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barer_c-01Cara Barer, Houston, TX.
Projected winner of the 2008 Critical Mass book award.*

I just finished viewing 160 online portfolios for Critical Mass, the Portland-based competition that awards two to three photographers a year with swanky, fully-funded, widely-distributed monographs of their very own. Like a gaggle of pudenda-checking Westminster judges, 199 “of the world’s best curators, editors, and professionals,” along with myself, were given 10 images and an artist statement from each aspirant. A lively game of Hot or Not: The Roland Barthes Edition followed, with each photographer receiving a score of 0, 1, or 5.

It was, as with everything in life, a bon-bon hunt in Turd Hollow.

My criteria for evaluation is moderately pluralistic; it essentially boils down to “Keep the hoary clichés to a minimum.” In the course of looking through the portfolios, however, I noticed several other, subconscious evaluative measures:

  • If you photographed anyone who could be described as a “villager,” you almost certainly got a 0.
  • If your subjects were selected because they possess only four of the five senses, you almost certainly got a 0.
  • If you and I are friends, you got a 1. Call it the Great Nepotism Equalizer.®
  • If my first thoughts were either “Michael Kenna” or “Keith Carter,” you almost certainly got a 0.
  • If your work was mostly good, but looked like an Alec Soth outtake, you probably got a 1. (See you in the blogosphere.)
  • If I was compelled to enlarge all 10 of your jpegs, you got at least a 1.
  • People could be a lot more subtle with the Photoshop. Just saying.
  • I feel bad for photographers who make exactly one stunning image and nine unsuccessful attempts to bottle that same magic. I gave them all 1’s, to restore the symmetry.
  • Few phrases are as neutered and meaningless today as “politically correct,” yet it seemed entirely appropriate for a few of the treacly series I saw. Those were the only times I wished I could vote with negative integers.

These guidelines helped to trim a lot of the fat, although I disregarded a few of them more than once. Thankfully, we could vote for all the 5’s we wanted, and didn’t have to whittle it down to a top three. There were lots of 3’s and 4’s on my list—work that successfully avoided all the pitfalls listed above and stood firmly on its own merit—but if they weren’t honest, unqualified 5’s, they had to be lumped with the other, less remarkable 1’s.

The 21(!) artists I maxed out my voting privileges for all surprised me in one way or another—whether by turning a familiar convention on its head, or using techniques and strategies I typically don’t respond to and employing them so well I had to tip my hat. Plenty of the artists I reviewed know exactly what to do with their eyes and their equipment; the ones included here similarly know just what to do, but then shift everything a few degrees off-axis to create something disorienting and fresh.

In no particular order…

riedler_r-02Reiner Riedler, Vienna Austria. Vacation time in the era of simulacra.

abbott_j-08John Abbott, Irvine, CA. Neo-Modernist abstractions of power lines and communication towers.

lockwood_w-05Walter Lockwood, Los Angeles, CA. Sergio Leone flicks, performed by Asian American cast.

aaronson_j-06Jeffrey Aaronson, Santa Barbara, CA. Scenes from the US/Mexico border.

percher_e-05Eric Percher, Brooklyn, NY. Theatrical portraits of high-power young businessmen.

heller_r-05Robert Heller, Knoxville, TN. Birkenau concentration camp.

friedman_a-04Amanda Friedman, Hollywood, CA. Nocturnal landscapes, minus the usual banalities.

miller_g08Graham Miller, Fremantle, Australia. Edward Hopper meets Ray Carver in the land down under.

lampton_a-06Adam Lampton, Boston, MA. A sleepy Portugese colony is rapidly transformed into major gambling mecca.

sibilia_m-09Michael Sibilia, Hopewell Jct, NY. Remarkably vivid landscapes.

alleman_t-07Thomas Alleman, Los Angeles, CA. The only plastic camera work I’ve ever enjoyed.

brggemann_j-05Jörg Brüggemann, Berlin. The backpack/budget-tourism industry of Southeast Asia.

takemoto_h-10Hideki Takemoto, Hokaido, Japan. Memory and loss, rendered with Super8 camera.

cartagena_a-01Alejandro Cartagena, Monterrey, Mexico. Demolition landscapes in downtown Monterrey.

parisi_m-01Mary Parisi, Pacifica, CA. Wonderfully resuscitates the dormant genre of food photography.

plviranta_h-08Harri Pälviranta, Helsinki. Drunken, Finnish street fights. Enough said.

whittle_s-06Scott Whittle, Brooklyn, NY. Some of my favorite work. Scenes from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

kaufman_j-07Jessica M. Kaufman, Brooklyn, NY. Pastoralism and decay at Nazi concentration camps.

malone_a-02Alison Malone, Brooklyn, NY. Inside an elite, all-girl strain of the Masonic Youth secret society.

lancaster_l-10Lauren Lancaster, Abu Dhabi, UAE. Staff photographer of UAE newspaper depicts country’s complexities.

*My prediction of a Barer victory is purely speculative, based entirely on my wicked sooth-saying abilities. Here’s Barer on my olde blog.



  1. I like the John Abbott. Looks like Henry Callahan with inorganic subjects. Also big ups for the Dubai phtoo and the Finnish street fights.

    I’d be curious to hear your take on the “usual banalities” of nocturnal landscapes.

  2. VIVA ABu dhabi.. I like all the picture but ofcourse.. I support abu dhabi entry!

  3. Welcome back Chas! After click, click, clicking through the same group (excellent indeed– minus the often awkward artist statements) I can say that I picked about six solid ‘wow’ photographers. However, I was surprised at the amount of vintage/distressed = haunting work that seemed to proliferate so much of the group. Not all of it was bad but the initial juror’s taste was clearly felt. This type of policing is expected of course, yet I wonder how much risky, or simply, individually innovative work (which could never make it past the preliminary group of 18 jurors) was passed over for this predictable bunch?

  4. nice selection of work. Love Amanda Friedman’s take on nightscapes & L.A.

  5. Hate to ask this. Really hate to. But, nobody from North Hackensack? Meaning, of course, nobody from here? Nobody at all? Did anybody from here enter? Regina

  6. Although I’m not crazy about his work, my money’s on Dave Jordano

  7. Regina, I didn’t notice where most of the photographers were from. Doug Keyes is the only one from Seattle that springs to mind (I’m sure there were more), but his new wasn’t as interesting to me as his book work. (Which ties into my prediction of a Cara Barer win: People go nuts for photographs of books.)

  8. Chas, Thanks for your vote. I was hoping to get to the top of the “bon bon” pile, but, it didn’t quite happen. Getting into the top 50 is nice, however. I am a little surprised at some of the six top choices.

  9. After jurying this for the past 4-5 years I took a break this time, but your comments are salient of the process. There are so many images that always seem like a graphic rather than an interesting image, not that having a graphic emphasis isn’t important, but I always felt there were several folks who entered who use their work for illustrative purposes, rather than securing their own vision. Great criticism Chas. By the way I picked up the book you mentioned and its next on my stack after I finish ‘The Gift’. It always took me a week to finish those Critical Mass reviews, and I love when you find a diamond in the rough, but it’s a lot of digging.

  10. These are some absolutely stunning photos, and I’m sure any of them would be worthy of a win. Kudos for you for partaking in such a tedious elimination process!

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