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Arts & Culture

Photo Gallery: International Photography Show In San Diego

"'Water Tower' - from the series Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere" By Chris Sisarich. (Auckland, New Zealand)
"'Water Tower' - from the series Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere" By Chris Sisarich. (Auckland, New Zealand)

The annual Art of Photography show opens this weekend at the Lyceum Theatre. Chicago-based curator Natasha Egan selected 111 winners out of nearly 14,000 submissions from 67 countries. You can listen to an interview with Egan on These Days. Culture Lust conducted an email interview with the competition/show founder and director Steven Churchill, a San Diego-based photographer who launched the project six years ago.

CL: You are a photographer yourself. What do you think makes a successful photograph?

Churchill: Originality is key. Images with a story, shots with conceptual content. The message a successful photograph conveys can either be cognitive or via the emotions it evokes.

CL: On average, how many San Diego photographers participate in the competition?

Churchill: There is always a strong participation by local photographers. This year we have images by two San Diego County photographers which were selected by Natasha for the exhibit.

CL: Since you look at thousands and thousands of photographs each year, have you noticed that Southern California photographers and artists have any particular preoccupations in their work?

Churchill: No. There seems to be a wide variety of subjects and content that Southern California photographers are shooting, just as photographers elsewhere are doing.

CL: Give us a sense of how the Art of Photography Show has grown in the last 6 years?

Churchill: The first year was truly an experiment, and we received about 525 images from 105 photographers based here in San Diego County. This year we received almost 14,000 images from photographers based in 67 countries.

CL: You work with different judges each year, many of them professional curators. Talk about the different approaches to judging this contest.

Churchill: A distinguishing characteristic about the Art of Photography Show is that a major museum curator is always the judge for the competition. Here are our esteemed judges to date:

• Natasha Egan, Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago

• Charlotte Cotton, Curator and Director of Photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

• Carol McCusker, Curator of Photography at the Museum of Photographic Arts

• Tim Wride, Director of Photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

• Arthur Ollman, Director of The Museum of Photographic Arts

The approach to judging this competition begins with the entry process, which is set up for receiving digital submissions -- JPEG images. After the entry deadline, we arrange a four day judging session with our curator, always in a comfy hotel suite - either here in San Diego or in their city. We present the entry images with a high resolution digital projector. It's a blind judging process and every image is presented in the same manner, so it's truly an even playing field.

CL: How would you characterize Natasha Egan's (this year's judge) judging process and interests?

Churchill: From the beginning she was very enthusiastic, not at all daunted by viewing thousands of images. For me, the best part about this project each year is hearing the feedback from our curator judges about the work. Being with Natasha Egan for four days was especially illuminating. She is very bright, very experienced as a curator of photography, and her viewing of the images was very thoughtful and thorough.

CL: How important is the concept behind a photograph versus the aesthetics of a photograph? Is conceptual work more valued in a competition of this kind over technical skill or beauty?

Churchill: The technical aspects of a well crafted photograph are essential, but that is just the beginning. In addition to that, the "idea" which a photographer is communicating via his or her image making is very important in contemporary photography. There is definitely a place for images which display pure aesthetic beauty, but they need originality, they must be somehow different than images seen before.

CL: Digital technology and post-production techniques have changed so much about photography – it almost seems like there should be different categories to allow for the difference between a photograph like "Smothered" by Natalie Dybisz (heavily photo-shopped) and one for documentary photography like "Chris helps his girlfriend, Mona, smoke crack in their apartment in Hackney, London" by Sebastian Meyer. Make the case for judging these photographs side by side, in the same pool.

Churchill: Our judges are very smart and capable curators. I think they have each done an amazing job to both select the very best images, but also to put together a body of work which is very cohesive. Looking at each of our exhibits, our judges have chosen a broad variety of images. One of their special skills is selecting images which truly work well together as a whole. One addition step in the process of producing this exhibit is deciding the placement of the photographs in the gallery. Our Associate Producer, Lisa Smith, is very talented at this important task. She was there with Natasha and I during the judging session, so she knows what Natasha has in mind regarding the placement of images in the gallery, what works well together, etc.

CL: Do you know if someone has an MFA or an established reputation during the selection process?

Churchill: The judge starts with only the images. As we get deep into the selection process, getting down to about 200 images (we can fit about 110 photographs in the gallery), our judges typically ask to know more about those photographers. I'd say the issue is not credentials (MFA, etc.) but to see if those photographers are doing strong and compelling work as a whole, more than just one good image.

CL: There are nine series included in this year's winning selections. Do you have higher expectations of a series than a single photograph?

Churchill: The expectation is that a series should be able to communicate a more complex story than a single image might be able to do. Our previous judges have selected series, though Natasha elected to choose more than any of our previous judges.

Can you talk us through one of the series and what's interesting about it?

Churchill: I really like Tomoe Murakami's series, “Approach to Invisible” and what she has stated about it. “I want to see what is ‘further on,’ what is ‘ahead’ – hidden and invisible. But when I approach there, it disappears like a mirage. For, the moment I arrived there, that ‘ahead’ was no longer ‘ahead.’ Further, I keep looking for what is farther on, looking for what, I think, I am able to see someday.” Tomoe will be coming from Japan to attend the Opening Reception on Saturday August 28th and to also hear Natasha speak on Sunday the 29th.

CL: What inspired you to start a photography competition?

Churchill: I was aware that there are a lot of very talented photographers here in San Diego County, and I felt it would be a good thing to produce an exhibit which featured the best fine art images from our community. The goal, then as now, is to help photographers in very tangible ways -- bringing them valuable exposure, generating sales revenue for them, providing cash awards and accolades, and connecting them with top notch museum curators.

Will there be a speaker series this year? If so, tell us about it and your thoughts behind curating it.

Churchill: Yes, like last year, there will be a speaker series. The first event in the series will be Natasha Egan's presentation in the Lyceum Theatre Gallery this Sunday, beginning at 11:00 am. She will describe her curatorial decisions for this year's exhibition selection. A key topic she will discuss is how these images fit into contemporary photography as a whole today. Other speakers in the series include artists in this year's show, including LA Times photographer Kirk McKoy and UK artist Natalie Dybisz (also known as Miss Aniela).

What are your plans for the Art of Photography Show – how would you like to see it grow?

We are planning to tour the Art of Photography Show, taking the exhibition to other high-end gallery venues around the world. We are developing additional plans to grow this project, which we can talk about on another occasion.

CL: Do you have any advice for photographers who want become fine artists?

Churchill: I could write a small book about that topic! Well, to provide a brief answer, here are some thoughts. Pursue originality. Shoot images which truly reflect you, which are a unique expression of you, your vision, your creativity. Work at capturing or creating images which communicate a cognitive message or which evoke an emotional feeling within the viewer. Avoid making images which are gimmicky or contrived. Avoid using cookie-cutter software effects. If you wish to use digital or optical tools to manipulate an image, do so only to help convey the idea behind the image -- not just for the sake of having an effect. And lastly, parallel to the suggestion I've been making here that photographers should work at communicating ideas, explore thought provoking concepts, and create message driven images -- it's essential that one have something meaningful to say. To that end, it's very important to be growing as a person, reading a lot, attending interesting lectures, participating in discussion groups, volunteering and helping to meet needs in our community, and frequently stepping outside your "comfort zone".

The Art of Photography show is free and open to the public from August 28 to November 7, 2010. The exhibition is on view in the lobby of the Lyceum Theater in Horton Plaza.

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