The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize is an exhibition that I have visited several times in the past and I'm always surprised at what gets included and why. What makes the judges think that the nominees have make a "significant contribution?" Most of the time I can see why the work is worthy of an exhibition but not always why it is thought to have "significantly" contributed. This time around I didn't have that problem, I may not have been in love with all of the work, or wondered about the level of appropriation but I could see why the bodies of work were being discussed, how they opened up new avenues of creativity and in that respect contributed to photography as a whole.
As ever the objectives of the study were to gain a personal perspective on the work of the short-listed photographers, reflect on the experience of seeing photography in a gallery and the nature of photography competitions and network with other OCA students.
The tutors accompanying us on the visit were Sharon Boothroyd and Simon Barber; both were enthusiastic and prompted us to think deeply about the work, how had the photographers set about achieving their goals, were they worthy of a place in the competition and had the boundaries of competitions changed? As a photography prize did it matter that two of the entrants hadn't actually taken any of the images? How was the prize being interpreted?
So onto the four finalists with details from The Photographers Gallery webpage:
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin
Adam Broomberg (b. 1970, South Africa) and Oliver Chanarin (b. 1971, UK) are nominated for their publication War Primer 2 (MACK, 2012).
War Primer 2 is a limited edition book that physically inhabits the pages of Bertolt Brecht’s remarkable 1955 publication War Primer. Brecht’s photo-essay comprises 85 images, photographic fragments or collected newspaper clippings, that were placed next to a four-line poem, called ‘photo-epigrams’. Broomberg and Chanarin layered Google search results for the poems over Brecht’s originals.
Mishka Henner (b. 1976, UK) is nominated for his exhibition No Man’s Land at Fotografia Festival Internazionale di Roma, Museum of Contemporary Art, Rome (20 September – 28 October 2012).
No Man's Land represents isolated women occupying the margins of southern European environments. Shot entirely with Google Street View, Henner's method of online intelligence-gathering results in an unsettling reflection on surveillance, voyeurism and the contemporary landscape.
Chris Killip (b. 1946, UK) is nominated for his exhibition What Happened – Great Britain 1970 –1990 at LE BAL, Paris (12 May – 19 August 2012).
British born Killip has been taking photographs for nearly five decades. What Happened – Great Britain comprises black and white images of working people in the north of England, taken by Killip in the 1970s and 1980s. After spending months immersed in several communities, Killip documented the disintegration of the industrial past with a poetic and highly personal point of view.
Cristina De Middel
Cristina De Middel (b.1975, Spain) is nominated for her publication The Afronauts (self-published, 2011).
In her first book, The Afronauts, De Middel engages with myths and truths, reality and fiction. In 1964, after gaining independence, Zambia started a space programme in order to send the first African astronaut to the moon.
De Middel sequences her beautiful colour photography with manipulated documents, drawings and reproductions of letters, presenting them as almost folkloric inlays alongside fashion illustrations and technical sketches.
War Primer 2 - Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin
First of all I have to admit to not knowing much about Bertolt Brecht, or even having heard of War Primer. If that makes me neanderthal so be it, therefore at first I was unsure of what I was looking at and the significance of the title, but it was a study day, we are here to learn so I had to read, listen, ask questions and gradually found out what it was all about. I won't repeat the information above but will add that when they say inhabit his book it is literally true. With a team of volunteer interns Broomberg and Chanarin carefully took apart 100 original copies of War Primer, found suitable "matching" imagery via Google, silkscreened them over the original newspaper clippings found by Brecht and re-assembled them.
However it didn't stop there, a "primer" is an educational book and Broomberg and Chanarin picked up this message of teaching and ran with it. They display each book open on a different page in separate glass vitrines the size and dimension of a small school desk. These cases were then laid out as if in a classroom environment. The information about each image on display was projected onto the wall, reminiscent of the type of smart boards found today in educational establishments.
The work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, available as a limited edition book, and a free download via an app. There are advantages and disadvantages to all these means of communication; an eBook can reach a much wider non-specialised audience, a book has the physicality that a mobile device lacks, whilst the book is limited to the message on the page. However in this instance the book has the scope to spread beyond the frame, become an installation piece and press home the play on words of the book being a primer and the educational set up of the exhibition. With such a range of distribution Broomberg and Chanarin have rehabilitated/introduced Brecht to more spectators; as a body of work and installation piece War Primer 2 has been both taken and made.
In this day and age not everyone has the time or funds to jet around the world taking photographs of everything they want to document, other areas may be too risky or difficult to visit. Does this mean you should be unable to document it, have a say about how it is presented? I think Broomberg and Chanarin have come up with a novel approach to have their own say on the war on terror.
Despite the discomfort of some with regards to the use of borrowed images, which is a well-established technique in terms of fine art, and the almost complete appropriation of Brecht’s book, this is an extremely clever body of work which tells its narrative well, sets new boundaries for the displaying of photography and has opened a healthy debate on the direction that some areas of contemporary photography are headed. I loved it for that alone and thought it a worthy winner. It also helped me write my essay on contemporary photography for which it gets my eternal thanks.
No Man's Land - Mishka Henner
In some respects this is exactly what Mishka Henner has done. If you don't live in southern Europe but want to document "surveillance, voyeurism and the contemporary landscape" what do you do? Answer? Go online, delve into the seamier side of chat rooms and forums, discover where the sex workers are to be found - via satnav coordinates - and obtain your images via Google Street view.
However where I found B&C's work interesting this I found a bit bland and lazy, I can't tell if Henner has used the original downloaded image or if it has been cropped or manipulated to give a better composition. Not that this ultimately matters but compared to the research and physical work involved to produce WP2 this paled by comparison. There was a slight nod to mixed media with a soundtrack of birdsong to emulate the backdrop the images were set against and a video loop was running from the perspective of the GSV van, here I am going to be lazy because I can't be bothered to paraphrase this other reviewer who put into words some of what I felt, so a huge lump of copy paste...
Whether one accepts the documentary validity of the photo project (and Henner argues back), the most viscerally troubling, and technologically innovative, component for me was the video installation. Henner uses GSV to make what basically amounts to time-lapse videos of driving down these stretches of barren country road or crumbling industrial highway, but as the Google car approaches the woman, Henner starts to shift over to the side cameras and then to the back cameras. The effect for the audience is to inhabit the perspective of a driver who turns his head to look at the woman as he passes and then looks behind him as she recedes into the distance. Sometimes the woman as still, but in some cases, she bends over or turns. Basically, Henner inserts us into the point of view of the John cruising for sex—the only thing giving away the illusion is the occasional shadow of the GSV camera tower on top of the car and the blurring of the women’s faces. If Henner is exploiting the women by turning them into prostitutes, then he is equally exploiting his audience by making us complicit in the trade. Technology is a double-edge sword (or perhaps a two-way street?). And therein is the poignancy of the exhibition.
acknowledgement to Aaron Scott:
Again Henner is using appropriated images to tell a narrative, he is embracing new technologies and whether or not I actually liked the visuals on display I have to agree he has contributed to photography, or more to the idea of what you can achieve with photography, and deserved a place, but rightly, in my opinion, not to win.
What Happened – Great Britain 1970 –1990 - Chris Killip
Looking at these I felt that sense of ahhhhhhhhhhhhh now this is what I call photography. A genuine photographer, excellent craftsman immersed himself into the community and took the photographs that mattered, that showed the reality, no fancy stuff just straight forward documentary records. As written in my post about Don McCullin he cites him as an influence for his Homecoming series. One of Killip's influences was Paul Strand, whose first teacher was Lewis Hine and mentor was Alfred Stieglitz. Talk about a who's who of photography.
They may look a little dated in their approach in comparison to the rest of this exhibition, but I don't think you can beat a bit of powerful black and white documentary photography (Yesterday I went to see the Tony Ray Jones/ Martin Parr exhibition.... but more of that later) and much of the imagery resonated with me, I grew up (not in the North)during this time- a time of political unrest. I remember the 3 day week, power cuts, the IRA H blocks and hunger strikes, the breaking up of our infrastructure and state owned industries.
His exhibition may have been a retrospective but the pictures still have an eloquence, a narrative and a lesson on knowing your subject. It indicates another way of working is just as valid as the newer approaches being undertaken today and therefore definitely deserves to be here.
The Afronauts - Cristina de Middel
I first saw a selection of this work at the Sony World Photography Award and it went totally over my head, I didn't get it and the immense overload of imagery that you get at this type of exhibition meant I unfairly dismissed it. Another example of why it pays to keep an open mind and sometimes revisit new photographers or old bodies of work. You come from a different place, you may have learnt something new in the ensuing months or you just have time to study it more.
Part of the problem I think is that at the time there were only a few of her images on display and it really needs to be seen in it's entirety. Seeing it again I found it amusing, heartwarming, informative and mostly fun. Despite the light hearted approach there is a grain of truth behind the fabricated narrative and an underlying message. As a photojournalist she found that a lot of what she was taking on behalf of the papers was a lie. Whilst undertaking research she found a file listing the 10 craziest experiments in history. Topping this list was the Zambian space mission. Apparently, shortly after Zambia’s independence in 1964, Edward Makuka Nkoloso, the founder and sole member of Zambia’s National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, initiated a mission to send the first African astronauts to Mars. A secret HQ near Lusaka was set up, where he and his team "studied the stars through telescopes and underwent gravity training by rolling down hills in oil drums." Newspaper's reported, Nkoloso claimed that Zambia’s first rocket would contain 'specially trained spacegirl Matha Mwamba, two cats and a missionary’.
Wondering if it could possibly be true, the story sparked De Middel's creativity. More research unearthed letters and other documentation, she made costumes, props, found locations and even self-printed her book. The body of work includes letters, newspaper clippings, straight photography and manipulation/constructed imagery.
A story about the hopeless optimism of a country that we would never assume to have the ability to have a space program says much about our attitudes to third world countries, it is also a comment upon the truth of what we read in newspapers. The drawings, and documents that we saw purporting to be archival documents leave you in doubt. Are they genuine or part of her clever manipulations with reality? On the face of it a fun piece - poking gentle fun at Zambia's failed space mission- this work actually has complex layers of meaning, with more serious undertones and sends its message in a novel way; documentary fiction- itself an oxymoron- telling us a story to make us realise some truths.
I loved it, not only was her approach novel I liked the way she incorporated different elements of documentation and photography to get her point across. Yes, she deserved to be here.
A brilliant write up with a short interview here:
All in all I found this a fascinating exhibition and it has given me much to contemplate, especially if I choose to do Documentary as my next module. So in conclusion, had the final four made a significant contribution to photography? Yes. Did they deserve to be here? Yes. Did I think that all the imagery on display was quality photography? No. But that isn't what the prize is about is it.......?