This year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Prize has not seemed to generate as much attention or discussion as recent incarnations. This could be excused as a kind of competition fatigue given their increase in number of late, or it could be to do with the shortlisted work being presented. Notwithstanding some online comments about an uninspiring selection, and the 24 hour link frenzy following the award announcement, it is hard to gauge much of a reaction to the Prize overall.
Maybe, we have been spoiled in recent years through provocative and brave nominations that broke the initial documentary tradition; maybe we expect the Prize nowadays to reflect how photography cannot be seen in the same light and so we get different sub-genres and a vibrant gamut of processes. That unpredictability, and its base in a contemporary vortex, is what gets people talking. Either through enthusiasm or argument it gets people engaged and stimulates discussion, which in turn identifies with the wider photographic community and validates the competition’s value. An occasion such as this can inspire future contenders so it is important to keep an eye on the direction photography is headed as well as the past.
Visiting the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, one can easily be excused for feeling somewhat underwhelmed. Despite the tight execution of the exhibition itself, throughout there is a hint of expectancy that something will come along and scream blue murder, but all that arises is a sly wink.
To begin with, one feels a little baffled as to Jochen Lempert’s inclusion. The monochrome pictograms and work-tables displaying what amount to random examples in technique appear incongruous. Their simplicity comes across as fragile as their subject matter and all too vague in the general scheme of things. Meanwhile Alberto García-Alix acts as a balance to the biologist’s minor obsessions, re-presenting himself over and over. Despite the obvious coolness of the freewheeling, drugging, drinking, whoring biker from a time when that was the ultimate outsider role, the images and video slipped into a solipsistic coma. García-Alix makes honest photographs of his dishonest life spent posing for himself, (a proto-Selfie addict one might say) yet instead of having a relevant impact the work languishes in self-assured loneliness. García-Alix desires our desire to fulfill his role as the photographer, but the attraction is skin-deep.
Similar issues arise with the large Congolese landscapes of Richard Mosse’s The Enclave (2013) that dominate in both presence and memory; those pink and magenta otherworldly scenes converting what is a desperate inhuman reality into a commodified alien fiction, remind us how futile photography can be at describing the real world. The blurb states that Mosse’s work contemplates the failure of documentary photography to “adequately communicate this complex and horrific cycle of violence” which is where an interesting turn takes place: has Mosse produced a body of work that ultimately fails because it is about failure, and if so, does this not make it a success? On the other hand, because Mosse has chosen such a superficial effect to use on such a weighty subject, has he subverted his own intentions and created a post-colonial pictorialisation of a far-flung conflict (suitable for viewing in pristine galleries and champagne biennales)?
However, with Lorna Simpson providing the third monochrome nomination, there was a great deal of ground returned. Her box grid array of found and constructed snapshots of an attractive black female posing for the camera in pseudo pin-up situations boosted the pace and stimulation. Summer ‘57/Summer ’09 (2009) offered more by way of aesthetic playfulness combined with conceptual depth. The renowned pioneer in the group, Simpson is unafraid of trying new combinations and techniques which goes some way to explaining her longevity as a relevant artist. Consistent interrogation of the photographic process coupled with a likewise interrogation of image culture and perception invests a confidence in her work. The movement through time, politics, production and presentation of Simpson’s installation is fun without taking away the darker undertones, as though there is a resurrectional subconscious to the anonymous smile of the small photographs.
One can understand the jury (Kate Bush, Jitka Hanzlová, Thomas Seelig, Anne-Marie Beckmann with Brett Rogers, Director of The Photographers’ Gallery, as the non-voting Chair) willfully defying definition for the Prize based on the success of previous years winners like Broomberg and Chanarin or John Stezaker. Unfortunately on this occasion it appears to have resulted in something looking altogether retrograde, as though there was an impulse to return to ‘pure’ photography albeit not wholeheartedly. While this may sound disconcerting to most of us, maybe it isn’t such a bad thing; the quiet time might in fact be necessary for a new burst of excitement next year – it may amount to a preparation for something spectacular. The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize may not have shook the tree in 2014, but that is not to say it will be caught resting on its laurels next year.It was with little surprise that Mosse won the Prize in the end, his work ticking most boxes including the one for ‘biggest noise’. But Mosse’s problematic project winning the Prize seemed almost too easy, and this could be seen in turn as a reason for a broader lack of excitement about this year’s Prize. Three intimate black-and-white bodies of work, by three older artists, versus the young, white thirty-something and his big, red, shiny hills in Africa sounds almost satirical.
Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2014 runs at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, from 11 April – 22 June 2014.