Jan Kather on the
35th Annual Photography Show

Jan Kather

Jan Kather (M.F.A. Cornell, 1982) has been practicing the photographic arts since the late 1970s when she began graduate studies at Cornell University. Today she teaches photography, media arts, and humanities courses at Elmira College, Elmira, New York. Her artwork often criss-crosses between photography, video, collage, fabric arts, and art history. As a Berkeley Commonplace board member, she has most recently designed a collaborative online gallery project with the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies titled “Ever the Twain Shall Meet.” She invites everyone interested in connecting with artists throughout the world to participate in this international online gallery project that celebrates the global legacy of Mark Twain. (Deadline August 15, 2024)


In the past year alarm bells have gone off in the photography world, warning that generative art tools like Stable Diffusion, Midjourney and Dall-E2 will soon replace creative artists. This dire prediction stems from the fact that the unskilled can now create amazing (fake) artwork by engaging in “prompt engineering” without having any knowledge of f-stops or worse, without ever leaving their computer to actually capture genuine imagery from all corners of the globe. Have we been unwittingly thrown into a war with technology? If so, the State of the Art Gallery’s 35th Annual Photography Show provides some promise that photographers aren’t despairing, but in fact are winning the battle against generative AI. I applaud each of the entrants for their resistance to the generative tech trend. Every image in this show vibrates with individual vision and mastery of technique, in both analogue and digital creations.

The gallery’s hanging committee has done an outstanding job of harmoniously arranging images of various sizes and styles. In addition to viewing the show online, I encourage everyone to see the show in person. Previewing the works installed in the gallery clarified for me the importance of seeing physical objects in the real world, which is an experience that cannot be replicated in the digital realm. I also recognize the expertise of the gallery members who juried the show. Their selections form an exciting collection of contemporary photography in the Finger Lakes region.

The photographs that I have chosen for awards stand out to me for various reasons. Selecting the very best from the best is never easy, however, I have attempted to explain what drew me to single out the imagery that I have chosen. Ten artists will receive awards of $100 each. In addition, I selected three pieces for honorable mention.

The Awards

Muhammad Arif

An enthusiasm for the medium of film has been trending for the last few years (similar to the recent interest in vinyl records and record players). Anyone who has worked in a darkroom can testify that the process can feel either magical or tedious. The pair of silver gelatin prints by Muhammad Arif strike me as images thoughtfully made with skill and patience. Arif treats the shadow as a main character in both prints. In Steps, we barely see the feet of a man and woman, dancing joyously. It is their shadow, sprawling across the frame, that describes their simpatico moves. In contrast, Fallen symbolizes the antithesis of joy. The fallen pawn, alone and abandoned, stands in for the nameless dead on battlefields throughout time. “Upright” chess pieces—a row of pawns protecting the king, queen, bishop, knight and rook—hover safely just at the edge of the frame, casting long, dark, foreboding shadows across the board, the battlefield.

Mark Larsen

Standing before Mark Larsen’s silver gelatin print titled Divi Tree, I imagined traveling back in time to Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Photo Gallery to see the works of Photo-Secessionist photographers. In particular, I was reminded of Anne Brigman’s photos of juniper trees whose poignantly twisted trunks were, similar to the Divi tree, ravaged by high winds. She wrote about her friendship with trees in a 1926 article for Camera Craft: “One day on one of my wanderings I found a juniper—the most wonderful juniper that I’ve met in my eighteen years of friendship among them….It was a great character like the Man of Gallilee or Moses the Law-giver, or the Lord Buddha, or Abraham Lincoln….Storm and stress well borne made it strong and beautiful.” Larsen’s old school darkroom technique combined with the image’s pictorialist subject matter bridges the centuries, subtly encouraging us to take root and stand strong like the tree that wears its turbulent life in its contorted shape. The barren beach without any indication of humanity speaks of the struggles faced by all in the natural world..

Cynthia Cratsley

Stepping back even further into photo history, Cynthia Cratsley’s plant-based sun print compositions bring to mind Anna Atkins’ 1843 self-published book of botanical images made with the cyanotype process. Unlike Atkins, Cratsley freely coated her watercolor paper, allowing the light sensitive emulsion to retain the expressive gestures of her brushwork and splattering. The imperfect impressions of plant life, as well as a feather and doily, suggest waving sea a­nem­o­nes or other underwater plant life swaying in ocean currents. Personal Growth may contain a hidden message: relax and just “go with the flow.”

Kris Altucher

Although the location of these scenes is not indicated, I feel as if I am transported to the Middle East, witnessing its vibrant colors and patterns rooted in old world artistry and tradition. Motorcycle is a color theorist’s delight: the vibrations set up between the blue and orange draw me in to explore the arched doorframe’s mosaic textures. How can I not ponder traces of an ancient world staunchly coexisting with a sporty 21st century vehicle? The scene reminded me of a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme titled The Rose (The Love Token) found in Elmira’s Arnot Art Museum. However, instead of a gallant lover on horseback beneath the window of his lover who throws him a rose, this depiction shows a shrouded, riderless motorcycle, with no people, no romance in sight. Altucher’s L’or Vert echoes the architecture, draped fabrics, and shades of ultramarine blue found in Motorcycle. However, I would imagine that this type of vehicle poses a bit of a challenge for riders, and drivers who wear flowing robes. Fortunately the two women striding confidently across the frame appear quite comfortable with the most basic transportation of all: walking.

Jari Poulin

I want to read My Garden Dreaming Me as a positive image, about being rooted and growing naturally from the earth to nourish others as well as oneself. But the figure’s hands across the mouth prompt me to think otherwise. What I see referenced is the recent alarming and severe erosion of women’s bodily autonomy at the hands of judges and politicians. The Noise in My Head, the Sleep in My Feet also expresses this angst, with the hands in this case suggesting the wiping of tears or rubbing against the visual migraine that can send one to bed with unbearable pain. Even the bare branches zigzag unrelentingly, helping to box the woman into a synaptic-framed darkness. A scream suppressed?

Libby Hedrick and Leo Brissette

Libby Hedrick’s Hammer Museum in Alaska and Leo Brissette’s Perry’s visually describe an advertising strategy that answers the question: how can we capture the average consumer’s attention in this age of image over-saturation? Bigger may not be better, but both Hedrick and Brissette prove megasize can’t be ignored!

Hedrick has also captured a sense of place by allowing us to view the Hammer Museum through a veil of Alaskan sleet. Maybe we aren’t particularly interested in hammers, but getting inside a warm museum just might be as alluring as a cool oasis in a hot desert. Similarly, Brissette’s Perry’s takes advantage of the warm glow of the golden hour to whet our appetites for a sweet, creamy treat. I confess to laughing out loud when viewing both images, i.e., laughing at my own gullibility of falling for the “tools” of MASSive marketing!

Dove Williams

The UPS Box Store parking lot looks so familiar with its stark combination of cinder block architecture, concrete pavement, and orange caution cones. The sunlight is harsh: is this Carson City, Nevada? Or a side street in Ithaca, New York? Williams has admirably turned this uninspiring imprint of human commerce into a meditative composition balancing color, form, light, and repetition. I should feel depressed when viewing this scene, but instead I intellectually enjoy it as though it were the first draft of a Mondrian grid-structured painting, a photographic version of Composition II in Red, Blue and Yellow.

Dave LoParco

David LoParco’s exquisitely patterned Duomo Di Siena, Italy arrests a serious, sacred moment in time for believers who imagine sharing the same magnificent scene with pilgrims of five centuries ago. The secular viewer may see only an abstraction of shapes growing skyward through the dome to an apex, a literal white hole. The tension between flat space and deep space makes the image buzz with frenetic energy. Where does one look and rest the eye? Heaven, I suspect.

Lotus Mae

Lotus Mae’s Divisions combines photographic imagery, wood, screen, and a segment of actual chain links. The title surely alludes to the physical and digital collage techniques present in the piece, but I wonder if it also alludes to the divisions we see forming in the world today, as social media algorithms reinforce tribal beliefs, often without factual evidence. Are we “chained” to our phones? To social media? To right wing or left wing news outlets? How do we free ourselves? Are the tidal waves, depicted here, threatening enough to make us wake up to climate change? How about the small eggs, which remind me of the Tennessee lawmakers whose strict abortion laws have put IVF in danger for people who wish to have children? We see a tiny Alice in Wonderland figure pasted on to a photo of ropes, a possible clue that we are experiencing a dream sequence. The complexity of this artwork compels the viewer to engage in their own creative interpretation.

Honorable Mentions

Robin Fisher Cisne

I hear an audible sigh of relief when I see this photo. The first person point of view allows me to become the photographer, kicking back in my striped pajamas, the sunlight softly illuminating those tired, crossed feet. The spareness of the room provides a cold, geometric structure in contrast to the cozy floral comforter and the warm glowing skin. The window reflections call to mind the surrealist cloud paintings of Rene Magritte. I feel I am in a state of dreaming, with the sharp detail of the distant building playing tricks on my eye—is it a painting on the wall or reality just outside the window?

Alicia Wittink

Recently I watched Katharine Hepburn in Summertime, a romantic film shot on location in Venice in 1954. With those images of the canal in my mind (including the cliché scene of Hepburn falling backwards into the canal because she is filming, camera in hand), I was drawn to examine Venice in the Time of Covid more closely. There is much to admire in the way this scene is framed through the dark arch of an overhead bridge, contrasting with the brightly lit buildings ahead. The implied lines of one point perspective pull my eye from the gondolas to the far reaches of the waterway, with only a handful of figures to be seen on the left. This visual movement from darkness to light metaphorically captures our own experience of living through the pandemic of just a few years ago. If we have to remember that disruptive time, let it be with an image like this.

James Burlitch

It all looks so innocent, healthy, and natural—the array of apples multiplying into a bumper crop. But on close inspection, it’s a magician’s trick, just as the serpent “tricked” biblical Eve into eating the fruit that would make her wise like the gods. An allusion to the sleight of hand suggests this is a visual metaphor for the fears and fascination we have today with artificial intelligence (a subtle serpent). It can fool us with its magic, endlessly multiplying the information unethically stolen from content that easily can be found on the Internet. It can be a mystifying, tempting, and beautiful garden of Eden (or Delicious Macintoshes) if we aren’t paying attention. Pay attention!