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Consternation Over Winning Photograph in the Olive Cotton Award in Australia.

In Photography News on July 26, 2017 at 3:58 AM

Consternation Over Winning Photograph in the Olive Cotton Award in Australia.

This is a provocative image. I surmise in amongst multiple reasons it was chosen to be the winner was to – provoke. Creativeness, diversity, innovation, and vision in photography should be without boundaries – this is without question. This photograph goes some way to pushing the creative boundaries of photography. You know ‘Space the last frontier,’ go where no man (should be woman as well) has been before stuff boundaries!

                                          © Photograph by Artist Justine Varga

Winner of the Tweed Gallery’s $20,000 Olive Cotton Prize for photographic portraiture was a controversial choice by judge Shaune Lakin [Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra]. The photograph (above) is titled ‘Maternal Line’ and is by Justine Varga.

At this point, it is useful to ask a couple of questions; the first being, does this specific photograph succeed in doing that – being stellar? The second and more pragmatic for many here is the stinging question is, is this a portrait photograph? The answer to the first question lies with the individual viewer given the inbuilt subjectivity of photography itself. There is no x+y=z answer. The second question is also difficult to answer. It is though one needs first to ask what a portrait is? A portrait is defined as a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders. No face, head or shoulders here? Though, more broadly a portrait is a representation or impression of someone or something in language or on film or television or in this case – photography. The latter is where we enter the twilight zone. It is plausible that this photograph ‘Maternal Line’ can loosely be defined as a portrait. I think especially because as I understand it, photographer Justine Varga lovingly collaborated with her grandmother in making it. It is a ‘representation’ of her grandmother, and representation can qualify as a portrait. In a very human way, I am touched by Varga’s collaboration with her grandmother in making ‘Maternal Line .’ Saying that I wonder if the final work is as compelling as the collaboration and methodology that produced it in the first place?
As mentioned earlier within the context of those ‘go where no man (or woman of course) has been before frontiers’ of photography; curators, judges, picture editors et al. at times could be more balanced in avoiding choosing photographs that are biased towards methodology and philosophical underpinnings. Yes, the methodology and philosophical underpinnings of a photograph are paramount but not at the expense of dumbing down the aesthetic, and emotion of a photograph. Equity of both methodology and aesthetic produces the most potent and powerful photographs. Any University first-year art photography student can write a three thousand word piece on why the close-up photograph of the wine stained piece of shag pile carpet s/he has photographed is ‘art’ with intellectual and philosophical justification and authority. This is basic 101 University art photography stuff. But the important question that needs to be asked is, is it an accomplishment as an aesthetically evolved and emotionally charged photograph? Does it question us and inform us, delight us and disturb us, make us laugh or cry, extend our understanding of what it is to be human and be part of humanity? Further, still, does it emotionally wound us and remind us what it is to be alive? I wonder? Perhaps in some way it does in a ‘quite’ way or is it that ‘the story’ of the methodology is more compelling in this case?
Could it be that the aesthetic of the ‘Maternal Line’ doesn’t equal the intellectual and philosophical maturity that went into making it? Perhaps this is at the core of the consternation concerning ‘Marternal Line’ winning the Olive Cotton award?
Provocative? Clearly so but at what cost? Generally put provocation at the cost of devolving an evolved aesthetic and emotion is narrow in vision and counterintuitive. Personally, am I provoked by the actual photograph? I I am emotionally moved when considering the intamacy and emotion surrounding the story of making the photograph. But and again, provoked by the actual photograph itself? No, a flat line. I don’t ‘feel’ anything, and that is a problem.

~ JP

External Link: ABC NEWS

External Link: Sydney Morning Herald

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