IT'S still early days for the recognition of photography as an art form in Singapore, but prizes like the ICON de Martell Cordon Bleu prize are helping to raise the art form's profile.
"I think Singaporean photographers frequently lack international recognition - there are no photography museums collecting and exhibiting Singaporean and international photographs or publishing photographs on a regular basis. There are few collectors of photography, and very few monographs of works by Singaporean photographers being published," notes Agnes de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, ICON de Martell Cordon Bleu's jury president (2010-2013) and a photography curator, writer and consultant.
The photography prize from the cognac brand was set up in 2010 to honour the very best in Singapore photography - and the award has given the winners international visibility, she stresses. She highlights Edwin Koo, the 2012 winner who has shown at the Visa Pour L'image International Festival of Photojournalism, and sold prints at Piasa, one of the best auctioneers in France. Another example is popular vote winner Ernest Goh, who also had his prints sold at Piasa.
This year's nominees for the $30,000 prize are Alecia Neo, Darren Soh, Dawn Ng, Liana Yang, Ore Huiying, Sarah Choo, Sim Chi Yin and Tan Ngiap Heng. They were nominated by a panel comprising Benjamin Hampe, director of Chan Hampe Galleries; Edwin Koo, photographer and winner of ICON de Martell Cordon Bleu 2012; Kelley Cheng, founder and creative director of the Press Room; and Wang Ruobing, curator, The National Art Gallery.
Mdm de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, who used to be the General Inspector for Photography in the French Ministry of Culture, says that judges are looking for a coherent body of works which develop the theme of the photographer either by way of narrative or through single images, which then become metaphors of the idea.
"As judges of the competition, we are looking for documentary work composing a story or artworks with a specific way of composing images. We are looking for personal ideas, well-treated images through composition, treatment of colours or use of black and white, and fine use of sequences - all these in a very personal way," she elaborates.
"One of the main things judges look for is a unique personal vision and how that is conveyed through the individual's work," points out Emmeline Yong, partner at Objectifs Centre for Photography & Filmmaking and an ICON de Martell Cordon Bleu jury member (2012 and 2013).
As for the narrative, Mdm de Gouvion Saint-Cyr explains how at the beginning, a photograph was taken mostly for a specific purpose or use.
A war photograph, for example, was used to show the disasters of the war, a painting was made to glorify the king or the army engaged in that war. "A photograph had to be precise, and it gave so much detail so that the printed image could deliver a lot of information."
Later, when battles were no longer engaged to win territory but to win public opinion, the photographers relating those battles were less frequently photojournalists but artists using photographs with the same aesthetic principles as painting.
"In fact, these photographs are not made to be published but to be shown on a wall as one would do with a painting," she explains.
"Narrative in photography is no different from that in any other art form. It's about telling a story, conveying an emotion or message. It's constructed by what is shown, implied or interpreted," adds Ms Yong.
And if you're wondering why Martell is sponsoring a photography award, Charmaine Leung, marketing director for Pernod Ricard Singapore, says that Martell Cordon Bleu has always been associated with photography through its various campaigns executed by famous photographers such as Paolo Roversi and Miles Aldridge. "In light of this, in choosing to align itself with an art form, it was a natural move for the brand to support Singaporean photography."
What is most exciting is that the works have been presented in the form of a cinematic screening so that more people are now able to view the works of the nominated photographers, she adds.
Images by the eight ICON de Martell Cordon Bleu nominees will be launched at a gala screening at the Asian Civilisations Museum on Aug 22. Screenings for the public will be held in the Screening Room at Ann Siang Hill on Aug 23 and 29 and Sept 4, and photographers will be present to speak about their work. Videos and public voting can be done online at icon-martellcordonbleu.com