This book was published by the Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Foundation, Inc. in 1978, to acknowledge the recipients of its fellowships in three years of the program. Susan R. Channing was the editor, a natural fit given her role as the Artists Fellowship Program Director. Estelle Jussim wrote the Introduction, “Looking at Winners,” and one of my favorite designers, Katy Homans, did the graphics and layout. It was printed by Thomas Todd Company in Boston.
I was struck by a number of things when I read through this modestly-scaled paperback book, which spotlights the period in which the PRC was emerging on the Boston scene.
First, the panelists. The three panels consisted of: Berenice Abbott, Ben Fernandez, Charles Harbutt, Lotte Jacobi, Syl Labrot, William Larson, Joan Lyons, Nathan Lyons, Mary Ellen Mark, Ray Metzker, and Barbara Morgan.
Second, the 18 fellowship recipients. The list is almost as impressive, in retrospect, as the panelists: Ken Brown, Carl Chiarenza, Stephen R. Elston, Chris Enos, Benno Friedman, Ruth Green, Bruce Kinch, Kipton Kumler, Jerome Liebling, Wendy MacNeil, Chester Michalik, Kevin Monaghan, Jonathan Morse, Thomas J. Petit, Nancy Rankin, John Rizzo, Lauren Shaw, and Jim Stone. Each artist is represented in the book by a compact biography and four nice duotone reproductions. (A nifty surprise to see Chiarenza, Enos, and Liebling all awarded in year one. Within a couple of years they were all involved with the PRC.)
The competition for the awards was fairly tough. The first year, five recipients were chosen from 450 applicants. The second year, six from 305. In year three, seven from 485. When I ran the McKnight Photography Fellowships program in Minnesota, we typically had about 120 applicants for four $25,000 awards. Clearly, there are a lot of photographers who considered themselves eligible for this support in Massachusetts.
The first paragraph of Jussim’s introduction was prescient, if a bit premature. It began:
Photography is in its hey-day. It has reached the apex of its popularity, its influence, its critical acclaim. It is chic. It is fashionable. It is produced, exhibited, purchased and pursued with the same modish flamboyance which once erupted over abstract expressionism and pop art. It is perhaps the only visual art which demonstrates such vigor, such exuberance, such accessibility. Schools of photographic practice, university programs in the history of photography, journals devoted to photographic criticism, books about, by, and for photographers proliferate in all languages, all countries, on all levels of quality.
The apex of photography’s popularity certainly hadn’t been attained in 1978. If anything, the chic quotient of photography continues to rise, however inexplicable or mysterious that phenomenon may be. Like the housing bubble—when will it burst, and what will the fallout be?
I do like the pleasures that Jussim celebrates in the work chosen for these awards; her writing is very thoughtful, but always deferential to and respectful of the experience of direct encounter with images. Especially when she writes the following about a hero to both Massachusetts and Minnesota photography: “A new conception of what constitutes a collision with reality emanates from the work of Jerome Liebling, where the outer realities are unflinchingly squeezed by a fierce individual perception which has the willingness to confront the painful fragilities of humanity, to press hard against the meaning of objects.”
The amount of the grants? $3,000. Enough, today, to buy a pretty decent digital camera, or a computer with enough oomph to process its images, but not both. Times have changed. Ever present, though, are those who question and doubt photography’s qualifications, its rights to be considered an enduring medium worthy of attention. Jussim sensed their presence thirty years ago. “It seems obvious,” she wrote toward the end of her introduction, “that the doom-sayers who have recently begun to prophesy the imminent demise of photography have been entirely too pessimistic.” Indeed.