by ArtBridge executive director Stephen Pierson

On Judging Feature Shoot’s 2017 (3rd Annual) Emerging Photographer Awards

Prologue (i.e., Thank You)

A recommended remedy for Donald Trump and his fellow American Philistines who wish to eliminate the NEA: Make them judge a Feature Shoot photo contest.

Having just sorted through 260 submissions and more than 1,200 images, my head feels deliciously dizzy and alive. I’ve been transported from hauntingly empty Cape Cod homes, to Parkour groupies in Gaza, to disturbingly beautiful aerial shots of geo/social stratification. I’ve been made to rethink my conceptions of color and shape through meticulously constructed plastic sets, resplendently rendered toxic mud, and even exquisitely photographed parking garages.

Post-judging, on my commute to work this morning through frenetic rush-hour New York City, I feel more alert to my surroundings, more creative, more driven to do something of substance with my day.

So – and I mean this with a great sincerity – thank you to everyone who submitted for keeping the arts so alive and vital! What you do is important.

Nevertheless, I’m supposed to select winners.

My Judging Framework

It is, of course, utterly impossible to choose an ‘objectively best’ submission. It’s doubly impossible to compare entries that span a dozen photographic categories. I am, however, selecting winners within my role as executive director of ArtBridge, an NYC public art nonprofit. ArtBridge turns outdoor urban spaces (mainly in NYC) into large-scale temporary exhibitions, often reproduced on construction fencing (e.g., in Prospect Park, at public housing in Brooklyn, or at Barclays Center). The idea is to place art at the center of public discourse, beautifying urban environments while providing early-career artists with tremendous exposure.

My selected winners (co-selected with ArtBridge’s Devin Mathis) will be featured in upcoming ArtBridge exhibitions. That is: They will be reproduced in hi-res on vinyl material, each image printed at a height of between four and eight feet, and affixed outdoors for up to 12 months. The fickle nature of public art in NYC necessarily imposes a judging framework:

  • Images must grab attention from a distance (subtlety generally doesn’t work).
  • No nudity (Americans are prudes).
  • Nothing too abjectly depressing or violent (we must get permission from property owners, parks officials, elected officials, etc., for 90% of what we do).
  • A huge plus if your work has objects or narratives that non-art people can immediately relate to (we’ll nod approvingly at your Goldin/Eggleston/Parr references, but they won’t do anything for 99% of the people who view ArtBridge exhibitions).

The above criteria sounds like a potential recipe for dumbed-down art. And, yes, that’s absolutely a battle that we at ArtBridge constantly fight – to find ways to push through intelligent, interesting art into the public realm; to find a happy medium between satisfying the bureaucrats and furthering the culture. It’s a very fine line.

The three submissions we ultimately (arduously) selected did not merely satisfy that balance – they will, we believe, dramatically resonate as public art, yanking the attention of passerby and then shifting their understandings of the world around them and of the art of photography.

ArtBridge’s Three Winners:

  • Cian Oba-Smith – Concrete Horsemen
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It’s so easy to become cloying or clichéd when making art that aims to challenge cultural stereotypes. Instead, Mr. Oba-Smith pushes aside blunt sentimentality in favor of images that are empowering, complex, unique. The idea for the series itself is great (black urban horseriders as a mechanism to challenge what it means to be a black male in urban America) – but the photographic technique consistently elevates the result.

The riders are shot at varying distances and poses, which gives the series nuance – a nuance that’s furthered by the soft color palette. North Philadelphia fades in and out as a context. It’s a subtle brew, but it works as public art because the images read well from any distance.

I love Kehinde Wiley, but in many respects I find Mr. Oba-Smith’s images more compelling than Wiley’s black horsemen – there’s a greater subtlety in Concrete Horsemen, a wider-range of emotions on display, a series that slowly builds to a compelling shift of the viewer’s perception. Ditto for Mohamed Bourouissa’s images of the same subject matter – Mr. Oba-Smith’s series is a radically slower, softer, and more nuanced approach.

The first image in the series – a lone horse (named “Nicki Minaj”!) tied up outside its urban stable – deserves its own, separate award. The composition and color palette are stunning. Subtlety at its most powerful.

  • Dorine Bessière – Cheeses
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I never would have guessed that I would select cheese still-lifes as a contest winner. But this series genuinely blows me away. Ms. Bessière’s understanding of color theory is utterly brilliant – I have no doubt that Josef Albers would vigorously applaud. Art that employs color-theory-as-subject is often a dry, academic affair. But by framing color theory exploration around cheese, Ms. Bessière injects levity and humor. ‘Yes,’ she’s saying, ‘I’m bloody talented with color, but I’m also a good conversationalist.’

Technically these images are flawless. This level of technical perfection is not easy to achieve – clearly she put a huge amount of work into constructing this series. And it works as public art: The bright colors grab attention, and the cheese is an instantly relatable object.

I hope Ms. Bessière never gives up art photography – but she could, no doubt, make a killing as an interior designer…

  • Johanna-Maria Fritz – Like a Bird
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Ms. Fritz ventures into two very well-trodden documentary photography terrains: the Middle East and circus performers. A plethora of photographers have done both exceptionally well, and it’s quite difficult to find a unique angle. Fortunately for Ms. Fritz (and us), the amalgam of these two tropes is entirely new and wondrous.

Ms. Fritz’s photo of a Hamas military truck passing by a colorfully-dressed juggler on stilts is a jarring juxtaposition, and beautifully shot.  As is the image of the young girls in purple hijab, passing by a gaudy ticket booth. Other photos – like the circus rider on two horses on a Gaza beach, and the 12-year-old contortion artist in a tree – are not so much jarring as simply brilliantly composed shots.

Ms. Fritz’s statement speaks of how these performers provide spaces of freedom within the context of repressive cultural systems. True enough, and compelling. But the series also undermines monolithic Western narratives of life in these countries, and does so beautifully, artfully, without resorting to blunt didacticism – an approach that is perhaps the very definition of public art at its finest.

~Stephen Pierson (March 28, 2017)

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