Sarah Anne Johnson of Winnipeg, shown with small dolls that feature in many of her photographs, has won the Grange Prize. (CBC)

Winnipeg photographer Sarah Anne Johnson, whose playful works incorporate hand-made dolls in scenes drawn from her experiences as a tree planter, has won the inaugural Grange Prize.

The $50,000 award created by the Art Gallery of Ontario and Aeroplan is for the best contemporary photography.

Johnson was competing with three finalists from China and another from Canada. The finalists were chosen by a jury.

Johnson, 31, entered  the Grange competition with a photo of tree planting workers standing in a circle in early morning mist in northern Manitoba and a series of other works showing northern landscapes, often with clay figures.

She received 53 per cent of the 2,700 online votes for the atmospheric photos. Johnson has attracted unprecedented attention for such a young photographer. She sold 64 photographs from the series Tree Planting Project to the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2005.

Johnson studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York before gaining a bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of Manitoba. She completed her master of fine arts degree at the Yale School of Art in 2004.

She was awarded the Grange Prize at a ceremony in Toronto Thursday evening, and the AGO will display her work in spring 2009.

The other finalists were:

  • Raymonde April of Montreal.
  • Miao Xiaochun of Beijing.
  • Liu Zheng of Beijing.
  • Huang Yan of Changchun.

Canadians qualify for the contest every year and other contestants are chosen from a specific region of the world, which will change annually.