Friday, July 28, 2017

Olive Cotton Award for photographic portraiture

There's a modest tempest in a modest teapot that's slopping around the photographic press and online communities. This picture:

won the $20,000 (little Australian dollars, I assume) award, and has been acquired by the Tweed Regional Gallery. What the hell even is it you might reasonably ask, since it's not obvious. The artist asserts this:

One day, not so long ago, I came upon my maternal grandmother hunched over a table, vigorously testing a series of pens by scribbling with each of them in turn on a piece of paper. Captivated by this busy repetition of gestures, so reminiscent of her character, I asked her to continue her task, but on a piece of 4 x 5 inch negative film. Having left these traces of her hand on this light-sensitive surface, she also, at my request, rubbed some of her saliva on the film, doubling her bodily inscription there. I then processed the film and printed it at large scale. A collaboration across generations, with her born in Hungary and me in Australia, the resulting image looks abstract but couldn’t be more realist; no perspectival artifice mediates her portrayal of herself or our genetic link, with both now manifested in the form of a photograph.

which is an explanation of sorts.

Naturally all the gearheads masquerading as photographers are up in arms. No Skill! No Work! It's Not Even a Photograph! which I gotta say to, pot, kettle, etc. The angry claims that there wasn't much effort expended are hilarious from photographers, who expend the effort of flexing a finger to make a picture. Claims of "no skill" are invariably fraught, there's no telling what a mirror might reveal. And, it is obviously a photograph.

Looking over the catalog that goes with this contest, you can see that nobody who submitted thinks this is about 5-light Sears Portraits. Nobody even thinks it's about the sort of thing Kirk Tuck does. This is about Collectible Fine Art, which means that it's all pretty outré. The winner stands out, but only slightly. So, the repeated complaints I have read about "the other contestants being cheated" are also bunk.

The one issue that leaps out to me is embedded in the artist's statement. Did Grandma test pens in pitch blackness? The scenario outlined for the process is, I think, simply false. There's no way this works. The film is fully fogged and contains no picture in any reasonable reading of the statement. This, I think, makes the whole thing problematic. The thing doesn't work unless Grandma was actually involved. Did Grandma actually scribble on a piece of acetate or similar, which the artist then contact printed onto film?

Weirdly, despite reading a certain amount of online, um, discussion, I have not run across anyone who's pointed this out. Which is extremely weird to me. Has all knowledge of film and its properties been lost?

For the record, I think the work is fine. Portraits don't have to have faces in them, Karsh photographed Pablo Casals from behind. Lots of people have done work photographing traces and ephemera of people, and those too can reasonably be included under the head of "portrait" if you're remotely generous. The work is interesting, and of the pieces we see in the contest's catalog, it's not at all obvious that this is not the winner.

Still, its essence as a portrait hinges on a story that is, in technical details, obviously false.

This raises some questions. If it's just scribbles the artist made, together with a story the artist wrote, is it still any good? Is it anything? If it's Art, is it now a Micro Fiction, rather than a photograph? Is it a prank?

Whatever the truth of the matter, I feel that Duchamp is smiling.


  1. I'm not an expert on this, and unless proven otherwise, we should believe the author of the picture. But to me, the scribbling doesn't look like being made by an older person - it is a bit too bold. I remember that the handwriting of my grandparents deteriorated a lot in their seventies, due to deteriorating fine motor skills.

    In addition, I think the picture is hardly original. I believe everyone whose kids attended a nursery has a picture where they made the poor kids put their hands and feet into finger paint (yuck) and printed them on paper.

    Best, Thomas

    1. it all reminds me of the story about Hokusai and his (possibly-probably apocryphal) Tatsuta River/autumn maple leaves performance - the scribbling, the general approach of "screw-your techniques" to scoring the cash, the inking-up of hapless appendages, wheeee!

    2. Now that's even more "prior art"!

    3. The chicken got the copyright, though...


  2. The work is as much a portrait as a photo of a used tissue is (justification for which any amount of arty bollocks could be generated). Which means it isn't a portrait. The story is everything and the juror's report is also part of the story.

    1. Yes! The juror's report IS part of the story!

      This is why I am so amused when people get huffy and sue Richard Prince. The litigation is part of Prince's art! If everyone simply ignored him, his work would be worthless. The *reason* you buy a Richard Prince piece is that you want to be part of that process, you want to be embroiled in this litigation-as-art thing.

      Prince didn't invent this, either. Christo pioneered, maybe, the idea of Permitting Process as Art, and that included litigation, decades earlier. And honestly, Christo probably stole it too.

      But anyways, modern art often takes the context - always relevant - and shoves it forward.

  3. 20k huh? Not bad for a lie.

    I don't get art competitions and the people who participate in them. Why not play tennis or something? Atleast there you won't feel like you've bullshitted or been bullshitted whether you win or lose.

  4. This Art Gallery is about an hour away here in Northern New South Wales, Australia.
    Once I'm feeling a bit better from my treatment, I may have to take a look and see what the fuss is (altho the image above tells a lot).
    More interesting at that gallery is that they have dismantled a studio of another artist - Margaret Olley - down in Sydney (about 800 -900 km away) and rebuilt it lock, stock and barrel inside Tweed Regional Gallery.
    It actually is quite fascinating. Every now and then among the older media, they present photographs displays, but nothing that has caught my eye or piqued my interest overly much>

    Cheers from way down under. :-)

  5. Well, as far as a portrait goes, this can be considered an "abstract" one. It tries of define the subject in a way other that simply representing her with a photo of her more superficial and visible characteristics - so the author has all the rights to call it a "potrait of his grandmother". I don't call BS on him. That said, in my view the author had done a not-so-great work. Close, but no cigar... but this is just my opinion.

  6. I am not buying in. The only thing that even tries to make this a portrait is the story. What if the story was that the artist's grandmother was driving through Hernandez, NM, saw the moon rise, and drew on this negative.

    This is not a photograph, it is a painting or a collage. Didn't we go through all this with Man Ray. DuChamp. At least Prince is stealing photographs to make other photographs.

  7. The curator clearly never met the grandmother. It just doesn't look like her. Can't you see?

    1. Maybe it DOES look like her! That would throw a wrench in the works, wotwot!?