The debate over whether photography can be truly considered an art takes another weird turn as the winner of a photo contest in Australia took home a $20,000 prize for what is essentially a blank photograph covered in scratches and spit courtesy of her grandmother.
Inspired by watching her grandmother test pens by scribbling with each one on a piece of paper, artist Justine Varga handed her a large-format piece of film and asked her to continuing her diligent testing on the 4x5-inch negative instead. In addition to those scribbles, the developed photo, called Maternal Line, also includes imprints of Varga’s grandmother’s hand, and intentional saliva smears.
According to Dr. Shaune Lakin, the Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia who judged the competition and awarded the 2017 Olive Cotton Award, Varga’s photo explored “...what it means today to make a photograph of someone else, even if in the end it doesn’t reveal what they look like.” Lakin further justified his decision by pointing out that “...photography has never just been about appearance. It’s also been part of the way that we experience things like memory and relationships.”
Unless you’re trying to impress your Instagram followers with vacation photos snapped at an exotic locale, most of the time you really only snap photos to help you remember a moment, a place, or a person. Varga’s photo doesn’t contain an actual image of her grandmother, but every time she looks at it the print she’ll undoubtedly be reminded of a very specific aspect and moment in her grandmother’s life that she otherwise would have probably forgotten.
But is the unique approach to photography worth a $20,000 grand prize in a photo contest? Understandably, other photographers aren’t happy with the decision. In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald, some critics have dismissed the photo as nothing more than indecipherable scribbles, while others are claiming Vargas’ photo doesn’t meet the contest’s requirements, since the image was technically produced by her grandmother. Dr. Laukin stands by his decision, however.
Art and criticism will always go hand in hand, especially when it comes to abstract interpretations of a medium. Despite his works often selling for millions of dollars at auction, there are still critics who despise Jackson Pollock’s paintings. Art is supposed to encourage people to talk and discuss ideas and opinions, so I guess this article is proof that Vargas has done just that with her photo.