Two Photographers Selected for $500,000 MacArthur “Genius” Grants

Every year, the MacArthur Foundation selects 20-40 exceptional people in the United States and awards them with $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grants” — prestigious awards that come with no strings attached. Winners are of all ages, come from all kinds of fields, and are selected purely because they “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.”

The 2012 winners were revealed today, and of the 23 people selected, two of them were photographers: Uta Barth and An-My Lê.

Uta Barth

Uta Barth is a 54-year-old conceptual photographer based in Los Angeles “exploring the nature of vision and the difference between how we see reality and how a camera records it in evocative, abstract compositions that focus attention on the act of looking and the process of perception.”

An-My Lê

An-My Lê is a 52-year-old photographer and photography professor at Bard College in New York “approaching the subjects of war and landscape from new perspectives to create images that blur the boundaries between fact and fiction and are rich with layers of meaning.”

Barth and Lê join a very exclusive group of photographers who have ever won the prize. Of the 756 winners since 1981, only 13 of them — including the two this year — have been photographers. The others on the list are: Richard Benson (1986), Lee Friedlander (1990), Susan Meiselas (1992), Wendy Ewald (1992), Robert Adams (1994), Cindy Sherman (1995), Alfredo Jaar (2000), Deborah Willis (2000), Camilo José Vergara (2002), Fazal Sheikh (2005), and Lynsey Addario (2009).

You probably recognize a good number of those names. It’s a pretty noteworthy bunch, eh?

Want to win a MacArthur Fellowship? The only way is to become widely known as being brilliant in what you do. The Wikipedia article about the prize states,

The Fellowship has no application. People are nominated anonymously by a body of nominators who submit recommendations to a small selection committee of about a dozen people, also anonymous. The committee then reviews every nominee and passes along their recommendations to the President and the board of directors.

If you are selected through this process, you find out through a simple and unexpected congratulatory phone call that turns your life upside-down.

  • Samcornwell

    No nomination. No “who you know”. No set briefs. Just being brilliant at what you do.

    Every competition should be like this.

  • Jose

    there are hardly 5 brilliant people in the USA….

  • Marcq

    That Uta Barth is so full of BS.

  • Jake


  • mike

    they dont seem like geniuses, but lucky them

  • Mansgame

    They are so good that nobody has ever heard of them lol. Well good for them.

  • mmmarc


  • mmmarc

    Yes, Uta Barth is a brilliant swindler because her photography sucks on nearly every conceivable level.

  • John Kantor

    Yeah – but how many likes do they get on Instagram?

  • antonomy

    agreed “exploring the nature of vision and the difference between how we see reality and how a camera records it in evocative, abstract compositions that focus attention on the act of looking and the process of perception.” what a bunch of toss

  • Cookiepus

    Uta Barth – Arty shots of light coming through the window. Her photos remind me of teenage photography students (including myself) before they actually find out what kind of photography they want to persue.

  • cb

    I’ve heard a great deal about them. I guess serious art news doesn’t permeate the amateur hobbyist circle

  • cb

    Agreed, her pictures are totally not tack sharp at 100% crop and her bokeh is awful.

  • Sean Walsh

    I’m confused by some the hate for Uta Barth (maybe it’s sarcasm lost in the typing?). It’s like telling a child that macaroni is for eating, not gluing to construction paper to make art.

    I wouldn’t consider her work to be photography in the traditional sense, but more “abstract art using photography as the medium”. Is PetaPixel a site only for photographers and images that work in a set notion of what a photograph is commonly perceived to be? It doesn’t appear to be. Kudos to her for using a camera in a new way, which should be inspiring to artists (“photographers” or otherwise) who are looking for new ways to express themselves with conventional tools.

  • Skoduh


  • Skoduh

    Sometimes images aren’t about being 100% technically complete… There is a reason she chose to photograph the way she does/did. There’s a deeper meaning behind a single photograph for these people, and you might just have to look at a whole series to see it.