Is this a Portrait? Is this a photograph?

An interesting discussion broke out on my Facebook page yesterday about the Olive Cotton award in photography. The Australian-only award for the best portrait was $20,000, and the winning photograph was Justine Varga’s portrait of her grandmother, shown below. It’s created on a 5x5 piece of film, and is a print of her grandmother’s spit and scribbles.

Usually, I have clear cut opinions about such things. But on this issue? I am very divided and can see both sides of the argument. My own experiences and sequence of thoughts on this issue went something like this:

1. OMGPLZ, what a load of shit. More of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” More art world blather about art…more conceptual crap that leaves most viewers at the door.

2. But OK. Do I like it as an image? No. Not really. I don’t think I’m unique in that…most people probably won’t spend a great deal of time studying it.

3. It doesn’t really need to exist at all. Because it’s not about the image…it’s about WHAT IT IS, not about what it shows. It’s about process, it’s about traces, about what we leave behind, about what we are made of, what we do, what we are capable of.

4. Do I care about it? No. Well yeah. Yeah…No. Absolutely not. Well kinda. Gee, I dunno, I think I do actually care about it. I do care that it turns the idea of Portraiture on its head -that it goes against what we generally think of as a portrait. I also like that it goes against what we think a photograph (not just portraiture) IS…that a photograph may indeed be an object that never had fuck-all to do with a camera or a lens. I also like that it focuses of the nature of authorship. These are all important things that we take for granted in Photography.

I mean, we all know what a portrait is, right? From Wikipedia:

A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person.

And what most people expect from portrait photography is a rendering of the face and shoulders…maybe a part of the torso. But how boring is that? And why should that be the one standard that constitutes a portrait? In traditional portrait photography the interest in the photograph then hinges on whether or not the SUBJECT in the photograph is interesting, not on whether the photograph itself is, or on whether or not the process is meaningful.

Regardless of where I ultimately end up on the issue, I’m glad she won…it has opened up the world of photography just a little bit, and I think it was nervy for Shaun Lakin to select it knowing as he must have, that the shit would hit the fan.

Here is his statement.