Posts tagged ‘artists to look at’

Radical bland: unfolding the New Topographics

My first encounter with the New Topographics did not go well. I was 20, and in college, and stumbled into the Robert Adams show at the Yale University Museum of Art in 2002 when I was there to attend a lecture.

Robert Adams, Pike's Peak Park, Colorado Springs, 1970

I wandered up and down the walls of what seemed like endless, terrifyingly boring black and white images of ugly houses, cul-de-sacs, clear-cutting, and mines. I could not figure out what these pictures were really about, or why anyone would want to look at them. When I looked at them, I just felt depressed.

Robert Adams, untitled, Denver, 1970-74

Ah HA, I now want to say. Hey, Eliza, that WAS the point! That’s what makes them so interesting and disarming and beautiful. We are building a boring world for ourselves. Which, when you realize it, is searingly painful to witness and be a part of. Eliza, Eliza, wake up!

Robert Adams

But Eliza, junior-in-college, is utterly impervious to my shouts. It was not until a few years later, when I found myself in Arizona, a whole new part of the American West than I had previously experienced, that I began to really feel what those pictures are talking about.

It helped that I met and studied with Bill Jenkins, the curator responsible for the New Topographics exhibition in 1975, and Mark Klett, one of the foremost landscape photographers working in the U.S. Their personal experiences and their view of life in the Sonoran Desert, fast disappearing beneath box stores and condo complexes, reshaped my connection to landscape photography, particularly photographs of the western U.S.

Robert Adams

And now, when I think about the New Topographics, I think about that group of artists as some of the most serious, purposeful social change photographers that I know about.

One of the things that interests me about them is that they use images in a different way than I might have expected. They use images to create social change by helping their viewers understand what society is, in the first place. They aren’t showing just what’s wrong with it, or what it would look like if things were better—they are showing me what my own culture is. They are telling me stories about myself.

I love that! To me, that is so often what makes a great work of art—the ability of the artist to articulate how I feel, or how life feels, in a way that I’ve never been able to.

And social change is such an ambiguous phrase, and such a nuanced and many-layered process—what a great idea it is to start change by understanding where you are (in space, in time, in community-building) in the first place.

A new show reproducing the original selection of artists, with a few additions, opens this week at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, with an artist’s talk at the opening reception, given by Bill Jenkins, Joe Deal and Frank Gohlke. There is also a catalogue available, which I just bought. Details below, taken from the CCP website.

Longmont, Colorado, about 1982

New Topographics, February 19 – May 16, 2010
The exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape, held in 1975 at George Eastman House, signaled the emergence of a new approach to landscape photography. A new version of this seminal exhibition re-examines more than 100 works from the 1975 show, as well as some 30 prints and books by other relevant artists to provide additional historical and contemporary context. This reconsideration demonstrates both the historical significance of these pictures and their continued relevance today.

Opening Reception and Artists’ Talk, Friday, February 19, Reception at 5 p.m., Discussion at 6 p.m.
Join Bill Jenkins, the curator of the original 1975 presentation of New Topographics and exhibiting artists Joe Deal and Frank Gohlke as they discuss the origins and impact of that seminal project. Moderated by Britt Salvesen, Department Head and Curator of the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography, and the Department Head and Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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February 19, 2010 at 11:29 am Leave a comment

Image as oppressor

What if you had never seen a picture of yourself before? What if you had only seen pictures of yourself that someone you barely knew had taken? As someone who has photographed and been photographed all her life, it is difficult to imagine. But, in that situation, what kind of power does a photograph (and therefore, a photographer) have?

Continue Reading February 11, 2010 at 4:18 am 1 comment

Avatar: a picture of the noble (sparkly) savage

Last night I went to see Avatar. The Imax screen at the Melbourne Museum is 7 stories tall, 32 meters wide, and featured a prim voice asking us to move to the middle to fill every available seat.

And no wonder. At yesterday’s count from boxofficemojo.com, Avatar had $1,063,151,759 in box office sales. As you’ve no doubt heard, it’s broken the $1 billion mark faster than any other film. Michael Carmichael of the Huffington Post called it “political dynamite” and “powerful art.” Clearly, James Cameron knows his audience.

And doesn’t.

I feel pretty weird about watching a movie that so blatantly returns to an unambiguous portrayal of a perfect, “untouched” indigenous society, dramatically saved from ruin by an outsider (who is, as usual, a white boy). My friend Thom Loubet said it well: “I mean, I feel like a cranky old man complaining about this, because it really is a fun movie, but in 2010, do we still need the perfectly innocent/noble/pure (clueless) native in our fictional narratives?! Give me ‘Smoke Signals’ any day.”

In that clip from Smoke Signals, the story Thomas Builds-the-Fire recounts is from Sherman Alexie’s first book of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which is just an awesome book and I hope you buy one right this second and read it.

It’s not that we shouldn’t be interested in other cultures. It’s not that we shouldn’t fantasize about living in harmony with the earth (or Pandora) or building a better society. It’s just that I don’t like being told to idealize a lot of creatures that look like blue, sparkly Masai people who move through life to a soundtrack of Peruvian panpipes.

Because idealizing something is actually not the same as respecting it.

If I respect another culture, I acknowledge both how similar and how different I am to the people living within that other culture. I acknowledge that they have the same emotional range, mental capabilities, desires and potential for being annoying that I have. Idealizing someone sets them apart from you in a way that is false, just as dismissing someone also creates a false division.

And that’s why Sherman Alexie’s work is so fantastic. It is never false. It rings true, and you know it from the first line of the introduction to The Lone Ranger and Tonto. And if anyone is going to save the characters in Alexie’s fiction, it is not going to be some white person who has been to a fancy college, or has been a marine, or who photographs Victor’s father at a protest and wins a Pulitzer Prize.* (See excerpt in comment below)

It’s not the documentation of an issue that solves the issue, it’s the discussion that documentation creates. It’s the feeling a picture inspires; the connections and relationships it engenders; the kinds of audiences it reaches–that’s how a picture creates social change. And, as a photographer, you have some control over the kind of conversation you begin. For example, these two images by Richard Misrach and Edward Burtynsky raise serious cultural and environmental questions, but they start a nuanced conversation.

Richard Misrach

Edward Burtynsky

Avatar, even though it’s in gorgeous 3D, starts a one dimensional conversation. And yeah, I guess it isn’t really documentary work–those hammerhead-elephants aren’t quite that big in real life–but it does have an overt social-change message.

So anyway. It was a fun romp. But I wish it had been more thoughtful. And perhaps contained a single humorous moment. And I agree with Thom. He also said, “The art direction looks like an 11-year-old’s Trapper-Keeper–everything highlighted in purple neon.” My dad was reminded of Fern Gully.

January 6, 2010 at 7:22 am 36 comments

Opportunities for artists and nonprofits

Part I. GRANTS

So, I’ve been applying to a lot of grants, prizes, competitions and exhibitions in the last few years in order to fund my work. And I’ve noticed a couple of things.

First of all, it is hard to find the information, it’s hard to organize it, and it’s hard to get the timing right, unless you just become obsessive about applying for and researching grants, which is not advised if you want to keep your personal relationships intact.

That’s one reason I wanted to start this blog and to create the grants list in the Creative Momentum section of PhotoPhilanthropy—I am always looking for good sources of information on the web. Incidentally, if you can recommend any good grant aggregators or blogs for this kind of information, please do! Comment below or send me a note at eliza@photophilanthropy.org.

But I’ve also noticed that there is an exciting trend toward promoting and funding photographic art that drives social change. A number of organizations and programs have emerged in just the last couple of years that have this specific mission, some of which explicitly require collaborations between artists and charitable organizations.

1.    There is the Shoot Q grant, whose 2009 winner, Annie O’Neill, was just announced (sign up here to be notified when they begin accepting submissions for the 2010 prize).

Annie O'Neill

2.    Getty Images added a new grant program to their existing $20,000 editorial grants (deadline: May 1st). Called “Grants for Good” the new program specifically funds collaborations between photographers and nonprofits. In their words, “Nonprofits need imagery to tell their stories effectively, which is why our Grants for Good provide two grants of $15,000 annually, to cover photographer, filmmaker and agency costs as they create compelling new imagery for the nonprofit of their choice.” Deadline: March 1st. Boo yah.

3.   Once you’ve made the work, you need to figure out how to get it to a broader audience. The Open Society Institute & Soros Foundation Network has a new Distribution Grant for artists and partner organizations to create new ways to distribute their work. Amounts from $5,000-$30,000; deadline, June 2010. Read about last year’s winners here.

4.    The Aftermath Project, another initiative of the Open Society Institute, supports projects that document the aftermath of war. Deadline: November every year.

Asim Rafiqui

5.    The Alexia Foundation gives $15,000 grants to professionals and similarly generous grants to students for projects that further their objectives of promoting peace and cultural understanding. Deadline: January 12, 2010.

In my experience, partnering with a nonprofit organization was helpful in funding my work because it dramatically expanded the breadth of funding sources the project was eligible for. With COAR–Community Outreach & Advocacy for Refugees–my most recent partner organization, I could apply for independent artist grants, artist prizes, project or collaboration-specific grants, and the project was written into general program and operations grants that the organization was submitting anyway.

Because of our collaboration, we were eligible for 4 different categories of funding, instead of one or two. We ended up receiving about 1 grant from each of those categories of funding—so I feel like that strategy served us well. And, I don’t think the project would have been able to move forward if we had disregarded any of those categories.

Last year at ASU, I attended a talk given by Subhankar Banerjee where he recounted his own experience trying to drum up financial support for his projects. If you haven’t seen his work before, you should check it out: I particularly like his landscapes because they are so geometric and organic at the same time; they show you caribou crossing vast swathes of the arctic that could also be cytoplasm drifting around a single cell—it reminds me that I don’t really know how I fit into the world or the universe, I don’t really know how large or small I am, which is unexpectedly inspiring.

Subhankar Banerjee

One of the strategies he pursued in funding his photographs about climate change in the arctic was to partner with Blue Earth Alliance, a nonprofit organization that fills the role that COAR played for me when I was looking for funding. Blue Earth Alliance is relevant in situations where artists have not found an appropriate organization to partner with. This is a very cool org, that offers a lot of different kinds of support to artists—well worth knowing about.

And they have a blog too. Here’s a post I found really useful, all about fundraising strategy.

Next up: publication opportunities and grant aggregators. Very sexy.

November 18, 2009 at 2:42 am Leave a comment


"In this way his work is more powerful in its moments of creation, when real human interactions are eroding racial stereotypes, than in its exhibition. And if the work succeeds, it is not because Subotzky can use a camera like no one else, it is because his photographs embody his efforts to confront social injustice on a personal level." --Charles Schultz on Mikhael Subotzky

PhotoPhilanthropy’s blog is written by Eliza Gregory

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