An artist recently won a respected photographic portrait competition with a work that wasn't a portrait at all in the traditional sense, causing a large controversy and outcry. For the most part, however, the work is not being given fair or proper consideration it deserves, and that's a shame, because it stunts the growth of a genre.
In case you missed it, Sydney-based Artist Justine Varga won the $20,000 Olive Cotton Award run by the Tweed Regional Gallery in New South Wales this year for her portrait of her grandmother. That's all straightforward until you see that the portrait is highly untraditional: Varga noticed her grandmother testing pens by doodling on paper and thus, asked her to repeat the process on a 4x5 negative, which when developed, also included saliva stains and an imprint of her grandmother's hand. The work, "Maternal Line," is shown below:
Said Varga of the work:
I wanted to somehow capture more of the essence of who she was and through the gesture of her mark and the trace of her hand... She's not a young person or an elderly person. I've just captured actually her, and for me, when I look at that, I have a direct connection to my grandmother, the person rather than the exterior of the person.
The reception was not kind, however, with other entrants immediately voicing disapproval, people sending the judge, Dr. Shaune Lakin, hate mail, and the Internet generally reacting angrily. Said Larkin:
In the end, I went with this photograph because I was convinced it had an emotional power I rarely see in photographs... For me, this portrait didn't deal with the appearance of somebody in the way a selfie phenomena does; for me, it was like: 'wow, this is a really contemporary portrait, and one that pushes the boundaries of portraiture at a time when the idea of taking a photograph of someone standing in front of you or turning a camera around and taking a photo of yourself and posting or sharing that is such a part of everyday life.'
I feel as though the problem is a matter of perspective. 99 percent of us have the same rough definition of what constitutes a photographic portrait: it involves using a camera and lens with film or a digital sensor to expose (in the traditional sense) an image of a person in which the face or at least the body of the person is featured in a manner that makes it obvious it's a human form. And 99 percent of us play inside those rules, trying to win the game, so to speak, by creating the best portrait that adheres to that traditional, if not slightly clinical definition. And so, when someone comes along and not only submits, but wins a portrait competition with something that is entirely foreign to the aforementioned definition, many feel cheated, because they've been beaten by someone who wasn't even playing the same game. It feels like waiting in line for hours to get a hot product, only for someone to cut in front of you at the last minute. People are upset because they've been beaten by something they weren't aware existed and thus, couldn't hope to compete against. They feel as if their years of training, of hard work and perseverance is suddenly for naught; they feel invalidated, which is where the vitriol is born.
The other problem is one of effort, or more accurately, perceived effort. The common response to artwork that is minimalist in representation or preparation is "well, anyone could have done that." And in a sense, yes, anyone could have created "Material Line"; in fact, the artist's grandmother actually engaged in the physical act of bringing the concept to fruition. But what such analyses tend to either oversimplify or entirely overlook are the intimate understanding of the techniques and history of the medium and of the current state of affairs that one must have to distill creation down to such bareness. That in itself may be the hardest thing to grapple with when it comes to minimalist works in any medium: how to separate refined, bare essentials from simply uninformed work.
So then, the question first becomes: is it a portrait? By the rules of the competition, yes: "photographic, archivally sound, still and two-dimensional." It was made on 4x5 film, developed, and printed. Was the film "exposed" in an untraditional manner? Yes. But it was indeed exposed and developed. In a broader sense of the word, is it a portrait? Sure, it's a visual representation of a person.
In fairness, I haven't seen the other entries in the competition, so the "yes" answer I gave to the question posed by the title of this article is a qualified "yes." But it's a yes borne of a context I suspect to be different from that from which the vitriol surrounding this decision has emerged. People are angry not because this work violated the rules of portraits; they're angry because it violated their rules of portraits. Instead, one should ask: "how does this work that challenges convention fit into the broader context? Should it lauded for its cleverness, for demonstrating original thought not only in the medium, but of the medium itself?" Sure, within the traditional sense of the portrait, it's a failure, because it's not even a portrait in that sense. But suspending the traditional sense for a sense (after all, which of us holds the power of the linguistic and artistic absolute?) provides a very different (and more thorough) reading: it's a work that captures the essence of a person in a thought-provoking way. And for that alone, it deserves consideration at the very least. Lakin made a great point: in a world where we are utterly inundated with portraits in the traditional sense of the word, this is something that isn't simply a technically and artistically superior realization of that, but an entire reimagining of its essence.
Now, I'm not saying working outside the societally and/or professionally delineated boundaries is an automatic tunnel to brilliance. There is a lot of work in the fine art world that is questionable at best. But before dismissal, every work deserves consideration in a context that is fair to its creation and statement, not one that is prescribed upon on it based on a prevailing norm as if it were a (possibly ill-fitting) piece of a larger puzzle, because there is no larger puzzle. Then, and only then, can fruitful and meaningful discussion of the work occur. One issue I have with this instance is that the judging was done by a single (though qualified) person and the prize was acquisitive, which naturally raises the question of conflict of interest. So, perhaps it's best to recuse (at least to a degree) that judgment. But like I said, Lakin at least made a good point: this is a portrait distinctly separate from other portraits in a culture of portraits, which is not easy to accomplish. For that, I think its accolade is merited.