This is an annual competition and since it shows some of the best in photography, I consider it worth seeing. The prize is actually awarded to the ‘contemporary artist who in the view of the jury made the most significant contribution to photography in Europe in the previous year” and is a good indication of the constantly shifting identity of photography in an image saturated age.
The sponsors are The Deutsche Borse Group, one of the world’s largest stock exchange organisations, who say “The perspectives of the artists and photographers enrich our view of the world, but also presents us with a challenge. Their work requires us to adopt a different view, while at the same time conveying values such as creativity and precision, as well as tolerance, bravery and openess.”
Although there is an ebook of the catalogue, I can not find it online and so purchase the hard copy which is A4 sized, largely white on the cover and bound by what feels likely a piece of sticking plaster. Perhaps this is making some kind of comment!? I am unaware of exactly what though it feels nice to the touch.
One characteristic of the selection of four photographers this year is that three are working in black and white while the other is working with infrared film so there are no straight colour photographs in the exhibition. Has this happened by coincidence or is it the result of a decision by the judges. Although black and white photography continues as a photographic genre there does not seem to be any current resurgence in the medium; the images are also all made with film which is still being used in what might be termed art photography.
I attend a guided tour by a woman from The Photographer’s Gallery; her comments form a basis for my notes which however also contain my views. In the end, I went aound the exhibition twice, with the guided tour that included about 50 people and afterwarrds by myself, edging through the saturday afternoon throng.
The first work I saw was by Richard Mosse who used Kodak Aerochrome infrared film that was formerly employed by the US military to detect camoflague in the landscape of war. Mosse’s images are not just about landscape, they picture the soldiers who are part of the conflict. Much of the images have a reddish tinge which reminds one of bloodshed although when Mosse began to use this medium, he was not sure in exactly what way the film would handle.
The work covers war in Congo, a conflict that has been under reported; the photographer is therefore bringing new information about a war that is largely concerned with mineral rights.
A question that hangs over these images is that they have a sense of the sublime and might be called beautiful; should war be presented perhaps glamourised in this way. Susan Sontag is cited by Christy Lange in her write up of this work … “The idea (of beauty and the sublime) does sit well when applied to images taken by cameras; to find beauty in war seems heartless. But the landscape of devastation is still a landscape. There is beauty in ruins.”
Mosse, a former journalist who took to photography, is cutting a fine line. He has also made some video but this was not on show at The Photographer’s Gallery owing to lack of space since a number of screens were required.
Mosse was voted the winner, a pretty obvious choice perhaps since these are powerful images and a remarkable document of war; captions providethe necessary information while the large format film gives incredible detail.
Lorna Simpson presents an array of images in which she presents a collection of “found” images that she bought from another Afro-American woman who was at on time an aspiring fim actress and had posed many times presumably with a view to promotoing herself. Simpson has made images of herself, adopting similar poses and finding similar locations. This is complex work and of it the catalogue says, “While drawing attention to important issues such as race, gender and memory, she creates a non-linear, open narrative that eludes any monolithic rhetorical reading of the work.” She is using portraiture and the candid snapshot in a very personal approach that is private and clinical; often, one is not sure what one is looking at since it is half about herself, half historical.
While the other photographers have all been nominated for exhibtioms, Alberto Garcia-Alix was selected for his book Self Portrait (La Fabrica Editorial 2013) which covers 40 years of his life. I do not enjoy this work! The photographer says “I know that fear will always be the soul of the mask behind which I show myself”; perhaps something has been lost in translation yet the encouraging self inquiry is hindered by narcissism and the decay of youth. One image titled ” My first night in Italy,1986″ sees him naked from the waist up with a woman to each side in adoring poses although he seems to be ignoring them as he looks directly towards the camera. There is evidence of drug taking since he is seen in “Self-portrait shooting up” (1984) although the syringe is cleverly just excluded from the frame.
A direct self portrait of his naked torso in “My femninine side, 2003” is given a sinster touch by his holding a chain which suggests bondage.
However, one image of him as clearly older is “A moment of eternal silence 2010” in which there is a sense that he has survived all his apparent ordeals (apparent because they might have been staged) and emerged wiser for it.
The exhibition is helped by good quality black and white photographs of himself printed more or less life size. There are obvious echoes of Mapplethorpe and those photographers who seem to emulate him but there is a personal touch here that relates to individual experience.
The photographer who I wanted to win, not because I thought he was the best but because he is making nature photography into an art, was Jochen Lempert. He seems to be both exploring and celebrating nature.
One of his diptychs is of the Belladonna plant with fruit showing by which is an image of a squirrel; the interesting point here is that poisonous fruit and the eye of the squirrel look almost exactly the same. There is however no caption at hand to explain this, the explanation coming from the guide; the explanation is however given in the catalogue.
There is a photogram of sand in which higher contrast does play a part; it can get sharper as one gets closer and one may well ask oneself what one looking at?
One photograph shows a Mallard encircled by fish; there is an atmosphere of menace yet the fish are presumably harmless and look like goldfish. The Mallard, a duck, could easily fly off if felt threatened.
Obviously, the photographer wants us to contemplate his work rather than be instantaneously gratified; this is a construct I am happy to comply with.
There is another image of a small group of swans; there are three almost identical images in this series.
This black and white work is quite simple and low contrast. This is distinctly analogue work, direct and engaging in it’s contact with the photograph print which are laid in glass top tables as well as being blu tacked to walls. The background can be described as forensic yet the subjects are poetic. There is a soft ethereal quality.
This is as usual a rewarding exhibition and afterwards while sitting in the Photographer’s Gallery cafe, a young woman comes up and introduces herself as a fellow student from the OCA. I follow her blog and recently read her review of a book by Charlotte Cotton on the photograph as art which I had also read while doing my first course. We talk about nature photography and it’s lack of recognition as art and she mentions something that an OCA tutor said about so much nature photography not being art because it merely objectifies nature and fails to make it subjective as Lampert has done. This is a valuable insight and helps me to understand my lingering question of why nature photography is not considered art, a question I have been wrestling with for years and is one reason I study photography!
A rewarding end to an important exhibition.