“I can’t think of a better time to be involved with photography and digital culture,” Mark Robbins declared at the International Center of Photography’s annual Infinity Awards gala last Wednesday night, before an audience of 500-plus artists, entertainers, businesspeople, fashionistas, philanthropists and journalists at Chelsea Piers’ elegant Pier Sixty dining room. (Overlooking a sparkling sunset on the Hudson River, one couldn’t ask for a more picturesque setting, quite fitting for an evening devoted to the essence of pictorial captivation.)

“Pictures are a universal language,” he continued, in clichéd fashion. The executive director of ICP, Robbins’ opening address amounted to whole-hearted praise of the photographic image, espousing broad truths about our ever-increasing exchange of photos in a highly globalized and digital world, and saying that pictures have the unique ability to represent, as well as influence, culture. And at the institution’s largest annual fundraising event, why would he do anything except place photography on a figurative pedestal? (Or, better yet, a tripod?)

Beyond being an exuberant celebration of photography as a whole, though, the Infinity Awards, in their 29th turn, paid homage to those specific camera-wielding phenoms that speak the so-called “universal language” best. The 2013 award recipients represented a diverse group of artists (eight altogether) from the fields of photojournalism, art, publishing and fashion photography, each with a noteworthy contribution to the photographic realm — not to mention an interesting story to boot, transmitted to attendees via short films (courtesy of interactive design and video production studio MediaStorm) that aired before acceptance speeches. Indeed, the varied ensemble included a documentary and fine art photographer who, when just 17-years-old, covered the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in her professional debut (Kitra Cahana, winner of the Young Artist award); the Chief Asia Photographer for the Associated Press, who has enjoyed unprecedented access to the reclusive and highly secretive North Korea, having made more than 20 visits to that country in total during his career (David Guttenfelder, Photojournalism); and an Oscar winner and six-time Academy Award nominee who has been photographing his movie sets for the past three decades, starting a tradition of editing the footage into individual albums for the films’ respective cast and crew (Jeff Bridges, Special Presentation).

Over the course of the ceremony, new-school young guns wielding a contemporary craft juxtaposed the more old-school traditionalists. (Indeed, what would a photographic introspective be if not an exploration of both past and present?) For example, take Mishka Henner (Art category), whose recent work makes use of hidden data networks and digital satellite images of Earth; Cristina de Middel, whose unconventional visual depiction of the failed Zambian space program in her book The Afronauts earned her the ICP’s Publication accolade; and Erik Madigan Heck (Applied/Fashion/Advertising), bombarding the eye with bright splashes of computerized pigmentation for ad campaigns (“I create an image purely for the sake of creating something beautiful,” Heck asserted via video. “Sometimes I don’t even show the product”).

Now compare them to those more orthodox honorees: David Goldblatt, the recipient of the night’s coveted Cornell Capa Lifetime Achievement distinction (there’s a certain “finality” in an award recognizing lifetime achievement, he joked), who for the better part of his career shot his native South Africa in black and white, and has more recently begun exploration with color photos; and Bridges, who maintains an unwavering commitment to his Widelux F8 swing-lens panoramic film camera. This refreshing collage of young and old style amounted to a view of photography’s modernity as well as a retrospective of the medium’s roots, providing a glimpse of where it was as well as hinting at where it’s going.

As much as the ICP gala was a salute to pictorial powerhouses and photographic technique, the evening wasn’t short of thought-provoking philosophical ponderings from the honored artists in relation to their vocation. “How do we come to the values that we hold, and how do we express those values?” Goldblatt asked the audience, his wrinkled visage staring out at the sea of attendees from the projector screen. “These to me are the vital questions. And whether or not photography is particularly suited to doing this, I don’t know. I only know that for me this is the medium in which I try to question these things.” And question them he did, as a “self-appointed, unlicensed, critical observer of [South African] society,” studying and purveying the prejudices of the Apartheid regime through the politicized lens of photography. Guttenfelder added his two cents into the mix as well, echoing Mark Robbins’ notion of the universality of photographs: “The very best pictures are the ones you can’t describe in words. You just hold it up, and there it is… Sometimes the most mundane pictures are the ones that are most powerful.”

Comments like Guttenfelder’s and Goldblatt’s morphed the occasion into more than a run-of-the-mill glitz-and-glam ordeal; it provoked deep, necessary reflection about the very nature of the photograph in a modern and democratic society, a rumination that’s been bogged down in a digital and media-saturated culture. Our continuous digestion of images via Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and a seemingly limitless number of other Web pages, which present us with snapshot after snapshot like assembly-line workers in a gigantic media machine, has seemingly numbed us to the power wielded by photographic images. But as a forum spotlighting world-class photographers’ ideas and achievements, the Infinity Awards exposed a delicious platter of visual possibility and “remarkable richness,” as Robbins describes, and provided a unique perspective on photographic potential.

“I’m almost starting to believe in images again,” Mishka Henner articulated. For this writer, at least, it’s hard to disagree.

29th Annual Infinity Award Winners

Cornell Capa Lifetime Achievement: David Goldblatt

Photojournalism: David Guttenfelder

Applied/Fashion/Advertising: Erik Madigan Heck

Art: Mishka Henner

Young Photographer: Kitra Cahana

ICP Trustees Award: Pat Schoenfeld

Publication: Cristina de Middel, The Afronauts

Special Recognition: Jeff Bridges

Featured image: 2013 Infinity Awards Honoree Jeff Bridges and ICP Executive Director Mark Robbins. Photo Credit: © Image Singuliere.

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