Well, it's happened again. Coming in under the wire, I just finished judging the latest round of Critical Mass finalists. A bit about the competition: Critical Mass is organized by the non-profit, Photolucida, which also hosts a biennial portfolio review in Portland, Oregon. Critical Mass is an annual online program that makes connections within the photography community.
Photographers at any level, from anywhere in the world, submit a portfolio of 10 images. Through a pre-screening process, the field is narrowed to a group of 200 finalists who go on to have their work viewed and voted on by over 200 esteemed international photography professionals. I'm lucky to be one of these 200 jurors as it means I get the chance to view 200 projects that may potentially fit in with the programming in my gallery.
From the finalist group, the Top 50 photographers are named and a series of awards are given, including at least one monograph each year. Photolucida publishes and distributes the award winner's publication, giving copies of the books to all participating photographers and jurors. I've been honored to exhibit the Critical Mass Top 50 show in past years as well as give solo exhibitions to some of the artists I've discovered while judging the competition.
As I've just wrapped up looking at the 200 portfolios and while the images are fresh in my mind, I'd like to give a shout out to some of my highlights and surprises.
Having lived in Sweden and made the winter trip up above the Arctic Circle to Kiruna and Jukkusjärvi nearly 20 years ago, Katrin Streicher's photographs resonated with me. The dark of the night (which often is the day), the reindeer in the snow packed streets, the silence of your boot clad feet crossing the snow (the sound like confectioner's sugar being squeezed between your fingertips, a barely audible, but very specific sound), making the trip down into the reclaimed mine in Kiruna where deep down they are growing shiitake mushrooms on logs, all this I relived when I looked at Streicher's portfolio. She nailed it. Here is what she has to say in her artist's statement about her series, "Night Time Tremors."
"In my project 'Night Time Tremors' I explore a unique city in transition. Kiruna, a small city north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden, faces an uncertain future - in danger of being swallowed by a giant iron ore mine. The city developed over the last century in direct response to the iron ore mining that is the primary source of income in the area. Now that very mining is causing the city's collapse. Iron is extracted from Kirunavaara Mountain via underground explosions that cause the earth to tremor every night. Each blast results in cracks and deformities in the landscape, with the impact moving slowly but steadily towards the city of Kiruna. For the past few years there have been efforts to move large parts of the city, but it's a slow process that is influenced by a variety of factors and the citizens have become wary about their futures and the future of the city.
I became interested in the experiences of the inhabitants living with the reality of an uncertain future. It's unimaginable to me to lose all references to the past and memories of one's hometown, houses, streets and schools. Daily life in Kiruna is overshadowed by the situation yet I encountered people stoically facing their precarious fates. Combining atmospheric landscapes, interiors and portraits, I aim to convey a sense of waiting and to act as witness to the evolution of a city. I capture a place where normalcy continues on unsteady ground, both literally and figuratively."
And then there is Billy Howard. It was hard to pick just one image from his series, "Love, Lust, and Loss: A Photographic Memoir of the 80s." Having grown up in the 1980s in a place that was pretty down and out, these images were familiar and haunting... and beautiful and poignant and sad. (My hair and my boyfriend's hair rivaled the hair of Howard's subjects as well. There's that saying, "The smaller the town, the bigger the hair..." Too true.) Thanks, Billy, for presenting your archive and for bringing me back and stopping me in my tracks. Here is what Howard had to say in his artist statement:
"Searching the fringes of culture with a camera as a ticket into drag show dressing rooms, strip clubs, tattoo parlors, homeless shelters, and the homes of countless men and women dying from AIDS, led me on a journey through some of the taboo haunts of the South and, in some ways, into its heart.
The people I met there helped me form a more empathetic view of those who were left on the outside of mainstream society. Those people your mother warned you about turned out to be kind and generous, their lifestyles belied by friendships and needs, the same as all of us.
Love, lust, and loss are the common ground I shared with my subjects, and in these portraits, the inhibitions placed on us by social constraints are unabashedly disavowed by those who chose to explore their humanity with, perhaps, a little more honesty.
Curiosity is a powerful motivator for documentary photography and my own was at its zenith in the 1980s when youth and exuberance trumped caution and the camera became an excuse without which I would have seemed just another voyeur."
Julie Brook Alexander
I also saw the landscape anew in the work of Julie Brook Alexander and her series, "Filling in the Blanks." There were particular pairings that brought me back to hiking in the fjords in the fall mist where the land would disappear and I was never sure of my footing. Some of these diptychs are so perfect. Alexander's work was a welcome rest in the judging.
Here is what she has to say about her project:
"In these diptychs, I unite two points of view. The left side is a close up, reflecting the desire to hold on to particular moments. The right side, views taken from airplanes and helicopters representing the need to let go. My interest in this type of juxtaposition started as I watched a young cousin die from cancer. Wanting to hold on while needing to let go happened over and over. And the feeling isn't unique to cancer struggles; it is universal. Uniting two disparate vantage points captures the contradiction."
Alexsey Kondratyev had me with his first image of a man entrapped in plastic reaching out into the void. Having spent years in Maine and watching the fisherman push their homemade fishing huts out onto the frozen lakes (where they would often be for 7 or 8 months because of the long winters), I marveled at these people fishing without the barrier of plywood or tarps or anything but a thin veil as the wind tears across the ice. There is a beauty to these figures draped in plastic sprinkled across the white plain, something surreal as well. I want to push a homemade fishing hut across the ice on a sledge and hand them a stove and a beer and wish them well.
Here is what Kondratyev had to say about his "Ice Fishers" series:
"Kazakh fishers have, for untold generations, set out onto the frozen Ishim River in hopes of catching fish-whether for fare or profit-beneath the ice. Historically nomadic, Kazakhstan began a process of Sedentarization as a result of Russian colonialism in the 19th century. But despite advances in technology, many of these fishermen still fish using only rudimentary forms of layering to protect from the region's oft subzero climate and harsh gales. Most shield themselves by simply ensheathing their bodies in trash bags and salvaged plastic.
I worked on this project for the past two years during trips to North-Central Kazakhstan, one of the coldest populated regions on Earth."
Ian van Coller
And then there was someone who's work I had seen before: Ian van Coller. I'd shown his series, "Interior Relations," a project about female domestic workers in South Africa, his native country, back in 2008. Big beautiful color portraits shot with a view camera, the women's stories told in conjunction with the images. Heartrending. I then randomly encountered Ian at CODEX
, a biennial fine art book fair in the San Francisco Bay Area. I asked if he was working on anything new. He said he was. And showed me images of one work-in-progress: a unique giant inkjet print on a semi transparent, Japanese Washi paper. It was a portrait of his son and it was painstakingly hand cut, hand embroidered and collaged, taking several months to complete. I asked if there might be a second image in the works, one I could pair it with in an exhibition of one-of-a-kind pieces. He did. And now, years later, I find van Coller hasn't stopped making these beautiful hand-crafted pieces. Here they are in Critical Mass, the online format not quite doing justice to these gorgeous sewn and cut pieces, but alas, I am excited to find them here. Here is what the artist has to say about the work now titled, "Coming of Age."
"I came of age in apartheid era South Africa, in the privileged environment of a northern suburban Johannesburg. My upbringing was sheltered, and it was not until my mid teens that I became aware of South Africa's complicated history and disturbing injustices. As a labor policy negotiator, my father was intimately involved in the politics of the country, and through his work strived to bring about change from the ground up. He experienced many difficult things, but kept that part of his life separate from our family. Much of my work has dealt with the repercussions of my coming of age in South Africa, and how my childhood security and happiness is re-experienced now as a father, in retrospect.
My children are also growing up in a privileged environment. We live in a small college town in Montana. Life here is idyllic, in many ways, but is not completely sheltered from the complex world that surrounds us. Information of all kinds is available at the touch of a screen. It is a world that is often difficult to understand and make sense of, especially for a child. At 11 and 14, Kaylie and Aidan now ask a lot of serious questions, many that I have a hard time answering. There is a growing awareness of the absurdities of everyday life and the world at large. As parents, we have chosen to be as open with our children as we dare. We answer their questions with as much probity and truthfulness as possible, wondering about the repercussions of our decision. As the nature of the world we exist in continues to evolve, each generation must come of age to face the essential challenges of their time. When and how we each become aware of injustice, inequality, corruption and violence - and how we make sense and meaning of these discoveries - shapes our humanity.
In this series I address climate change, gun violence, war, etc. The contemplative process of patterning, embroidering and mark-making act in counterpoint to the difficult themes depicted."
Then there are JeongMee Yoon's images. I looked at each rich color photograph and thought that each was like a movie still. A cinematic dream. A narrative. I had to read the artist statement to understand that each image depicted one story. Each image complete unto itself. Though I don't know the stories, I don't need to. Each photograph is a beautiful departure.
Here is what Yoon had to say about this series:
"The presented works are reinterpretations of scenes inspired by a collection of Korean short stories, written from the 1920s to 70s, produced in the form of photographs.
As we view the various human issues described in the stories, such as fundamental desires, misunderstandings, suspicions, jealousy and poverty, and situations regarding the material civilization, discrimination based on nationality, humor in spite of everything, Koreans' group unconsciousness, return to the beauty of nature, religious conflicts, etc., we are given the opportunity to think about the problems of human society, regardless of age, country or economic status, and in so doing, reflect upon ourselves today, and the situation of our society.
The situations reenacted in the works are not simply representations for the sake of representation, but attempts to show that such situations are still fundamental problems in our society today. Thus, we should be able to discover images of ourselves in the photographs."
Usually I shy away from portfolios of children, but there was an exception to this rule of mine in this year's judging: Calvin Chen. At first his photographs seemed so simply and innocent, and then the more I looked, the more I saw an edge to these pictures. Also a thrilling note. And also, the pictures are incredibly shot and framed. He may be a doctor by profession, but clearly there is a lot of wonderful seeing happening in these photographs.
These images transcend pictures of play and childhood for me. Here is Chen's artist's statement:
"Cómo juegan los niños - How kids play. My primary job as a pediatrician has always been how to keep kids safe and healthy. The more I travel to less developed countries, the more I realize these 2 adjectives may not always coincide. These children roam and play with a sense of carefree fearlessness. They play with the most simple of objects but their imaginations run wild. They remind me of how my parents played, how I played, and maybe how we all should."
A great surprise came right at the end of my jurying of Critical Mass, just when fatigue sets in and you start to wonder if you should stop. Then there were Jeremy Underwood's images. They are not just mere photographs. He, like Andy Goldworthy, constructs the subject of his images before he makes pictures of them. Unlike Goldsworthy, he is using garbage. The trash we humans have left behind. To make beautiful glowing orbs and sculptures reaching for the sky, circular domes that both beavers and Buckminster Fuller would be impressed by, stilted portals that look like they should be at Burning Man, but are comprised of pieces of garbage that washed up on the beach. Very smart. Very well done. And very compelling.
Here is Underwood's artist's statement:
"Human Debris is a commentary on what humans leave in the natural landscape. The project spotlights the environmental condition of Houston's waterways through the building of site-specific sculptures assembled out of harvested debris collected from the beach. Each found material lends itself to a new creation, encompassing the former life of the debris into each sculpture. These objects are simply artifacts to support the work, photographed in interaction with the landscape, then left to be discovered. This work challenges viewers to reflect upon our consumer culture, the relationship we have with our environment, and the pervasion of pollution."
There was a lot of great work in this year's Critical Mass, perhaps the best I've ever seen in eight years of being one of the judges. These eight artists that I've highlighted here have surprised and delighted me with their projects. I'm looking forward to seeing who will be in the Critical Mass Top 50. Congratulations to all the finalists and hats off to the pre-screeners of the competition who whittled it down to 200 photographers as well as to the organizers at Photolucida. Job well done!