic and funny. The show not only allows people to appreciate these remarkable images, it also gives the photographers a forum to exhibit and sell their work. Joining me to talk about the Art of Photography show is the woman who chose the images on display, this year’s judge Natasha Egan. She’s Associate Director and Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. And, Natasha, welcome.

NATASHA EGAN (Associate Director/Curator, Chicago Museum of Contemporary Photography): Thank you very much, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I want our listeners to know that you can see the images on our website on the Culture Lust blog at KPBS.org while we’re talking about them during this part of the show. So, Natasha, as I said in the beginning, there were close to 14,000 submissions to this competition. You had artists from 67 different countries. How in the world do you narrow that down to 111 winning images?

EGAN: It’s – yeah, it’s quite a daunting task. But what – How you start is by literally looking through every single image and the only way to, you know, sort of possibly do that is to do it quickly, almost like reading the images. And you just click through them very quickly and when one stops you, that is your first indication that something is making a pause. So you would say, you know, maybe. Maybe, maybe… And then you go through and you figure out how many pictures you said maybe to and when I think when I first went through it, I said maybe to, if I’m remembering correctly, about 3500 images.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

EGAN: So then the task was—the new task—was to go through the 3500 and then you start narrowing it down and you, sometimes when you’re going through images quickly, you might say no to something and then you realize a few images later you’re still thinking about that image…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

EGAN: …that you saw. So you say, actually, I need to go back. And when you realize that an image stays with you longer than – longer – for a longer period, you realize there’s something in that picture that is holding me to it. I want to look at it longer. I want to figure it out. It’s those images that ultimately end up in it.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as you were selecting, as you either quickly or in the longer process that you took, did you have in your mind, you know, well, I have to have some landscapes, I have to have some black and white, or did you not pay any attention to those categories at all?

EGAN: I did not pay any attention to those categories. I absolutely just went for what images stuck with me. You know, what – you know, it’s a very much an intuitive, gut reaction to an image because you don’t have the time to really understand why any of the images were really made. You know, it’s too big of a submission to really focus on the individual so you really go for what your gut first and then in the end you start to realize that, or at least I did, that there is a very large diversity of what a curator is attracted to. So I think naturally there are landscapes, there are portraits, there are abstractions. It naturally happens because of when you’re looking at that many images, you would never look at the same thing over and over and over, or want to pick that.

CAVANAUGH: Right, now looking at photographs in the way that you describe to us and judging the Art of Photography show is very different from the way you look at photographs in your job as curator at a museum, and yet you were asked to do this because you are a curator. Can you talk to us a little bit about that difference?

EGAN: Yeah. I think, you know, as a curator, you do look at images all day, every day, or as a photography curator, you look at photographic imagery or just imagery in general every day and you also have the opportunity to meet with many artists. There’s portfolio reviews that happen around the world that you meet artists, and when you’re meeting an artist, you’re committing time to that artist, and the artist has the opportunity to let you know what – where – why they are making the photographs that they are. And that interaction is much, much stronger, obviously, than when you only have images flowing in front of you and you have no personal contact so the – But that said, when you look at – when you have looked at many, many images, I think museum curators can look at something quickly because you can decipher quickly does that image grab me as subjective but does it – would it also – does it grab beyond me? Is it something that more viewers would also benefit from seeing?

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Natasha Egan. She is Associate Director and curator at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and this year’s judge for the Art of Photography show taking place at the Lyceum Theatre Gallery in Horton Plaza. Natasha, in your mind, when does a photograph become art?

EGAN: Yeah, that’s a tricky question, mostly because it’s very subjective of what is art and who is deeming something art. What I say is art, a person and another museum curator right next to me would also disagree or not. So I think it’s – When I think of something as art, I think that the maker—and I think this is quite important that people maybe don’t clearly understand—is that – is when the maker fully understands sort of the conceptual depths of their own picture, you know, sometimes you see a great picture and because I look at so many pictures, I might think there’s more in that picture than possibly the maker even understood. So when I’m meeting with an artist and when you’re judging all of these pictures, sometimes it was evident to me certain artists submitted multiple pictures so you sort of will get a sense of who that artist is by what pictures they chose to put in. If those pictures are sort of somewhat connected, like I have a sense of – that they want to communicate a story, they want to communicate something that I am interested in listening to or reading with my eyes, that that’s when it becomes art, when it can communicate both ways. I think some people take a picture and they don’t realize the depth of it or they’re – or it lacks depth. And that, for me, doesn’t mean it’s not art, it just doesn’t mean it’s a picture that holds me long enough.

CAVANAUGH: I want to start to talk about some specific pictures in the Art of Photography show that made the cut. I want to let our listeners know that you can see the images that we’re talking about on our website on the Culture Lust blog at KPBS.org. And these are two San Diego area photographers whose work is represented in the Art of Photography show. The first is by a woman named Amanda Dahlgren and the photo is called “Distressed #11.” It features a house upside down. It has a shallow depth of field. What did you like about this photograph?

EGAN: What struck me, which is very difficult to see on the blog, if anybody is looking at that picture, is that there’s text covering the entire picture and that text is about the housing market and it’s about houses that have been – that are in foreclosure, there are houses for sale. And one thing that I feel photography is really great at is sort of a tool to communicate what’s happening in our world today and, clearly, the housing market, particularly, well, everywhere, but, you know, you do hear about California…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

EGAN: …housing market, has this ability, and it’s – The house is a very beautiful house, upside down, it’s very dark, the picture, and then this haunting – it becomes haunting because of this time that we’re in right now and the fact that the market is upside down and it’s this sort of silhouetted – should be a beautiful picture and yet it’s upside down, making us question what is happening to our housing market? What does it mean to have walk-in closets and all the – that, you know, the text says like walk-in closets, two bathrooms, you know, and then it has all these different prices that go over it but it’s very subtle just when you see it. It’s hard to see. But I was attracted to the sort of contemporary commentary that that picture is making.

CAVANAUGH: Another local photographer is from Vista. His name is Andrew Folz, and his photograph is a landscape taken at Bombay Beach at the Salton Sea. Why did you choose this photograph?

EGAN: This one – this one for me, I chose it for its sort of more for subjectiveness. It’s sort of a large landscape and it’s distanced. And when you look closely at it, I was drawn to sort of formal components of how that photograph is taken. There’s a pole, possibly a telephone pole, that’s been damaged that really breaks up the entire frame. And then there’s a person standing very far in the distance sort of looking out. And so I was drawn to sort of the possible story that I can make of this sort of devastated landscape. What happened. You know, of course, when I’m looking through them, I don’t know where these places are and I don’t know where those photograph – everything’s anonymous. So I’m just looking at it purely for like something’s happened. There’s a flood perhaps. Something’s destroyed. The way that – someone’s dislocated. They’re standing out there. And so I look at it that way. There’s a lot of information that, of course, I knew none of the answers to but it posed lots of questions for me. And the formalness of it, the way the poles and the telephone wires go through into the background draw me into that picture.

CAVANAUGH: You know, photographic technique and practices vary so much and it must make the idea of judging something, a number of photographs, so difficult. For instance, very different styles are represented in the show. There’s an image called “The Smothering,” which is very heavily Photoshopped and, you know, I mean, it’s basically, you know, put together stylistically and that is juxtaposed with a more documentary style image of a young man helping his girlfriend smoke a crack pipe, which is, you know, sort of in the moment right there. I wonder how do you compare such two different photographs?

EGAN: Well, those are two very – I like that you brought those two together because there are, you know, over a hundred pictures. And part of being a curator is you also – you do draw conclusions when you pair different pictures next to each other. So, for me, these two pictures, if we’re going to talk about them together, aren’t drastically different and what I look at is how is something conveyed and it can be completely Photoshopped and changed. The one that’s Photoshopped that you’re referring to is of a woman sort of floating in an interior space with her head in a cardboard box, sort of flying through an empty space in a room. And the other one is these two people with junk all around their room, like their small room, very opposite of the other one, which is an empty room with a woman floating through it with her head in a box while the other one is in a small room with two people smoking crack with all the belongings, sort of junk, stacked on and they’re watching “Friends” on television. And, excuse me, I actually don’t think they’re quite different because for me both of them are very psychologically challenging. One is very sad. When you see it, you know, there’s this sort of funny scene on the television and a very depressing scene on the outside of the television but there’s nothing to say that there’s also something quite sad or surreal or questioning about a woman floating through an empty space with her head in a box because it sounds like it could be funny but paired next to it, you realize that there’s this psychological challenge, you know, that there’s almost – They’re both in a box, both pictures are taken in these tight quarters, and yet the results are different people experimenting with, I don’t know, life’s challenges. And how you convey those challenges, I think, is what – why the picture grabs me in different ways for different things. Different ones have – like hold you to it even though you don’t quite understand why is there a woman floating through this room but there’s the emptiness of the room in comparison to the almost like the fullness of the other picture with the garbage.

CAVANAUGH: I had so much more to ask you but we are out of time.

EGAN: Oh, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much, Natasha, for explain – doing the difficult task of explaining photographs on the radio. I appreciate it.

EGAN: Thank you very much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Natasha Egan is Associate Director and Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. The Art of Photography Show’s opening reception takes place this Saturday night at 6:00 p.m. at the Lyceum Theatre Gallery in Horton Plaza. The exhibit will remain on display through November 7th. You can see images from the show and get more information on our Culture Lust blog at KPBS.org. Coming up, stay with us, the art of conversation, that’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.