Are These Photographers Geniuses?

Are These Photographers Geniuses?

Is this the work of a genius?

Photo by Uta Barth

What about this?

Photo by An-My Lê

Last week, the MacArthur Foundation announced its “Genius” grants – a $500,000, five year grant with no strings attached prize – to people who “show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future.” Since 1981, 873 fellows have been named, and of those, only nine have been photographers. Two of them were awarded this year: Uta Barth and and An-My Lê. Here are the other photography geniuses from previous years:

Photography is often thought of as a lesser art form. The art market certainly treats it that way, with top paintings selling for nearly 25x that of the most expensive photo. So it’s both interesting and exciting to see two awards made in the same year to photographers amidst scientists, economists, writers, instrument makers, and historians. But what does it really mean in the context of photography?

Well, first let’s acknowledge that the selections aren’t obvious choices. In the realm of art photography and photojournalism, neither Barth nor Lê would be considered titans by most observers. But perhaps that is the genius of the Genius. The selection committee has found photographers that perhaps you ought to know because of the insight that they bring to there work. Take grant winner Uta Barth, for example. Here is her artist statement:

“[T]he work invites confusion on several levels, and that ‘meaning’ is generated in the process of ‘sorting things out.’ On the most obvious level, we all expect photographs to be pictures of something. We assume that the photographer observed a place, a person, an event in the world and wanted to record it. . . . The problem with my work is that these images are really not of anything in that sense, they register only that which is incidental.”

The artist statement is often derided as mental masturbation and self-aggrandizing propaganda. But the less cynical viewpoint is that the statement shows that the artist has intent over his/her work. In Barth’s case, I think she raises an interesting point in that “we all expect photographs to be pictures of something,” but her work challenges this notion by abstracting the mundane. She has photographed exclusively in her house for fourteen years because, in her words, “If I’m interested in light and perception, and this visual acuity to the mundane, fleeting, ephemeral, everyday kind of information, there’s no point in me going out to seek that out.” The statement reminds me of young photojournalists who feel like they must cut their teeth in foreign countries in order to make pictures, when you constantly hear veterans say that there are plenty of worthwhile things to shoot in your backyard. So it’s interesting to view photos that don’t look like photos, and still feel excitement about them.

The other grant winner, An-My Lê, focuses on military and war-esque photography using a 4×5 view camera. A naturalized U.S. citizen from Vietnam, her view of war has been shaped by her own experiences during the Vietnam war.

“I’ve always found the military and incredible enterprise. It’s an overwhelming force. It’s sublime because it’s inherently horrific and beautiful. People tend to look at the military; they tend to look at war; they tend to look at conflict as something very black and white. It’s not like that at all. So how to you approach the subject and explore it in a complicated way.”

Although she’s done a lot of actual photojournalism work, one of her latest projects is documenting Vietnam War re-enactments (who knew?). Her choice of a large format, film camera is intentional, and her view of photography is compelling when considering the veracity of photography -particularly photojournalism.

“I think photography is inherently ambiguous. And that’s something that I look forward to and that I want to take advantage of. I think those are the most interesting pictures. The ones that have tension. That sort of border on the information and the subjective.”

So are they geniuses in the same way that the world’s leading microbiologist is? Certainly, if you subscribe to a single view of intelligence, you would conclude that they are not. But as in all artistic pursuits, genius isn’t as cut and dry. To me, the formulation and execution of creative ideas moves you closer to genius. The ability to transform a mode of creative thought into something new (think Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, The Beatles, Jay-Z) moves people towards genius. In that regard, Barth and Lê are deserving.

And perhaps as bold a move as choosing two photographers is the Foundation’s decision to award two women in their fifties with the prestigious prize when most photographers of that generation are men. Genius.

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