Snap judgments

On a Sunday afternoon in Detroit, with packs of unexposed film, David Blunk and some friends in the Polaroid Trading Club head out for an urban scavenger hunt. Roaming through rubble and void, they take pictures and shake them dry, occasionally jamming the prints back in the camera for multiple exposure.

On the East Side of the city, as dusk turns to dark, Iaisna Smith dresses up her friends and escorts them to a local liquor store. Totally bored by the blight in the neighborhood she’s dubbed “Hoodrich,” her impromptu photo shoot has one purpose: messing things up.

And in East Dearborn, a man who’s known to shout at light posts stands in front of a Plexiglas window, arguing with a mannequin in a floor-length silver lamé gown. Jon Luebke is there with his camera, managing to get off seven or eight shots before his subject throws up his arms in disgust and walks away.

The winning images in the 24th Annual Metro Times Photo Contest were taken with crappy disposable and Polaroid cameras, as well as all the Canons and Nikons you’d expect. Some of the pictures are out of focus, muddy or blemished by acid. A few are derivative of famous artists’ work. And while it may seem foolish to prize a photo with a pretty strong case of camera shake, this year Metro Times judges Justin Maconochie (photographer), Rick Vian (painter and CCS professor) and Gerry Craig (critic and Cranbrook assistant director) didn’t think so. All of the award-winners had one thing in common — a reverence for their subjects, whether stoic, threatening, provocative or unknowingly absurd.

Astoundingly, Metro Times received more than 900 entries this year, the most photos ever entered into the competition. We certainly will try our best, but may not even be able to hang them all at Detroit’s CPop Gallery (4160 Woodward Ave.), where the photos will be showcased 6-9 p.m., Wednesday, May 18. A couple of weeks ago, judgment day began with a leisurely lunch and ended up becoming pretty intense. We felt confident we could flip through nearly a thousand photos quickly, that the strong stuff would really pop and we’d agree on the winners. We didn’t — at least, not always. But some works drew us in from first glance, and here’s why:

Byron L. Bull, Royal Oak
1st and 3rd places,
Experimental/Digitally Altered

Considering the endless possibilities for computer experimentation, it’s surprising that most contestants working with digital imagery chose to use one simple method of manipulation. And just a few contestants altered their photos using darkroom techniques. Second-place winner David Blunk was the only artist who works on the actual photo, gouging into his Polaroid prints.

Byron Bull’s first-place artwork, which appears on the cover of this issue, may seem to be a nod to contemporary master Joel-Peter Witkin, an artist who deals with the beautiful madness of the conscience. In fact, Bull shares Witkin’s interest in the allegorical works of late 19th century artists, such as Oscar Rejlander.

At 45, the local artist says it’s only recently that he’s come to view computer art as legitimate (although spending 150 hours on one piece helps to validate the creative process). The image of a young girl, taken from a thrift-store photo, is displaced in his version of a bombed-out Victorian home. Compositionally, the work is symmetrical yet complex. It’s also multi-layered — the photo itself looks as if it’s been age-treated to blend into the environment of antique wreckage. It also challenges clichés.

The judges sorted through many pictures of adorable slobbering children, yet here’s a young girl, possibly an apparition, whose calm disposition inspires anxiety. She welcomes us to her world with a bouquet of flowers, introducing us to the large skeleton of a centaur behind her.

Mara Millich, Grosse Pointe
1st place, Color

Contrary to what must be a popular notion, just because a flower is colorful doesn’t mean it makes for a compelling color photo. The judges were attracted to works with presence, using color to convey feeling, even if it’s fleeting.

There’s no doubt that Mara Millich’s behind-the-scenes fashion show photo deserves to win first place. Millich is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s photography department. She’s also one of the last — the college has all but gotten rid of the traditional photography courses to focus instead on digital art.

Shot last year in the basement of Detroit Artists Market, Millich’s image of three models with a serious case of ennui is nostalgic yet contemporary, and absolutely intoxicating. The drab overhead lighting seems baroque and the women look like subjects in a Dutch painting.

Alice Rice, West Bloomfield
1st place, Black and White

Famed photographer Diane Arbus once said about her subjects: “Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot … I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends, but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. … Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

The sentiment fits for 18-year-old Alice Rice’s photo of a young girl underwater. On vacation from boarding school at Interlochen Arts Academy, the photographer recently went along with her mother to work at a swimming pool. She sneaked into a boiler room and walked through the back, happening upon an underwater viewing box. The lighting was beautiful so she started shooting, until she realized the swimmers could see her and she might get in trouble. Like Arbus, Rice really pulls us in to meet this young girl who is part inquisitive angel, part confrontational alien and all too human.

Douglas Shimmin, Madison Heights
1st place, Candid

Henri Cartier-Bresson was the inspiration for this year’s special candid photography category; the passionate Frenchman sought the rare moments when art and humanity collide. Douglas Shimmin, 41, is the first-place winner because he shot this photo, literally and metaphorically, from the hip. On a trip in Okinawa, Japan, Shimmin was at a fresh fish market when he noticed this fine example of the Japanese sense for aesthetics, which penetrates to the core of the culture. Instantly, he made the brilliant decision to avoid the inevitable distraction of a subject’s face in a picture, instead focusing on the colorful rhythm of a worker in her environment, expressing the essence of everyday life in the city.

Color photo winners

Experimental photo winners

Black and White photo winners

Candid photo winners

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]
Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles
Join the Metro Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.