Thursday, October 3, 2013

Art of Photography Show: The State of Photography in 2013?

by Joe Nalven

When talking about art exhibits, especially contemporary art, there is the everpresent question:  Is this what art is about today? Or is this about the juror's thoughts about what art is today?

There is a difference and it is an important difference.

Simon Mulvaney (Upper) United Kingdom;

Jacek Konieczny (lower) Poland


First, there are millions, perhaps billions of photos taken every day.  There are thousands of online galleries (mostly by the photographers themselves), there are numerous museums and galleries that exhibit photography, and there are magazines which claim to represent the current sensibility and, of course, there are many books, magazines, movies, TV shows and the like that rely on interesting and novel photos.

1439 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 236-0011
FAX: (619) 236-1974

Exhibition dates: October 12 – November 17, 2013
Opening Reception: October 12th at 6:00 pm

Judge: Julia Dolan
Curator of Photography at the Portland Art Museum

Julia Dolan's Lecture: Sunday, October 13th at 11:00 am

So, it really is a challenge to figure out what 'good' photography is and 'why' one would bother to use a label about quality. All photos are just dots (or pixels) on a piece of paper (or monitor or screen). What makes one groups of dots better than another set of dots?

If we consider the paired images above by Mulvaney and Konieczny in the Art of Photography Show (2013), one photographer from the United Kingdom and the other from Poland, we see lopped off heads.  That's a bit literal and perhaps not what the photographer or the juror thought important. And yes, there is a meta comment in the foreground and background of each image. Even the swimmer with the missing head has his head revealed as a shadow. And so on .  .  .  We can describe similarities and differences, we can note activity and location, compositional tactics and the other aspects of an image (lighting, perspective, etc.). 

I don't know whether these are 'good' photographs but they were picked for this exhibit by Julia Dolan, the Minor White Curator of Photography the Portland Art Museum.  Dolan will speak about her decisions on the morning after the reception (on October 13th); it will be interesting to hear what she considered decisive for meriting placement in this exhibition.

So, now comes the second consideration - the use of museum curators as jurors for this exhibit (and many other exhibits as well, perhaps most).

Danielle Austen (Upper) United States;
Clint Backlawski (Lower) United States
The quibble is not whether the curator at the photographic museum or gallery is competent in art history or dealing with issues and techniques common to the field, but whether there is a gestalt that focuses the evaluation of this-versus-that photograph in a too narrow frame of reference: The curator tunnel vision syndrome. 

Perhaps a panel of judges?  A curator, a photographer and a painter?  But then there would be a conflict in melding the ratings of the individual panelists.  So, for the sake of efficiency, one juror is probably best and why not a curator of photography. 

Before we get to an "answer," let us add one more influential factor: the $$$ factor.  Here, the question is not about any one curator who becomes a juror, but rather about how collectors and curators feed each other as to what art gets considered as collectable/saleable. The curator looks to the collecting, while the collector looks to appreciation and saleabililty. Not always but enough to ring some bells.

Here is a telling piece of news (for those who have been unaware of this connection):

Investor Launches Attack on Sotheby's
Loeb Seeks CEO's Ouster, Says He Fails to Grasp Importance of Modern Art

Mr. Loeb's letter continued, "It is apparent to us from our meeting that you do not fully grasp the central importance of contemporary and modern art to the company's growth strategy, which is highly problematic since these are the categories expanding most rapidly among new collectors." . . .

Mr. Loeb, who has an extensive personal collection of contemporary art, is a member of the board of trustees at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

He is one of the big art collectors from Wall Street, along with Steven A. Cohen of SAC Capital Advisors LP; Leon Black of Apollo Global Management APO +2.66%LLC; and Jeffrey Gundlach of DoubleLine Capital LP.

Mr. Loeb's $45 million penthouse in Manhattan's Upper West Side is filled with major examples by postwar artists including Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley and Martin Kippenberger.

So, who validates the importance of an art work? It is not mere money, but a sense among those who run galleries and museums about what has value about what to buy, about what to exhibit.

This is not a conspiracy, but just one of those background factors that color what we ought to appreciate.

If Mr. Loeb sits on the Board of a well known museum in Los Angeles and if Mr. Loeb buys art and if Mr. Loeb wants to instruct Sotheby's (the sales end of art) about what modern art really is for new collectors (yes, there are newbies for the loosely structured but still a pyramid scheme art world), then what are we to conclude about 'good' art getting defined in terms of the association of members of the Board of an art institution (and yes, I am one of those), the curators, and the auctioneers?

In passing, can anyone tell me when the next Biennale is? And who will be positioning what art to install there?

Is there a way out of this multi-faceted conundrum?

Yes, there is. At least a partial way out. 

Steven Churchill, the producer of this exhibit, has set up a number of talks with several of the photographers in the exhibit as well as with the juror. These are opportunities to ask the question that bothers one about the resulting selection. (And, no, Mr. Loeb to my knowledge will not be in attendance.) 

The answers may not satisfy, but these talks advance the more important question:  How do we define ourselves as artists (photographers and other media)? whether or not we fit into the niches crafted by the curator/collector mindset.

Ariana Drehsler (Upper) Egypt;
Mark Esper (Lower) United Kingsom
In this regard, the Art of Photography Show brings a welcome exhibit and dialogue to San Diego. 

We can look, see and evaluate for ourselves; we can listen and ask; we can evaluate for ourselves about the state of photography in 2013 and how we see ourselves a part of, or apart from, the prevailing view(s).

The Art of Photography Show provides us with over 100 images selected from approximately 13,000 submissions from 85 countries. The exhibit takes place at the San Diego Art Institute in San Diego's Balboa Park.

Hope to see you there .  .  . 


  1. I always enjoy the Art of Photography Show---even when I don't understand why particular pieces were accepted for it and others weren't. The chance to hear from both the curator that selected the work and some of the photographers is outstanding.
    People have been trying to define art since about year one day two and will continue to do so.If nothing else the mental exercise is good.
    At the Photography Show at the San Diego Fair we offer the over 400,000 visitors a chance to vote for the image they think is the best. In the many years that I have been associated with this event the public has never picked the same image that the panel of judges picked---something to think about.
    gene wild

  2. The art of photography is a term for the skill employed rather than for the product. The artistic photograph may result from that skill or it may not. In any case, photograph does not need a new name, especially when photography is already finer than art.

  3. Great art Photography!
    All the works show the creativity of an artist.
    art photography exhibition