The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize shortlist

The Photographers’ Gallery is holding its annual exhibition of the shortlisted contenders for the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize – one of the most prestigious international awards given to a living photographer for a specific body of work.  It’s an impressive line-up this year.  Pure photography forms the core of each individual exhibition (as opposed to the press clippings, video or GPS images that have dominated in past years), with each distinguished by a strong topicality or visual concept and a different style of presentation, bringing in video, text and other modes of display to great effect.


Nikolai Bakharev’s ‘Relation’ series were taken in Russia in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it was still forbidden to photograph nudity.  He pushed the boundaries of this censorship by approaching holidaymakers at public beaches, and in doing so has created a touching psychological portrait of a people at a certain place and time.  The photographs also reveal specific personal relationships, from the shy awkward youths to long-married couples, to fathers and sons, all captured in this strange dislocated context of semi-nakedness by the beach.  The images are small – little bigger than snapshots – and capture moments of intimacy that seem almost voyeuristic.


1_36_l-DBPP15-l--l_3245008kZanele Muholi - 'Kekeletso Khena' Cape TownZanele Muholi’s work, ‘Faces and Phases 2006-2014’, is far more overtly political.  She is actively using her art to campaign for the rights of the LGBTI community in South Africa, where there is still widespread abuse and violence towards them.

Zanele Muholi - 'Lungile Cleo Dladla', Joburg from 'Faces and Phases'

This message is powerfully put across in the wall full of unframed black and white portraits, stark yet full of pathos, and accompanied by written testimonies.





Also working in South Africa, Mikhail Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s project takes a very different approach.  With an equal interest in social inequalities, their investigation ‘Ponte City’ takes a broader time period and a narrower focus: the eponymous tower block was built in Johannesburg in 1976 for the white elite but by the 1990s was a refuge for immigrants and a beacon of urban decay and illegal activities.

Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse - 'Ponte City from Yeoville Ridge' 2008

The artists build up a picture of the community living within this notorious building by systematically photographing the doors and the views from the windows of each apartment at the same scale and angle.  These images are displayed in tall light boxes reaching up to the gallery ceilings which give the impression of seeing the tower block itself lit up from a distance.


On the walls alongside, abandoned, squalid interiors are depicted, with found snapshots of the previous tenants in these same rooms pinned or superimposed on top.  Another wall features architectural plans, handwritten statements and visa application forms, knitting together a web of the many individual lives played out within this structure.


The fourth shortlisted photographer is Viviane Sassen.  Her work, collectively entitled ‘Umbra’, is in contrast predominantly abstract, though figures and landscapes do play a part in some images.

DEFprintUmbra_NAB_VS_2748vbuitsnede-150x140_-392x420Colour predominates, which is a shock to the senses after the monochrome or low key tones of the previous galleries.  But the key to the works is shadow (‘umbra’) which silhouettes forms starkly against strong light, creating not only an almost sculptural aesthetic contrast but also a less direct, but no less powerful, sense of foreboding.  Embodying fear, the unknown, the ‘shadow of death’, the pictures encroach on our subconscious selves and become quite unsettling – a feeling heightened by the hypnotic background soundtrack of recited poetry.

Viviane Sassen 'Coil' from 'Soil' 2014

Sassen’s images do not, however, seem to me to form any cohesive narrative; some are about colour and depth, others the shadowy presence, some are abstract, others figural.  Essentially each stands alone so that as a body of work this seems less successful.  In my view, the ‘simpler’ the story, the more powerful the photographic ensemble – and as some of these photographers show, the ‘simple’ premise in no way lessens the subtlety of perception or force of visual impact.  Quite the opposite.


The Deutsche Borse Photography Prize etc.


The critics are backing Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin for the prize. ‘War Primer 2’ using copies of Bertold Brecht’s War Primer (1955) onto which they have superimposed contemporary war-related pictures that came up when the words of Brecht’s original 4-line poems were typed into Google.  The layered images are surprisingly powerful, the low-quality monochrome newspaper prints framing the garishly coloured low-quality digital images.  The poems are still peculiarly apt almost 60 years on, suggesting that technicalities of war may change – and the means of recording it – but fundamentally human nature remains the same, and the human capacity for evil or callous acts in extraordinary circumstances never changes.

Nevertheless, to my mind this rather stretches the idea of photography.  The images in both cases are second hand, downloaded from the internet or printed in a book.  Technically there is no photographic skill involved in this project at all.  However, it does address the ubiquity of photographic imagery, the power of the internet to transmit every image across the world in seconds, and the strange compulsion of witnesses to record an event even in the face of absolute horror.  The project certainly makes an impact, in its subject matter raising highly relevant moral issues and in its method using a very contemporary approach to sourcing its imagery – and in doing so underlining how this excess of imagery available colours (or distorts) the way we perceive and understand the war on terror.


On the walls surrounding the army of delicate glass cases that display the copies of ‘War Primer’ – and making them appear, incongruously, like an esoteric display of ancient manuscripts in a library – are Christina de Middel’s collection of photographs, drawings and reproductions of letters telling the story of the ill-fated Zambian space programme.  I enjoyed this piece as a quirky tale of eccentric endeavour, along the lines of ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’, the photography helping to illustrate the narrative rather than being impressive in its own right.  In 1964, apparently, Zambia set up a space programme aiming to send the first African astronaut into space.  It was the pipe-dream of Edward Makuka Nkoloso, sole member of Zambia’s National Academy of Science, who set up a secret HQ near Lusaka.  Unsurprisingly, despite studying the stars and practising gravity training by rolling down hills in oil-drums, the project never came close to realisation, and de Middel’s photographs of figures in spacesuits of colourful African cotton, and glass fish-bowl helmets, feet still firmly planted on the African soil, bear witness to the childish hopes of Nkoloso.


Mishka Henner uses images from Google Street View.  Like Broomberg and Chanarin, this source of imagery is at once very modern – highlighting the surveillence culture that now engulfs us all – and very pertinent, raising a moral issue by using the internet to link images of locations to online searches for sex workers.  Thus we are presented with a series of silent, static and sun-drenched photographs featuring anonymous female figures waiting on roadsides on the outskirts of various Southern Europe cities.  In themselves they would mean little, but as a series with the pretext of an investigative mission, they become a little sinister.  That the subjects themselves are so unaware of being watched – and consequently of being viewed by us – makes one uncomfortable; the positioning of the viewer as voyeur is exactly what Henner intends.


As a traditionalist in photographic terms, I most enjoyed Chris Killip’s entry ‘What Happened – Great Britain 1970-1990’.  Killip has investigated, over several decades, the impact of ‘deindustrialisation’ in the North East of England.  The images are grouped in terms of place – North Shields, Lynemouth, Skinningrove, Seacoal, Gateshead – each cluster a small window onto a particular community undergoing fundamental change.



They are formal and austere, classic black and white prints – and deeply satisfying visually, combining compositional perfection with the capture of fleeting expressions that inject a sharp pathos into what could otherwise be pure social documentary.  It is no surprise to learn that Killip was inspired to take up photography when, as the manager of a hotel on the Isle of Man, he came across a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, master of the ‘decisive moment’; he has clearly inherited the eye.  Yes it might appear ‘out-of-date’ in the company of projects that are provocative, contemporary and ‘challenge the boundaries of photography as a medium’, but it all depends on how one defines photography – I have always considered the term to refer to a specific technical process involving a camera; if its bounds are pushed too far, it may be excellent investigative journalism but it it is hardly photography in either a technical or artistic sense.

From the Photographers Gallery I went on to the Atlas Gallery where there is an exhibition of Andre Kertesz’s photographs.  Kertesz holds a similarly exalted place in my small pantheon of photographic ‘old masters’ as Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Munckacsi and Atget.  Upstairs there were some delightful views of Paris, Kertesz’s eye caught by the geometric patterns of the everyday: shadows of cast-iron chairs in the Tuileries, fire escapes, a bird-cage echoed by the Eiffel Tower in the distance… But downstairs was revelatory.  The series of ‘Distortions’ date to the early 1930s, and were created quite simply using convex mirrors.  But the resulting images, though physically small in scale, have a monumental presence; the flesh is abstracted and decontextualised, transformed into the marble or bronze of a Henry Moore or Brancusi sculpture.  This was an age of real photographic experimentation – of Man Ray’s solarisations and rayographs – that sought to push the boundaries of the medium itself and with spectacular aesthetic results.