MIAMI — West Palm Beach is not exactly where you’d think to go to see strong work by a group of talented, emerging photographers. The place, at least for me, conjures visions of retirement communities painted a particularly Floridian shade of pale yellow. But at the Norton Museum of Art this afternoon, judges announced the winner of the inaugural Rudin Prize for Emerging Photographers: Buenos Aires–born, LA-based artist Analia Saban. And while the fashion choices of the sixty-some attendees at the luncheon were often quite pleasantly ridiculous, the art on view by the five finalists for the prize was across-the-board impressive.
The prize is a biennial affair, begun by collector and art woman-about-town Beth Rudin DeWoody in honor of her late father, real estate developer Lewis Rudin. The nominees must be photographers who have never had solo museum exhibitions before, and they are selected by established artists. This year, Susan Meiselas nominated Eunice Adorno, who is based in Mexico City; Michael Rovner nominated Mauro D’Agati, based in Palermo; Graciela Iturbide nominated Gabriela Nin Solis, also based in Mexico City; Yinka Shonibare nominated Bjørn Venø, who works in Kent, England; and John Baldessari nominated Saban, who will receive a $20,000 prize.
A selection of work by all of the photographers is currently on view at the museum (through this weekend), and it’s worth a visit. What stands out the most is how wonderfully the work varies from artist to artist: these are five distinctly skilled photographers exploring the possibilities of their craft. Adorno, D’Agati, and Solis all work in a documentary vein, but each has found his or her own voice and a style. Adorono and D’Agati, for instance, both immersed themselves in communities — the former the Mennonite women of northern Mexico; the latter the Sarno mafia family in Naples. But while Adorno’s work is quietly and exquisitely composed, D’Agati’s feels more active, capturing the freneticism of life in the southern Italian city.
Solis, meanwhile, uses black and white to photograph the disappearing land and areas being demolished to make way for a superhighway in Mexico City. Her photographs, which are devoid of people, feel a bit weak sandwiched between Adorno’s and D’Agati’s showings, and sad, like the endangered communities are already gone. But she has an incredible eye for detail that comes through in closeup studies of fences and rocks.
Venø works in a completely different vein, using himself as a model to create surreal, nearly allegorical scenes out of the fantastic recesses of his mind. In a series of videos, he becomes different characters, including a a crowned, naked fool and a decorated army veteran.
Saban’s pieces stand out from the other four: they are the most abstract and the most experimental. At first glance, one might note that they’re the closest to more traditional conceptions of “art,” as distinct from photography, which might explain her win. But they’re also the most formally interesting, and while they don’t quite tug at the heartstrings the way Adorno’s portraits of the Mennonite women do, it’s clear that Saban is trying to play with and bend and break the medium in a way the others aren’t.
In some pieces, for instance, she folds the paper of the print or crumples it — a simple yet deeply transformative gesture that changes the way we conceive of a photograph. For another series, called Slingshots, she uses an exacto knife to separate the paper from the emulsion while the photograph is still wet. She then uses the emulsion like ink, dragging it across a canvas that she hangs adjacent to the original photo, its dark forms echoing those in the picture.
“I wondered what could I do in the dark room that I couldn’t do on a computer,” Saban told me, when asked about her process. “What can I do in the dark room after digital photography?”
Saban is also a painter and a sculptor, and she mentioned the continued ghettoization of photography as part of her frustration and inspiration. “I find it amazing that museums still have separate departments,” she said, adding that her process is “my way of thinking of photographs as unique objects that can’t be reproduced so easily.”
That focus on the photograph as object seems like a logical preoccupation in the age of Photoshop and Instagram. Other artists involved in similar explorations come to mind, like Marco Breuer, about whose work John Yau wrote:
By subjecting the photograph’s material nature to a variety of physical interventions (heat, folding, scratching), Breuer subverts the timelessness we associate with the photographic image, while conveying time’s ravaging effects on the photograph itself.
But while Saban stood out, the committee (and this writer) was clearly impressed with all of the artists’ work: right after announcing the winner, DeWoody added that they had had such a tough time choosing, they decided to give gifts to everyone.