The best the world of photography books has to offer

Spring brings with it the awards season, be they the Oscars or Pulitzers. Never having been nominated for (or a viable candidate for) an Oscar, I don’t follow it all that closely. Having been nominated for a Pulitzer once (by the Philadelphia Inquirer) I have a bit more of a stake in that game. The older I get, the more I wonder about the judging of many of these competitions. The recent announcement of two such annual awards left me more bewildered than usual.

This year, I was not surprised by the winners of the Pulitzer prizes. I did look at the work and think that it was a bit of the “same-old, same old.” On the other hand, that is probably what the Pulitzers are best at, keeping things moving forward within a pretty narrowly defined style of newspaper photography.

Though this sounds a bit like “sour grapes,” it is not. It is the realization that certain themes repeat over and over in all competitions. Especially so in something as tradition-bound as the Pulitzers. Knowing the cyclical nature of the awards and adapting the timing of a submission can be key. I say this as someone who did a story on four young men going into the U.S. military, to serve their country, way back in 1983. If that rings a bell, it is because in the last decade a series of stories, variations on that theme, have won many journalistic awards, including a Pulitzer Prize.

I also comment herein as someone whose Pulitzer entry, on the Pesticide Poisoning of California Farm Workers, was waved off by one juror as “just one more handicapped kid” story. Those are not my words, but rather those of one of the jurors which were shared with me years after my nomination (and rejection.)

Having survived this year’s Pulitzer Prizes with my old-guy cynicism intact, I was blown away recently by the winners of two competitions that are supposed to select the best work to be turned into a photography book.

The First Book Prize is, as they say on their site: “….. a photography publishing prize open to photographers who have not previously had a book published by a third party publishing house (this does not include self-published print on demand projects). The award is not an open submission. Each year, a diverse array of international nominators are asked to recommend suitable projects.”

Wow, that sounds like a great mission! What a challenge! To find the best work out there, in any genre, worthy of publication as a book which will undoubtedly give the chosen photographer’s career an enormous push forward! Bu remember, you can not apply for this. You have to be nominated by someone inside their network (a bad sign already.)

The best photography their esteemed nominators and judges could come up with was …. (and this is my description) “…..flatly printed, boringly composed, totally uninteresting black and white images of people ostensibly interacting, with the interaction posed to suggest deeper meaning about human relationships.“

Look for yourself: http://photoworks.org.uk/showcase-joanna-piotrowska/ and http://pdnpulse.pdnonline.com/2014/04/joanna-piotrowska-wins-2014-first-book-award.html and http://www.photomonitor.co.uk/2013/11/frowst/

Now I have nothing against the winner, and I know her career will benefit from this award and the resulting book, but that is the best work out there?

If that wasn’t enough, the 2014 winner of the European Publishers Award for Photography was also recently announced. The EPAP, according to their site is “…is an initiative of European publishing houses to promote contemporary photography.” As compared to the First Book Prize, this is a competition anyone can enter.

From all the submissions, including a list of interesting work from those on the short list the best photography their esteemed judges could come up with was …. (and this is my description) “…banal color snap shots made with on camera flash, shot with no clear compositional/aesthetic intentions, portraying the day to day lives of immigrants in Ukraine selling melons (and other goods) by the side of the road.”

Look for yourself: http://www.europhotobookaward.eu/2014-winner and http://www.fotovisura.com/user/KirillGolovchenko/view/bitter-honeydew and http://www.fotofestiwal.com/2014/en/exhibitions/grand-prix-fotofestiwal-2014/kirill-golovchenko/

If you think I am annoyed, imagine the photographers who were shortlisted for the European Publishers Award for Photography. Some of them submitted work that was indeed worthy of a book and they were beaten out by ………

I feel badly for them because they are probably as outraged and amazed as I am but I am guessing they are holding back. I am aware that I might be “burning bridges” by writing this, since the organizations giving out these two book awards might not appreciate my perspective on their awards, the process or this year’s winners. I am not too worried. I doubt that they would look kindly upon my photographs, let alone my blog entries. Besides, looking at the work both organizations chose and thinking about the lengths I would have to go to “fit in,” I would react by riffing on a line from Grouch Marx who said “”I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.”

3 responses to “The best the world of photography books has to offer”

  1. look at the good news.

    Amazon now has a patent on photography utilizing a blown out white background.

    So there’s lots of progress in the world of photography.

  2. interestingly, the photographs in the Piotrowska book (tonally flat, and uninteresting B&W) look like they belong on a segment of the SNL parody, “Sprockets.”

    So now life mimics parody. Parody is the truth. We have come full circle.

  3. Fabulous thoughts and so well said, David. I so appreciate that you are writing about these travesties. So much of this also applies to the fine arts. I just spent a few days with my daughter, Tamar Halpern and the artist whom she made a documentary about, Llyn Foulkes (who was recently rediscovered). Llyn speaks eloquently, frequently and in very strong terms about the corporate takeover of the fine art market, and the control of who is seen and sold exerted by the galleries and investors. I listened to Llyn during a few talks after the screenings and had many good long talks with him and was horrified as I began to understand the picture that he is painting, so to speak.
    What you have said in this blog is also so true of many of the photography galleries. They seem to have a parochial view of what fine art photography should look like while they certainly do dictate what is seen and what is not. Too much innovation or experimentation or, god forbid, melding with other art forms quickly gets me rejections. I always wonder how many other innovators are not being seen because of the gallery owners (now calling themselves “gallerists” perhaps thinking that the name adds some panache or validation, when in fact many of them do not know much about the rest of the world of fine arts).
    Don’t get me started!!!
    Abigail

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