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Nate Larson

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#CCPNext - The Next Conversation Is a Meeting of the (Photo) Minds

To say that participating in Center for Creative Photography's Next Conversation in Tucson was an honor would be a gross understatement. The event was described this way:

Andy Adam's Instagram photo
Andy Adam's Instagram photo

The Next Conversation brings together colleagues from all facets of the world of photography to talk about issues important to the field and to CCP. There are no keynote speeches or panel presentations. Instead, there are a series of focused discussions in which you bring your expertise and your voice to the conversation.

Participants from all across the photography industry were invited to attend and engage in conversations on topics such as the role of technology, the photobook, photography's place in the museum and academy, the state of photojournalism, the photography market, the definition of an archive, conservation. . . The choices were staggering.  Almost as staggering as the attendees - some of the most recognizable names in the museum, editorial, curatorial, publishing, educational, and gallery worlds.  And working photographers too!

photo by Tanja Hollander
photo by Tanja Hollander

There were many nuggets of wisdom to take away from the event, as well as questions raised that will take me a while to fully absorb and determine my position on.  But I do want to talk about one session that definitely stuck with me.

Julia Dolan (Portland Art Museum) and Mitra Abbaspour (Museum of Modern Art) moderated a discussion titled, "What is the place of photography in museums and the academy?".  This was a particularly engaged group, and it was interesting to hear opinions of both curators and educators.  At one point, someone implied through a comment that he did not feel curators needed to accommodate people who are unfamiliar with photography (I believe "dumb it down" was used) and instead should focus on creating shows for the people who know what they are looking at.  I should say, this felt very out of line with the spirit of the conference, and as you can imagine (if you have ever heard me speak or read anything I have written), my head just about exploded.

In my opinion, there is nothing "dumb" about not having an arts education.  It is increasingly not being taught in schools, which is causing not only a lack of knowledge, but a lack of appreciation for art.  It is not about being smart or dumb, it is about having exposure or not having exposure.  He asked me if I thought museums should be held responsible for picking up this slack, and I feel that everyone needs to pitch in to fill this huge gap in art knowledge and appreciation.  Otherwise, we will be left with an increasingly aging crop of arts lovers, patrons, and collectors without younger generations to replace them.

I believe, and there is research to support this, that in order to engage new audiences with art, we need to create opportunities for them to engage with art in multiple ways (visually, intellectually, emotionally) and in a manner that is not intimidating.

Nate Larson, a photographer and educator based in Baltimore (and all-around great person), shared a fantastic program he helped facilitate at the Baltimore Museum of Art.  The museum was putting on an exhibition called SEEING NOW: Photography Since 1960, and they reached out to Nate to collaborate.  Nate created the QR Code Project, where he invited his students to write personal essays about their reactions to certain photographs in the exhibit.  People who viewed the exhibit could go beyond the wall text and (using their smartphones) read another person's personal reaction to the image they were viewing.  This is a great example of how to engage viewers on multiple levels and break down some barriers to entry to appreciating art.  Go team!

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Critical Mass - You Should, and If You Didn't. . .

I have long been a fan of Critical Mass as a fantastic way for photographers to get important eyes on their work. Photographers submit a portfolio of ten images along with an artist statement, and these submissions get culled down to 200 finalists. If you make the finalist list, your work will be viewed, rated and critiqued by over 200 industry heavy-weights, from curators to gallerists to publishers. Whether or not you make the next cut (the Top 50) or win one of the prizes (book award, exhibition award), the exposure a photographer receives from being a finalist is invaluable. Many photographers have been approached for book deals, exhibitions and representation from being viewed on Critical Mass. Honestly, I cannot brag on it enough. Before I highlight some of my favorite entries from this year, I want to share something that I think is really helpful when thinking about a body of work and its impact on the viewer. I once had a friend and fellow juror tell me the judging strategy he/she uses when going through the submissions. Of course, this is a crude break-down and this person is extremely thoughtful when looking at each portfolio, but this is the criteria this photo-person uses as a general guide.

As a juror, we can give a portfolio a score of “0”, “1”, “3” or “7”. This photo-friend (who, by the way, is my go-to person for an honest assessment of my own work) looks at a portfolio of images and uses this system as a starting point to think about the work: - a “0” if the images do not seem compelling enough to want to look farther (again, this is the baseline starting point – I do not want to imply in any way that photographers’ work is not given a fair look and assessment) - a “1” if the images are interesting, but the artist statement does not seem to match the work - a “3” if the work is good and the statement seems to match what the images convey - a “7” if everything comes together and the work is really phenomenal

If you are a photographer, I strongly encourage you to think about this when looking objectively at your own work. Why are you making the work? Why should the viewer care about the work? Do the images reflect what you are trying to say?

OK, so – I was lucky enough to jury Critical Mass again this year, and I was blown away by some of the work. Some of my very favorites made the top 50 and others did not, but here are just a few highlights for me (note: I am purposefully not posting about photographers represented by Jennifer Schwartz Gallery, since it would be hard to appear objective):

Katie Koti I literally cannot stop thinking about this work. It is raw and honest, and I have shown it to everyone who will look since I first saw it. Go to her website. Go now.

Tamas Deszo I actually bought an image of his at AIPAD last year. So yes, I am a fan.

Thomas Jackson Last year there was a floating Cheetos image that made me more hungry than inspired. This year, Thomas Jackson presented a floating Cheese Ball image that kind of blew me away. Just goes to show, it’s all in the approach.

Nate Larson, Marni Shindelman This is a really smart collaborative project using geolocation information to track the locations where users posted updates to Twitter. They photograph the places people stood when sending a particular tweet and pair the image with the originating text.

Tom Griggs I first saw Tom’s work at FotoFest this year (a different series), and I was impressed then and have been since with the thoughtfulness of his imagery.

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