Cara 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…
Reiner Riedler, Vienna Austria. Vacation time in the era of simulacra.
John Abbott, Irvine, CA. Neo-Modernist abstractions of power lines and communication towers.
Walter Lockwood, Los Angeles, CA. Sergio Leone flicks, performed by Asian American cast.
Jeffrey Aaronson, Santa Barbara, CA. Scenes from the US/Mexico border.
Eric Percher, Brooklyn, NY. Theatrical portraits of high-power young businessmen.
Robert Heller, Knoxville, TN. Birkenau concentration camp.
Amanda Friedman, Hollywood, CA. Nocturnal landscapes, minus the usual banalities.
Graham Miller, Fremantle, Australia. Edward Hopper meets Ray Carver in the land down under.
Adam Lampton, Boston, MA. A sleepy Portugese colony is rapidly transformed into major gambling mecca.
Michael Sibilia, Hopewell Jct, NY. Remarkably vivid landscapes.
Thomas Alleman, Los Angeles, CA. The only plastic camera work I’ve ever enjoyed.
Jörg Brüggemann, Berlin. The backpack/budget-tourism industry of Southeast Asia.
Hideki Takemoto, Hokaido, Japan. Memory and loss, rendered with Super8 camera.
Alejandro Cartagena, Monterrey, Mexico. Demolition landscapes in downtown Monterrey.
Mary Parisi, Pacifica, CA. Wonderfully resuscitates the dormant genre of food photography.
Harri Pälviranta, Helsinki. Drunken, Finnish street fights. Enough said.
Scott Whittle, Brooklyn, NY. Some of my favorite work. Scenes from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
Jessica M. Kaufman, Brooklyn, NY. Pastoralism and decay at Nazi concentration camps.
Alison Malone, Brooklyn, NY. Inside an elite, all-girl strain of the Masonic Youth secret society.
Lauren 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.