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AIMIA/AGO photo prize winner Lisa Oppenheim‘s Smoke

The people have voted – almost 20,000 of them, in fact – and a plurality has chosen a 39-year-old photo-conceptualist from New York as this year's winner of the Aimia/AGO Photography Prize. Lisa Oppenheim was crowned the seventh Aimia/AGO laureate Wednesday evening at a ceremony at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. She prevailed over three other finalists, from Canada, Israel/U.S. and South Africa, to take the $50,000 prize.

Previously known as the Grange Prize, the Aimia/AGO is believed to be the only major international art award selected by public vote – in this case, by casting a ballot at the AGO where works by Oppenheim and her fellow finalists have been displayed since early September, or by online voting, starting Aug. 13. The last is the date when Oppenheim and the three other artists were named finalists by a jury headed by AGO associate photography curator Sophie Hackett. The four, in turn, had been picked from a long list of 23 announced in July by 13 scholars, artists and curators from around the globe.

The prize's runners-up – David Hartt, Elad Lassry, Nandipha Mntambo – each received $5,000 at Wednesday's ceremony; $20,000 is also to be split among the four finalists for six-week residencies at select institutions across Canada early next year.

Oppenheim's winning contribution, on view at the AGO until Jan. 4, consists of two installations. One, called Smoke, is a two-channel looped video projection of solarized photographs of industrial pollution and volcano eruptions, culled from an online public-domain site, then scanned and transferred to 35-mm film. The other, untitled, consists of five framed gelatin silver photographs in which Oppenheim has used thin slices of wood as her negatives. An MFA graduate in 2002 from Bard College in New York state, Oppenheim says she prefers to work with pre-existing images, then subject these to what she calls "esoteric processes" that prompt the viewer to ask, "What am I looking at? How was it made?" The world, she suggests, already has enough images; it's her job to "edit, process and distill" what's extant rather than "to add to the noise."

The Aimia/AGO Prize, honouring excellence in contemporary photography, started in 2008. While the prize always has been international, finalists until 2012 were split between two photographers from Canada and two from a "partner" country. From 2013 onward, it was decided to make the long list the result of a wide-open international search from which one of the four finalists would be Canadian.