The Final Judgement: Grace Ahlbom


Welcome to the final days of the 2021 Photo Competition, and our final judge interviewee: Grace Ahlbom.

This year, Grace is looking after the ‘Student’ category (presented by Sun Bum), meaning she’s going to have to sift through worse photos than any of the other judges (no offence, students). It won’t be as bad as being a Facebook moderator, but she’s gonna see some pretty rough pics (no offence, students). However, she will some great photos too, and they might just be yours. Grace is based in New York and has exhibited work there and in London and Tokyo. Dashwood Books has published a bunch of her stuff, and she’s got a very interesting eye and eye for an interesting photo. She super-talented and cool and nice. Let’s meet her.

At what point did you realize photography was going to be your life?

As a kid, I pretty much always knew what I wanted and just went for it head-on. For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated with photography. I took photography classes all throughout high school and it was one of the only subjects I felt confident in. I ended up going to college to study photography and interned for Ryan McGinley, which stood out as the moment of realized I found something I loved. I realized I could be a photographer for the rest of my life, and it brought out an obsessive side in me.

Were you ever like, ‘You know what? To heck with this. I’m going to be a veterinarian?

Growing up I didn’t do very well with other subjects in school. Photography was kind of this glimmer of hope for me and my parents. Since photography came easy to me, and that people responded well to it I never really explored other things outside of it. To this day I feel bad about not succeeding in school and I think as I get older, I get better at recognizing it and avoiding anything that’s similar to the classes I failed. That being said, veterinarian school is very much out of the picture (no pun intended).

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone considering a career in photography?

In terms of getting your work out there, I’ve found that it’s all about being at the right place at the right time. Make lots of friends who inspire you, go out and travel, shoot what’s uniquely yours that others can’t access, share your work with everyone you meet along the way, and always leave a piece of you behind. Zines are my business card, a way for people to remember me. After every meeting, I always give them a couple of my publications. There’s something so special about knowing your photography is out in the physical world. Also, intern for your favourite artist and become a sponge! I guarantee it will give you some insight into how artists work and profit from it as well.

Who are your favourite photographers of all time?

It’s hard to say, it’s like what’s your favourite album? I remember my initial favourite was Larry Clark who I discovered in my college library. I was so impressed by the series Tulsa from 1971 and found respect for him being able to make those kinds of images and print them. Throughout school, I was imitating what I thought was great, which led me to Ryan McGinley’s acid-trip colours in Irregular Regulars. McGinley’s pre-flashing the film to daylight, television rays, or sunsets involves a lot of surprise. David Benjamin Sherry’s overly saturated landscapes in Climate Vortex Sutra. Sherry’s post-flashing requires a lot of trial and error both on-site and in the darkroom. Sculptor/photographer Andy Goldsworthy’s documentary Rivers and Tides, and photographer Jack Pierson’s Self-Portraits.

If you had to throw all cameras in a volcano except for one, which would it be?

Probably my Yashica T4. It’s easy to shoot with. Fits in my pocket. I love using it without the flash because it has such a low aperture. It’s a toy camera really, but it has this sophisticated German lens that picks up light really well.

If I came up to you in the supermarket wearing rollerskates a g-string and said, ‘Hey Grace, I really want to win this competition!’ what would you tell me?

Use the camera to document what you know that others don’t know. Take your experience of life—in this case, maybe roller-skates and G-strings—and connect that with your knowledge of photographic history. Mix it all together and create a world we can all enjoy.

What types of photos are definitely not going to win the Student category of the photo comp?

Anything that doesn’t stay in my mind for more than five minutes. I believe the ingredients in a good photograph include attitude, style, character, and timelessness.

If you were a student and you won $5k what’s the first thing you’d do?

I’d aim to create an experience that you can’t have through your screen. Create an installation by employing different textures and mediums that give rise to a dimensionality that can’t be understood through the internet. Explore the process of starting with an idea, photographing it, editing it, installing it, inviting your friends to come see it.

Enter your winning photos here.

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