Fine Art Photography Daily

The 2023 Lenscratch Student Prize Honorable Mention Winner: Tristan Sheldon


©Tristan Sheldon, Stepping into Light

It is with pleasure that the jurors announce the 2023 Lenscratch Student Prize Honorable Mention Winner, Tristan Sheldon was selected for his project, Golem, and recently received a B.F.A. in Studio Art from the University of Missouri. The Honorable Mention Winner receives: $250 Cash Award and a Lenscratch t-shirt and tote.

Tristan Sheldon describes Golem as “an ongoing meditation on the conflicting and tenuous relationship between the built environment, the human body, and the natural world.” To me, it is a meditation on wonder. It begins with an image of a distant, solitary figure guiding us into the mouth of a vast cave. The brooding depictions of sleek industrial structures, obscured figures, and the gleaming stalagmites of underground caves that follow render the world unfamiliar and mysterious. Failed attempts to fence in landscapes and map terrains suggest the futility of our desire for control; darkness and light become metaphors for knowing and unknowing. Here the earth itself feels foreign, both as a place and as a substance.

This idea of entering into and emerging from is a central motif of this lyrical exploration of our tenuous relationship as both part of and separate from the world around us. In the aptly titled image Birth Canal, a muddy figure navigates a cramped underground passage for an unknown purpose. What will he take from this place? What will he leave in return? Here I am reminded of all the ways in which wonder and wondering– can be either a generative or destructive force. The work does not attempt to explain or allow us to orient ourselves within it. Instead, we are left to discover our own role in a story that began long before we became a part of it. 

I was honored to have the opportunity to speak with the artist about the work, his creative process, and his journey as a student.


An enormous thank you to our jurors: Aline Smithson, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Lenscratch, Educator and Artist, Daniel George, Submissions Editor of Lenscratch, Educator and Artist, Linda Alterwitz, Art + Science Editor of Lenscratch and Artist, Kellye Eisworth, Managing Editor of Lenscratch, Educator and Artist, Alexa Dilworth, publishing director, senior editor, and awards director at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) at Duke University, Kris Graves, Director of Kris Graves Projects, photographer and publisher based in New York and London, Elizabeth Cheng Krist, Former Senior Photo Editor with National Geographic magazine and founding member of the Visual Thinking Collective, Hamidah Glasgow, Director of the Center for Fine Art Photography, Fort Collins, CO, Yorgos Efthymiadis, Artist and Founder of the Curated Fridge, Drew Leventhal, Artist and Publisher, winner of the 2022 Lenscratch Student Prize, Allie Tsubota, Artist and Educator, winner of the 2021 Lenscratch Student Prize, Raymond Thompson, Jr., Artist and Educator, winner of the 2020 Lenscratch Student Prize, Guanyu Xu, Artist and Educator, winner of the 2019 Lenscratch Student Prize,  Shawn Bush, Artist, Educator, and Publisher, winner of the 2017 Lenscratch Student Prize.


©Tristan Sheldon, Birth Canal

Golem is an ongoing meditation on the conflicting and tenuous relationship between the built environment, the human body, and the natural world. As we relentlessly shape and mold the world to our will, we disrupt a complex and largely unseen environmental balance on which we depend for survival. The work portrays human intervention in the landscape as both reverent and destructive. Through the use of dramatic contrast in tonal range and material, as well as recurring motifs of touch and physical impression, the work suggests a relationship with the world that is as harmful and predatory as it is tender and nurturing. – Tristan Sheldon


©Tristan Sheldon, Waking Up

Kellye Eisworth: Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started in photography?
Tristan Sheldon: It took me a long time to stumble my way into photography, but looking back I can see that there were a lot of factors pushing me in that direction. I tried a lot of different things in college, and eventually found my way into Joe Johnson’s large format class. I was interested in pursuing journalism, and my dad is an avid landscape photographer who always had a camera on him as I was growing up, so I thought photography could be a fun thing to pursue on the side or to supplement whatever career I may end up with. That class, which was a studio art class, was the first time I can remember really connecting with both a professor and the subject matter. I pretty much immediately dropped everything else and began focusing on photography and visual art as a whole. I think the main reason I fell into it so suddenly and deeply is because I had spent so long looking for something productive to be passionate and curious about, and since photography itself is a medium that aligns itself so directly with the real, physical world that we live in, I found myself newly passionate and curious about everything around me.

©Tristan Sheldon, Testing The Water

KE: You were part of the 2021 Student Prize’s Top 25 to Watch for an earlier version of this work. How long have you been working on this project, and how do you feel it’s changed or grown over time?
TS: The oldest picture in this project is from my first semester studying photography, so even though I hadn’t yet figured out what had compelled me to make some of those images, it could be said that I’ve always been working on this project. Thinking practically, I would say that the largest shift in the work since 2021 happened because I switched cameras. The Myth of Nature was almost all made in large format black and white film, and so the work felt static and more landscape-oriented. When the pandemic first began, working in a dark room became less realistic, so I bought a digital camera and found that I was able to shoot a lot more dynamically and reactively, incorporating people and animals into the work, and overall making images that felt more ephemeral, which I think suits the work well thematically. To me, using these more transient images makes the work feel less like a documentation of symptoms and consequences, and more like a speculative act of looking ahead.

©Tristan Sheldon, Headlamp

©Tristan Sheldon, Working Clay

©Tristan Sheldon, Working Clay

KE: You’ve titled this body of work Golem, a reference to the anthropomorphic beings in Jewish folklore that are created from clay or mud. How did you come to that decision? What do you hope it conjures in the viewers’ minds?
TS: I decided on the title Golem because of its material connotations and because of its short and simple brutality. As you pointed out, a golem is a man-made being made of earth. In folklore, they’re constructed as helpers or protectors, or even warriors, basically serving whatever purpose their creators bid them, but they also have reputations for being mindless, violent brutes that turn on their creators as a result of carelessness or hubris. They are not intelligent, and carry out their tasks directly and literally, so if their creator doesn’t foresee certain outcomes, bad things can happen.It’s sort of like the trope of Genies fulfilling wishes that have consequences that far outreach the wishers’ expectations. I think that this is an apt parallel for the main idea behind my work, which is that, as animals that are of the earth and depend on the earth, by bending and forcing the physical world to serve our will, we are tampering with incredibly powerful and complicated forces that we don’t even begin to fully understand, and as a result we may suffer horrible and fatal consequences. When I think of a golem, I think of a giant stone being crushing the life out of the frail, robed alchemist that created it. And so, I ultimately settled on the title Golem because it evokes earth elements such as mud or clay, reckless creation, hubris, and unstoppable power, and these are the things that I hope are conjured in the viewer’s mind as they see at the work.

©Tristan Sheldon, Disruption


©Tristan Sheldon, Climate Control

KE: I find this work captivating because it leaves me with so many questions. The imagery of climate control structures and caves make me think of mining or other industries that have played a significant role in shaping the Appalachian landscape in which you made the images. Do you see the work as illustrating or commenting on the dynamic between man and nature within a specific context like that?

TS: I wouldn’t say that any of the images in the project are trying to portray any specific industry. They’re more intended to gesture towards more abstract ideas, as well as reinforce the visual language of the work. For example, a recurring visual motif of the work is opposing elements enveloping or consuming one another. A figure illuminating itself while shrouded in darkness, a skyscraper enveloped in mist, a man crawling through a narrow hole in the earth, etc. I feel that these images can sort of build a simultaneous feeling of agoraphobia and claustrophobia, referencing what it might feel like to be trapped underground or stuck inside a life support bubble in an inhospitable world.

My fascination with controlling natural systems such as soil and air quality stems from the idea that we live on a planet that is miraculously naturally capable of sustaining so many incredible and complex things, and yet we are pushing things to the point where we need to fabricate our own poor substitutes just to survive in bare minimum conditions. My interest in caves, in the context of this work, is actually something I picked up while doing research for the Lenscratch interview I did with Ron Jude, who was a huge inspiration in the making of this work. They reference the concept of Deep Time, that humans have existed for a blink of an eye in the context of our planet, and that the caves beneath us may have only grown a few feet since we began drawing in them.

I think that it’s an element that emphasizes both our fragility and our hubris, and I also personally draw some comfort from the notion that if we were to wipe ourselves out, the planet would most likely have completely recovered from the momentary insanity of humanity within a couple million years.


©Tristan Sheldon, Soil Sample


©Tristan Sheldon, Skyline

KE: It’s always exciting to see a photographer’s work at different stages as it’s being made, especially when it coincides with their journey through art school. How has your creative practice and your approach to photography evolved during your time at the University of Missouri?
TS: The body of work I submitted in 2021 represented my first attempt to go beyond aesthetics and purely visual considerations in my work. Before that, it was all lines and planes and perspectival tricks and architecture, very much in the school of Lewis Baltz and New Topographics. I actually think my first major breakthrough after my initial discovery of photography was as simple as my professor Travis telling me (in a roundabout and very considerate way) that my editing style was deadpan and boring. So I took all the pictures that I had been making in drainages and creek beds and farm fields and made them as dark as I could tolerate, and just like that I discovered what had been compelling me to make those pictures, which was a bleak sense of helplessness at the state of the world. We all remember how 2020 was.

©Tristan Sheldon, Sod

TS: This was a major breakthrough because it was the first time I had made something that was actually an attempt to express or communicate something, which I now see as a pretty critical part of creating compelling art. As I discussed before, the main breakthrough between that point and now is my use of a handheld camera. This lets me shoot more dynamically and spontaneously, but, more importantly, it lets me shoot way more quantity and way more often. I still love and use the large format camera, and see it as an incredibly beautiful format, but broadening my selection of tools has definitely been an important component in growing as an artist and as a photographer.


©Tristan Sheldon, Rehabilitation

KE: Was there any advice you received (in the form of a critique, or something else) that you feel had a significant impact on the trajectory of your work? 
TS: Throughout my time at Mizzou’s photo program, I struggled a lot with feelings of adequacy and self-worth, largely because of my method of working. I’ve always been a picture-first artist, going out into the world and making and then trying to make sense of it. Most of the conceptual and creative legwork behind Golem was done after most of the pictures had been made. I had this rotating body of work consisting of between 50 to 100 images that I had put a lot of time and energy into, and I just couldn’t come up with a reason why anybody else should care about any of it. So, the work went through a lot of messy and awkward iterations as I tried to figure it out. Over the years, I got a lot of advice about this problem. It’s okay to make pictures just because you like the way they look. Don’t try to lie about your reasons for making, people can see right through it. Deadlines are a great motivator for making big decisions. Just keep reading, looking at artists, and making. Be real with yourself about what the work is, not just what you want it to be. The result of following all this advice is a body of work that represents an honest reflection of my thoughts and concerns over the last few years, and I’m so happy and honored that even just a few other people have been able to understand and appreciate this work.

©Tristan Sheldon, Shelter


©Tristan Sheldon, Orienting

KE: Lastly, I’d love to know what’s next for you?

TS: Hopefully grad school, if I can find a good fit! I’m taking the year to try and save some money as well as focus on some other passions of mine that I’ve been neglecting through school, such as climbing, music, and dirtbagging around with my friends. I’m also trying to maintain my artistic practice outside of the academic setting. But I already feel myself missing the rigor and community of art school, so the plan is definitely to go back soon.


©Tristan Sheldon, Appalachian Homesteads

Tristan Sheldon is a lens-based visual artist living and working in Columbia, Missouri. His work is primarily a meditation on themes of land use and human occupation and impact. He recently graduated from the University of Missouri with a BFA in Studio Art.

Follow Tristan on Instagram: @tristan__sheldon

Posts on Lenscratch may not be reproduced without the permission of the Lenscratch staff and the photographer.

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