A Melancholic Stroll through the Sony Photography Awards

by RM Vaughan on September 7, 2016 Reviews

Kevin Frayer, Winner, Professional, Environment, 2016 for the series "Eagle Hunters of Western China"

Kevin Frayer, Winner, Professional, Environment, 2016 for the series “Eagle Hunters of Western China”

Sony World Photography Awards 2016
Willy-Brandt-Haus, Berlin
Until September 25

BERLIN – Only a terribly mean person could find fault with the traveling edition of the annual Sony Photography Awards. As both a showcase of a specific kind of photographic venture (more on that in a moment) and, likely more to the point, a brand-enhancing exercise in “excellence” promotion, the exhibition does exactly what it promises and is devised to do.

The show offers a range of images that most people who take an interest in photography will find satisfying, even thrilling – and will lead their minds to associate the Sony brand with precision, excitement, and adventure. Sony sells cameras, after all.

To wit, the photographs are all of a familiar type: dreamy and/or exhilarating nature and animal photos, portraits of smiling or grimacing poor people, aspirational depictions of sweating athletes and naked thin people, and quirky photos of oddly decorated rooms and grand, flaking ruins. The competition specializes in the subset of photography most of us identify with National Geographic Magazine and its world-of-wonders aesthetic.

I know that sounds snarky but I do not mean it that way. Everybody loves this kind of photography, me included, for a reason – it is lovely and provocative, a moment of otherness, of not us/not here viewed from a safe distance. I buy a lot of postcards, and I have no shame when it comes to finely focused close ups of adorable mammals with pink ears.

What prompted my unease after wandering around this exhibition was a strong feeling that in a half-generation or less, shows like the Sony Photography Awards will be, at best, retro-cute, or at worst antique and irrelevant. We don’t take pictures like we used to. We’re no longer prize hunters. We don’t wait for the “perfect shot” or fuss over angles, hope for the right light. The phone does all that for us, and can do it 50 times in two seconds. And if we don’t like the outcome, we apply a filter. Point, press, repeat and repeat until perfect. How sad.  Photography used to be about patience.

Sad, and yet inevitable. As the commodity fetish of the single work fades (except, of course, in rarefied circles that are so small as to be not worth discussing), we are moving toward an appreciation of images that relies on looking at many images at once in order to build a whole: however fraught, inexact, and fleeting that notion of wholeness might be.

We don’t look at photos anymore, we scroll through feeds. Photography has always been a type of information sharing, but now all we do is share information. Thus, photography is about as special as dust. Which is why, I suspect, the winning pics of photography competitions tend to be images of “exotic” fauna or destinations (as constructed under the Western gaze), because the magic of the capture, the “gotcha” moment that was once the lifeblood of photography, can now only be replicated by the content of the photograph (OMG, a rare animal!), not the act of photography itself. It is the presence of (and remorse carried by) the near-extinct rhino in the photo that carries the image across the finish line, not the now common  act of photographing the rhino, which any rhino itself, if prompted, could probably do with the end of its nose pressed against a mobile phone.

Endless capabilities create endless liabilities. Is the photograph we see of the “caught” event (journalistic, zoological, you name it) real or manipulated, and do we even understand or care about the difference between the proverbial moment-in-time, one-in-a-million shot and a constructed but equally pleasing reality.  Photography has always been an art, and thus untrustworthy.

Kirstin Schmitt,, Germany, 1st Place, Candid, Professional, 2016 Sony World Photography Awards

Kirstin Schmitt, Germany, 1st Place, Candid, Professional, 2016 Sony World Photography Awards

Take, for instance, Kirsten Schmitt’s image of patients waiting in a hospital, a 1st prize in the Candids category. The lighting is pure Hollywood, with the central figure, a distressed woman in a gleaming white gown, keylit to show off her cheekbones and the porcelain shine of her dress. A lucky shot, or a good photo made better? I’m not accusing anyone of fakery here, because the very idea of fakery is no longer in play in photography. And her winning image demonstrates how little we care about photography’s promise of being a mirror (except, of course, in that it does now mirror our enhanced and digitally augmented world).

Maroesjka Lavigne,, Belgium, 1st Place, Professional, Landscape, 2016, Sony World Photography Awards

Maroesjka Lavigne, Belgium, 1st Place, Professional, Landscape, 2016, Sony World Photography Awards

Another example is Maroesjka Lavigne’s 1st place winner in the Landscape category. Four giraffes strut across the Namibian desert, as perfectly in line as Radio City kick dancers. Were they encountered and photographed, or encountered and photographed and then inserted into the landscape? Was the animal choreography accidental, or constructed? Again, the point of these questions is not to challenge the integrity of the photographer, but to prompt the reader to ask, rightly so, Who cares? The “gotcha” moment is a relic.

Are we losing anything by handing over a century of photographic exceptionalism to digital omniscience? Yes and no.

How much longer high-end printed photographs can continue to draw the audiences or inspire the competitions they once did, I have no idea – but I suspect not long. The Sony show feels outdated already. On the other hand, photography and image making (and image maker fame) has never been more egalitarian. Now the smiling poor people can photograph us back.

We have decided to live in a constant state of urgency, real or imagined. Photography is about holding still, or used to be. An exhibition of prize winning photographs is a Biggest Pumpkin contest without a county fair.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: