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.


Jacques Henri Lartigue: Snapshots of a Marriage

Honeymoon at the Hotel des Alpes Chamonix 1920

The photographs of Jacques Henri Lartigue occupy the other side of that divide between public and private.  Lartigue saw himself as a painter rather than a photographer – as did Man Ray, but unlike his contemporary Lartigue did not use photography commercially as a means of making money, nor indeed was he particularly interested in scientific experimentation with the medium.  No; what makes Lartigue’s photographs so unique is the intimacy that can only come from personal pictures never intended for public display.  Thus none are deliberately posed, the perfect compositions entirely intuitive and spontaneous, the incentive behind them purely a passion for the camera – and for Bibi.


The Photographers’ Gallery chooses to focus on the 10-year period during which Lartigue was married to Madeleine Messager, known as Bibi.  They married in December 1919 after meeting in the Alps the previous winter, and the exhibition traces their lives together among the beau monde of 1920s France.   We are permitted to glimpse – almost voyeuristically – Bibi on her honeymoon at the Hotel des Alpes, Chamonix (top, 1920).  What at first appears a solo portrait, Bibi’s head just over the bath’s edge looking distant and solitary, is actually the portrait of a couple: Lartigue captures himself in the mirror to the left as he operates the camera, so that the two small figures, in reality smiling at each other, here smile back at the viewer exuding all the confidence and exclusivity of partners both in love and art.

‘Ubu et Bibi sur la route entre Londres et Pau’ (above, 1925) is a simple yet intense character study.  The landscape is out of focus, as is the enclosing frame of the car which is hardly discernible as such; out of these soft grey surroundings, however, the heads of Ubu and Bibi are picked out, pin-sharp, in a fleeting moment of hilarity.


The year 1924 is regarded as the turning point in the marriage – and consequently also, the one being dependent on the other, in the way that Bibi is depicted.  The couple’s second child, Veronique, died shortly after her birth, and in response to this traumatic event both threw themselves into the well-documented decadence of Riviera life in the twenties.  Only the year before, Lartigue’s family home at Rouzat had been sold, leaving a gaping hole where his identity, rooted in happy childhood memories, had once been. Superficially the couple continue to enjoy life, constantly surrounded by friends and larking about on boats or beaches.  However, the change in their relations caused by grief and infidelity is clearly visible in images of Bibi from this point on – such as ‘Bibi a Londres’ (above, 1926) in which she appears an isolated, anonymous and vulnerable figure, wrapped in furs like a protective armour against the world.


Even where she is pictured with friends, informal and companionable – as above, on the left, with Freddy and Margot (1928) – she no longer catches her husband’s eye through the lens; her eyes are lowered, her smile wistful and a little sad.  Most tellingly, from Lartigue’s point of view she is no longer at the centre of his world; gradually pushed to the peripheries of his pictures, she is always one of several women, denying the special bond that once existed between them.


And there is little sense of the family here either.  At the beginning of the decade, the marriage and the exhibition, Lartigue’s photographs centre around his family and their home at Rouzat, and when Dany is born he and Bibi become inextricably entwined within this family scene.  Once this sense of family is severed with the loss of the place that contained it, everybody in Lartigue’s world seems a little lost – a reflection through his lens of Lartigue’s own feelings.  Bibi and Michelle Verly, sunbathing on the Lac d’Aix-les-Bains (above, May 1928) are transient, impermanent figures as they float sleepily, both their faces –  and their thoughts, their essential selves – hidden.


In ‘Tempete a Cannes’ (above) the precarious figures seem to escape the photographer’s grasp, unknowable and separate from him.  The picture of Bibi at Marseille (below, 1928) is the culmination of this visual narrative of  the unravelling of a marriage.  Not only is Bibi relegated to the bottom right corner of the frame, but she is out of focus – it is the inhuman hulks of the ocean liners beyond that are the subjects here.  Throughout the exhibition, the subtlety of their shifting, unspoken, emotions is almost unbearably poignant.  From an initial joyful tenderness Bibi withdraws to a remote melancholy, until she almost entirely disappears from Lartigue’s pictures – and from his life.  “My broken heart only wishes her well” wrote a stricken Lartigue on the occasion of their eventual divorce in 1931.