CPC 2015: The Winners

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The Conscientious Portfolio Competition has become an important part of this site. With the help of two external judges, three (or occasionally four) emerging photographers are chosen as winners. This year, Melissa Catanese and Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa very kindly agreed to make their selection from the shortlist.

The competition is free to enter. I don’t believe in “pay to play.” Everybody needs to have the same fair chance. That is also why the eventual winners are selected blindly, mimicking blind auditions: the judges get a set of photographs (and nothing else), with the names of the artists encrypted. I hope that this is a good way to at least attempt some of the problems plaguing contemporary photography. Including this year’s winners, there have now been 12 female and 11 male winners in seven years.

Without further ado, here are the winners. Melissa picked Jonas Feige‘s Nacht auf der Sonne:

“I chose this work for its open-ended narrative. Time feels as though it’s stuck somewhere between the past and present. The sequence is thoughtful and the implied metaphors left me curious as to what may have happened within this constructed world. The sequence quietly begins with an entrance through the dark shrubs at night. The first character feels as though he’s a ghost from the past, juxtaposed by a discarded bottle on the ground. Condensation shines in the bottle and makes me think of the exoskeleton of a cockroach, recollecting Kafka’s well-known novella, The Metamorphosis. The viewer is led through both a stark interior world, and a minimally framed natural world – the base of a cliff with a shallow, yet ominous cave; the rotting trunk of a tree read from the cockroaches perspective; and finally ending abruptly at a corrugated metal fence where the flash bounces you backwards to the beginning again.”

Stanley selected Alvaro Deprit‘s Al-Andalus and Francesco Merlini‘s Farang, writing

“From all the portfolios of the various finalists, their work left me most curious to see more as it develops. Their selections were pleasingly distinctive and playful, often quite unabashedly bravura and full of enthusiasm, but also subtle in thoughtful ways.”

I ended up settling on David Fathi‘s Wolfgang:

“I might know a lot more about the background of David’s project than most people, given in a previous career I was an astrophysicist. Ordinarily, artists working around the sciences are at a disadvantage with me, given that their work rarely operates beyond simplistic and often half-wrong ideas. That’s not the case here, though. Instead of alluding to the universe’s mysteries, we are instead presented with the folly that science really is: a somewhat obscure endeavour, run by highly trained individuals who usually are as flawed and weird as the rest of us — not quite the geniuses popular-science TV programs love showing us at all.”

Many thanks again to Melissa and Stanley, and to all those who submitted their work. Congratulations to the winners!

My favourite photobooks in 2015 (and more)

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Katrien de Blauwer

It’s Listmas, meaning we’re being inundated with “best of” lists. Best of this, best of that. Given that few people can agree on something, there are dozens and dozens or photobooks on at least one “best of” list – I’m already getting emails by publishers and photographers that one of their books is on some list. Add to that the fact that there now are what feels like dozens of photobook festivals or meetups with awards attached, and essentially every photobook is (short) listed somewhere.

I might as well throw in the list of my favourite photobooks this year. So without further ado, here they are, in alphabetical order.

Super Labo produced a re-designed reissue of Nobuyoshi Araki’s Sentimental Journey 2, and it’s a real gem.

Makoto Azuma and Shunsuke Shiinoki‘s Encyclopedia of Flowers II (reviewed here) most certainly is one of my most memorable finds this year. I stumbled across it just moments before I was going to leave a photobook market I had already perused a few times.

Katrien de Blauwer‘s I do not want to disappear is a collections of this artist’s minimalist collages/montages, which I have been coming back to more than to any other photobook this year. Those interested in De Blauwer’s thinking about her work might want to read the conversation I had with her earlier this year.

Paul Kooiker‘s Nude Animal Cigar (reviewed here) delivers exactly what its title promises, and it’s hard to put down. It’s conceptually clever without any of the tedium that comes with so much work done this way.

By the way, I created an alphabetical index of all the rated photobook reviews on this site, which you can find here.

Anne Morgenstern‘s Land ohne Mitte (reviewed here) is not only an ambitious book, it’s also timely, given that Germany’s far-right rabble has re-emerged, to rail against immigrants, refugees, and anything that doesn’t look German enough. Yet again, much of this is happening in what used to be East Germany.

For what it’s worth, Matthew Porter‘s Archipelago (reviewed here) is the only book that so far has received a perfect 5.0 rating. The ratings aren’t necessarily correlated with whether or not the books end up being memorable for me. But this one really is a gem.

I think of all the books here, Mariela Sancari‘s Moises (reviewed here) is the only one that can be found on quite a few other lists, whatever that might mean.

My friend Hellen van Meene had her mid-career retrospective this year at the photography museum in The Hague. The resulting catalog, The Years Shall Run Like Rabbits, really deserves to be part of any serious photobook library. I can’t think of many other photographers who have managed to produce work at such a high and consistent level over the course of 20 years.

There must be at least a dozen books by Daisuke Yokota now, and not all of them are equally good. Vertigo (reviewed here) is very good, and it might in fact be my favourite book by this photographer so far.

A little while ago, I had a brief exchange with someone on Twitter about Listmas. Much to my embarrassment I can’t remember the name of the person I spoke with, but what I do remember is that she or he suggested that instead of a “best of” list it might be nice to get a list of things that inspired someone. I quite liked the idea, so here are some of the things that for me did just that this year.

I’ve wanted expanding what I write about for a while now, and I might just get to it in 2016. There have been a few false and/or unpublished starts, one of them involving the Bloom remix of Björk’s Black Lake. For me, this is certainly at the level of Funkstörung’s mesmerizing remix of All Is Full Of Love. And the way it ends, with the extended wail after which only the fractured beats remain… That’s simply sublime.

Anna von Hausswolff is probably my main music discovery this year. The Miraculous is just that.

This year, I started reading — and appreciating — Georges Simenon. The Maigret novels are great, as are the non-Maigret ones, various of them available as NYRB Classics. On the surface, these books are about crime, but what’s really at the center is the human condition and its many follies.

I have been a fan of Ross Macdonald for a while (I’m really into noir fiction). Find a Victim particularly struck me. Where Simenon made human misery his subject, at the center of this particular book lies some shitty little town in California that has seen better days. Photographers often focus on the idea of place, and Find a Victim might just show how you can create a compelling portrait of a place by diving into the lives of people forced to live there.

And just the other day, I went to the opening of Bill Viola‘s Inverted Birth at James Cohan in New York. The smaller videos are all OK, but the main — big — one is killer. If you get the chance to see it, go!

When pictures look like pictures made to look like pictures

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In crits, I have lately come to speak of certain photographs as being made to look like photographs. On the surface, that’s a bit of an absurd kind of criticism, given that photographs always look like photographs. What I’m trying to get at goes a bit deeper, or maybe I should go it goes elsewhere. My main problem is that photographs that are make to look like photographs usually are not intended to end up that way, and they lack basic believability.

Maybe giving an example helps. The 2015 Taylor Wessing Prize winner is a picture that strikes me as a prime example of a photograph made to look like a photograph. It’s incredibly awkward. People don’t sit and act and pose that way (at least the people I know). They don’t do that unless you make them to, in which case you get a picture that looks like it was made to look that way, a picture that, however, does not look like what you would see had you come across the scene. It’s a staged-narrative photograph too aware of its own conventions, of its own artifice. It has “you sit there and prop your head up that way, and you sit there…” all over it. It is all artifice, with very little artistry.

That’s really the tough thing about photography, namely that its own artifice is embedded in it in such a strange way. For paintings, this is more obvious. You look at a painting, and you see artifice. You see the paint, the surface, the textures… But you can see beyond those, because it’s a painting. With photography, it’s not so simple at all. Photographs have no surface, so there’s nothing to see beyond. Photographs are all artifice as well. But because what we see is a frozen moment, something that usually represents what we call reality in an at least initially faithful way, we don’t tend to realize the artifice’s role easily — unless it is shoved into our faces.

So this would then be the challenge behind certain types of photography, the pushing beyond the artifice. Put someone in front of a view camera, to take a portrait, and right there is your biggest struggle: how can you make that look as if that entirely constructed, artificial setup needed to make the picture didn’t exist at all? That is really, really hard. If things are just a little bit off a viewer will notice it. In fact, if things are a little bit off that’s even worse than seeing a hot mess that doesn’t work at all. When something is a little bit off, we are led to believe someone wanted to make a picture that, well, is not that. So you see the effort going into it, and the aspirations. You see the artistic failure.

Photographs that look as if they were taken effortlessly often required considerable amounts of work. The artistry is not so much that they look effortless. Instead, it is that they look effortless despite the vast amounts of effort put into them. Usually, you cannot will that to happen. Instead, you will have to surrender to the process. And you have to have the faith that at the end of what looks like a long tunnel, you will emerge with pictures that do what you want them to do.

This assumes, of course, that you know what you want your pictures to do. That’s hard, too. You know you want to take a picture, and if you just know that then, well, there is the chance that you end up with a picture that looks like it was made to look that way. This doesn’t mean you can’t get away with that, under certain circumstances.

Gregory Crewdson made a nice career out of pictures that totally look like they were made to look that way. My guess is that for someone who has never seen a Hollywood movie and who isn’t steeped in somewhat superficial ideas of psychological drama the pictures look like the photography equivalent of Thomas Kinkade paintings. I have never met anyone who fulfills that criterion, but once I do, I’ll make sure to ask.

There also are the pushed pixels and ironic still lifes of New Formalism. That’s all very cute, and these days, you can get a lot of mileage out of them, especially with many museum curators.

The thing is that photography is interesting because of the limitations created by its own artifice. But making those limitations the center of your work — whether this was intended or not — is not interesting. That’s not cutting it in any sense of the idea of art (unless, of course, you place your own artistic bar very low). There’s no challenge. There’s no imagination at play. There’s no “what if?”

The ultimate question is to ask: how can I make my photographs do things that it seems they can’t do? How can they do that regardless? That’s where things get juicy. That’s where the fun is. That’s where aspirations enter, where you don’t go about fulfilling your expectations, but about pushing against your and your medium’s limitations.

You have got to have aspirations to make photographs. Every time someone tells you that “this has been done already,” you will have to be prepared to respond with “fuck you, I’ll show you!” Every time someone talks about there being too many photographs, the same:  “fuck you, I’ll show you!”

Make people want to look at your photographs because they’re so damn good. Not because they’re so ironic or witty or self-concerned or whatever other superficial crap is being peddled so much these days.

I’ve mentioned the much maligned selfie many times before. It’s so easy to make fun of it. But most selfies are actually kind of good because their makers are so unafraid to make them. Where else do you see such a refreshing absence of anxiety around photography these days?

So ditch your anxiety. Don’t be afraid to fuck up, multiple times, until it’s not even funny any longer. As long as it’s somewhat funny, as long as it doesn’t really hurt, you’re not in the right spot. Who cares if there are thousands of negative holders or folders on your hard drive filled with bad pictures — as long as you have the few good ones in the end?

Good enough, in other words, can’t be good enough. A good-enough picture, one that looks like it was made to look that way, can’t be enough. It has to become that picture that looks like you were incredibly lucky that you just stumbled across it, even though you spent so much time making it.