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Monday, 25 October 2010


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I accept that this post is somewhat mean-spirited compared to our usual fare. But I would disagree with some of your points:

First, I don't think I'm a pied piper here. I think people are agreeing with me because they agree with me. When readers disagree with me, my experience has been that they're not afraid to say so. A good example is that when I wrote a strong condemnation of the looting of the Barnes Collection by the PTB of Philadelphia, many people disagreed with me...even though I was completely right and they were completely wrong. :-D

Second, I don't think I was primarily criticizing Michelle Sank. I think I'm primarily criticizing the BJP judges. I'm saying they blew it.

Third, you imply that the image is a "difficult" image. I don't think it's difficult at all. I think exactly the opposite--that AS A SINGLE IMAGE it's trite, cliched, overly simple, obvious, and devoid of any of the semi-accidental grace, whimsy, mystery or meaning that characterize single photographs when they "work." It might work in the context of a larger series of pictures, but that's not what it won an award for.

And although this doesn't speak to any of your points, I would go further and say the judges have done a disservice to Michelle Sank. She's obviously a photographer who chooses NOT to work in single images. She makes that very clear on her website, verbally, visually, and organizationally. Not only have they picked an image that's uncharacteristic of most of her work, which is a bit insulting in itself, but associating her with a single-image prize is something of a slap in the face to the way she clearly wants her work to function, or so I would think.

I wonder what she thinks of all this? (I guess she might not answer if I asked, which brings me back to your final point, and to where I started in this reply....)


I want to know what camera she used, because then I will surely take award winning photos as well, regardless of content, image, composition, art, etc.

I kind of like the picture. It's not a brillant one, but I don't get tired looking at it. Whereas I don't like the strange portrait of the teenage-mother and her baby.

Is the subject matter of a photo, if it is in the area of social concern/inequality, simply enough to make it interesting and worthy of public debate ? Does this picture really say something, or is it just posing a contrived question with no context ?
The insights I have read don't seem to have much convincing propositions for this work and I would say that pictures like this are not at all ground breaking or original. For me there is a lack of grit or empathy, as if the photographer has made a void for comment, rather than providing one (if thats it, so what, that's not difficult). I'm floundering here, trying to see perhaps something that can't be seen because only the photographer knows and the rest is supposition: it's not that interesting, it fits a current genre.
Shoot me down but I'm not praising mediocrity.

I, also, thought this was a joke when I first saw it. I thought: "Mike, you little Imp!". But, it's real, alas. I also went to the photographers web-site and moused through a lot of her work, and found this image to be the weakest thing of anything she shows. It's a puzzlement...

BTW Mike, when you're comments said that she uses a little light flash fill, sometimes foreground heavy, I guess what you meant to say was that she lazily uses a flash on camera in the old synchro-sunlight mode.

Having worked with a lot of college kids, I have to say that her "artistic rationalization statement" for the teen mothers thing is dead on to what they teach in American institutions for all art classes, with the possible exceptions that she didn't use the words "context", "contextual", or the phrase "man's inhumanity to man", in anything I read...yet...or maybe that's passe this year..oy, who can keep track!

But seriously folks, getting your undies in a bundle over this is so much wasted energy. The older I get, the more I realize that everything changes, as well as every generations viewpoint. It's amazing to me when the "youngsters" trot out some new, hip, amazing, image to show, only to have me realize it's been done before, and better. The generation X'ers and Y'ers to me, seem to be the generations that have reviled their elders more than any other, including my own; but at least we did the study and research to know what came before, while they're always reinventing the wheel and wanting a pat on the back for it. Hence some of the comments on this image.

Man, I would like to see an ink-blot test result for some of those art rationalizers that wrote those long winded positive comments, I bet it would be striking!

BTW, for some reason, Eggleston's been back in the news recently, and someone mentioned him earlier in these posts. Because he's been in the ether lately, a few old photo pals of mine and I were talking about him, and we STILL don't get it. After watching some of the recent documentaries about him, well, I'll just quote a Southern Gal Pal of mine about him: "That is one weak, drunken, Southern trust-fund baby that's never done an honest day of work in his life!".

"That is one weak, drunken, Southern trust-fund baby that's never done an honest day of work in his life!".

Probably a fairly accurate appraisal, actually. I'm not sure he'd take it as an insult, though.


Whoa, whoa, whoa... nice shootin', Tex. Easy now people. How about a bit of graciousness and respect for a fellow photographer? For what it's worth, the photo is kind of growing on me. Here are two good things we can say about it, for starters: it avoids cliche, and it's making me think. No small feat, either of those things.

(I'm happy to admit that the context of the photo may be a big part of what's making me think. It's not just the photo itself, but the fact that someone is putting it forward and saying: "Look at this. This is worth your time and the attention". But lots of art works like this, doesn't it? Intent and context can matter as much as the intrinsic features of the art object.)


I'm a big fan of your site which I find stimulating and fun and return to most days.

I'm also a big fan of this photo which has been on my mind since you published it the other day, and I agree wholeheartedly with the comments by David S, Joe, JohnMFLores, Gregory Clementes and (a few) others.

To me Ms. Sank's picture is enigmatic, thought provoking, subtle and exquisitely poised, in both form and content.

A refreshing competition winner, in my humble opinion, and not in the least stereotypical: as evidenced by the numerous divergent descriptions of this scene by commentators.

A brick wrapped in a bread bag wrapped in a mystery...who ever heard of such a thing, and yet here it is!?!

I looked up 'nondescript', incidentally, on dictionary.com.
1. of no recognized, definite, or particular type or kind: a nondescript novel; a nondescript color.
2. undistinguished or uninteresting; dull or insipid: The private detective deliberately wore nondescript clothes."

The first one, definitely the first one!!

The only way this discussion could get better is if it came to light that Michelle Sank inserted the loaf of bread using Photoshop.


Second prize was two Sigma DP2s.

1.The winning photo is boring
2.The photo of Michelle is more interesting
3.Majority of photo contests suck

"Not only have they picked an image that's uncharacteristic of most of her work, which is a bit insulting in itself, but associating her with a single-image prize is something of a slap in the face to the way she clearly wants her work to function, or so I would think."

Except that the single image category was entirely separate from the body of work one, different online entry form and separate entry fee, so the photographer must have specifically entered this image on its own.

Nathan: Actually, it's the other way round. 90% of everything is crap. It's just that we spend a lot of time arguing about the 10%.

While I still like my caption, to seriously address the work, this is a purely contextual photograph. (As opposed, to me, to an esthetic work which is just attractive and/or technically admirable in its own right. Not that a photograph with serious context can't also be technically proficient.) If you have a mental context that it fits into which you find intriguing, you will find it intriguing. If you don't, you will not. The trick with contextual work if you want it to succeed is to find a mental context which your selected audience will have and find intriguing.

Obviously she hit what she was aiming at, which was the mental context space of the judges of the competition. It's their competition: who am I to take them to task? If I were asked to submit to this competition, I would not do so, nor would I support it with time or money, but I have absolutely no quarrel with it. I, like most photographers, have certainly created photographs with a particular audience in mind and which people not having the characteristics of that audience at best wouldn't be particularly interested in (and at worst would find, frankly, quite horrific.) De gustibus, non disputandum.

I personally do not care for this kind of work, mainly because one of my strongest mental contexts is that if I can't tell a photograph from a random mediocre snapshot, I am not inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. I am quite aware and do not dispute that purposely creating an image in the style of a random mediocre snapshot can be a valid artistic choice. It is just not a choice I usually find compelling.

Mike, I found this curious: "As a further indictment of the choice, the prize-winning image is entirely uncharacteristic of the work of Michelle Sank"...

I don't understand why that's an indictment. Is it supposed to be impossible that an artist produce good work outside her normal area?

Also--I don't know how these competitions work; surely the judges did not know whose photographs they were looking at when they made their decision? If they didn't know, it seems immaterial whether the work is outside Sank's usual range. If they did know, that sounds like very bad methodology.

If you think the photo contest "system" has it's many aspects, then you should submit you work to a gallery for consideration
Always a pleasure to be deconstructed.

rotate it 90 degrees clockwise and call it "Man Leaning on Mother Earth", throw in some comments about "surreal existentialism", "intriguing juxtaposition of compositional effectiveness" and "emotional ambivalence" and I think you'll have a modern art masterpiece on your hands there.

Hey Marc W.

Thanks for using the word "context" or "contextual", six times, thereby proving my point about "art speak" rationalizations!

Due to all the attention paid to this image, I've been looking at it for a couple of days, and damnit if it isn't growing on me. Looking purely at the shapes and colors, it is actually quite well-composed, and the book in the hand lends something to it I can't quite explain. It is a challenging photo, IMHO, in that it is easily dismissible according to current photographic contest-winning chestnuts, but I do think it rewards some patient examination, and though brilliance escapes my vocabulary at this time in describing it, doing the above is no easy task.

For the record, I also love Eggleston.

To not like someone elses art and to critique it, even strongly, is one thing - totally acceptable, expected and even desired. But to make fun of it and ridicule it endlessly - sorry - I find that totally unacceptable.


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