A group of us from the OCA meet at The Photographer’s Gallery to see the annual exhibition about this prize which is awarded to the photographer who has made the most significant contribution to photography. A rather vague notion perhaps but we are invited to see the exhibition of the four bodies of work, one has two authors, and make our minds up!
The first photographer’s work we see is by a Russian called Nikolai Bakharev and his exhibition Relationship. While this work might look like quite an ordinary study of people at the beach during the Russia of the 1970’s, the law forbade intimate and private photographs of this kind. These black and white photographs are constructed and result in an interesting series of portraits.
Passing through the room these portraits are in, one comes to the work of Zanele Muholi, who is a GLBTI visual activist and has made photographs in South Africa of this minority group who are sometimes persecuted with “curative rapes” and killings. She has focused on gay women and there is a wall of her portraits while there are also videos of her work; her nomination is for her book called Faces and Phases 2006-2014 which is published by Steidl and contains her work notably the collection of black and white portraits on the wall.
On the next floor, there are another two rooms of Deutsche-Borse prize exhibits. The first is by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Whitehouse which is about Ponte City, a large tower block built near Johannesburg in South Africa. There is a variety of information on display that document this rejuvenation project that did not however last very long. There a couple of impressive model tower blocks in the gallery which were not in the same exhibition we saw in Paris last year. The nomination here is for the book of the project.
One walks through this exhibition space to the final body of work by Viviane Sassen whose work I had seen in Arles over a year ago but not been impressed by. The work here however seems different and focuses on a exploration of the shadow which seems to refer to the whole tradition of art both in painting and photography. I find this exhibition a welcome relief from the gritty documentary of the other entrants and to my surprise realise that for me it is the winner.
We discuss our different views and conclusions around a table in The Photographer’s Gallery cafe. There are no heated exchanges but we put forward our different views with gusto. It remains to be seen who will actually be the winner for the judges do not make their decision for sometime to come.
In my support for Viviane Sassen, I talk about Dionysius who is credited with thinking related to the Sublime. Dionysius also talks about darkness as divine rather than negative and I see Sassen’s work as a continuation of this bold approach which is ready to examine darkness not as a negative but as a potentially liberating force. Yet what is Sassen actually saying about it? In one photograph, she makes a visual reference to the vagina as a shadow yet much of what she is saying seems less clear.
Perhaps one needs to turn to what others have said about this work from Moholy-Nagy who wrote in 1932 that “Through the development of black and white photography, light and shadow were for the first time fully revealed” to more recent commentators such as Moriyama whose book Light and Shadow was published in 1982. Viviane Sassen Might be seen as the most contemporary contributor to this dialogue.
Almost a week later, the winner is announced as Ponte City by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Whitehouse which I saw for the first time last year in Paris where it had filled about 2 floors of the gallery.