Prizes! Prizes! Prizes!

‘Prizes, Prizes, Prizes’, Photofile 83, Australian Centre for Photography, pp 56 — 59, 2008

This year there will be well over $100,000 up for grabs in the fifteen or so photography prizes running across the country. It seems everybody loves a good competition, and as the most democratic of art forms photography readily lends itself to the format. Entries can be submitted digitally for easy short-listing, and artists and amateurs can both have a go on roughly equivalent terms. No matter what you think of the judge’s final, painfully arrived at decision, a bit of controversy never hurt anyone, and anyway, there’ll be a different judge next time. For the lucky photographer who does eventually come up trumps there is the professional recognition of the prize, plus the thrill of actually winning something — cash or just a camera — and the opportunity to have their image and name reproduced in newspapers and journals around the country. For those that only get short-listed, there is still the extra line on their CV. And for those that hopefully sent off their jpegs along with their entry fee and didn’t even get a guernsey, well, there’s always next time.

Some photographers make the conscious decision to spend a lot of time and money entering as many art awards as they are eligible for, in the hope of eventually striking it lucky. The stats can be discouraging though. Almost 1500 people paid 25 dollars to enter one of the country’s most recent and richest prizes, the National Portrait Gallery’s National Photographic Portrait Prize, but only about 1 in 20 could get short-listed, and of course only one photographer could win the $25,000. For its part the gallery got a feisty show that’s sure to be popular, where unknown amateur photographers cheerfully rubbed shoulders with the big names, and serendipitous happy snaps added zest to monumentally posed portraits.

Some photographers make the conscious decision to spend a lot of time and money entering as many art awards as they are eligible for, in the hope of eventually striking it lucky. The stats can be discouraging though. Almost 1500 people paid 25 dollars to enter one of the country’s most recent and richest prizes, the National Portrait Gallery’s National Photographic Portrait Prize, but only about 1 in 20 could get short-listed, and of course only one photographer could win the $25,000. For its part the gallery got a feisty show that’s sure to be popular, where unknown amateur photographers cheerfully rubbed shoulders with the big names, and serendipitous happy snaps added zest to monumentally posed portraits.

(And if you want this punter’s opinion on the judging committee’s decision to choose Robert Scott-Mitchell’s portrait of his wife, Lindy Lee — Birth and Death as the winner, well, I can understand why they would have eventually plumped on this portrait because it safely covered so many bases: it included other family portraits in the frame, it was collaborative, it was intercultural, it was spiritual, it was about conjugal love, and it was of a glamorous art world figure. But in plumping for this merely competent image they passed over many, much more visually compelling and interesting photographs, such as George Fetting’s David Gulpilil {although he had already won the Tweed River Regional Art Gallery’s Olive Cotton Award}, Ruby Davies’ Water as Life: The Town of Wilcannia and the Darling/Baaka, Petrina Hicks’ Rosemary, or even as a roughie Vasili Vasiliaskis’s, Peter Robinson, Lingerie Importer. Still, there’s always next time.)

Prizes can make a lot of sense for smaller galleries and museums too. Regional galleries with limited resources but big ambitions can use a prize to efficiently sample the national scene. For 25 years the Albury City Regional Art Gallery has been running its biennial National Photography Purchase Award (won last year by Anne Zahalka) with a $10,000 acquisition fund, and has built up a formidable collection of contemporary Australian photography. The Gold Coast City Art Gallery has been using the Josephine Ulrick & Win Schubert Photography Award (won last year by Paul Ferman) to similar effect, and it was been joined in 2005 by the Tweed River Regional Art Gallery with the Olive Cotton Award (won last year by George Fetting), and in 2006 by the Monash Gallery of Art (which already had a substantial photography collection) with the William and Winifred Bowness Photography Prize (won last year by Ray Cook).

Prizes are also a good option for galleries to negotiate with philanthropists, particularly in a straitened cultural climate, because what the philanthropist is being asked to sponsor is not this or that particular photographer or image, but on ongoing process based on access and merit. The sport-like fun of the competition provides an entertaining show for the local community, and the announcement of the winner gives the gallery a national presence. Prizes are always great shows to visit. There is always the judge to disagree with, and even though curators work hard to corral the entries — each one clamouring for individual attention — into a coherent hang, inevitably some of the scandalous geo-politics of the nineteenth-century salon remains. For example, which image, which looked good as a jpeg but disappointed when it was unpacked, ends up next to the fire extinguisher? Or which image, which arrived bombastically enlarged and in a tacky frame, ends up in an under-lit corner?

Although no individual institution should be begrudged its photography prize, the fact that they are increasingly dominating the photography scene is unprecedented. By their very nature photography prizes have to be superficial. In most, though not all, cases only one image is selected from each short-listed photographer, despite the fact that the photograph’s natural home is as part of a group or a series. Photographs usually need proper contextualization, but many prizes hang photographs with no supporting material at all to explain the work. Others include short artists statements, which in their naivety sometimes do a disservice to the photographer. Some prizes are specifically designed to encourage particular genres such as landscape, portraiture, or documentary. But, probably because they are all organised along similar lines, the open prizes seem to be taking similar snapshots of the photographic scene. For instance last year the Bowness Prize, which I saw at the Monash Gallery of Art, wasn’t substantially different in terms of entrants, styles and themes, to the show I had selected and judged at the Gold Coast City Gallery for the Josephine Ulrick & Win Schubert Photography Award.

Sometimes I wonder what the opportunity costs are for the worthy efforts photographers, galleries, and sponsors put into prizes. Everybody would agree that they are no substitute for a curated, researched and contextualized show, or a strategic collection policy, and of course from the point of view of individual institutions their prizes are thought of as complementing, rather than replacing, their other stirling curatorial work.  But perhaps the looming presence of prizes in the consciousness of photographers and viewers alike is beginning to cast a corrosively aleatory temper over the whole scene?

Martyn Jolly

Dr Martyn Jolly is Head of Photomedia at the Australian National University School of Art.  He judged the National Photography Purchase Award at the  Albury City Regional Art Gallery in 1985 and the Josephine Ulrick & Win Schubert Photography Award at the Gold Coast City Gallery in 2007.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s