As part of the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2015, we interviewed the members of our international jury to learn more about their perspectives on photography as well as to get them to offer some advice to serious photographers at all levels who are looking to break through in their careers.
Managing editor Alexander Strecker reached out to four individuals from our esteemed panel. Here’s what they had to say:
Cristina de Middel
Photographer & Curator
“Go back to the very beginnings of ‘journalism’—it was the troubadors, sharing stories from one kingdom to the next. They were offering a chronicle. Their way of telling stories mixed in fantasy with facts because if they only stuck to the truth, no one would remember or relate to their stories. Fiction is an important part of reality—it’s how our brains work. Humans need imagination.”
Although de Middel began her photography career in the documentary world, she came to feel that even though she couldn’t change the world through photographs, she could, at least, force others to have a more critical view of the images that surround them. In her words:
“Today, we are surrounded by information but we are more and more ignorant. Why? Because we ask fewer and fewer questions. I’m good at asking questions; I’m not good at telling people what they have to do. I don’t like making statements; rather, [I like] making people look at things in a new way. By keeping the doors open for interpretation—that is how we get closer to the truth.”
A passionate believer in photography, de Middel has this advice to offer potential entrants: “Be honest—about your passions, about your position, about what you have to say. Imagine that I’m walking down the street and you, a complete stranger, stop me. Before you do, think about why you are coming to me, why you are telling me this? It can be a small subject or the whole world, it doesn’t matter, but you just need to be a legitimate speaker for whatever subject you choose. I will be interested if you are honest.”
David Chickey has been working with books for over 20 years. Painting, photography, sculpture—each form appeals to him for different reasons, yet everything returns back to the book. In his words, “There’s something about the book, particularly, that makes it a medium for a very powerful one-on-one experience. As a reader, the book allows you to enter in dialogue with the artist in an intense way—on your own, privately, at whatever pace you choose. It’s different than a gallery or a museum. It’s special.”
As an expert—craftsman, really—in the design and production of photobooks, Chickey knows something about how to put together a good sequence of images. His advice, briefly:
“Sequencing is best done physically. Print all the images. Lay all of them out on the floor or pin them on the wall. Start at the beginning or at the end. Start by building mini-stories and then try to weave those separate parts together. The physical process leads to new discoveries. And in general, the sequencing process is always surprising. It’s an opportunity to see a new way of looking, of discovering what’s possible.”
When it comes to editing a competition entry, specifically, Chickey is quick to point out that 10 images is very few. Unlike a book, which has the space for an ebb and flow, a competition entry must be tighter: “You’re just trying to give the best representation of the project possible. It’s a tricky edit—think of it like a teaser, as if you’re saying, ‘This is a good preview of what I’ve got.’”
Other advice for competitions? “First, a lot of photographers get too in their heads about their projects. Follow your instincts and listen to that instinctive voice inside you, the one that is driving you to do the project in the first place. If you get too pulled in the direction of what other people have done, you lose touch with the heart of the work.”
“But in the end, remember there are a hundred right places for a project to end up. There’s no right answer. There’s just finding the one that feels the best in the moment, that suits the project and the artist. The one that will give you the energy to go on to something new.”
New York, NY, USA
For well over a half century, the Aperture Foundation has been dedicated to its mission of connecting the photography community and its audiences with the most inspiring work—in print, in person, and online.
Among many other activities, the Foundation runs its own publishing unit, producing 12 to 15 of the top photobooks each year, which encompass both classic names and emerging photographers. In addition, Aperture, in partnership with Paris Photo, has established an annual Photobook Award to further stimulate interest and appreciation for the growing medium.
Denise Wolff is a senior editor at Aperture specializing in photobooks. Before this position, she was the commissioning editor for photography at Phaidon Press in London. Her positions have afforded her the opportunity to work with some of the brightest names in the world of artists’ books—Alec Soth, Mary Ellen Mark, Martin Parr, Todd Hido, to name but a few.
When she’s not helping to edit and produce new bodies of work, Wolff can often be found giving workshops and lectures on the process of book-making. With titles like “What Makes a Book Work?” to “The Art of the Photobook,” Wolff is an expert at helping photographers get the most out of their pictures through careful sequencing and thoughtful editing.
When asked for some words of wisdom for potential competition applicants, she had this to say:
“Put your best pictures up front. Don’t try to tell a nuanced narrative/sequence here—it’s more about making a strong first impression with killer photographs. And similarly, with the written statement, make sure it is clear in the first sentence or two what the project is about. The background and details can follow later.”
Once a week for some 40 years, Christopher Rauschenberg has gathered together with a group of fellow photography-lovers at the Blue Sky Gallery to look at pictures and decide who will be exhibited next. The democratic, low-key approach has resulted in inspiring longevity and impressive variety—from such late greats as Walker Evans, Aaron Siskind and Garry Winogrand, to contemporary masters like David Maisel and Bruce Gilden, to the downright quirky—”The Refrigerator Show”!
Throughout it all, Rauschenberg has never lost his desire to work in the field. What keeps him going? Well, for one thing, “Photography is seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. That’s also the common metaphor for empathy. So people who are great photographers have also trained themselves in empathy. In other words, they’re all pretty nice people. I find there’s a real team spirit in the photography world, which really helps out.”
With years as a teacher, portfolio reviewer and practictioner under his belt, Rauschenberg has sat on just about every side of the table you can imagine. This wide-ranging perspective makes him an excellent source of advice. In terms of entering competitions, Rauschenberg had this to say, “There are many ways for photographers to improve, but an entry is useful because it forces you to assess how you’re progressing on a particular project and makes you clarify your thinking and communication.”
When it comes to pushing the work to that final, submittable stage, Rauschenberg said:
“Eavesdrop on the conversations amongst the best pictures. You’ll find that what you thought you were doing and what you’re really doing can be very different. If you look closely, the work tells you what it wants to be. Also, when you’re looking, make sure you’re using your intuitive powers, not just your intellect. You don’t have to understand what you’re doing, just train yourself to see (and feel) the best parts in your work.”
At the end of the day, it all comes back to empathy and understanding—and especially knowing yourself. To produce really powerful work, Rauschenberg said to try to “get in line with the heart of what’s driving you. There’s often a deep personal connection at the center of great work. Once you’ve figured that out, you’re all set.”
—Interviews conducted by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ Note: Cristina de Middel, David Chickey, Denise Wolff and Christopher Rauschenberg (among others) will be judging entries to the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2015—enter now for your chance to get your work in front of them and the rest of the world-class jury.
There are also a host of other great prizes, including the chance to take part in a world-class, gala exhibition at Somerset House as part of Photo London 2016. You can find out more about the competition on our dedicated page.