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Conceptual Photo Prize ‘pushes boundaries, breaks rules’

Victorian fine art photographer, Deb Gartland, has won the inaugural Australian Conceptual Photography Prize, taking home $10,000 for her ‘photo encaustic mixed media’ image, Self Reflection.

Deb Gartland Self Reflection
Deb Gatland’s concept statement: ‘Photo encaustic & mixed media ocean photography is exhilarating at any time of the day. Pre-dawn early mornings, long exposures and close-ups. Sunsets, night skies and winter storms. Playful and experimental shutter speeds, water and atypical results sees deliberate manipulations that calm the great Southern Ocean’s turbulence. Encaustic and Mixed Media additions consciously highlight individual components while softening others. Creating a truly individual environment of texture, fluidity and vastness. Self Reflection encourages the viewer to immerse themselves in the sometimes tempestuous and uncontrolled, the ocean soothes the soul and brings a contemplation of life and our place in it.’ Photo: Deb Gartland.

The Australian Conceptual Photography Prize, organised by the umbrella organisation for Australian camera clubs, the Australian Photographic Society (APS), was divided into a grand prize of $8000, and a $2000 award for APS members. Deb won both.

The contest rules required entries to be ‘substantially produced by photographic means’, and accepted photo collage and mixed media.

Deb told Inside Imaging she is surprised her win hasn’t caused a stir among photography purists, given how heavily the work is manipulated from a straight photo.

‘I’m not a purist, and there might be some that look at my work and think that’s controversial because a (traditional) photo didn’t win,’ Deb said. ‘It’s not a straight photo, it’s a mixed media piece. But I haven’t come across it (criticism) at all. I really sort of expected it. At the end of the day I don’t mind if that discussion does happen. For me, winning this award is a culmination of five or six years I’ve been experimenting with my photos and working with this head full of highfalutin’ ideas.’

Deb added that she does take ‘straight photos’ and entered two composites, but prefers a left-of-field approach that pushes boundaries and breaks the rules of photography.

‘The line between photography and art is blurred for me. Someone once told me I was an artist and not a photographer, and at the time I was upset at that. I’m still a photographer and had to learn the rules of photography before I could break them.’

Before delving into what the flamin’ heck is ‘photo encaustic mixed media’ and what’s going on in Self Reflection, here’s how APS describes ‘conceptual photography’.

‘Conceptual photography is photography that illustrates an idea. Conceptual photography means that you have a very specific idea you want to share with your audience. It can be something rather simple like happiness or sadness or something more complex such as gender identities, existential issues and so on. The ‘concept’ is both preconceived and, if successful, understandable in the completed image.’

Self Reflection is an artwork created from a long-exposure ‘selfie’ taken one evening at Marengo Beach near Apollo Bay.

‘Photo encaustic’ is a process where a mixture of pure beeswax and damar resin is painted over an image to create colours and textures. First, Deb fixed the photo print to a wooden board with encaustic ground, an acrylic-based substance formulated to be used with wax.

‘There are different processes,’ Deb explained. ‘You can print photos on matte paper, but I printed this photo onto rice paper. I painted an encaustic ground onto the board, it’s sort of like priming a canvas with white paint.’

Encaustic medium – wax and resin mixture – is then painted over the photo and a variety of techniques are used to manipulate the print. For instance, a dry brush was used coarsely over the wax to create the textured white stripe in the middle, which is where the white water met the shore. The top of the image has glass frit shards bonded into the canvas with a layer of wax. Deb also uses pastels or oil paint, as well as an additional photo print, to enhance colour that’s lost when the wax covers certain areas.

‘Every time you put on a layer of wax, or medium, it has to be fused with a heat gun to make sure the layers don’t separate.’

Deb, who owns the Gellibrand River Art Gallery in south western Victoria, photographed the final piece and submitted it.

The contest was judged by Roger Skinner, APS contemporary group founder; Professor Denise Ferris, head of ANU School of Art and Design; and Anne O’Hehir, curator of photography at National Gallery of Australia.

Brisbane photographer, Anne Pappalardo, won the Emergent Designs award for her picture, When the son becomes a father.

Anne Pappalardo When son becomes father
Anne’s concept statement: This image explores the relationship between my husband, a first generation Australian and his Sicilian father who cut cane to support his family on arrival in Australia in the 60s. The cane knife and its placement on my husband’s shoulders symbolises that while their life experiences are vastly different, their struggles in their roles as fathers, breadwinners, heads-of-the-house, moral compasses and problem-solvers for their children are common between them. Photo: Anne Pappalardo

An exhibition of Australian Conceptual Photography Prize finalist images is showing at Magnet Galleries in Melbourne until July 28. SC G19, Wharf st, The District, Docklands Melbourne, Victoria, 3008


  1. Daren Fawkes Daren Fawkes July 17, 2019

    Many of the finalists I saw at Magnet Gallery seemed to create a concept to fit a photo, whereas the winning entry was created to fit a concept. Congratulations to Deb for her originality.

  2. Roger Skinner Roger Skinner July 18, 2019

    The awards may prove controversial and some may not approve, but I have a saying that goes “More people will be excited by the provocative than are comforted by the mundane” Roger Skinner

  3. Brian Rope Brian Rope July 18, 2019

    Great to see this piece about our exciting new Prize and the winners. As the Manager of the prize I’m looking forward to its becoming a competition that all Conceptual photographers will enter each year and to an absolutely marvelous set of acquired winning prints growing year by year.

  4. Richard Durham Richard Durham August 4, 2019

    I am an old retired professional photographer with well over 1,500 photo sales to magazines world wide plus 20 years as a TV photographer. I am so glad that I am now out of the photography scene when judges pick images such as this one by Deb Gartland to win prestigious prizes.
    I do applaud the concept that Deb has, but it has absolutely nothing to do with photography.
    Absolutely anyone with a mobile phone could have taken this image. It is an example of decoration, not photography.

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