Prix Pictet at the Saatchi Gallery

OCA students gather outside the Saatchi Gallery for another study day

Another study day with the OCA and another visit to The Saatchi Gallery. The last visit was for the Out of Focus exhibition which I found interesting but not particularly inspiring. If this is the kind of work we are expected to aspire to then perhaps I should stop my studies but keeping an open mind is part of what the course is about – one does not want to dismiss work because one finds it meaningless.

This visit is concerned with another exhibition, the annual Prix Pictet, which is a prize concerned with photography and preservation that the Saatchi Gallery website describes as “one of the most important photography prizes in the world. The aim of the Prix Pictet is to use photography to raise public awareness worldwide to the environmental and social challenges of the new millennium. The exhibition this year focuses on the theme of ‘Power’.

Kofi Annan has given an introduction to the exhibition in which he says, “it reveals how the same forces that result in disaster and despair can also generate hope and renewal.” Looking at the images I wonder how this is true. Annan also says about the exhibition that it is “to use the power of photography to overcome our numbness, our lethargy; to use the qualities of the visual image  to move us and reawaken our understanding of the urgency of the issues that confront us.”

The winner this year is Luc Delahaye. Looking at his work, I can see no obvious connection with environmental issues, even after reading the captions. What makes him the winner!?

One of the other entrants of which there were 12, is Daniel Beltra whom I heard speaking a few years ago after he won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition with the set of images he is presenting here. His photographs of an oil spill had made him a winner since not only were they a record of a catastrophic event, they were colourful and dramatic images. He works for Greenpeace.

The fact that “Power” is this year’s theme perhaps implies a political theme.

Another photographer whose work I am familiar with is Carl de Keyzer, a Magnum member, whose submissions for the prize are obviously environmental since they contain landscape style images; however, the environmental message is not obvious. Presumably, more will be revealed actually at the exhibition, if not by the images it will be by the tutors and ensuing discussion.

Another photographer on show is Robert Adams whose work is all in black and white; it is not very easy to make out on the Prix Pictet website that can not do justice to the tonal quality of his images and the paucity of the web view may account for a lack of understanding of the other entrants. However, the work of Rena Effendi seems quite obvious even without the captions and will perhaps be more so in the gallery.

It will be good to see work by some of the supposedly best photographers in the world …!

Gareth Dent, CEO of the OCA, addresses students at the beginning of the visit

We meet outside the gallery, a rather grand setting since the building was once a royal army barracks and the entrance to the gallery has columns; one has self-confessed artoholic Charles Saatchi to thank for this large gallery.

The conversation soon turns to why Luc Delahaye is the winner. Does the panel of the judges simply want to be controversial? Tutor Clive White does not see it as important if the content does not relate strictly to the environment and sustainability message of the competition since social issues arising from it fall within the remit of the brief. There is also the suggestion that the judges award prizes not necessarily to the best photographers but to the most deserving, photographers whose careers might be helped by the prize.

Once in the gallery, the majesty of Luc Delahaye’s work is seen and is immediately striking. Of the three works on show, the central piece is a vast panoramic image not of a landscape but the inside of conference meeting. It is only when this is explained as a meeting of oil executives and what appears to be the press, does Delahaye”s work start to assume relevance. This is a tableau and one is reminded of the drama of some Renaissance paintings where dynamic figures crowd around a central action. There are no divine figures here though, rather the scene is one of near mayhem in which the general confusion that is so often politics, is being played out. In spite of this organised confusion, the image has a certain stillness to it almost a silence – is this a construction of the photographer or does it relate to the medium of still photography as a whole, a medium in which time is frozen? One interesting point about this image made by Robert, one of the tutors present, is that no one in a crowd of almost 50 people, is looking at the photographer. I do not really spend time examining the other photographs of Luc Delahaye because they obviously need to be read and I do not find this easy.

Almost opposite Delahaye, are the photographs of Daniel Beltra who has photographed an oil spill from the air; not only is the content of these images relevant and moving in the awful spillage of oil but they are colourful too in the way the sea carries the spillage while forms also become part of the image. The message is very clear here.

Tutor Clive White discusses an image with students

OCA tutor Clive White likes the edgy images of Mohammed Bourissa which at first makes little sense. After awhile, one can see something in the way they have been sequenced since the first image is of a group, possibly a gang, is standing in what is almost a circle in the corner of a car park beside a large puddle. Another image is of someone dancing in a ring of fire, what might be kerosene flames burning; the dancer wears some kind of skeleton mask. This group of images is very ambiguous, so ambiguous that it is not easy to describe them, but there seems to be some kind of gang activity going on. These are images that make you stop and think because something is certainly going on and one wonders what the relationship of the photographer is to this group.

There are images by Carl de Keyser from his series “Moments before the flood”, the meaning and significance of which is fairly easy to understand. One image shows a boat out of the water and supportd by wooden blocks. It stands in the middle of a field in which there are sheep, some of whom shelter beneath the boat. In the foreground is a concrete block wall with some of the blocks obviously loose; it it through here that the boat came at a time when the water was much higher? The whole scene seems temporary, impermanent, since water might flood in again and the sheep will need to have been moved or they are likely to drown.

Looking at photographs by Robert Adams

It felt like a privilege to see and even imbibe the work of Robert Adams who one reviewer apparently considered to be the true winner. His black and white images are perfectly crafted with a wonderful range of tones that would of course be lost in most media reproduction. The images are of severed trees in rural locations, the message of environmental destruction being readily apparent. Do these images have an appeal only for the connoisseur or does their quiet realism touch a wider audience. There is an image of a large tree stump, rather dull and dark looking since the bright sky is behind it. Yet if one looks closely at this image, one can see details of the tree in even the darkest detail while the tree itself looks just as it might do in real life execpt for the fact it is in black and white. I notice the way Adams has developed Adams’ style in which high contrast often played a major role and instead presented something effective but more subdued. This impresses me very much.

Why did not Adams win this prize? Perhaps the delightful beauty of his images just do not suggest power, the theme of the exhibition and competition. Gareth Dent thinks it is sad that Adams has not had more recognition; instead, his sensitivity and artistry has been ignored. His images though are much smaller even minute in comparison with most of the other photographs hanging in the gallery.

I do not have a good look at all the entrants although one can not miss them in the two galleries in which the exhibition is staged. Rena Effendi has made photographs that obviously relate to the environment; in one, a dead “Falcon” hangs from a wire over a backyard. The caption informs us that it has been put there to deter other falcons from predating chickens.

looking at work by Joe Sternfield

Joel Sternfield’s images of politicians such as Bill Clinton blown up to larger than life size are perhaps symbolic yet also somewhat numbing. It is people like this though that represent power and are responsible for a lot of what happens in relation to environmental policy even if the “real” power is in the hands of huge corporations.

part of Women Of Power – Queen Bees

Another OCA tutor, Sharon Boothroyd, chooses the work of a Dutch female photographer. These photographs are diptychs, one images showing an Arabian woman’s dining room at home, the other showing her office. The environmental connection here is of the Arab-oil kind one presumes. I do not find the look of the prints very appealing although there is quite a lot of detail to feast the eye on. The title of this series “Female Power Stations: Queen Bees” has a humorous feel to it.

Gareth Dent ask Sharon Boothroyd for her view on work

After viewing the images for over an hour, we sit in the gallery cafe outside around a table that takes about 20 of us (some students have already left or are still inside). Gareth Dent buys us beverages and later the tutors all give a little pitch about the photographs on show as do one or two of the more accomplished students such as John Umney and Catherine Banks. This little discussion not only helps round the day off, it also helps one to further understand a group of images that are not easily comprehended.

A comment by the journalist Phil Thornton is worthy of note since he says that political action “can be motivated by shocking images that force the viewer to face up to what is going on.”

anti-governemnt demonstration march London October 2012

After the exhibition, I took a bus and then had to walk owing to an anti-governemnt demonstration. Another reminder of “Power” the subject of the exhibition I have just seen. Later I write to my tutor the following …

“I got to understand why Luc Delahaye was a worthy winner although the decision of the panel to focus on “people power” that can bring about change rather than power inherent in the environment is perhaps an indication of the way humanity seems unable to face up to the way we are destroying the planet … loved the work by Daniel Beltra, a former Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner, although his images of oil stained sea do look a bit glamorous.”

A bit pompous perhaps? Interestingly, an article in The Guardian echoed similar sentiments.