Collin Avery

Collin Avery

Montana State University photography student Collin Avery spent last week in London, where some of his work has a home in the Saatchi Gallery for the next two months as part of the “Out of Focus: Photography” exhibit.

Avery, who is originally from Massachusetts, was one of 10 students and the only American chosen out of 20,000 entries from 146 countries as a finalist for the Google Photography Prize, according to Anne Espiritu with Google’s communications department.

The competition was free for users of Google’s social networking site, Google+. Avery was already a member when he heard about the competition and decided he may as well enter.

“I normally wouldn’t have submitted. There were so many categories,” he told the Chronicle last week. “I try not to categorize my work like that.”

He chose to enter a series of eight photographs that were part of a show at the Exit Gallery, “Remain Calm,” on the MSU campus earlier this year. The choice was meant to stand out from the crowd in the sound/silence category.

“They’re really quiet,” he explained. “They have a subtle use of color and play with texture and form.”

The images include a series of mundane objects such as carpets, curtains and even a bath tub.

“At a basic level it is about revealing the extraordinary in that which is every day and ordinary,” stated one of Avery’s mentors, associate photography professor Ian van Coller in an e-mail. “His process of observation helps us pay attention to the things that we pass on a daily basis but don’t give a second thought to.”

The objects take Avery back to his childhood where, by nature of his own self-described shy and quiet personality, he tried to find quiet spaces away from crowded rooms. While there he would sit in an almost meditative state, taking in subtle, often overlooked details of the space.

“If I let my mind relax it provides a mental escape from the outside world,” he said. “I get lost in the banal and mundane and find these places beautiful.”

He finds the photographs interesting, but said many people may not understand them. Those that do will have to think about what they’re seeing.

“Collin eats, breathes and sleeps photography and it shows in his work which is smart, subtle, complex and very contemporary,” van Coller stated. “His work is not easily deciphered and may leave some scratching their heads.”

But the Google judging panel, including curator and writer Susan Bright, South African photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa, American photographer Joel Sternfeld and Nigel Hurst, CEO of the Saatchi Gallery, apparently liked what they saw.

To Avery’s surprise, he was selected to the top 100, then 20, then 10.

He said he recently looked up the judges and was happy to see Bright and Sternfeld.

“Having people on the jury who make similar work, who I have respect for,” makes their decision clearer, Avery explained.

For the final group, he was flown to London for the opening of the exhibit and naming of the contest’s winner Tuesday. The top prize went to Viktor Johansson, a 24-year-old student at the Swedish photography school, Nordens Fotoskola Biskops-Arnö, who took photographs in the sports category of a diver.

Though he didn’t win, Avery said it was an honor to be recognized on an international level.

Back home, his professors are awaiting his return. Avery, 24, has his final critique Monday and is set to graduate next week. He has yet to print any photographs.

Those same professors, including Jonathan Long, who taught one of Avery’s first photography classes, are certain he will find continued success in the field.

“Before he left to London, I informed him if he doesn’t have a solo show in New York City by the time he turns 30 I will be very disappointed,” Long said. “…He makes us all very proud to have worked with him. I look forward to seeing where he goes after graduation.”

For starters, Avery plans to move to Los Angeles, where he can make contacts in the film and photography world.

“I’m pushing forward,” he said.

Rachel Hergett may be reached at or 582-2603.