The Grange Prize for Contemporary Photography

Canada’s Grange Prize officially launched last month in Toronto. The Prize, now in it’s fourth year,  nominates four contemporary photographers, two from Canada and two from a different partner country—this year India—but lets the world decide the winner.

Grange Prize launch party, Art Gallery of Ontraio, 2011, courtesy of Art Gallery of Ontario

The prize is one of many corporate-institutional partnerships (the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize presented by The Photographer’s Gallery, for example, or Canada’s recently inaugurated Scotiabank Photography Award, founded by Ed Burtynsky, that support excellence in the arts, through both exposure and a substantial purse. In this case, the partnership is between Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), where many gathered to celebrate the launch and exhibition opening last month, and Aeroplan, a Canadian corporate sponsor whose product, travel rewards, links nicely with the Prize’s shifting international connections.

Grange Prize installation view, Art Gallery of Ontario, 2011, courtesy of Art Gallery of Ontario

But the twist is that the Grange Prize winner, who walks away with $50,000, is entirely determined by online voting.  Those who make it to the AGO can vote via dedicated computers after wandering through the exhibition—but anyone (or, more accurately, anyone with internet access and an email address) is invited to look at a gallery of selected work by each artist on the Prize website, as well as bios, statements and video interviews, and cast their vote from a computer anywhere on earth. The democratic and virtual qualities of the prize raise some interesting questions about changing institutional attitudes and the decline of the physical object—but that’s for another discussion.

This year’s jury (two Canadians and two Indians), have made it a tough choice. All four nominees are women, and all of them make work that arguably blurs the line between the documentary tradition and art photography. Though their practices and images are distinctive, they share an interest in connecting to overlooked communities, and in the social and political dimensions of making their often invisible subjects visible.

Gauri Gill (Indian), Sunita, Nirmala and Sita, from the series Balika Mela Portraits, 2003, archival pigment print, 76 x 102 cm, courtesy of the artist and Nature Morte Gallery.

Gauri Gill (Indian), Kundan Singh. Yuba City 2001, 2001, archival pigment print, 69 x 102 cm, courtesy of the artist and Nature Morte Gallery

Gauri Gill, who lives and works in New Delhi, has been making trips to marginalized communities in Western Rajasthan for over a decade. The images from this project, Notes from the Desert are largely in black and white, a choice, she says, that shifts the focus away from the vibrant textiles and jewellery that too easily attach an exotic excitement to Indian culture. The project includes spontaneous images of everyday life in these rural districts, as well as highly staged images, like the Balika Mela Portraits, posed pictures from a fair for adolescent girls. On the brink of adulthood, these young women look back at the camera with fierce defiance and a sense of self that is somehow familiar to anyone who’s been—or spent time around—a teenaged girl. A recent series of colour images, depicting images from diasporic Indian communities in the US, is slick and opulent in contrast. Titled The Americans, the series is no doubt an allusion, and perhaps an appendix, to Robert Frank’s now iconic views of his adopted country.

Elaine Stocki (Canadian), William, 2008, chromogenic print, 66 x 66 cm, courtesy of the artist

Elaine Stocki (Canadian), Balcony, 2009, chromogenic print, 66 x 66 cm, courtesy of the artis

Elaine Stocki’s work is also interested in issues of visibility and invisibility. Stocki’s photographs register social and political issues like class, gender and race, in sensitive and intriguing pictures of people living in the places that she has also lived—including Winnipeg and New Haven (she studied photography at Yale). Her experiences in these cities—she grew up in Winnipeg, which has the largest urban Aboriginal population in Canada—has fostered an interest in understanding how people live together, the ways communities form and function, and how individuals are included and excluded in urban environments. Stocki often seeks out subjects through classified ads, and works with them to create compositions and perspectives that seem to compress space and colour into blocks of heightened feeling. Although her images are clearly and self-consciously contrived, their surprising staging serves not to distance them emotionally, which is so often the case, but instead to heighten that connection.

Althea Thauberger (Canadian), Kandahar International Airport, 2009, digital chromogenic print, dimensions variable, courtesy of the artist

Althea Thauberger (Canadian), Ecce Homo, 2011, courtesy of the artist

Vancouver’s Althea Thauberger is not, strictly, a photographer, though she often generates photographs as part of her projects, and her work in this medium is integral to her practice.  The AGO exhibition includes a film in addition to photographs (though it is only partially represented through still images on the website). Like her fellow-nominees, Thauberger’s practice often involves infiltrating largely unseen communities. But her approach is idiosyncratic and immersive, frequently involving her subjects in the production of genuinely collaborative performances. A recent project sent her, in the tradition of official Canadian war photographers, to Afghanistan, where she worked with Canadian women serving in the Canadian military. It’s hard not to link her work to Vancouver photo-leviathan Jeff Wall, whose large-scale staged images have also pictured soldiers in Afghanistan. But Thauberger’s work is clearly interested in the spontaneity of each situation and the contingency of situations; Wall’s overriding control is pervasive. His shadow falls more heavily over Thauberger’s recent public art project, Ecce Homo, now installed as a massive photomural in a Vancouver transport hub. The imposing image relates to Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 painting Death of Marat, and calls up some of Wall’s early work, similarly indebted to large-scale history painting.

Nandini Valli (Indian), Shiva, 2008, from the series Remembering to Forget, inkjet print on archival paper, 53 x 41 cm, courtesy of the artist and Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai

Nandini Valli (Indian), The Arrival 1, 2006, from the series Definitive Reincarnate, inkjet print on archival paper, 76 x 76 cm, courtesy of the artist and Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai

Nandini Valli, who lives and works in Chennai, offers the most sumptuous images and the most formal portraits of the nominees. In contrast to Gill, she plays up the vivid colours that have come to define India in the popular imagination.  But she also relies on an emotional connection to her models, employing friends or spending long periods getting to know her subjects before photographing them. Her series Definitive Reincarnate riffs on the tradition of Indian painted calendar posters of the gods—transplanted here in often-incongruous modern-day settings—a hotel room, for example. Her portraits of school children, who she’s been visiting for years, show them in the midst of that childhood ritual of self-discovery: dressing up.  Their elaborate, sometimes warmly humorous costumes evoke the Halloween possibilities of performance and appropriated identity—somewhere between innocent fantasy and heroic aspiration. Both series suggest the fragility of the traditional Indian hero, a figure that is inevitably eroding and as it confronts the twenty-first century, globalized world.

If you happen to be in Toronto, the  Grange Prize exhibition will be on view at the AGO until November 27th. For the rest of us, the online polls are open until October 23rd: you be the judge.

Grange Prize installation view, Art Gallery of Ontario, 2011, courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario