There is an inevitable temptation to try and draw conclusions about the state of photography after one views a show like the 12th Annual Center Awards Juried Competition now on display at the Center for Photographic Art.

And to the degree that the exhibition''s 65 images, representing the work of 52 artists, provides a fairly representative look at current trends in photography, one can make two conclusions-- that collectively, today''s photographic artists have an acute and abiding appreciation for the history of the medium in terms of the evolution of photographic processes and subject matter; and that "straight," representational photography has become obsolete, an aesthetic dead end in terms of creative expression.

Juried by the Getty Musuem''s noted curator of photography Weston Naef, the Center Awards Show is a thoroughly exciting and rewarding exhibition in terms of its far-ranging vitality, creativity and diversity.

What stands out most significantly in the exhibition, which was culled from approximately 8,000 images submitted by 527 artists from around the world, is the extensive use of mixed-media, constructed imagery and experimental techniques that are used to explore a much broader level of creativity than afforded by straight photography. Although there is a full range of fairly traditional photographic process and techniques being used by the artists, including silver gelatin, gum bichromate and platinum, photograms, and cyantotypes, they are all used in very stylized ways. The artists show a decided interest in looking beyond the physical world as defined by the camera, and exploiting the inherent "realism" of photography to examine other realms that are both psychological and symbolic.

For CPA Executive Director Dennis High, the show represents a true high point in terms of the photographers'' willingness to expand the boundaries of the photographic medium.

"There is some very unique work this year, not necessarily what I would call edgy but very different in the way traditional quantities are pushed in different directions," he says.

While the show does include a selection of more traditional portraiture and landscape work, the most interesting photographs are the ones where the photographer deconstructs the basic techniques and processes of photography and reincorporates them in new and telling ways. Such an emphasis represents a significant and healthy trend that will go a long way toward toppling the arbitrary barriers that continue to exist between photography and the other arts.

Among the more interesting mixed-media pieces are Santa Cruz artist Shelby Graham''s "From The Nagasaki Series," a powerful contemplation of the darker forces of history in which an old black and white portrait of a young Japanese woman dressed in a kimono is mounted against a seascape. Above her and parallel to the horizon looms what is presumably an atomic missile. Attached to the upper third of the print is a mesh or screen of interwoven wire that works as a symbol of the Japanese internment.

A second fascinating mixed-media piece is Mary Daniel Hobson''s "Empire", a Kodalith print that uses an image of a hand, a map of the Russian empire, a push pin, and an ace of hearts playing card to explore the meaning of conquest, history and destiny.

There is quite a bit of color photography included in the CPA show, indicative of a growing trend among photographers to work more in color, which is due partly to the improvements that have been made in recent years in the image permanence of color prints. Collectively, the color work, although quite beautiful, is the least interesting aspect of the show. The artists seem more concerned with color and design for its own sake and less interest in using color as an adjunct for exploring meaningful content. The single exception is Audrey Mandelbaum''s "Hollywood, I''ve Never Met a Man I Didn''t Like", a large color "C" print in which foreground figures of everyday people magically float in relief against a soft-focus, pastel-like color background. Mandelbaum''s use of vibrant color and extreme, manipulated shifts in planes of focus provide wry insight into life as it is lived within the Hollywood dream factory.

Given Naef''s generosity of spirit in selecting such a wide range of image-making techniques and subject matter for inclusion in the exhibition, it is somewhat surprising and not a little dispiriting that the work of two of the artists he selected for the top three awards are so ordinary and mundane. They pale in comparison to other work in the show.

Sant Khalsa''s "Paving Paradise-The Santa Ana River," a series of images on the deleterious environmental impacts on the Santa Ana River riparian habitat that won the top $10,000 Betty and Jim Kasson Award, is utterly conventional in approach and execution and says nothing that hasn''t already been dealt with by other artists. Similarly, $1,000 Juror Award winner David Simonton''s series of North Carolina urban nightscapes, all of which are undeniably well executed, are more enervating than they are interesting.

It is the second Juror Award winner Annu Matthew who is most deserving of the top prize for her stunning and powerful exploration of Native American identity, memory and cultural history. Matthew pairs classic 19th- and early 20th-century portraits of Native Americans with self-portraits in which Matthew duplicates the poses but adds more modern elements into the pictures. Her archival computer prints, done up like old-fashioned stereo cards, capture the quality of the old turn-of-the-century albumen prints. The images make a strong political and aesthetic statement.

The Center Awards Juried Competition continues at Carmel''s Sunset Center through November 22.

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