Did Scratches and Saliva Deserve to Win $20,000 in a Portrait Competition? Yes.

Did Scratches and Saliva Deserve to Win $20,000 in a Portrait Competition? Yes.

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 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. 

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Rodrigo Bertin's picture

If it's impossible to perceive it as a portrait without some description (even a showy and disturbed one), then that photogram failed.

romain vernede's picture

so One has to define what is a good photogram...

Brian Stricker's picture

If it has to be accompanied by a paragraph or 2 to describe what is being viewed it is not a portrait. Sure it is a powerful piece for the artist and sure I get it .....after it is explained but lets not get carried away with what it is.

a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders.

Seems pretty clear and simple to me.

Dan Howell's picture

agreed, it won for it's caption, not for it's strength as an image.

ya no. i can see why they are upset. i gotta agree with them. it's not a portrait to me. some kind of art ? sure.

Rodrigo Bertin's picture

Abstract art, like some other works from Justine Varga I've seen.

Simon Patterson's picture

I suspect the competition organisers don't care if we think it deserved to win or not, as long as we share our opinion about it online. It's brilliant marketing if nothing else.

Anonymous's picture

That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever read on this, or any, site. One could argue a face has a landscape to it but could a portrait compete in a landscape competition? smh

Alex Cooke's picture

The most ridiculous on any site? You must not explore the Internet much, Patrick. ;)

Anonymous's picture

I meant from someone who's being serious. Some things are so ridiculous you know they don't really believe it but, actually you're right, I don't explore the internet that much. I'm way too busy taking portraits with people in them; landscapes with dirt, trees, sand, water, etc... in them; architectural shots with structures in them; .... :-)

Rodrigo Bertin's picture

Maybe... If there's a landscape on the person's iris lol

Anonymous's picture

Actually, that's a cool idea. Use a macro lens to photograph the reflection of a landscape, or any subject for that matter, in someone's eye. If they have blue eyes, for example, you could blend the sky into the iris or with green eyes, blend a grassy foreground or trees into it. Maybe somehow integrate the pupil into the composition. :-)

Edit: I'm going to try to do something with the upcoming solar eclipse. I was planning to go to somewhere along the path of totality, anyway, to shoot it. Of course, the eclipse would have to be composited in and replace the pupil. :-)

Rodrigo Bertin's picture

But, then, the lens will appear on almost the whole iris.

Anonymous's picture

Damn you and your logic! ;-) I suppose you could shoot it from a slight angle and use a longer focal length to keep it further away from the eye!?

Rodrigo Bertin's picture

lol Maybe using a macro lens with extension tubes or something to further the distance from the subject. But, from my experience, it won't work as expected, since the iris is itself very wide angled.

Motti Bembaron's picture

I am trying very hard not to say anything nasty. very hard.

Now, I am not sure if it is funny or sad so I would go with sad .

It is sad that today's young generation is told that it's OK just to be different. Worse, they are perceived as artists and rewarded for their lack of effort.

Creating a portrait that will win $20,000 in a competition is a tough assignment but with today's attitude, just come up with something completely bizarre and you win the competition. Forget working hard, taking dozens of photos and spend hours at it. If you do, you are a loser.

That is plain wrong.

It is as wrong as giving high marks to someone who did not do well at school and giving the same marks to someone who worked really hard at getting it. What kind of a message we are sending?

Remember the young guy who wrote something dumb on a acceptance form to a prestige university? He just repeated the same short sentence for something like 200 times. He was accepted. Why? God knows.

What kind of a message we are trying to send anyway? The message is, it's OK to be lazy. All you need is a off the wall, not related idea and you will win the day. Let the other losers work hard.

Alex Cooke's picture

Justine Varga graduated with honors from the Australian National Art School and has had numerous exhibitions and lectures; she's hardly lazy, nor did she not receive high marks. Nor, being in her mid-30s, is she young, though I have absolutely no idea why her age is somehow tied to this discussion.

Nor do I understand why we're talking about her work ethic, particularly when no one can speak to the time that went into this project before this final idea was come upon. Creativity is hours upon hours of tedium and slow-to-no progress punctuated by moments of breakthrough. A minimalist work does not imply laziness, nor should we tie the value of a work to the time spent creating it; after all, Mozart wrote the overture of "Don Giovanni" the night before its premiere.

Anonymous's picture

To me, mid 30s is young. ;-)

Alex Cooke's picture

That makes me feel better; I've been teetering on the precipice of my just-turned-30 crisis for a while now. :P

Anonymous's picture

Hah! My sons left that behind a long time ago! :-)

Motti Bembaron's picture

You are right, I do not know anything about her, I just see what she submitted to the competition and in my opinion, it does not warrant the prize. Her accomplishments should not be taken as credits for wining this prize.

My description above was not particularity about her but about the overall attitude that often reward the ones who, in my opinion and clearly many others, should not be getting it.

For me 30 is young :-)

Alex Cooke's picture

If nothing else, everyone in the comments is making me feel pleasantly young tonight. :)

Motti Bembaron's picture

It's the old guys staying late after the wives went to sleep :-)

Nino Batista's picture

"It is sad that today's young generation is told that it's OK just to be different."

We haven't seen a generation with an overt and dominant adherence to social conformity since the Silent Generation (basically the children from the Great Depression trying to hold on to any semblance of stability after the horrors of WWII.)

The Baby Boomers after them were the very zenith of "trying to be different" in the middle of the 20th century (likely tired of the conformity their parents held so dear.)

My father is 69 years old, a product of the 60's. His entire youth was spent doing everything he, and his contemporaries, could do to be different.

Warhol and the pop art movement is a product of this same generation, and one thing he did well was "Be different", usually to the condemnation by most of the public.

Today, the generation to hate on are known as the Millennials. It's almost fashionable and trendy to pick on them (there's a joke in there somewhere), but they are hardly the only misguided, lazy "its ok to be different" lepers you pigeonholed them as.

To be clear, I don't love this piece of artwork. It's dismissible to me, for the most part.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Finding creative ways to do things differently is important. What I say is that being different for the sake of being different is not productive and should not be rewarded.

I am the product of the 70's and maybe a bit old fashion and conservative but I admire creative thought and new ideas.

That is not one of those things. And in my opinion, nor was Warhol

I'm not sure the point of art or portraiture is to be difficult. Someone who works hard for a grade in school and gets an A deserves it just as much as someone for whom it came easy. Whether you like this work or not, and whether you think it qualifies as portraiture or not is open for debate. But I don't think the metric for judging it is how hard it was to make. If an amazing portrait came easy to someone, either by their talent or good fortune, it's still an amazing portrait. Saying it has to be the result of a certain amount of toiling doesn't make sense, even if that's how great art usually comes about.

Benjamin Thomson's picture

A thousand times yes. That's the difference between craft and art that a lot of photographers misunderstand.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Alex, I am sure you just want to be PC but the more you try the worse it sounds.

Don't write that he just wants to be PC because you disagree. It's childish and disrespectful.

Motti Bembaron's picture

But that is it, I disagree and I tell him that that his explanations do not convince me. Why is it childish or disrespectful?

Telling someone that they are too politically correct should not be disrespectful, or childish.