Like any other trophy competition, an arts prize likes to find, then trumpet, what it believes makes it special in the crowded firmament of such prizes. In the case of the Scotiabank Photography Award, started in 2011, it has striven to position itself as "the largest annual peer-reviewed award in Canadian contemporary photography."
So every year around this time, a panel composed of curators, professors and experts, chaired by Canada's most famous contemporary lensman, Edward Burtynsky, names as SPA laureate one professional Canadian art photographer from a previously announced short-list of three. The winner is awarded $50,000, is given the opportunity to have a book of his or her work published by noted German art press Steidl, and is showcased in a solo exhibition the next year at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto. All this in the service of "providing support to the winner as he or she reaches for the next level of national and international recognition."
In other words, we're talking big 'n' classy. Unsurprisingly, the SPA awards ceremony and the showcase of work from the previous year's winner have become pillars of the Contact Photography Festival that has dominated Toronto's visual arts landscape each May for the last couple of decades. Founded by Burtynsky and Jane Nokes, director of Scotiabank's Archives, Corporate Records and Fine Art Collection, the award has earned near-universal plaudits for the merits of its short-lists and the excellence of its winners (Stan Douglas last year, Arnaud Maggs in 2012, Lynne Cohen 2011).
That tradition continues with the 2014 joust. The three nominees – Vancouver's Rodney Graham, 65; Montreal's Mark Ruwedel, 59; Torontonian Donald Weber, 40 – are deserving choices, each of whom would be received sans quibble as the winner when the 2014 announcement is made April 29. (Each runner-up receives $5,000.)
If there's a favourite, sentimental or otherwise, it's probably the protean, prolific Graham, Canada's representative at the 1997 Venice Biennale and one of the founders of the internationally influential Vancouver School of photo-conceptualism.
However, since last year's SPA went to another member of the Vancouver School (Stan Douglas), the jurors may think a Graham nod too much of a good thing and incline instead to Ruwedel's scarred topographies or Weber's rough, tough photojournalism. Douglas, meanwhile, will have his RIC solo show May 1 to June 1, curated by professor/photographer Robert Bean.
Here are examples of work by the 2014 Scotiabank Photography Award finalists: