Nadia Sablin: Winner of the 2014 CDS/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography
by Alexa Dilworth
Every two years, the First Book Prize in Photography competition allows us at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and the Honickman Foundation in Philadelphia to review some of the very best long-form photographic work being made in North America.
The Selection Committee, a panel of photographers, curators, editors, and publishers, carefully reviews the entries—if even one person wants to keep a body of work in, it stays in the mix. This year, after much discussion, we narrowed the field to thirty semifinalists and had the pleasure, with selection panel judge Joshua Chuang, chief curator at the Center for Creative Photography, of selecting twelve finalists to send on to prize judge Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator of photography at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
We ask the finalists to send in ten prints from the images they submitted, and we then send them on, along with the rest of the entry materials—40 scans, an artists’s statement, and a bio–to the prize judge.
Sandra S. Phillips chose Nadia Sablin of Brooklyn, New York, to win the First Book Prize for her color project entitled “Aunties” that explores, as Sablin writes, “the daily lives of my father’s two unmarried sisters, who live in a small village in Russia. . . . Having spent their youth working in big cities, after retirement the women have come back to their childhood home. Alevtina and Ludmila are in their seventies, but they have chosen to return to traditional ways of living, chopping wood to heat the house, bringing water from the well, making their own clothes. As I continue to photograph, year after year, my images grow more intimate and less deliberate, moving away from a directorial approach of reinterpreting memories to collaboration with my aunts in the creation of new ones.”
Phillips found Nadia Sablin’s photographs “wonderful and sophisticated and admiring of their subjects. . . . In these pictures it is always spring or summer, the garden flourishes, the women enjoy the span of the seasons. The two sisters seem to exist in a privileged reality, one closer to the warm smell of strawberries. Lives like these used to be normal everywhere, but they are at a remove, antique, now—the sisters seem to be living in a Russian fairy tale. Their exertions are real enough, though. We admire them and even envy their simplicity and the beauty of the light and land they inhabit.”
“In these photographs, I record the stories of their lives, and explore the childhood memories I have of them,” Nadia Sablin writes of her aunts, who over the seven years of Sablin’s ongoing project began to collaborate with her in reinterpreting her memories and in creating new ones.
“In 1952, my grandfather began to lose his vision as a result of being wounded in World War II,” Sablin writes. “Wanting to return to the place where he grew up, he found an unoccupied hill in a village north of St. Petersburg, close to his brothers, sisters, and cousins. He took his house apart, log by log, and floated it down the Oyat River to its new location and reconstructed it. More than sixty years later, this house is still occupied by my aunts in the warmer months. The two women, who never married, have relied on each other for support and companionship their entire lives. I have been spending my summers in the village, photographing my aunts’ routines and quiet occupations, and the small world that surrounds them. Leaving and returning again divides our time into chapters, as the narrative moves toward its inevitable end.”
Sandra S. Phillips will write an introduction to Sablin’s book, which will be published in November 2015 by Duke University Press in association with CDS Books of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. This collection of photographs will be Nadia Sablin’s first book. To see more of Nadia Sablin’s images, click here.
The finalists, Victor Blue, Scott Dalton, Cate Dingley, Hannah Kozak, Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman, Joseph Michael Lopez, Diana Markosian, Jeanine Michna-Bales, Chrystie Sherman, Jeffrey Stockbridge, and Donna Wan, entered portfolios for consideration that were incredibly varied and compelling—photographs that created a sustained narrative, a complex portrait of a part of our world, over forty images.
The Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) at Duke University and The Honickman Foundation (THF), based in Philadelphia, co-sponsor this prestigious biennial prize. The only prize of its kind, the CDS/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography competition is open to North American photographers of any age who have never published a book-length work and who use their cameras for creative exploration, whether it be of places, people, or communities; of the natural or social world; of beauty at large or the lack of it; of objective or subjective realities. The prize honors work that is visually compelling, that bears witness, and that has integrity of purpose. firstbookprizephoto.com
Winners of the CDS/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography receive a grant of $3,000, publication of a book of photography, and inclusion in a website devoted to presenting the work of the prizewinners. The winner also receives a solo exhibit and the photographs are then placed in the Archive of Documentary Arts in Duke University’s Rubenstein Library.
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