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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Luminous Endowment Grants

The Luminous Endowment has announced the latest batch of winners. Lest anyone get any silly ideas about sour grapes, let me state up front that I have never applied, and therefore never been rejected. I have considered applying, and have been stymied by the fact that I can literally not think of a way to spend the grant money within the context of my life. So, any sour grapes are at a pretty far remove, at best.

Onwards. The winners are, in the main, perfectly competent photographers, producing perfectly competent copies of pictures we've seen before many times. This is as expected, it was Michael Reichmann's business for 20 years to teach photographers precisely how to do that, and it is what most photographers want to learn. It's not my thing, but it's perfectly reasonable.

Anyways, it doesn't matter. What defines the value or not of these things is whether the idea is any good. So, with my critic hat on, I offer a few lines of comment on each project. I am working from the assumption that the pictures we're shown are the ones that were submitted with the application, and as such only give a rough idea of what the final result might be. One winner states explicitly that the final work will be different, in fact.

"An American Family" from Zachary Roberts. This project makes me uncomfortable. Roberts' brother carried out a murder-suicide of a bunch of little Amish girls 10 years ago, and this seems to be Zachary coping with his understandable personal reaction. It feels exploitative. But then, that's photography for you, isn't it? So, I feel uncomfortable, but maybe I shouldn't.

This is the most fraught and difficult of the projects, clearly. Roberts has, I think, tried to make a movie about this and failed. Now he's falling back on the tropes of mid-20th-century photographers to try to make some sense of this material. The pictures are the most derivative of the lot, knock-off Walker Evans and Frank, with a touch of Cartier-Bresson thrown in. I assume that the title of the project is a deliberate nod to the seminal books by Evans and Frank. Juxtaposing the Amish with the Roberts family is a strong play, and has the potential to be effective. It's not clear what Roberts wants to do here, and I think it likely that Roberts also has no idea, but he is struggling.

I'm still deeply uncomfortable with this project, and I think the pictures themselves are knock-offs, but I'm starting to come around to the idea that this might be a very worthwhile project. It could also dribble out to nothing, or end in more dramatic failure.

"The Retail Landscape" from Drew Harty seems to be "Twentysix Gas Stations" all over again. This artist is right - the project needs more depth. Also, I think the assertion that in 1964 the USA had only 7600 retail spaces is absurd. This might be a typo, the correct number might have been 76,000, but that renders the cited current number of 107,773 less shocking. Not sure what's going on here. The work itself is perfectly serviceable, the project's agenda is more or less worthwhile, but I don't see anything new or interesting here, ultimately.

"Florida Stewards" from Dustin Angell is a worthy idea. I adore the idea of honoring these subjects, and I think this project does a terrible job of it. These are miserable portraits, casting each of these people in a heroic stance, shot from low down with excessive fill and too much whaling on various sliders. I think the idea might be to make them look vaguely like marble statues, as this is certainly the result. This is a terrible visual concept and should get dumped. These are people. Rendering them all identical and ugly does nobody any service.

"Publication Design Grant" from Eric Myrvaagnes leaves me utterly cold. These are all exercises in form and technique, with no content. I actively hate this kind of photography, however well executed (and these are very well executed indeed). There are millions and millions of these pictures out there, all more or less indistinguishable. Eric is, I think, a fine fellow, but that is neither here nor there.

"The Things We Leave Behind" from Ana V Ramirez is one of the three projects I found really interesting. Ms. Ramirez is, really, just making and photographing Cornell boxes made with a few of her deceased mother's things. But she's very very good at it, and the use of photography allows her to use ephemeral things in the work. Cornell could not have used blueberries with the same effect. It's not a photography project at all, except as an incidental bit of technique, but it's still pretty good. I personally love it.

"Made in China" from Kai Loeffelbein is another political statement of the sort we have possibly too many of. Yes, yes, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, it's mostly China's fault, and they are terrible to their workers. It's not as if some minor monograph is going to make much difference, these issues are discussed on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Like "The Retail Landscape" this project is a lazy nod to chic contemporary artsy politics. (Politics with which, for the record, I happen to agree with.) The pictures are stylistically all over the place, and almost completely mundane. This is one of the weaker of the winners.

"Homeless at the End" from Daniel Lombardi is another politically charged, potentially exploitative piece. But it's excellent, rather than lazy. Lombardi shows us how to do it right. He's not lazy, he's working hard. He's made personal connections, and is sharing those with us. Rather than some lazy lawsy, homeless people certainly are dirty and downtrodden he's showing us specific homeless guys, with names, with lives and stories. He's granting them dignity, without concealing the reality. The pictures are not incredible, just workmanlike. You can see nods to various influences. What makes it work is the project as a whole, rather than the pictures taken one by one. This project is, easily, the best of the lot.

Interestingly, Lombardi has a web site version of the project with more words, and it's quite a bit weaker than the grant submission that we're looking at. I hope he's not going off the rails toward something crappy.

“Armenia: Off the beaten paths” from Hayk Melkonyan is a bunch of landscapes. Look. Armenia. It looks a lot like other parts of planet Earth, but different in some ways. Ho hum. Technically excellent, and utterly uninteresting. Not entirely clear to me why a professional photographer who shoots these things as his actual job got a grant to shoot more of it, to be honest.

"Road to Nyapyidaw" from Vivek Prabhu is clearly the weakest of the offerings. Possibly Prabhu will produce something interesting in the end, but the samples he provides are a smattering of amateurish "street" photographs from Hong Kong and hopes for the best. He has a concept, of sorts, but it boils down to travel to Myanmar and take some pictures which isn't much of a project. It sounds a lot more like a vacation. You know my opinion about flying in to someplace for a few days and shooting.

It does not help that, to the extent that he has an idea, for example My approach would be to tell the story of Nyapyidaw from the eyes of its people, and not to simply dismiss it off as a bizarre city that is a result of the junta's largesse or paranoia, his submitted pictures illustrate exactly no ability to pull it off. Strong use of Leading Lines in Hong Kong does not in any obvious way translate to an ability to portray cities in Myanmar through the eyes of the people living there.

Anyways, there they all are. The stronger projects all have some sort of personal connection, and an effort to share that personal connection, and are built around substantial amounts of labor. This is my life. This is my family. I know this guy. I am involved, and now I share that with you as best I can.

Interestingly, most of the winners have an expressed intent to "do a book", whatever that means. Myrvaagnes has a specific plan for how the money will assist him with this, the rest seem to be pretty vague. I find the whole thing kind of weird. Making a book doesn't cost anything, it's just work, and you just do it. It's way easier that travelling all over tarnation taking the pictures, and you don't need any money to do it.

Money isn't going to magically generate an audience for the book, either, which for most of these people seems to be what they actually want. Possibly the little dash of publicity associated with winning will produce an audience, or at any rate the germ of an audience? I don't know.


  1. Like you, I really liked Ramirez' project. The ephemera of an ordinary life celebrated through colour and composition. Touching.

    I looked at photos without reading the supportive texts, and found that the initially attractive Myrvaagnes images didn't survive a second look. Of the remaining portfolios, none seemed particularly arresting to me, and most were little little more than skim-worthy without their words.

  2. Though I still love it, sometimes I think I've seen enough photography to last a lifetime.


  3. Thank you for this post, I wouldn't have seen the projects otherwise. My impressions:

    Made in Cina: only two photos have soul. The rest are the same industrialized images I've seen for so many years, that I've grown apathetic towards them. I wouldn't want to flip through this book. It's the normalization of industrialization. But the last image is a pleasant surprise: an impeccable man-made environment, created by rich people for the middle class upwards. This is a book I would like to see: the stark contrast of those who produce our goods, and those who yell orders at them; that would give me food for thought.

    Homeless at the end: The image of the man lying on the bed with his belongings around him, gripped me as soon as I saw the thumbnail.

    Publication Design Grant (Not his abstracts): My kind of tea: landscapes that don't say anything, but its like there is something there. These are the photographs I take and am entranced by, and don't show to anyone because they say no words. They are flat and mute, but to me they say something. I don't know what.

  4. "The winners are, in the main, perfectly competent photographers, producing perfectly competent copies of pictures we've seen before many times."

    That may be my photo quote of the year.

    That said, the Lombardi project seems to be something worth doing. One hopes it will stay on track and reach an audience.

    The Ramirez project intrigued me, but I never got past about the third photo. This is one I might have to see in a gallery, printed well on a nice paper, to really appreciate it. One where the photos might have to become somewhat precious objects in themselves for the work to be fully realized.

    Roberts' An American Family strikes me as an opportunity whose time has passed. I wish him well, and this may be a journey he needs to make for himself, but I think it will be very hard to make something that will find an audience this long after the fact. This seems to me to have more potential for writing than photography.

    Only a couple of the rest even sounded interesting. Sometimes I feel like I've seen it all in photography. Sometimes I feel like every photograph I make I've made before. At the same time I remind myself that just because it has been done before does not mean it is not worth doing again -- restated in fresh language for a new audience. But the artist has to somehow make it new again, to move the conversation forward.

  5. I, as a photographer, would be really glad if anyone would say stuff like this _before_ I send my project to some competition.

    There's a real shortage of serious photographic discussion, it's mostly Facebook-style "like or shut up".