When photographer Aaron Siskind died in 1991, he left an endowment to fund Individual Photographer’s Fellowship grants. Worth up to $10,000 each, the grants are intended to support contemporary photographers and their work. Competition is fierce—not only because of the money, but because the application process is relatively easy, and the grants are awarded with no strings attached.
The five 2014 winners each received $8,000 to support new and ongoing work. Curran Hatleberg of Brooklyn, New York, used the fellowship grant to take the spring semester off from teaching at Yale to travel in the southwest, where he’s continuing work on “Dogwood,” a road trip project he started more than six years ago. Hatleberg says he had applied for the grant four times before he won.
“I’ve conditioned myself to apply for grants as much as I can,” he says. “This is one of the best awards out there, not only because of the large cash prize but also because it is effortless. There’s no reason not to [apply]. It’s one of the most painless of all the grants and awards.”
The Aaron Siskind Individual Photographer’s Fellowship [IPF] competition is open to photographers of any genre, provided they are a U.S. citizen or permanent legal resident of at least 21 years of age, and not enrolled in a college degree program. The application process amounts to uploading ten images with a 500-word artist’s statement and short resume. Applications are being accepted from March 2–May 29, 2015, and winners will be announced by September.
Who wins the grants depends heavily on who the jurors are, because the judging guidelines are so broad and subjective. Applicants are evaluated on artistic excellence, accomplishments to date and their promise for future achievement in photography.
Lucas Foglia of Berkeley, California—who won an IPF grant last year—says he appreciates the fact that the Siskind Fellowship “is just about pictures.” Applicants aren’t required to explain how they will use the award or to get letters of recommendation. And both published and unpublished work is eligible for consideration.
“This fellowship is about giving funds to artists to make art,” says Foglia. He submitted ten images from among the 60 featured in Frontcountry (Nazraeli, 2014), his book about how the lives of people in the American West have been transformed by the region’s mining and energy booms. In addition to the book, Foglia has a long list of other publications, awards, and solo exhibitions for “Frontcountry” and “A Natural Order,” an earlier project.
The fellowship typically attracts about 1,000 applicants every year, but 1,456 photographers applied in 2014. And because judging the more than 10,000 images submitted annually would be a daunting task for one jury, the foundation uses a two-tiered jury system.
Three first-round jurors, working individually with one-third of the entries each, try to narrow the field to 100 finalists based solely on the quality of the images. The final-round judges meet at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where the Aaron Siskind Foundation’s president, Charles Traub, chairs the MFA program in photography and related media. The three jurors spend a long day viewing projected images together to select the winners.
Jurors are not identified until after the winners have been selected in order to, in the words of the foundation’s website, “discourage any contact between applicants and panel judges.”
Graham Howe, CEO of Curatorial Assistance in Pasadena, California, served as a 2014 final-round judge along with photographer Elinor Carucci and Joel Smith, curator of photography at the Morgan Library & Museum. Howe feels the 2014 selections may have been “slanted too much toward photo-documentaries.”
“There is a bias toward social documentaries because images of that nature tend to shock,” says Howe. “More contemplative, more intellectual, quieter works are disadvantaged in this kind of judging forum.”
Joel Smith declined to be interviewed, explaining that he wanted to help protect the integrity of the grant-giving process. “In order to win grants, artists modify what they do, which includes how they describe what they do and why,” he explained in an email. “I’d prefer to believe photographers ‘get a grant’ when they work hard on figuring out how to make pictures they care about, and then turn in a grant application.”
Alexa Dilworth, the publishing and awards director at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, was a first-round pre-screener in 2014 and a final-round juror in 2011. She says the Aaron Siskind Foundation is wide open when it comes to the kind of photography it rewards, befitting an award established by a man who began his career as a documentary photographer and became a pioneer of abstract photography.
The 2014 winners—Foglia, Hatleberg, Gillian Laub, Peter van Agtmael and Tomas van Houtryve—do tend to create social documentaries, albeit it in very different ways. But Dilworth suggests the absence of fine-art photographers among grant winners last year might just be a matter of form.
“With abstract work,” Dilworth says, “it’s hard to do a ten-picture edit, because you don’t have a story.” Which isn’t to say photographers never succeed with conceptual work. Van Houtryve’s work moves in that direction, as does the work of Chris Jordan, a 2011 winner, Dilworth notes. The important thing, she says, is that the ten images “make sense together.”
“Edit your work in a way that shows you are able to make a coherent body of work and are able to do so in the future,” advises Dilworth.
Foglia agrees that coherence should be the goal. As a teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute, Foglia has found that “students sometimes have projects that are well thought out in writing but it’s hard to understand that in the photographs.”
Beyond coherence, Foglia advises prospective applicants for the Aaron Siskind Foundation IFP, “You want to show someone something they haven’t seen before or make photographs that encourage people to look at something they think they know in a new way.”
Howe says that as a juror, he is always hoping to see something he has never seen before, but his primary advice to prospective applicants is simple.
“Be in it! Submit!” urges Howe. “Don’t pass an opportunity like this up. Nothing may happen, but you are going to be seen by a good many critical eyes in the medium.”