The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize is an annual exhibition and award of £30,000 presented at The Photographers’ Gallery, London (and subsequently to select venues). Originally established by the Gallery in 1996 as the UK’s first dedicated photography award, it continues to identify, debate and celebrate innovative and original photographic practice from across the world.
Quick introduction for those not in the know, the prize goes to a photographer of any nationality for their ‘significant contribution to the medium of photography,’ either through an exhibition or publication in Europe and reflects the multitudinous ways that photographers and photography engages with the world today. Previous winners include Paul Graham, Juergen Teller and Rineke Dijkstra.
This year’s judges are:
Susan Bright (Curator), Pieter Hugo (Artist), Karolina Lewandowka (Curator of Photography, Centre Pompidou), Anne-Marie Beckmann (Director, Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation) and Clare Grafik (Head of Exhibitions, The Photographers’ Gallery) as the non-voting chair.
This year the shortlisted are: Sophie Calle, Dana Lixenberg, Awoiska van der Molen, and Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs. Their work is said to ‘tackle a wide range of emotional, personal, and cultural histories in this inspiring showcase of contemporary photography.’
In someways these photographers relate to the section of the course just undertaken, as according to the foundation’s website they all ‘investigate questions of truth and fiction, doubt and certainty, what constitutes the real and ideal and the relationship between the observer and the observed.’ The nominees underline the different approaches there can be to documentary: the long established photographic narratives, experimental and conceptual approaches, landscape and portraiture.
Sophie Calle has been nominated for her publication My All (Actes Sud, 2016) which finds the artist experimenting with yet another medium – the postcard set. Taking stock of her entire œuvre, this set of postcards functions as a beautiful portfolio of Calle’s work, as well as a new investigation of it, in an appropriately nomadic format. Over the past thirty years, Sophie Calle has invited strangers to sleep in her bed, followed a man through the streets of Paris to Venice, hired a detective to spy on herself before providing a report of her day, and asked blind people to tell her about the final image they remember. In doing so, she has orchestrated small moments of life, establishing a game, then setting its rules for herself and for others.
Calle is known more as a conceptual artist, so for some it came as a surprise that is was for a more traditional approach, that she was nominated for the 2017 Deutsche Börse photography prize. Sophie Calle: My All is described as ‘a retrospective photo-book comprising postcard-style photographs documenting all 54 of her artworks thus far.’ I only discovered that after reading up some information about her after attending the exhibition…irritatingly too many people had been stood in front of the ‘blurb’ on the wall and spent ages flicking through the postcard book on display.
The other work on display, curated especially of the prize, I could get closer to, and I loved it. It was a personal response to the deaths of ‘ My mother, My cat and My father – in that order.’ I found the images and accompanying text amusing as well as insightful and moving. It was relate-able (I don’t care if that’s not accepted as a real word by wordpress!) on a very personal level, as I experienced the painful lingering death of a parent not long ago, and wondered what their last words would be. I never thought to write them down though!
By incorporating diary entries and poems alongside images of poignant and meaningful, if obscure, objects, Calle presents a record of these last memories. A stuffed giraffe’s head named after her mother, a ram’s head represents her father, a stop sign and a cat in a coffin are just a few of the photographs to be found.
As one reviewer, Ellen Pearlman from Hyperallergic wrote: ‘She blurs public and private so thoroughly you feel like a voyeur who can’t stop rubbernecking some particularly gruesome splattered roadkill.’ I completely agree, as she unerringly reveals her inner thoughts and various outbursts from her parents. Beneath a photograph of her mother in a large white frame reads an excerpt from her diary:
No use investing in the tenderness of my children, between Antoine’s placid indifference and Sophie’s selfish arrogance! My only consolation is, she is so morbid that she will come visit me in my grave more often than on Rue Boulard.
An image of a statue with its finger on its lips gives the impression of a church or graveyard, has underneath what appears to be a serious conversation between mother and daughter, then you read the engraved anecdote…
Every time my mother passed by the Bristol Hotel she stopped, crossed herself, and told us to shut up. “Silence,” she said, “This is where I lost my virginity.”
Her irreverent poker-faced humour was so on my level…she gets my vote!
Dana Lixenberg has been nominated for her publication Imperial Courts (Roma, 2015). In 1992 Dana Lixenberg travelled to South Central Los Angeles for a magazine story on the riots that erupted following the verdict in the Rodney King trial. What she encountered inspired her to revisit the area and led her to the community of the Imperial Courts housing project in Watts. Returning countless times over the following twenty-two years Lixenberg gradually created a collaborative portrait of the changing face of this community.
On first glance I think it would be very easy to dismiss the work of Dana Lixenberg, but Imperial Courts was very long in the making -1993–2015 – it is said to feature:
some of her finest, and most eloquent photographs, suffused with compassion, austere visual beauty, and a tender attention toward the wide scope of individuals who comprise the Imperial Courts community in Los Angeles… [the] copious tome is the culmination of years of diligent work.
…[it] is an intensely multi-layered insight into the constantly shifting history of a community from the inside out.
Originally, Lixenberg travelled to LA on assignment for the Dutch weekly magazine Vrij Nederland to document a story on the ‘destruction and rebuilding’ in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict. This developed into a 22-year project in which she captured portraits of the members of the community at the Imperial Courts housing project in Watts, Los Angeles: one of the city’s oldest. A photo essay of her earliest portraits, accompanied by a poem by playwright Ntozake Shange, was first published in the November 1993 edition of Vibe magazine and grew to span a book, exhibition and web documentary.
Imperial Courts became:
…the epicentre of rioting against racial discrimination by the project’s African American residents in 1965 and 1992.
Within the gallery setting I think that the background story to this work is more interesting than the images themselves. Photographs of teens and young children in the early years were then photographed with their own children now (the genealogy pages are great with smaller-scaled pictures and postage size thumbnails beside them). We are told that some of the original subjects have vanished, have been killed or are now in prison. Life does not appear to have changed for many.
Using B&W Lixenberg captures much of the minutiae and humdrum reality of the community, the manner in which these images were taken does not try to stereotype the subjects:
Overly familiar tropes such as sexiness, and comparable assertions of body language are shown in more frequency in the moving genealogy… The genealogy pages also demonstrate a seeming wider range of settings throughout the housing project. Yet virtually all Lixenberg’s subjects in this volume exhibit a cool sobriety that keeps stylized swagger at arm’s length… It is a visual signature of Lixenberg’s that she has sometimes described as “deliberately undramatic.” Ironically by stripping back the conscious posturing common to many of us, she often arrives at a fresh or more shrewd way of idealizing her subjects.
Lixenberg illuminates the humanity, resilience, compassion and dignity of her subjects.
Although the installation shots are not from The Photographers Gallery the layout was very similar.
Looking at the spreads in the book is very interesting, especially as assignment three entails me producing my own small photo essay in a book form. In double page spreads portraits are opposite portraits, sometimes opposite blank pages, sometimes juxtapose streetscapes; the sizes vary, occasionally a single photograph will spill over two pages, the captions are simple. Subjects are all posed, either singly or in groups with most staring challengingly down the lens, whilst the remainder seem to gaze off into the distance – possibly thinking of a better future ahead.
The presentation of her work within the book, for me, wasn’t translated to the walls of the gallery. Large portraits on one side and smaller street scenes on an opposite wall didn’t tell the narrative as well.
Much was done to present the environment: its dirty surroundings, ugly, grey exteriors and industrial fencing reveal the inhospitable, prison-like habitat of the Courts. On looking at them I shrugged and didn’t think the images were any different from the many other broody inner city kids we see, or built up inner city areas in the UK. Thamesmead in outer London would be a prime example of disenfranchised youth, discrimination and concrete jungle. The book tells the story and presents her work in a much better way. I’m glad I did further background research into this immense project.
Awoiska van der Molen
Awoiska van der Molen has been nominated for her exhibition Blanco at Foam Fotografie Museum, Amsterdam (22 Jan – 3 Apr 2016). Van der Molen creates black and white abstracted images that revitalise landscape photography. Spending long periods of time in solitude and silence in foreign landscapes, from Japan to Norway to Crete, she explores the identity of the place, allowing it to impress upon her its specific emotional and physical qualities and her personal experience within it.
Now here I really struggled with the work on display. The huge images seemed to have been processed really dark, I mean I know that was partially the intention, but to see any details within the photographs was nigh on impossible. Added to that, the highly reflective glass or maybe even reflective/glossy finish of the images, and lighting conditions within the room…I gave up. Several people around me were also commenting on the poor effect of the image surface versus lighting versus ability to view the photographs. This is obviously something that needs to be taken into consideration when curating a show, or framing your work.
I was looking forward to viewing her work due to the aspect of her exploration into space, her personal experiences, emotions, authorship and reflexivity affected her photographic expression. I was disappointed. Rather than seeing some fantastic work I saw black blobs…was she terminally depressed everywhere? But this review is unfair based upon what was on display. Again another artist who I think suffered due to curation.
In Awoiska van der Molen’s work Blanco, apparently we should:
encounter the landscape genre in fine form. The Dutch artist presents dark, beautifully printed abstract landscapes that capture her personal, emotional response to her surroundings. Thanks to her childhood in the flat Netherlands, van der Molen is drawn to the safety and inclusion of mountainous, forested landscapes, a connotation that is echoed in the rich, inky comfort of her work.
Her often profoundly black baryta prints contain mysterious contrasts between darkness and light. Notions of time, day and night seem non-existent.
Her landscapes are unnamed and unidentifiable in their abstraction, and this allows her emotional connection to carry over to the viewer, while leaving space for the viewer’s personal interpretation.
Researching the images on-line for once presents the work in a better light! (no pun intended)
Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs
Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs (both b. 1979, Switzerland) have been nominated for their exhibition EURASIA at Fotomuseum Winterthur (24 Oct 15 – 14 Mar 16). EURASIA playfully draws on the iconography of the road trip constructing experiences drawn from memory and imagination. Onorato and Krebs’ journey begins in Switzerland, continues through the Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and ends in Mongolia. Throughout their travels the duo encounter landscapes and people in a state of ongoing transition from ancient traditions and post-Communist structures to modernity and the formation of an independent identity. Using a mix of analogue media and techniques including 16mm films, large-format plate cameras and installation-based interventions, Onorato and Krebs compose a narrative that is as much fiction as documentation.
I think I found their style of approach and presentation more interesting than the images they produced. Huge 16mm projectors with the film set up on a loop projected directly onto the gallery walls, it was with a mixture of interest and irritation that I watched teenage girls gurning, posing and interacting with the shots creating their own photographic responses to the work.
Photography is not a final stage, you can always change the form. When working with film, we always try to learn and practice new things. We work with 16mm film – there are not many cuts and it’s an exciting camera that gives you another way of concentration and feeling. You are challenged and have to be inventive to create something special.
Sadly at the Photographers Gallery there were no still images on display nor any of the constructions.
Their work again took on the role and interpretation of place, exploring a myriad of cultures in transition, ‘the formation of a post-Communist identity, and a landscape as diverse as its peoples’.
The crowded gallery meant that you were unable to dedicate the time required to watch an entire reel from beginning to end without being distracted, the amount of cameras also made me lose interest quite quickly which possibly says more about me than their work? The films portray many contrasts not just B&W versus colour; you see empty deserts, futuristic architecture, ancient domestic animals and vast expanses of ocean. I don’t know…maybe I need to re-visit, get there earlier and tell everyone else to bugger off!
Using obsolete mediums such as 16 mm film and large-format plate cameras, as well as additional constructions built in their studio, they expand the terrain of the documentary.
This presentation includes analogue film reels and projections that plunge the viewer into the Eurasian world, with images flowing, back and forth, from black-and-white to warm color. The images show the traces of a difficult past; the unfamiliar next to the peculiar; diverse buildings that range from ancient to resolutely Communist-era to distinctly modern; and all manner of observations in between. Onorato and Krebs are clear: the work is not documentary but rather pure invention, a fluid interpretation of place and time that will continue to evolve in the years to come.
May be that was my issue, whilst I liked some of the more abstract images, the shape and forms they revealed, and the various ways in which they present their work, there seemed to be no clear thread, no real narrative and the stories they wanted to tell did not resonate, which is what they wanted to capture – a world still largely unfamiliar to the Western popular imagination.
As a group, the five photographers speak to the medium’s creative and documentary range as well as its capacity for emotional, personal, and even diaristic storytelling. In a time full of varied, inspiring photographic work from all over the world, this year’s Deutsche Bӧrse Prize does well to recognize this group of distinguished image-makers.
What did I take away from this exhibition?
- background research is sometimes more important than seeing the exhibition
- occasionally online images present better than a curated show
- DON’T USE REFLECTIVE GLASS/GLOSSY FINISHES
- Documentary has so many different approaches these days which is healthy for the genre
- I need to do further research into ways to set out photo-books