Sometimes an exhibit can be more than just a display of images. In the case of Surface Magazine‘s 14th annual Avant Guardian photography competition and ensuing exhibition — displayed at NeueHouse in New York City this past Friday and traveling to Art Basel Miami in December — it was more than a showcase of graphically striking images, but also a testament to the power of editorial photography.

The 10 winners chosen for the distinguished award by a panel of prominent industry professionals (including Offset‘s Keren Sachs), represent photography that gives attention to elements of design and pushes the boundaries of the traditional architectural, fashion, portraiture, and still-life categories. Spencer Bailey, the magazine’s executive editor, says of the contest, “In a world in which we’re being bombarded by imagery, it’s refreshing to see emerging or unsung photographers who believe in the profound ability for images to shake up our perspectives.”

Photo by Akira Kawahata, one of this year's Avant Guardian winners.
Photo by Akira Kawahata, one of this year’s Avant Guardian winners.

The work of the photographers was in good company at the exhibition opening on Friday night, where Bailey moderated a discussion between portrait photographer Martin Schoeller and TIME magazine’s director of photography, Kira Pollack. Bailey says the work of the winners could be seen as being in direct dialogue with Schoeller and Pollack: “The medium of photography is itself a conversation. Just look at what’s happening on Instagram. People no longer simply talk with words — they’re now speaking to each other with images.” Pollack echoed this sentiment during the conversation, noting, “An assignment is about figuring out how to translate the words [of an article] visually.”

Lindsay Comstock | Martin Schoeller and Kira Pollack in conversation at NeueHouse on Friday
Lindsay Comstock | Martin Schoeller and Kira Pollack in conversation at NeueHouse on Friday

The Avant Guardian competition — which is open to all genres of photography and attracts hundreds of applicants each year — sees many of its winners go on to secure enviable editorial assignments. Bailey says photography plays such an integral role in design as well, “both in terms of how we perceive and understand design, but also in how we document it” — which is why the design-centric publication continues to celebrate the photographic medium through an annual competition.

Photo by Sofia Colvin, one of this year's Avant Guardian winners.
Photo by Sofia Colvin, one of this year’s Avant Guardian winners.

It’s not surprising that many of the photographers selected for this year’s award submitted architectural portfolios. “It’s proof that there are a lot of really, really talented architectural photographers out there, and that it’s a lot more difficult to take a good photo of a building than you might think,” Bailey says.

Photo by Marc Yankus, one of this year's Avant Guardian winners.
Photo by Marc Yankus, one of this year’s Avant Guardian winners.

But at the end of the day, it’s still all about the viability of a great photograph, Bailey explains. “Without quality images, design can only profoundly impact those who experience it in the real world. Images have the power to change how we think about everything from a building to a chair to a watch.”

Top image by Avant Guardian winner Charlie Hawks.

Offset is a partner of Surface Magazine and the Avant Guardian competition. The winners and their work were revealed in Surface’s October issue featuring Mario Testino on the cover, and in a traveling exhibition starting in NYC at Neue House (home to 300+ creative/design members) and ending at Art Basel Miami.

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