Sydney photographer Justine Varga has won the $20,000AUD prize for the 2017 Olive Cotton Award for a large-scale work in homage to her grandmother. However, the win of this controversial photo is causing an outcry amongst photographers everywhere.
The award was announced in an official opening ceremony at Tweed Regional Gallery, and Justine’s work, Maternal Line, was selected from 72 finalists; that included emerging and established photographers from throughout Australia.
Inspired by watching her grandmother test pens by scribbling with each one on a piece of paper, Justine handed her a large-format piece of film and asked her to continue her diligent testing. In addition to those scribbles, the developed photo also includes imprints of her grandmother’s hand, and intentional saliva smears.
While technical skill is certainly not the only thing that should be considered when viewing art, many were upset that scribbles and spit—void of any demonstration of technical skill—should surpass all other entries.
According to Dr. Shaune Lakin, the Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia who judged the competition and awarded the 2017 Olive Cotton Award, Justine’s photo explored “…what it means today to make a photograph of someone else, even if in the end it doesn’t reveal what they look like.” Dr. Lakin further justified his decision by pointing out that “…photography has never just been about appearance. It’s also been part of the way that we experience things like memory and relationships.”
After the award of the controversial photo was announced, photographers were in disbelief; what they perceived as a scribble had won a photography award. Thus resulting in the Olive Cotton Award judge Dr. Lakin receiving plenty of hate mail.
“I have received really nasty feedback from photographers… it really does diminish what, for me, was a very complicated and complex process that I took very seriously,” Dr. Lakin told the Sydney Morning Herald, adding that the comments were disrespectful to Justine.
Varga herself expressed surprise at the reaction her work garnered. However, photographers are not convinced.
Artist Polixeni Papapetrou remarked that “I can’t accept a person’s scrawls on a piece of film, as something other than a drawing… can I draw, smear, scrawl or whatever on a sheet of fine art Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta paper and call it a photograph?”
Art and criticism will always go hand in hand, especially when it comes to abstract interpretations of a medium. Take a look at the controversial photo Maternal Line below and judge for yourself.
Material Line: 2017 Olive Cotton Award Winner
Do you think concept is more valuable than technique? Or that a total lack of traditional skill or technique can be substituted by an interesting idea? Share your thoughts on this controversial photo.
Daniel is an Art Director and Graphic Designer with over a decade of experience in advertising and marketing in the Greater Toronto Area.