Anatomy of a Successful Fellowship Application: Karl Raschke's McKnight Fellowship

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The McKnight Artist Fellowship in Photography is that rare artist's grant that provides a lot of money with few strings attached. Each year, four $25,000 grants are given to mid-career photographers based in the Midwest; the winners are also given an exhibition and catalogue. But curator Julian Cox, who was one of the three jurors for this year's prize, notes, "the people who receive the McKnight have a lot of freedom to use it as they wish. They're not held to a specific set of deliverables 12 months after the check arrives in the mailbox."

One of the four 2010 winners, Karl Raschke, proposed a unique project for which he had not yet shot any photos he could present to the jurors. Rashke proposed to document the life and work of his father, former pro wrestler Baron von Raschke, who continues to be invited to appear at wrestling conventions. Raschke, who has exhibited his fine art photos in several museums proposed to photograph his father as he travels to his public appearances, and also gather programs and memorabilia relating to his wrestling career.� (His full application essay can be read here.)

To find out why Raschke's work and proposal appealed to jurors, we consulted Cox. The former photography curator at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Cox will become founding photography curator at the De Young Museum in San Francisco on September 7.

Cox and the other jurors first reviewed the entrants' portfolios online to narrow down their favorites, then met amongst themselves and their finalists in Minneapolis. Cox says, "I didn't engage with his application until I was in Minneapolis, and for the fellow jurors it was the same." During the screening, he focused instead on the images Rachke and the other applicants submitted. "I'm a curator so what I care about amongst other things is the quality of the work, what it looks and feels like." Raschke submitted a series of quirky fine art images. "Karl is a case of someone who made it into the final cut because the images that he submitted had to me a sort of interesting offbeat quality to them. They had a very authentic feel," Cox says. The images showed diverse subjects and seemed unconnected. That's unusual, Cox says. "In portfolio reviews, we're trained to look for� what their point of view is, and photographers are programmed to present themselves that way.� Actually Karl didn't quite conform to that rule. His photos had an open endedness to them."

Once they convened with fellowship administrator Scott Stuhlen of, the jurors dug into the essays submitted by the artists on their shortlists. Cox says Raschke's project "sounded amusing," combining both biography and family history. Cox recalls. "It described very clearly his curiosity and passion for the subject, and the way he proposed to pursue it was clearly expressed." Since Raschke had already written a play about his father, Cox notes, "There was a proof that he had carefully thought of how he would present his subject to the public."��

The jurors also interviewed the finalists. "The thing about the McKnight is that you have this encounter almost like American Idol. The photographers walk into the room with their portfolios, put up pictures� and have a dialogue with the jurors and Scott about the work." He notes, "In that situation it's down to people's comfort levels with themselves and their work. That's where Karl was refreshing." Cox says, "He was passionate about what he does and what he wants to do but at the same time he didn't take himself too seriously. There was an exciting freedom to the way he was approaching the work."

Raschke� has curated other photographers' work at Creative Electric Studios in Minneapolis, and Cox was impressed that he had thought about how to use a variety of images and media to explain his father's life to viewers. "He would offer multiple points of entry into the story of the Baron. That interested me," Cox says. "It's not [wasn't] your everyday pitch." In the end, he says, he and the other jurors felt Raschke would make "good use of the grant" which would "allow him to realize the next stage of his planning."

For other photographers applying for grants, Cox advises, "I think that at all costs the photographer has to pay the most attention to the sequencing and editing of the work they're presenting. It seems obvious but you'd be amazed how often I sit down with people and that very first most obvious requirement has not been met." For Cox, the artist statement or essay should be a complement to the work. "It should be brief, it should never be more than a page because no one has time to read more than that. I like in a statement a sense of authenticity in the way it's written. I� like� a suggestion that the photographer has a sense of where the work fits in the field today and in the history of the medium."

For help refining the essay or live presentation, photographers can hire consultants or take classes in grant writing or writing an artist's statement. Cox also believes that portfolio reviews are valuable resources. "That person sitting across from me for 20 minutes can ask me anything about their work and my approach is that I 'm there to give them my candid feedback and give them my experience to help them on my way."

The PhotoPlus Expo, taking place at the Javits Center October 28-30, will include the seminar "Grant Writing 101," moderated by PDN editor David Walker. The full seminar schedule can be found at�


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