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Project X: Generosity, Mentoring and Support

By Ellen Wallenstein


© MAX DWORKIN
SPRINGBOARD TO SUCCESS: "The Tierney Grant changed how I felt about my work and my transition from a photo student to a photographer," says 2006 recipient Max Dworkin. Pictured above, an offbeat portrait of Dworkin's friend Candice jumping in front of a world map.


Over dinner one night in early 2003, Matthew Tierney, a philanthropist and photographer enthusiast, and Jerry Vezzuso, his professor at the International Center of Photography (ICP) got into a discussion about the lack of support for photo program graduates. They agreed there were limited opportunities for graduates to continue the level of community and feedback offered to them in school. From this conversation arose an idea and a purpose—to create a program to support emerging photographic artists. The Tierney Fellowship’s primary goal is to “find tomorrow's distinguished artists and leaders in the world of photography and assist them in overcoming the challenges that a photographer faces at the beginning of his or her career.”

From its official beginning in 2004, when two New York City-based students were awarded grants, the Tierney Fellowship has grown to provide financial and mentoring support to graduating or graduated students from 14 institutions: six in the New York City area (ICP, Parsons/The New School for Design, the School of Visual Arts, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Bard and Yale) and eight international photography programs in China, India, Mexico and South Africa. Each school has it’s own application requirements.

The Fellowship Committee looks for photographers who they feel will be influential in the next twenty years, in hopes the award will help them get there faster. Pairs of photo professionals comprising noted professors, gallery owners and photo editors judge each school's applicants. Grant recipients cover a cross-section of genres including abstract, conceptual, documentary and narrative photography.

Fellowships consist of a cash grant, which can be used to buy equipment, take classes, travel, and so on, while each fellow must commit to making a new body of work within a year. Each May, select images are featured in a group show at the New York Photo Festival in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood. In addition to the financial award, each new Fellow is paired with a former recipient who acts as mentor and friend. Fellows may also connect via the Internet, and sometimes arrange to meet with a visiting photographer who conducts group critiques at the partner institutions.

“During my project I was in contact with Stephen Shore and others such as noted South African photographer David Goldblatt, whom I met through the critique sessions,” says 2010 recipient Vincent Bezuidenhout from the University of Capetown, Michaelis School of Fine Art. “I think mentorship across borders is much needed in areas outside the United States.”

After the initial fellowship, Tierney recipients continue to be supported and bolstered by the program. Eight years after the first two grants, there are now 72 photographers in the circle, and plans to increase the program’s international scope as well as to create a printed publication of all fellows’ work are currently in the works.

Ray Klimek, a 2004 fellowship recipient, credits the Tierney Foundation for giving him a boost that led to further professional success. An ICP graduate and now an Ohio University assistant professor, Klimek notes, “I cannot stress enough how big a role the Tierney Fellowship has played in my career and my life in general. It was a confirmation of my decision to pursue art and photography full time. My Tierney grant provided the financial and intellectual support that artists’ need at the early stage of their careers. It also helped me develop a sense of confidence about my work.”

It’s clear that Tierney Fellows are an elite and grateful group, whose lives and careers have been altered and enlarged by the recognition awarded them. As Matt Tierney puts it, “This support group continues for life.”

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