Review: Deutsche Börse Prize at The Photographers Gallery

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Chris Killip, What Happened: Great Britain 1970-1990

It’s always interesting to see who’s been shortlisted for The Deutsche Börse Prize. According to it’s mandate it should be four photographers who have produced work in the last year ‘which has significantly contributed to photography in Europe’, quite a big achivement for someone working in any media, but particularly one so diverse as photography. I have to admit I feel rather ambivalent about this year’s shortlist, perhaps because there are strong arguments for and against all four of the shortlisted photographers to win, here are some thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses in each.

Mishka Henner’s No Man’s Land uses Google Street View imagery to probe the highways and byways of southern Europe, seeking out the sex workers who wait by the side of often desolate rural roads for clients to hire them. Henner ‘finds’ these women using location information gleaned off internet forums. The resulting collection of images (and a video installation) is a strange journey through menacing grey zones, an exploration of voyeurism and surveillance, the integration of camera technologies and the internet. What it emphatically isn’t is an exploration of who these women are or why they are here. I liked a few things about Henner’s work, not least that it aggravates certain photographers and critics who don’t consider someone a ‘real’ photographer unless they leave the house. The work itself was a refreshingly strange thing to see on a gallery wall, with it’s pixelated, muted aesthetics and visual quirks (like the odd multiple vanishing points that sometimes occurred where one image was imperfectly stitched with another).

At the same time though various things make me uncomfortable about this work, some of which Henner appears to be playing on and others which don’t feel so resolved. The biggest is just the assumption that these women are sex workers, but then there is also the way Google’s automated face blurring reduces them to a state of almost pornographic anonymity, and also while I think of it even the implication of the title that all sex workers are women. In terms of a contribution to photography I also have to wonder how cutting edge this type of appropriated imagery is, given that quite a number of photographers have been using similar techniques since Street View’s debut six years ago, and I also feel I have to ask if some of the hype about this body of work stems from it’s questionable handling of the subject matter as much as its process or message.

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s War Primer 2 takes Bertolt Brecht’s (sadly relatively unknown) 1955 book and updates it for the era of the War on Terror. Brecht’s original work attempts to extract the meaning behind a series of Second World War photographs (a media Brecht regarded as profoundly untrustworthy) through short four line epigrams. Broomberg and Chanarin searched for images from the War on Terror that fitted with Brecht’s original poems, and in some cases with the original images, pasting them directly into copies of a recent reprint of the book, and screen printing in new titles and captions. I like the subject matter and the execution, particularly the idea of a book that exists on top of and within another book. Some of the photographs work brilliantly, one of the best being the image shown above of the twin towers overlaid onto an aerial photo of a bombed oil refinery, with the almost spookily resonant poem ‘A cloud of smoke told us that they were here/ They were sons of fire, not of the light/they came from where? they came out of darkness/ Where did they go? Into eternal night.’

I have two main concerns, first that I really feel it’s impossible to understand War Primer 2 except in the context of the original book (which few people I’ve asked seem to have actually seen). Having come to Brecht’s version first I rather feel what makes Broomberg and Chanarin’s updating compelling isn’t so much what they’ve added (clever as it is), but what was always there. It’s Brecht’s brilliant, insightful poetry that makes both versions of the book so compelling.  Then there’s also the issue of appropriating the work and rhetoric of a socialist like Brecht, and selling it on as a limited edition art piece at $560 a go (although I note they have now made an iPad version available for free, though this still seems to slightly miss the point). I could go on but won’t because I’ve written about similar issues before. I still think it’s a brave book which throws up some interesting ideas about media, and the relationship between text and images, and if it introduces another generation to Brecht’s genius perhaps that in itself is enough to overlook some of the problems.

Cristina de Middel’s Afronauts is a self-published photobook that has been something of a sensation this year, rapidly selling out, and with second hand copies now commanding vast prices. The beautifully designed book takes Zambia’s eccentric and short lived space program as the starting point for an imagining of an African mission to Mars, with a resulting combination of photographs, drawings and letters that that knowingly reference Afro-pessimism and European stereotypes about the ‘dark continent’. I love the blurring of fact and fiction in this project, and the mixing of medias. A nice touch are the letters which read like Nigerian 401 scam e-mails (another African stereotype de Middel has imaginatively photographed). The book is beautiful looking, it’s a shame that the one on display in the gallery is shown closed and sealed in a Perspex box because having heard so much about it I would have liked to see more of it.

Indeed I feel I’ve heard more about the book than the project itself, collectors and reviewers have tended to rave about it’s beautiful design and the photography itself seems to have almost played second fiddle to this, a problematic tendency in the wider indie photo book world from what I have observed. The photographs are quirky and funny but somehow leave me with a feeling of unease, perhaps because I don’t feel like leave much room for manoeuvre, you either get the joke or you don’t, and I wonder if to some observers Afronauts will just seem like an example of the things it sets out to parody. Perhaps this doesn’t matter, at any rate reasons of length dictate that it is a discussion for another time.

Lastly Chris Killip’s What Happened: Great Britain 1970-1990 explores the effects of the de-industrial revolution which so profoundly changed the social and economic fabric of the United Kingdom that we are still coming to terms with it forty years later. Killip’s black and white, socially concerned documentary photographs are quite a surprise after three galleries of very conceptual work, but pleasantly so. There is a timelessness about these photographs despite their very fixed date and geography. Maybe this is partly due to the subject matter; a mixture of disenchanted, dejected figures and desolate urban and rural landscapes. Perhaps it also stems from Killip’s retracing of ground so rich in history, his Jarrow of 1976 feels as if it might simultaneously be the Jarrow of 1936 and in some respects it is.

My main problem with this work is just the context I find it in, it’s that old problem of putting material of this sort up on gallery walls with short, uninformative titles. I want to know so much more in every case than the information provided, which is deeply frustrating as I’m left relying on supposition and assumption to understand the images. I haven’t been able to find much detail on the exhibition he was nominated for so I can’t judge how much more information was available there, in other words whether the lack of information is down to Killip or a curator. Regardless of this minor complaint, and despite being part of a conventional documentary tradition, Killip’s work oddly feels the most subversive and relevant on show because in a country gripped by austerity, with Thatcher just buried and her ideological successors in office, what Killip is offering us seems so painfully recognisable.

The Deutsche Börse Prize is on at The Photographers Gallery until 30th June 2013, the winner is announced on 10th June

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