Are These Photographers Geniuses?

Photograph by Uta Barth

Is the photo above the work of a genius? Last week, the MacArthur Foundation announced its “Genius” grants – a $500,000, five year grant with no strings attached prize – to people who “show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future.” Since 1981, 873 fellows have been named, and of those, only nine have been photographers. Two of them were awarded this year: Uta Barth and and An-My Lê.

Photograph by An-My Lê

Here are the other photography geniuses from previous years:

Photography is often thought of as a lesser art form. The art market certainly treats it that way, with top paintings selling for nearly 25x that of the most expensive photo. So it’s both interesting and exciting to see two awards made in the same year to photographers amidst scientists, economists, writers, instrument makers, and historians. But what does it really mean in the context of photography?

Well, first let’s acknowledge that the selections aren’t obvious choices. In the realm of art photography and photojournalism, neither Barth nor Lê would be considered titans by most observers. But perhaps that is the genius of the Genius. The selection committee has found photographers that perhaps you ought to know because of the insight that they bring to there work.

Take grant winner Uta Barth, for example. Here is her artist statement:

“[T]he work invites confusion on several levels, and that ‘meaning’ is generated in the process of ‘sorting things out.’ On the most obvious level, we all expect photographs to be pictures of something. We assume that the photographer observed a place, a person, an event in the world and wanted to record it. . . . The problem with my work is that these images are really not of anything in that sense, they register only that which is incidental.”

The artist statement is often derided as mental masturbation and self-aggrandizing propaganda. But the less cynical viewpoint is that the statement shows that the artist has intent over his/her work. In Barth’s case, I think she raises an interesting point in that “we all expect photographs to be pictures of something,” but her work challenges this notion by abstracting the mundane. She has photographed exclusively in her house for fourteen years because, in her words, “If I’m interested in light and perception, and this visual acuity to the mundane, fleeting, ephemeral, everyday kind of information, there’s no point in me going out to seek that out.”

The statement reminds me of young photojournalists who feel like they must cut their teeth in foreign countries in order to make pictures, when you constantly hear veterans say that there are plenty of worthwhile things to shoot in your backyard. So it’s interesting to view photos that don’t look like photos, and still feel excitement about them.

The other grant winner, An-My Lê, focuses on military and war-esque photography using a 4×5 view camera. A naturalized U.S. citizen from Vietnam, her view of war has been shaped by her own experiences during the Vietnam war.

“I’ve always found the military and incredible enterprise. It’s an overwhelming force. It’s sublime because it’s inherently horrific and beautiful. People tend to look at the military; they tend to look at war; they tend to look at conflict as something very black and white. It’s not like that at all. So how to you approach the subject and explore it in a complicated way.”

Although she’s done a lot of actual photojournalism work, one of her latest projects is documenting Vietnam War re-enactments (who knew?). Her choice of a large format, film camera is intentional, and her view of photography is compelling when considering the veracity of photography -particularly photojournalism.

“I think photography is inherently ambiguous. And that’s something that I look forward to and that I want to take advantage of. I think those are the most interesting pictures. The ones that have tension. That sort of border on the information and the subjective.”

So are they geniuses in the same way that the world’s leading microbiologist is? Certainly, if you subscribe to a single view of intelligence, you would conclude that they are not. But as in all artistic pursuits, genius isn’t as cut and dry. To me, the formulation and execution of creative ideas moves you closer to genius. The ability to transform a mode of creative thought into something new (think Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, The Beatles, Jay-Z) moves people towards genius. In that regard, Barth and Lê are deserving.

And perhaps as bold a move as choosing two photographers is the Foundation’s decision to award two women in their fifties with the prestigious prize when most photographers of that generation are men. Genius.

About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and Co-founder of PhotoShelter. Allen authors PhotoShelter’s free business guides for photographers and marketing professionals, including topics like email marketing, search engine optimization, and starting a photography business. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article originally appeared here.

  • peter25253

    imho they are not…..

  • Mark Whale

    Emperor’s new clothes. Either that, or 99% percent of us have no imagination.

  • muddyclouds

    I don’t know. I must see some more pictures before I’ll be the judge. The pictures above didn’t convince me. I have similar shots from when my camera has went of accidentally..

  • MD

    Having spent four years in art school, studying all of these artists and going to lectures by most of them, I don’t think one could say they ALL are, or are not geniuses. I have tremendous respect for some of these people, and the grant system is a great way for creative individuals to fund their work. But sometimes there’s just too much emperor’s-new-clothes BS involved in the fine art sector.

    Assuming that an artist statement is inherently more than mental masturbation is to give the benefit of the doubt to heaps of artists who really have nothing original to photograph and would rather spend their time writing.

    Why does mediocre photography combined with pretentious exposition all of a sudden equate brilliant art?

  • muddyclouds

    I’ll take that back. I just remembered that I’ve seen some of An-My Lê military camp pictures before and they are amazing. Good choice!

  • MD

    Haha, great minds think alike? :P

    I’m sure you were kidding about the imagination part, but it’s horrifying to know how impressed many of these artists are with themselves. You’d think that taking deadpan pictures of their living room is the most creative thing anyone could possibly muster.

    Personally, I’ll take light painting with an HD TV over this crap any day of the week.

  • Matt Himmelstein

    I am fine with An-My Lê. I think she is doing something fairly unique in her genre. I am less, much less, on board with Uta Barth. I just don’t see what is so great about her stuff. Certainly not to the tune of “here is 1/2 million $, go do something with it because we think you will amaze us.”

    I know it is not a direct correlation between the money and the output. There are no strings on the money, they can blow it all on one roll of the dice in Vegas if they want. But still, the idea is that these people are going to amaze us. If they get this money, they are going to channel it into their field and produce something. I guess Uta can buy some new curtains to photograph.

  • John Kantor

    If they are, then so is everyone on Instagram.

  • education matters

    Horrible pageview baiting title. Almost everyone in this comment section seems to be suffering from anosognosia. Hard to recognize skill if it’s something you’ve never experienced.

  • Daniel Austin Hoherd

    At first glance I thought Uta Barth’s photo show above was just some random shot, but after watching the video I see what she’s trying to do. It seems like an intermediate study of light for a photographer, but perhaps it’s good for the non-photographers who happen to be carrying cell phone cameras in their pockets and might well take better pictures after having seen her gallery exhibit. This would be great.

  • ceebee

    Lee Friedlander, yes. I mean, check out the many copyist on Flickr.

  • jay


  • senate

    uta barth is a joke. a rich one that is.

  • Truthiocity

    Geniuses? Really? You can find much more ingenious photos all over flicker. As with fine art, the percieved value of fine art photography seems to depend more upon what the artist, gallarist or art critic says about the work than the actual work itself.
    The first artist doesn’t actually seem to even need the grant as her work is only from within her own house.
    The photo by Ms. Barth is quite interesting in that it expresses many variations of light interacting with the material but is that genius? No way.
    The other potographers chosen are also very good. But while they may be masters of their craft they are no geniuses and do not provide us with intellectual or aestetic innovation.
    Genius is innovation, seeing something that others cannot, it’s not just being very good at what others can do as well.
    I notice the stern twins aren’t on that list.

  • artistgrrl

    perhaps it is not for us to judge. none of us is giving out the cash….or perhaps it is just sour grapes

  • Truthiocity

    Actually we are all fairly sophisticated art and photography consumers because we are inundated with it and have seen the work of thousands of photographers.
    We can tell the difference between twaddle, work that is well done for any number of reasons, and genius. After seeing so much you can just tell when an artist’s vision or execution is different or far beyond even other masters in some way.
    The work of these artists and the other photographer genius grant recipiants is well done but not aestetically or intellectually brilliant or innovative in the least.

  • Truthiocity

    amen. there is a world of difference between a Tom Green and an Andy Kaufman.

  • seoras

    These are two interesting, excellent and quite different photographers. Certainly not genius’s as other photographers have touched on their subject matter before, perhaps not so intensely or over such a long period. Uta Barth’s subject is almost a staple of many photographers, in fact don’t all photographers deal with light in some form.
    I’m perhaps most impressed by An-My Lê over Barth, at least she explores the world and confronts situations more. Barths work though very interesting would I think become tiring after a while, variations on a theme – one trick pony.

    Like large lottery wins I think the amount they are getting rather obscene and disproportionate.

  • fuzzywuzzy

    Hmm, let’s ask Mr. Betteridge … nope. The logical answer? It’s a lottery.

  • Jake

    Uta Barth can spend the $500k on a new house to spend the next 14 years photographing!

  • Radumza

    Where in the name of *** I can see the winners photos on their website, where?

  • MikeT

    Fazal rocks it!

  • Tomislav Mavrovic

    wow…..just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse than instagram and timelapse…

  • Daniel Lowe

    the top level timelapsers (I’ll throw myself in there) are doing really creative stuff. I assume you’re referring to mundane, ordinary timelapses that people post without regard for quality… and then I’d have to agree with you 100%