Sunday, 16 June 2013

OCA Study visit to the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2013

This visit was led by Sharon Boothroyd and Simon Barber who, after giving us all ample time to view the exhibition, then led us in discussion about what we had seen, in terms of the bodies of work and whether they had a place in the competition in the first instance.

The stated objectives were:

  • gain a personal perspective on the work of the shortlisted photographers;
  • reflect on the experience of seeing photography in a gallery and the nature of photography competitions; and
  • network with other OCA students.
The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize rewards a "living photographer for a specific body of work in an exhibition or publication format, which has significantly contributed to photography in Europe in the previous year".  There were 4 finalists at the exhibition:
  • Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin;
  • Mishka Henner;
  • Chris Killip; and
  • Cristina De Middel.
I later learned that Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin had won the prize and were presented with the award on 10 June.

My biggest challenge about this exhibition is the differing interpretation of contemporary photography.  I will look at each indivuidually.

War Primer 2 - Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

This work takes the original War Primer publication of 1955 by Bertoit Brecht and superimposes on it photographs obtained from the internet to create a comment in relation to the "war on terror".  An example of this is:

The colour photo from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq is taken from a presentation by Philip Zimbardo on how ordinaryu people can, under the right circumstances, become evil.
In the exhibition, each new, found, image is listed with the link to the source.  The book, and there are multiple copies, each turned to a different page, are presented in individual cases and the whole is more of an installation rather than an exhibition of photographs.

Is this contemporary photography?  It is certainly a collection of photographs old and new, and as a whole, the work replicates that done by Brecht in the first place, who himself obtained these poor quality images from newspapers and similar sources.  It is not an exhibition of photographs by a photographer, rather it follows the way that the internet is used by many to find and then pass on photographs which are of interest to them.  Another message which is put across here is that photographs have a currency or value, once taken, as they circulate around the world.  It is these which make this contemporary photography, no longer a photographer, rather the images speak for themselves.

No Man's Land - Mishka Henner

This work is far more challenging, as here we have a collection of images obtained from Google Street View (GSV).  It is not the first time this has been done, for example Michael Wolf makes use of such imagery and has published a book using these - "a series of unfortunate events".  Here Henner has done considerable research in regard to his theme, that of sex workers.  I was surprised, though should not have been, that a database of sex workers with GPS co-ordinates exist.  Using this as a basis, Henner selected images from GSV for his work.  The project is multi-media and includes a soundtrack, which I did not hear, of bird recordings.

Henner had previously collated definitions of Photography and published over 3,000 such phrases in a book, "Photography Is" (2010) - If one takes the definition of photography as a collection of photographs, then "No Man's Land" certainly works with that.

What surprised me was that these images do have basic compositional design attributes and one or two which I have seen would not be out of place in a fashion shoot.

Is this contemporary photography?  It is more the usage of photography, than the images themselves.  In a traditional approach to this social subject, the images would convey an interaction between the photographer and the subject.  In this case, they are distanced through this automated process.  It is certainly an interesting approach, and given a suitable project, I might make use of such found images.  One question which bothers me, would there be copyright infringement? Do these have creative commons?

Postcards from the edge - Chris Killip's Britain

Seeing these gave me the most comfort.  Here we have a collection of beautifully printed and present documentary photographs.  However, what are they doing here, after all they were taken between 1970 and 1990.  He was nominated for the LE BAL exhibition which originated in Germany.  The exhibitions have been curated and the one in The Photographer's Gallery is a smaller body of work focusing on the community and work.  It excludes some popular images, for example the picture of the head banging punks from a miners' dance.

I am reminded by a similar work, Homecoming, by Don McCullin, which also looks at social issues in Britain.  This is a retrospective, but it does remind one that powerful black and white images have a place in contemporary photography.

The Afronauts - Cristina de Middel

This started off as a book and has subsequently become a body of work which is hung.  It looks at the Zambian space programme which was started there when Zambia gained independence in 1964.  de Middel has put in an enormous amount of work in making all the props and costumes for the photographs which she took.  I feel that this is also a bit tongue in cheek, but there is substance behind all of this, illustrated by contemporary newspaper articles alongside the modern illustrations.  

There is a folkloric feel to this, in particular as some of the costumes and props have an African feel to them.  Typical of these is the image below.

As a body of work, this tells tells a fantastical story which is expanded through the use of sketches and original documents.  Is this representative of contemporary photography?  I feel that it is the aspect of self-publication as a book which is the key to this.  A body of work can be published by the photographer without the need to go to a publishing house and it is certainly a growing trend in photography.


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