Friday, November 21, 2008

Notes from a Juror

I was invited to Ithaca to be a juror for the Margaret Bourke White award, offered as a prize for an exceptional portfolio of work by a curently-enrolled Cornell student. As I write, I am reminded of my Cornellcentrism. Ithaca, for me is code for Cornell even though I did for a short while live and work in town, and had a life very separte from The Hill after graduating with a BFA in photography in 1981. It is to Cornell that I am returning. In many senses. The other jurors were Shirley Sammuels, Chair of the Department of the History of Art and Visual Studies, and Andrea Inselmann, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Ary at the Herbert F. Johson Museum of Art. (Shirley, Andrea I hope I have the title correct. This might show up on a google search.)
We formed a group of varied backgrounds but are asessments were pretty closely aligned. The winner of the award was aclear choice to all of us. The work had all we could ask for: profound concept, emotionally subtle and ambiguous, very refines visual language and craft, and clarity of vision. I can't write about the work in case the winner has yet to be notified.

A note about process. In the morning we worked separately to review the work and present our preliminary judging, then broke for lunch, and met as a team to reivew the 17 or 18 or 16 finalists. I was heartened to hear Shirley announce as she turned over the number tag for one body of work, "I hate this." ( Heartened? I am self-conscious of my tendency for being blunt, if not a little harsh with my students, and with my colleagues. For several reasons I often say what I think, before I think to shape my words. It seems so raw. I am afriad of my own directness I feel exposed for days. It's delightful to see it someone else. It becomes Shirley.) She then looked up genially at me and Andrea and invited disent. We nodded. We both deferred and agreed. Things we generally agreed on: craft and printing issue.

I took down a few notes regarding issues that consituted grounds for rejection. My biases:
1) photographs of "exotic" children. Effective image-making (of any sort: photograph, painting, drawing) connects with the viewer. Children, other than the very ill or damaged, are so open and vulnerable. Especially to a stranger with a camera. The child looks inquistively at this intruder, and in a fraction of a second the desire for connection is recorded. I'm not talking about images where children are actively engaged in an activity, or actively engaged with the photographer. It's too easy and (maybe even lazy?) connection. I ask for more of an image and I ask for a little more thought from the photographer. Children are not pretty examples of the innocence of the world, to be collected and displayed.

2) nature. The color, textures, patterns...etc of landscape are alluring and soothing. The light can be any range of colors we think reserved only for irridescent inks. That doesn't mean nature photography can't be moving. I just ask for something more than a proficient ability with one's equipment. Nature and optics do all the work. Again, I ask a lot of the photographer: not just aesthetic sensitivity and intelligence but conceptual maturity as well. William Henry Jackson and his mule pack went to a lot of trouble hauling his darkroom up through Yellowstone. Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston and the f/64 group from Point Reyes created impeccable "things" -photographs - physical objects. 30 years ago when I was an art student here we were exploring how to merge concept-building and complex visual story telling with the process of making photographs. Pretty images are enjoyable. I want the photographer to think, to observe and understand something new and I want her to share that with me.

3) The last category that turned me off was images of the "exotic". Moms in bright saris holding their babies, old men with dark skin and ragged beards, dirty children in the street, rows of brightly colored things in boxes and sacks, unusual practices with food… etc. The tourist with a nice camera can't resist making pretty images of coloring things. As a visitor from Richmond, I was keenly aware of the environment of Ithaca/Cornell on a snowy winter afternoon. Cool blue light filtered through the one north-facing window in the room. The color, the feeling --- something about this was deeply familiar. Like the smell of the old stair well left intact after the renovation of the building after my departure. We'd gone to lunch, all of us in black overcoats. I remembered the familiar dress code: dark, heavy and layered. Dark, by comparison to Richmond. Cornell students travel. Some for research. Some as adventure tourists. Others travel from other continents to study there. I wanted more than something that reminded me of how colorful the clothes and spices are in India. Maybe it's the Cornell foundation in me, where the cold long winters inspire students to stay in and work hard, but I'd like an image to work harder for me. I'd like to see that the one snapping the shutter has something to say beyond, "Look at this!". It's very hard, as a tourist, to go below the surface. Even as Annie Leibovitz said in her recently-aired interview ( the surface can be a rich theme, but then she knows why that is and has thought a lot about this.
Shirley had succinct way of evoking "the gaze". I stay away from referring to this. It's such a huge, never ending idea. I wander off on tangents. I need to write next, before I go to far (and from here I'm off to San Diego for the NCA convention) about my visits with the Cornell photo students.

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