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Sharon at the front door. Simone Lueck

CRITICAL MASS: 593 entrants, over 200 jurors, 181 shortlisted photographers, 50 finalists, 6 contenders, 2 eventual book deals.

For months, the Critical Mass jurors nudge and judge portfolio across the internet casting their opinions by way of prescribed digits – NO (0), YES (1), MEGA-YES (3), WOW (7). It’s numbers-gymnastics.

The 36,000 scores are then thrown into a big statistics cauldron and Shawn Records, one of CM’s organisers informed us back in November that the difference between the “lowest score on the list and the highest one that didn’t make the cut was just 0.01314411684.”

Down at the Photographic Center Northwest, Seattle the scores and calibration tables are forgotten as each of the Top50 winners is represented by a singe print chosen by juror Andy Adams of FlakPhoto.


The Top50 have been online for three months now. The names in the show are likely familiar, but the chosen prints possibly not. In some cases the anointed print on show didn’t satisfactorily deputize for the complete portfolio, and in other cases the strength of a single print was spur for a second glance at a portfolio.

Simone Lueck’s  Sharon at the front door was a stand-out print, as garish and perky as the subject’s make-up. Sharon holds your stare as the direct sunlight degrades her skin by the second. “Let me help you with that door” I urged, worried for the integrity of the l’Oreal face-goop.

Aguardiente shots backstage at the beginning of the Miss Light pageant, Mesitas del Colegio, Colombia. Carl Bower

Women and the politics of appearance featured strongly throughout. Carl Bower’s project Chica Barbie examines the beauty pageant phenomenon of Colombia placing the contests within the context of the country’s pervasive violence; pageantry as escapism.

Bower’s work compresses pride, anxiety, routines, achievement and exploitation, but never casts aspersions upon this particular cultural more. Bower’s even-handedness presumably stems from his photojournalist background.

Bradley Peters’ print was banished to the stairwell, yet his work is strong enough to endure. Earlier on the night of opening, PCNW gallery director Ann Pallesen described juror Andy Adam’s FlakPhoto project as “off-kilter” – Peters is perhaps the best proponent of that look. Peters constructs scenes that so flauntingly blur art and documentary the viewer is hooked. I was befuddled last year when Peters came on the scene.

I liken Peters to Crewdson but without the six-figure budget; perhaps Crewdson on Valium. Peters also won the Conscientious Portfolio Competition, 2009.

© Bradley Peters

Ponce. Ellen Rennard

Also on the stairs, Ellen Rennard. Let me tell you, I generally don’t care for pictures of aninals but Rennard is the type of special talent to get my stubborn eyes seeing again. The runners and riders in the stables are partners, total equals. Respect runs through this series from photographer to subject, man to mammal. Rennard’s work is as compelling as any documentary portrait project I’ve seen in the past two years.

Dead dogs anyone? No, how about dead cats then? Mary Shannon Johnstone cares deeply enough about animal welfare and responsible stewardship that she went inside a North Carolina euthanasia clinic. Breeding Ignorance is a view we’ve not seen before and it may not be one you want to see again such is the visceral rendering of matted fur, stiff eyelids and garbage-headed biomass.

Cats Disposed. Mary Shannon Johnstone

Tree, Boston Public Garden, 2009. Pelle Cass

Talking about fur, Pelle Cass specializes in composite images of frantic activity, human and animal. The print from Selected People chosen for this show depicts a tree covered in scores of pudgy, russet squirrels surrounded by less fat humans and a flutter of birds in various stages of take off and perch. Cass’ work made me laugh, which is always a good sign.

Jane Fulton Alt’s portfolio Burn series is delicate but underwhelming if isolated. Fortunately, it is not isolated in that Fulton Alt has followed up on previous work with great intelligence. In 2005, Fulton Alt worked as a social worker in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. At dusk she’d document the ruined city. Burn series continues the same washed out grey of her Katrina series Look and Leave, only here it is smoke and not the “toxic, metallic air” of New Orleans. Fulton Alt observed upper respiratory problems among post-Katrina survivors and it as if this work is a lingering acknowledgement of legacy complications after the fact. Disasters are never just natural or man made but always a spiteful conflagration of the two … the air needs to clear … the dust needs to settle … the poisons sometimes burn slow.

Burn No. 81. Jane Fulton Alt

Alley Behind Ferris St. © Will Steacy

I really enjoy Will Steacy’s politic (his blog rants are a breath of fresh air) and he seems to be one of the hardest working photographers out there. The chosen print was luminous. However, I get the impression that Steacy only cares about these streets in as much as the debilitating effect they have on their inhabitants and itinerants. I’d have like to have seen one of his figure studies.

Manuel Capurso and Samar Jodha both pierced the darkness with portrait studies. Capurso’s chiaroscuro isolates his subjects and communicates the loneliness of life’s latter stages. Jodha literally spotlights the Phaneng people with whom he has lived for four years; they are a people on the verge of extinction and he has photographed every member of the 1,500 deep tribe. Both artists were effective.

Untitled. © Manuel Capurso

Phaneng 1. Samar Jodha

Alejandro Cartagena was one of the two book award winners this year and I wouldn’t argue with the selection; he is doing immensely important work about mass-suburbanisation/social-housing projects in Mexico. However, I would argue for the case of half a dozen prints from his portfolio before the one chosen for this show.

David Taylor and Victor Cobo are also engaged in important inquiries both probing issues of immigration and policing, family and place. In each case though, the print did neither of their theses any favours. Cobo’s print was bright and with humour but, without context, it receded quickly from memory. Taylor’s print was large and empty but perhaps that was the point to suggest the illegal immigrants as helpless, lost and losing agency?

Definitely spend time with Cartagena, Taylor and Cobo’s online portfolios as I think they are three vital political thinkers in photography. Perhaps that was the problem, my hopes for the print were too high ?…

Mi Abuela, México, 2003 © Victor Cobo

Untitled © Ed Freeman

Up until last Friday, Joni Sternbach had single-handedly carried the genre of surf photography. She now has Ed Freeman to help her with the load. Generally, I dislike pictures of surf (bar the odd Friedkin print) as much as I dislike pictures of animals, but Ed Freeman’s print really stood out. His online portfolio is as balanced too. Definitely the surprise of the evening.

Finally, leaving the best to the last, Andrea Camuto’s print romped home with the win in the ‘gut-punching-and-my-world-is-better-informed-for-seeing-this’ category.

Visitation, Waleyat woman's prison, Afghanistan © Andrea Camuto

Camuto is interested in the needs of families to survive as they have migrated in and out of Afghanistan and in and out of the capitol Kabul in bids to find livings.

From Camuto’s statement, “Feeling great compassion for their struggles, I was compelled to return several times, most recently in 2009. As my ties with these families deepened, I followed them into such places as the women’s hospital and the women’s prison. Each trip furthered my understanding of the political and social complexities of Afghan culture. Entrenched attitudes, coupled with rampant illiteracy, create the oppressive conditions under which Afghan women are forced to live. In these photographs I call attention to these ordinary Afghans, who go unnoticed and unrecorded in the larger narrative of the conflict in Afghanistan today.”

While the chosen print is a literal depiction of enclosure, the house arrests and claustrophobic hardships of rural life as portrayed in Camuto’s work bring a heavier weight to bear on the viewer. Camuto’s is the latest in a slew of projects I’ve seen recently coming out of the AfPak region that don’t depict military engagement. These personal struggles, significantly, are dictated by larger political and infrastructural battles currently being fought in Afghanistan.

The helplessness served up in Camuto’s work is bitter blow and one that lasts.

– – – – –

EXPOSED: CRITICAL MASS will be on show at the Photographic Center Northwest, 900 12th Avenue, Seattle, WA 98122 until the 18th May.


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