9.00pm - by LINDA HERRICK, arts editor

A 28-year-old Auckland photographer who used to moonlight as a wedding photographer and waitress at strip joint Showgirls has tonight won the inaugural $50,000 Walters Prize for contemporary art.

The choice of Yvonne Todd, who graduated from Elam Art School just last year, shocked the pundits who had been predicting one of the three other finalists - all older, all male - would take the prize, which was announced last night at a swanky dinner for 120 invited guests at Auckland Art Gallery.

The final selection was announced to gasps and applause by Harald Szeemann of Switzerland, a two-time Venice Biennale curator who arrived in New Zealand a few days ago.


The dinner was attended by the Walters Prize principal donors Erika and Robin Congreve, and Jenny Gibbs, and Prime Minister Helen Clark, who arrived after a television debate. The evening was MCd by television presenter Kate Hawkesby.

Todd's Walters Prize exhibition, Asthma & Eczema, comprises a series of Photoshopped images of enigmatic, banal objects such as a dewy rose, shadowy silhouettes in bridal wear, and highly stylised, slightly seedy female portraits.

Todd, who grew up in Takapuna, is said to have taken the dated sentimental imagery of sources as divergent as soft-porn snapper David Hamilton and Hallmark sympathy cards a reference points for this collection of work.

"I've always favoured things that are a bit grim or pathetic," she has said. "I find cheerful things boring."

Auckland Art Gallery director Chris Saines says the award which also gives the winner an exhibition opportunity in Tokyo would have an enormous impact on Todd.

"There will be an extended moment of adjustment that needs to be made, the consequence of people talking about their work.

"In some ways it makes it hard for the artist to move through and past it. I hope it opens opportunities for the artist and that it sets off other changes in her career.

"It's not about pushing someone out and launching them on this trajectory. Its about creating things that might be possible for them tomorrow that weren't there today."

Saines agrees the prize has already elicited strong opinions, he says.

"On a night like this there is certainly a sense of tension which has been building for a number of weeks but we want people to talk more about contemporary art."

"Everyone has picked someone to do well and taking a position when they step behind an artist. That's one thing tells me this prize is working."