Conflicting Interests: A Follow Up

KC Green

I wanted to write a short update to my previous piece about conflicts of interest and transparency in the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation prize.

After a rather drawn out back and forth with The Photographers Gallery they have provided me with the guidelines used by the jury and chair. You can read them in their entirety here, but I just want to focus here on the bits that relate to what I actually talked about in my piece: transparency and conflicts of interest. Before launching into that I think it’s worth mentioning that the gallery maintain the line that there was no conflict of interest in this year’s judging as the The Winners book was not part of the shortlisted exhibition. Milach states here that the series The Winners project was part of the shortlisted exhibition Refusal. I think the gallery are trying to draw a very fine semantic line in distinguishing between the project and the book in this way, but as we will see in a moment the competition guidelines give them that perogative, and that’s really the problem because as they stand the rules are incredibly open ended.

The DBPF prize rules state that jury members must: ‘Disclose any personal involvement with specific bodies of work nominated for the prize to the panel.’ They also state that the chair must ‘Rule out any projects nominated where a member of the jury would financially benefit from the award.’ The rules say nothing about any other conflicts of interest, for example where a nominated photographer is a relative (but would not in any obvious sense gain financially from the award) or where a jury member has been closely involved in another part of the photographer’s work or career besides the project nominated. In the absence of more detailed guidelines it’s essentially up to the jury and chair to decide what constitutes a conflict of interest (and for that matter what constitutes financial gain), and as these deliberations are treated as confidential there is absolutely no transparency about how this is decided or managed.

In short what this means is that my own mother could be a juror standing in judgement of my work, and could have been heavily involved with every aspect of my career except the project under consideration and if you follow these guidelines to the letter that would not be considered a conflict of interest. Even if she disclosed this (which she wouldn’t have to) it would then be up to the jury and chair to decide if that represented a conflict of interest, and if they decided it wasn’t then they wouldn’t have to justify their decision to anyone, or even reveal that it had been discussed.

Maybe I find this all staggering because I haven’t spent my entire career working in photography and the arts. None of the other sectors I’ve worked in; public health, international development, and academia, would tolerate such ambiguity and opaqueness in a process leading to an award of £30,000. This isn’t even to consider the implications for photography in a broader sense when one realises the role these prizes play in influencing taste, and when so many people (including many of my students) look to awards  as a yardstick for what contemporary photography matters, and by association what does not. In my view the rules of the prize, particularly those that relate to conflicts of interest, need drastically strengthening and when conflicts of interest do occur the process by which they are dealt with needs to be made far more transparent to the public who support the gallery’s activities. To the people who criticised me for not contacting the gallery or jury before publishing that was precisely the point of the piece, that this information shouldn’t need to be sought, it should be given.

Based on my exchange with the gallery they seem to be intent on sticking to the line that everything is fine, and won’t engage with the idea of even reviewing the rules, much less changing them. Again if you feel as I do that this is not an ok way for them operate, please let them know it. I am not going to delve in detail into the pressure and personal abuse I’ve been subjected to for bringing this issue up, driven in large part by the (sometimes I think intentional) misrepresentation of my writing, or by people who have weighed in to the discussion without actually reading what I wrote. Even the gallery initiated their dialogue with me by describing my piece as ‘misleading’ and ‘inaccurate’ without qualifying those claims with any evidence, and then not providing evidence even when I asked them to do so. Suffice to say I am not cowed by this, I am still here, and I will still draw attention to these things when I see them occur.

There is a section of the photography world that needs to learn quite a bit from this episode (but probably won’t). For starters it needs to learn to distinguish the personal from the professional, because that is what is at the core of many of the problems here. It needs to learn not to shoot the messenger, but to engage with the message however unpalatable its contents might be, and to be open to self-critique and change in response. Lastly it needs to learn what transparency and conflicts of interest actually are, and why clarity and openess about them are so important. Otherwise the higher echelons of our industry will always be an insiders game, lacking in transparency to the audiences who it claims to engage. In the long run that will only harm photography, and the people who make and enjoy it.

Conflicting Interests: The Deutsche Börse Foundation Prize 2018

Luke Willis Thompson – Autoportrait

When I gave up writing this blog, I thought that the four years and three hundred odd posts would have made it pretty clear where I stand critically, and ethically. I thought that editors would either understand and respect these things when they asked me to write for them, or they simply wouldn’t ask. Some recent experiences suggest otherwise, and so a review originally intended for one place now needs to find an alternative home. That place, after considering all the other options, can only be Disphotic, briefly returned from the dead. I promise I will not make resurrection a habit.

This review concerns The Deutsche Börse Foundation Prize hosted at The Photographers Gallery in London, a competition which I have written about many times before, and which I make no bones about having very mixed feeling about it, both because of the sponsor, and because of what I feel is the generally unhealthy effect that prizes often have on the creative fields. These issues aside, this year’s iteration consists of an interestingly political shortlist selected by a five-person jury, from an initial longlist proposed by 100 anonymous nominators. It is however also a shortlist which illustrates a difficulty with the fashion for politically inflected art. The problem being that if you are going to champion works which challenge opacity and wrongdoing, I think you need to be pretty open and clean yourself. Put another way it is no good adopting the guise of critique while also being unwilling to practice self-critique or engage with it when it comes from outside. Any reviewer worth their salt knows that if you live by the sword, the pen, or for that matter anything else, then you also need to be prepared to die by these things.

To the exhibition then. The first of the four on show is the New Zealand artist Luke Willis Thompson who is shortlisted for his exhibition autoportrait, which took place at Chisenhale Gallery, London. This work consists of a filmed portrait of Diamond Reynolds, the young American woman pulled to public attention in 2016 after she broadcast to Facebook Live a stream of video showing the aftermath of her partner Philando Castile being shot and killed by police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Collaborating with Reynolds Thompson has created a cinematic portrait which attempts to act as a ‘sister-image’, counterbalancing the much more widely known and shared video of her. Eschewing the low resolution digital ephemerality of a smartphone for an enormous projection from a 35mm cine projector installed in the gallery, autoportrait offers a space for reflection amongst the other works and becomes incrementally more absorbing and moving the longer one spends with it.

It does however raise the question of whether the Deutsche Börse prize’s remit, to reward ‘a living artist of any nationality who has made the most significant contribution … to the [sic] photography in Europe in the previous year’ is actually useful. It might seem to be splitting hairs to point out that autoportrait is a video piece, which is not in any sense a suggestion that the work should not be in the shortlist, because for me at least it is one of the stronger pieces on display. Rather it is to point out that as ‘photography’ comes to encompass almost anything from performance to computationally derived images, the basic terms of this and many other photographic prizes seem more than ever to need rethinking. Even the old trusty recourse of ‘lens-based media’ seems clunky and self-conscious when so many fine and important works are being created without the need of even a piece of shaped glass.

Next, the French-Venezuelan photographer Mathieu Asselin is shortlisted for his book Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation, published by Actes Sud. In the interests of transparency, I have been a bit of a cheerleader for Asselin’s project since I first encountered it in 2016, and time has done little to lessen my sense that this is a really important work. Over five years Asselin has systematically investigated the agrochemical corporation Monsanto, compiling what is effectively a dossier of visual and textual evidence of the damage that their business has done internationally. From Vietnamese children still suffering the consequences of the highly toxic military defoliant Agent Orange, to United States farmers driven to the verge of bankruptcy by restrictive seed contracts and aggressive litigation against infractors. Asselin’s work is a prime example of what might be termed ‘investigative documentary photography’, but as well as taking the micro-approach of investigating one particular company, it also hints at the macro issue of a world where multi-national companies rampage remarkably unchecked.

Asselin’s display is also one of the better uses of space in the show, sensibly choosing to use the gallery to display a number of things which could never function in the original book form. More impressively he has done something I can remember no other shortlistee doing, which is to make a direct connection between the topic of his work and the sponsor of the prize. To do this Asselin has added an extra chapter to his project, one which focuses on the stock market and Monsanto’s pending merger with chemical giant Bayer AG. Two framed tablets in the gallery show Monsanto’s share price as listed on Deutsche Börse’s own stock index app, a neat reminder that the sponsor of this prize is also a facilitator and beneficiary of the type of necrotic capitalism that Asselin is critiquing. When so many avowedly left-wing, critical artists pathetically roll over at the first sight of a corporate sponsor, it is reassuring to encounter one who follows his critique right the way through.

Next, the Swiss artist Batia Suter is shortlisted for her publication Parallel Encyclopedia #2, published by Roma in 2016. A sprawling book, Parallel Encyclopedia #2 merges photographs taken from over a thousand sources into a series of chapters where one type of image flows into another, in doing so seeking to explore the ‘iconographic transformation of images’. The book encompasses everything from anonymous technical photographs to engravings by Gustave Doré, and the subject matter is similarly varied with astronomical photographs sharing page space alongside stills of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. The core idea the book has something resonant of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, an idiosyncratic attempt to identify shared aesthetic concerns across disparate art works. However, unlike Warburg’s atlas which had such a strong and peculiar thesis at its core, Batia’s encyclopedia seems noticeably lacking in a central argument or conviction about what these images are doing and why that matters, and if one exists it gets watered down by the sheer quantity of material.

For me Parallel Encyclopedia #2 is a good example of the way many appropriative photographic works seem to have ceased to be about specific, carefully judged interventions, and increasingly seem to have instead become about sheer quantity. This is rather a shame, because with our present age of digitally induced visual overload it often seems that the former type of appropriation potentially has more to say, than the latter. Viewing the shortlist as a whole and thinking in terms of the prize’s proclaimed remit, it is sometimes easy to imagine the thinking that led a jury to shortlist a particular work. In the case of Suter’s work however it is rather hard to guess the reason, although there are certainly some resonances with the work of juror Penelope Umbrico. On the other hand, perhaps realising that the other works shortlisted this year were all so avowedly political the jury decided they needed to include something of a counter-balance to that.

Finally, the Polish photographer Rafal Milach is shortlisted for his exhibition Refusal, which was held at Atlas Szutki Gallery, Lodz. This work looks at forms of subtle state control and manipulation in post-Soviet countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan. The strategies and forms on show are various, ranging from incomplete monumental architecture, to intellectual games intended to mould and develop the cognitive capabilities of children. It would be easy to misinterpret this work as an example of post-Soviet ‘ruin porn’ extended into the realm of mind, except the historical resonances and geographic specificities of the work are much less interesting than are the connections with ‘fake news’ and other forms of contemporary political influencing. Refusal is an outgrowth of Milach’s much lauded 2014 book The Winners, and a copy of this is on show as part of his display in the gallery. The Winners was published by GOST, a publishing house co-founded by Gordon MacDonald, one of the members of this year’s jury. MacDonald may have since quietly exited from GOST, but the association lingers. To my mind this is a remarkable conflict of interest, worthy of some explanation, but in the gallery it is passed over without any acknowledgement at all.

[EDIT: the subtlety of what I am saying here seems to be lost on some readers, so to clarify; I am not accusing MacDonald of exploiting a conflict of interest for his own benefit or anyone elses, only identifying that one exists as a consequence of his prior relationship to Milach and his position on the jury, and that it is problematic that this is not acknowledged anywhere.]

It may not have occurred to any of those involved that this could look dubious, but that is also very much part of the problem. There is a prevailing attitude in photography that regards accountability and transparency as superfluous, or not even worth thinking about. The corollary of this is an industry which too often operates like an old boy’s network, where mechanisms of decision making are opaque, and conflicts of interest are brushed over with a wink and a funny handshake (see my concerns about the 2016 Paris Photo Aperture Photobook Prize for another example). As if to illustrate my point, and to explain why you read this review here and not elsewhere, the editor who originally commissioned it then declined to publish it unless I removed this section of the review. In a phone call she explained had known MacDonald for years and doubted he would have done this intentionally, something which fails to appreciate that some of the worse conflicts of interest are not consciously committed. Indeed, the term ‘conflict of interest’ describes a state where such an abuse of position is possible, not a state where one has necessarily taken place. In the same call I was also advised that I didn’t need to ‘burn my bridges’ by publishing this piece myself. If there are three words that sum up much of what is wrong with this industry it is these.

One of the reasons I gave up blogging was the sense it didn’t achieve much, and because I don’t want this to just be another dead-end rant I have a request to make of you, kind reader. If like me you feel the Deutsche Börse Foundation and The Photographers Gallery could do better and be much more transparent please take five minutes to let them know. You can phone, e-mail or tweet, and if either of the latter feel free to CC me in. That is all from me, I am back into blogging retirement, and off to work in the Channel Islands for the next six months on a new project about (you guessed it!) financial transparency. I take some heart at least from the fact that Jersey has hosted a number of exiled writers in the past, not least amongst them Victor Hugo, and also from the fact there are no bridges to the island which might tempt my pyrotechnicist tendencies.

The winner of the £30,000 prize (which at the time of writing would buy you roughly 336 shares of Monsanto stock, or 317 shares of Deutsche Börse stock) is announced at The Photographers Gallery on 17th May 2018.

You can read Gordon Macdonald’s response here.

You can read exhibition curator Anna Dannemann’s response here.

You can read editor Christiane Monarchi’s response here.

You can read my follow up piece here.

Review – Burden of Proof at The Photographer’s Gallery

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Face-skull superimposition of Josef Mengele.
Richard Helmer

Recent years have seen the evidential limitations of photography thoroughly investigated, indeed almost to the point of exhaustion. I don’t mean that in the sense that we have run out of examples of apparently evidential photography which might under inspection reveal themselves to be highly suspect, there are still plenty of these. Rather I mean that as a photography consuming culture I think we are increasingly tired of hearing from a succession of experts that this thing we all have vested so much belief in is, in reality, something of a sham. Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence which has just opened at The Photographers Gallery offers a wonderfully balanced assessment of the complications of using photographs as evidence. It reveals that while photographic evidence might be highly constructed, ambiguous, selective and often far from incontrovertible (what evidence isn’t?), the evidential roles that photography fulfills in our society remain for the most part too important for us to reject them outright..

The first gallery consists primarily of archival imagery from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, starting with the remarkable ‘God’s eye view’ photographs made using a system developed by the 19th century criminologist Alphonse Bertillon. In these images the camera appears to hover almost unsupported directly above the bodies of the deceased, the wide angle lens causing the wider crime scene in the periphery of the frames to curve away and disappear into a soft blur. Despite these images showing bodies which have been ravaged by violence and decomposition they are still irresistibly beautiful in a way it is hard to imagine anyone finding the starkly functional forensic photography of today. Other works in this gallery include the first photographs of the Turin Shroud (the ‘first forensic photograph’ later revealed as a medieval fake) and photographs taken of victims of Stalinist purges before their execution, an intriguing example of how a piece evidence produced for one purpose can later be turned around and reformed as evidence against it’s maker.

The second gallery opens with archive footage filmed at liberated German concentration camps by Allied cameramen who were issued highly specific instructions about how they were to film the unimaginable scenes they encountered (perhaps not unlike those guidelines by which police forensic investigators work today). Strangely though these guidelines were drawn up by the director John Ford, an auteur now most synonymous with the western, a genre of fantasy which are so often taken as fact. Such was the perceived importance of this footage to the Nuremburg trials that the court room was reconstructed around the cinema screen which took the position normally afforded to the judge, and neon lighting was reported to cast a ghoulish light across the faces of the accused. Hardly an objective arrangement.

Several of the works in this gallery are presented as part of research by Eyal Weizman who directs Goldsmith’s Forensic Architecture Centre. In one piece a series of mid-century British aerial photographs of what is now Israel are probed for evidence of ancient cemeteries which would lend legitimacy to the claims of nomads who were forced from their lands in the wake of the 1947 partition. Given the limited resolution of the film used and the height that these photographs were taken at, these tiny graves lie at what Weizman terms the threshold of detectability, and are perceptible only as single grains of silver in the photographic emulsion. This level of detail proved too precise or contestable for the Israeli state which rejected the claim of the nomads.

The works in Burden of Proof are all taken from real world investigations, and refreshingly there is hardly an ‘artist’ in sight with the exception of Susan Meiselas who helped to photograph the excavation of a mass grave from the anti-Kurdish Anfal campaign. In spite of this many of the works on display still manage to have an artistic patina about them, partly I suppose a result of the rather lavish production of the exhibition, partly a result of the way consciously non-artistic aesthetics have permeated into contemporary art practice, but also mostly just because of the curious ability of photography to remould itself to the different circumstances in which it is seen.

Another contribution from Weizman highlights this pretty well. It examines the forensic investigation to determine whether a body found in Brazil was that of Josef Mengele, the Todesengel or Angel of Death who presided over exterminations and human experimentation at Auschwitz. As part of this investigation pioneering new techniques were developed which allowed superimposition of an archive image of the deceased over a video feed of the exhumed skull. In the resulting images Mengele’s leering face emerges out of and dissolves back into his skull in a way with far more emotional resonance than a forensic science experiment might be expected to permit. Even with this compelling visual evidence, the identity of the skull remained contested until it was later possible to undertake DNA testing, which confirmed that it was indeed Mengele’s.

I think it’s worth noting that the Burden of Proof underwent a name change in it’s transition from Le Bal in Paris where it was first staged under titled Images of Conviction, to it’s new form at the Photographers Gallery. I find the new title highly suggestive, as the original one is although perhaps in different ways than it might have been to it’s French audiences. The burden in this case is the burden of knowing all too well about photography’s limitations, its biases and selectivities, and of using it anyway. The burden falls on us as viewer, to equip ourselves with the knowledge to understand what a photograph is and how it works and how it dosen’t. The burden is one of faith as much as evidence, and the onus is on us to question our convictions and perhaps most difficult of all, to determine the threshold of our own belief in photography.

Review – The Deutsche Börse Prize 2015 at The Photographers Gallery

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Nikolai Bakharev
Untitled #70, from the series Relation, 1991-1993

While in the past I might have slightly criticised some competitions for being too rigidly certain about the type of photographs they want to shortlist, the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize is a competition with something of an identity crisis, an uncertainty about what it is really about. According to the sponsor’s own site it is a prize intended to reward a photographer ‘who has made the most significant contribution … to the medium of photography in Europe in the previous year’ but walking through the galleries and looking at this year’s short-list there seemed to be little that really met (my interpretation of) this vague remit. This isn’t to say the work on show was bad, far from it, but I challenge anyone who has seen this exhibition to say they found their sense of the landscape of photography particularly altered by it.

The first piece of work I encountered was probably the most hyped. Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s mammoth six year investigation of Ponte City, Johannesburg. Built as a luxury tower block during the era of white South Africa rule Ponte City later became the continent’s tallest slum. Subotzky and Waterhouse have systematically documented the building and the gallery display includes three dramatic floor to ceiling light boxes showing hundreds of photographs of doors, windows and television sets in the building. To offset the rather distant, typological nature of the light boxes there are also a series of found documents and photographs rescued from the tower block on display on the walls. These certainly humanised the inhabitants but also made for uncomfortable viewing, and perhaps not for the reasons intended. Here are intimate moments and personal information, left or lost for who knows what reason, scooped up and re-purposed for a gallery wall in an affluent city half a world away. Amongst the documents is an application for asylum in Canada, the author describing the murder of his father, the raping of his mother and sister. It’s one of the few moments in this display that a voice other than that of the two artists seems to emerge, and that muteness stands in stark contrast to voices of the subjects in some similarly exhaustive documentary works, like that of The Sochi Project.

Viviane Sassen’s Umbra was next, billed as a journey into a Jungian inner world. Continuing the artist’s interest in obscure astronomical titles (see my review of Analemma here) I found this work rather more interesting than her previous fashion focused outing at the gallery. Some of the photographs submerge you in this inner world more effectively than others, and particularly (if predictably) potent were the apparently everyday images which somehow manage to impart an unspeakable feeling, like an image of a yawning black hole dug in vivid red soil. At times though it felt as if Sassen was distracted by the opportunity to display photographs were just rather beautiful. An entire wall of nearly abstract photographs are an example of this, they look stunning but seemed out of place, and also somehow overly familiar. Sassen’s display is also accompanied by two video pieces. One is an inverted video of two arms signing the words to a poem composed by Maria Baramas which didn’t hold my attention for long. The other shows a rolling stream of Sassen’s photographs on a monitor which has been forced into the corner of a room. On the perpendicular wall is a mirror which reflects the stream of photographs, causing them to mirror and morph as they change like some sort of dynamic klecksograph or ink blot, a method of probing the unconscious mind which was inspired by (if not entirely embraced) by Jung. It demonstrates Sassen’s strong sense of how to use an exhibition space, which was also probably the highlight of Analemma.

Next was Nikolai Bakharev’s aptly named Relation series. Working as mechanic in the Soviet Union, Bakharev began to supplement his income by taking commissioned portraits and on display are a small selection of images taken between 1988 and 1993 at public beaches near Novokuznetsk, as the Soviet Union was unravelling. Bakharev’s deceptively simple photographs show families, children, friends and lovers, skilfully posed against backdrops of flourishing nature. They have a poignantly romantic air about them much more akin to the photographs of Piotr Vedenisov and other pre-revolution Russian photographers than any figure of the Soviet era, though in some ways these make a compelling mirror image to the much darker work of Boris Mikhailov, particularly his work made during this same post-Soviet transitional period. Again these photographs are not formally or conceptually ground breaking and probably won’t change how you think about photography, but in light of their social significance and their indirect relationship to what is currently going on in Russia perhaps they deserve some recognition for that alone. As I noted of Chris Killip in 2012, sometimes the gesture of selecting the most outwardly traditional photographer would in itself send ripples in an art world that often favours pointless innovations for their own sake.

Finally I got to the work of Zanele Muholi, a visual activist who has been documenting the LGBTI community in South Africa for many years. Despite the country’s self-declared status as the ‘rainbow nation’ and the fact that it has some of the most permissive laws on sexuality in the entire continent, LGBTI South African’s still face discrimination, harassment and violence. Muholi’s display consists of an entire wall of portraits, simple but beautiful, direct frontal shots of an assortment of men and women with only the most minimal of contextual information provided. The lack of information works pretty effectively, at first you rather inevitably try to guess the orientation of the people you’re looking at, but pretty quickly you have to give this up. In the end the work very effectively reminds you that they’re just people. To the left of this portrait grid is a massive white sheet on to which an assortment of messages and accounts have been handwritten. Some are gruelling descriptions of attacks and murders, others are simpler statements, ‘we all [heart] womyn’ is the one that lingers in my head. More accounts and narratives are readable in the four copies of Muholi’s book Faces and Phases which are on display in the gallery. Beyond the topicality of the subject matter (remember a photograph of a gay Russian couple won the World Press this year) the significance of Muholi’s work for me is that voices of her subjects are so present, almost to the extent of being more visible than the photography itself. This enormously important for reasons I don’t have space to fully explore here, and stands in stark contrast to the general absence I found in Subotzky and Waterhouse’s work.

Perhaps the identity crisis in The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize’s choice of shortlisted work stems at least partly from the fact this is, like any big sponsored prize, is an exercise in corporate self-promotion. It was a funny coincidence that the morning I was due to go and have a look at the exhibition I was listening to a series of very interesting talks at the Royal Institute of Anthropology on culture of the finance sector, which included some very innovative and timely photographic work focused on the global financial crisis (the sort of work which will never appear in this sort of prize). I think it’s useful to see any competition not so much as an objective judgement on what is good photography, but rather a series of filters through which submitted work passes, and in the case of corporate prizes one of these filters is of course the sponsors own interests. As photographers or people who want to look at photography we obviously benefit from this relationship, but as I’ve often suggested before there might have to come a point where we ask if what we lose through it is really worth the few pieces of silver we gain.

Review – Anima and On The Widest Prairies by Charlotte Dumas at The Photographers Gallery

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Charlotte Dumas, Untitled, from the series Anima, 2012
© Charlotte Dumas, Courtesy of the artist

Sometimes you see an exhibition and initially feel there isn’t much to say about it, but after leaving the gallery the thoughts planted by the work start to grow and intermingle, and you find yourself drawn back to write about it. So it was with Anima and On The Wildest Prairies, the first UK solo show of Dutch artist Charlotte Dumas, which has just opened at the Photographer’s Gallery.

The majority of the gallery space is taken up with photographs from The Widest Prairies, a series made near Dayton, Nevada where Dumas tracked wild horses, the descendants of horses ridden in the territory in nineteenth century. These superficially straightforward photographs show beautiful if rather scraggy horses in a rugged, quintessentially American landscape. Quintessential perhaps but certainly not idealised, the background and sometimes foreground of these images are scattered with human detritus and construction; piles of rubbish, half built houses and mobile homes. Likewise the horses, beautiful as they often are, are not exactly romanticised symbols of freedom. They rather obviously live in close proximity to people and in some cases have more of the the air of urban foxes rather than free roaming mustangs.

Dumas states that she’s interested in exploring the relationship between viewer and subject, person and animal. For me though the real interest in The Widest Prairies are the mixed metaphors and symbolism. Horses are emblematic of the United States, and particularly the American west, ‘living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit’ is how they are described by an act of Congress. This is something of an irony since horses are neither by most measures ‘American’, nor particularly convincing symbols of freedom. They are imports, brought by the first settlers and explorers to help in the pacification of one of the last wild continents, a wildness typified by regions like the one which would become the present day state of Nevada, now adulterated by urban sprawl. Horses were in effect pathfinders for the railway, and then later the freeway, the industrial tendrils which would follow in the hoof prints of those early pioneers, gradually encircling and constricting a continent.

There’s also an obvious symbolic dissonance in the idea of horses as symbols of freedom, in that they are more often potent examples of nature subdued, tamed and bent to man’s will. As if to echo these thoughts several of the images focus on a program at the Northern Nevada Correctional Facility, where inmates are encouraged to tame and train wild horses as part of their rehabilitation. A strange example of man doing unto animal what been done unto man.

Interesting as the photographs were, for me the undoubted highlight of the show is Dumas’s first foray into video, a piece called Anima which for me far better achieves her stated aim of probing the viewer’s emotional connection to an animal. Anima consists of a series of clips of caisson burial horses of Arlington National Cemetery in the United States at night in their stables, gently drifting in and out of sleep and wakefulness. Here in the half dark of the projection space, these enormous animals twitch into and out of waking in a way which is profoundly moving, and encourages association with them as fellow living creatures. In the ambiguous place between sleeping and waking their characteristics are most powerfully heightened, and the contrast of gentle curiosity and raw power is overwhelming.

On The Wildest Prairies is on at The Photographers Gallery from 6th February 2015 to 6th April 2015.

Review – Human Rights, Human Wrongs at The Photographers Gallery

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Robert Lebeck
Leopoldville [Young man steals the sword of King Baudouin I, during procession with newly appointed
President Kasavubu], Leopoldville, Republic of the Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), June 30 1960
Gelatin silver print, RIC.2012.0111 Collection of the Ryerson Image Centre

‘…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. So starts the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, perhaps the defining document of the post-Second World War era, and an artefact central to Human Rights, Human Wrongs, a new exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery curated by Mark Sealy. Using photographs from the far reaching Black Star press agency archive, Sealy seeks to show how inhumanity functions in the context of press photography, how appalling acts are recorded, selected and circulated, and ultimately whether the resulting photographs work for or against a better world.

The exhibition constitutes an overwhelming number of photographs, of a huge range of events occuring across the middle part of the twentieth century. Mounted in small black frames, the archive prints flow across the walls of the gallery in an ongoing stream of images which echo the stream of abuses they record. Moving around the gallery is like leaping in a disorientating way across time and space, from Biafra, to Vietnam, apartheid South Africa to segregated America. One could speculate about the real life analogue this arrangement is designed to act as metaphor for. Perhaps the ongoing flow of history, the torrent of news images which we are more keenly aware of now than ever, or even simply the idiosyncratic organisation of archives. Which is correct is less important than the effect, which is overwhelming.

The majority of the photographs are presented as single, solitary moments within larger events; wars, murders, tortures, famines. However also dispersed amongst these single pictures are some sets comprising multiple images of the same event, producing an ongoing narrative of a short sequence which often flows out of and back into the more disjointed single pictures. The photograph above, Young man steals the sword of King Baudouin I, is an example of this. We see the event broken down into small fragments, from the martial procession just before its disruption, to the final moment when the young man is bundled uncomfortable on to the floor of a military jeep and driven away, to what fate we can only guess.

These larger sets of connected image give an altogether stronger sense of the generation and selection of these images in a news context, but what is notably missing is their final use of these images in print. There are some photographs of LIFE magazine in a vitrine showing photo essays from concentration camps like Nordhausen and Belsen, but they refer to events prior to the photographs on show and act more as a reminder of a continuum that the Universal Declaration was supposed to put an end to. Instead looking at this exhibition it feels rather as if the events of the Second World War were not the impetus to put an end to human rights abuses, but more the opening of a Pandora’s box of violence and cruelty, which has corrupted practically every country on earth.

On that note, one of the stranger inclusions from the archive is a cluster of Nobel Peace Prize winners, including Jimmy Carter, Yasser Arafat, Anwar Sadat, and in another part of the gallery, of Ho Chi Min, who won but declined the prize. These portraits of Nobel laureates (some more unlikely than others) are a reminder that the question of human rights is not always an area of moral binaries or clearly delineated figures of good and evil. Many people, organisations and nations which are seen as upholders of human rights in one domain are sometimes simultaneously guilty of terrible abuses in others. Equally one gets a powerful sense from this show our strange tendency to see human rights almost as a finite resource, and the common assumption that one person’s gain in this sphere comes at another’s loss, would seem to underpin a great deal of man’s continuing inhumanity to man.

Human Rights, Human Wrongs is at The Photographers Gallery from February 6th 2015 until April 6th 2015.

Review – Edward Steichen: In High Fashion at The Photographers Gallery

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Edward Steichen, Actress Mary Heberden, 1935 (Vogue, March 15, 1935)
Courtesy of Condé Nast Archive, Condé Nast Publications, Inc, New York
Paul Hawryluk, Dawn Lucas and Rachael Smalley

As I noted in a review of Vivianne Sassen’s current exhibition, one of the reasons I sometimes struggle to get excited about fashion photography is that in the end the vast mass of it never manages to escape the gravity of the original reason for its existence, which is to sell stuff. A few photographers do manage to transcend this, and I think Edward Steichen was one of them. This was an achievement perhaps made more remarkable (or depending on your viewpoint, perhaps more understandable) by the fact that he was working at a time when fashion photography as we know it today simply didn’t exist.

Alongside the Sassen show, The Photographers Gallery also has an exhibition highlighting Steichen’s productive years working as chief photographer for Condé Nast publications between 1923 and 1937. Starting started out as a painter, Steichen’s his career was marked by a constant dabbling with photography. Enroute to study in Paris in 1901 he found time to sell several of his photographs to Alfred Stieglitz, then a major figure in a relatively small photographic world. Steichen quickly established a reputation as a skilled portrait photographer in Paris and on his return to the United States, notched up photographs of the notoriously impatient J.P Morgan amongst others sitters. In 1923, reputedly after taking a favourable photograph of Miss Nast of the Condé Nast publishing dynasty, Steichen was offered a position as taking portraits for the pages of Vanity Fair.

Stiechen’s background as a painter is evident in many of his photographs. Beyond the painterly pictorialist aesthetic evident in his earlier portraits, it’s clear in his sophisticated awareness of tone, light and dark for example, as in a 1925 portrait of Helen Menken, the white of her face looming out of a black background which mingles beautifully with her hair. It’s also evident in the way he positions and poses his subjects. While many are at first glance traditional and formal in posing, Steichen introduces dynamism in subtle ways, drawing diagonals across the frame with the line of an arm for example. This dynamism is there in many of his photographs, and in a self-portrait one even gets a sense of it in Steichen himself. He is shown crouching before an array of photographic equipment which almost look set to tip over him, he himself is primed and tense as if ready to leap at a moment’s notice. Despite his background Steichen was no traditionalist, and took advantage of emerging new technologies including faster films and portable lights to increasingly take his subjects out of the studio and into real world locations.

Having demonstrated his skills as a portraitist it didn’t take Steichen long to branch out into producing fashion photographs for the pages of another Condé Nast title; Vogue. What’s remarkable isn’t just this rapid ascendency to the position of highest paid photographer in the world, but that in the process Steichen was drastically changing how fashion was seen and marketed. Until his appearance on the scene drawings had been the primary method of fashion advertising in magazines, remarkable when you consider that technically speaking photographs had been easily reproducible in print for more than forty years. Steichen upended this.

Steichen’s photographs sometimes charmingly dated now, very much the cliché of 1920’s fashion and photography, but recognising the familiarity of these tropes in his photography is a reminder of the part he played in defining the fashion photography of the era, and since. Its interesting considering one of Vivianne Sassen’s claims to fame is drawing fashion photography back away from the cult of the celebrity, that Steichen’s photographs similarly tend to place far more emphasis on the setting and the clothing than on the model, even when that model is something of a celebirty. Given the role of fashion photography today and the great debates over it’s positive and negative influences, his role as effective founder of the genre puts Steichen in quite a position, for better or for worse, as someone to which all fashion photographers today probably pay homage, whether they realise it or not.

Edward Steichen: In High Fashion is at The Photographers’ Gallery, 31 October 2014 – 18 January 2015

(Critical transparency: Exhibition seen free at a press view, normally £4.50, but free Admission Mon – Fri, 10.00 – 12.00)

Review – Analemma by Vivian Sassen at The Photographers Gallery

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Viviane Sassen, Biotope, Purple Fashion, Spring/Summer 2004
© Viviane Sassen, Courtesy of the artist and The Photographers’ Gallery

While I’m interested in the cultural role of fashion photography, I have to admit that on an aesthetic (or, dare I say it, artistic) level it’s a genre I often struggle to get excited about. Despite this I was pleasantly surprised by Analemma, a new installation by the Dutch fashion photographer Vivian Sassen at The Photographers Gallery. I found the images in Analemma to be far from conventional examples of fashion photography, and to be a source of lots of interesting ideas about the genre and the industry it supports.

Not unlike the Lorenzo Vitturi show which appeared previously in the same space, Analemma is one of those rare shows where the installation deserves almost as much discussion as the photographs themselves, indeed the two are  inseparable in this case. There isn’t a single physical photograph on display in the gallery, instead a rolling stream of projected images are bounced off mirrors and cast across the floor and walls at strange angles, cropping and distorting the photographs in the process. For all the disorientation it causes you as a viewer (and the frustration it causes for writers trying to identify single images to talk about) it’s a surprising and rather refreshing way for a photographer to treat their work.

More importantly it’s all in the cause of making a point about the frenetic pace of fashion and photography, the constant demand and turnover of ideas and images, and the essential disposability of it all. Viewing the projection is initially an elating experience because of the speed and glitz of it, but over a longer curve of time it starts to become rather deflating and tiring as image washes over image and the eye is overloaded. Whether this is intentional or not isn’t quite clear, but even if not it seems like a rather apt effect, as I imagine this feeling isn’t far off the experience had by many who are embedded in the fashion world itself.

Turning to the images themselves then. Sassen has built up an enormous reputation and a price tag to match for her photographs, which combine a number of motifs to strong effect, and I just want to quickly examine three of these here. The first motif or trope is the way she uses and frames the bodies of her models. Sassen’s images tend make use of unconventional, and frankly often uncomfortable looking contortions and poses, which result in many little visual riddles for the viewer to unpick. I enjoyed these very much, the array of tricks she employs is incredibly wide and there’s little repetition of the same ideas, a tough thing to achieve in any area but particularly so with something so extensively photographed as the human body.

Another trope in her photographs is the tendency to mask any sign of her models as individuals, for example by physically covering or photographically distorting their faces. This approach is pitched rather as a conscious strategy on Sassen’s part, intended to remove the potentially dangerous cult of celebrity from the fashion genre. She’s maybe successful in that regard, but the resulting images take the popular view of fashion models as little more than ‘human clothes hangars’ to a new level of truth. The models are literally that, models, not people, and there’s a level of depersonalisation here which at times verges on the fetishistic. I imagine this is part of the success of the images in a fashion context, but it is a little more complex in the setting the photographs now find themselves in, and a rather deeper examination of this than I have space for is demanded.

The final motif in Sassen’s images is the use of bright colours and shapes which she traces back to her upbringing in Kenya, somewhere she recalled in an interview as a place of ‘vivid colours and strong contrasts of light and dark’. It’s easy to see this visual influence in her use of shape and colour, but the influence of Africa runs deeper in her work than this, and there are traces of it evident in things like the selection of models and sets, and the way that these are dressed and lit (the photograph I’ve used to illustrate this piece was picked with that point in mind).

Sassen’s style of photography is enormously influential, so much so that some high street chains have attempted to copy her signature style, albeit rather less effectively. With this in mind I think it’s irresistibly tempting then to ask why it’s taken a Dutch photographer to popularise this sort of ‘African’ imagery in the fashion world when one imagines there are indigenous African photographers working with similar visual references. This question seems particularly pertinent given Sassen’s Dutch nationality, a country with quite some colonial history in Africa, and beyond. Viewing her work and mulling over these thoughts I couldn’t help but see something of a parallel with Vlisco fabric, a product which seems quintessentially ‘African’ but which is produced in Holland for lucrative export back to the continent (the thought of it was particularly strong because Vlisco was a key motif in the Lorenzo Vitturi show I mentioned earlier).

There’s something at work in these photographs, something which I think reflects the much larger practices of the fashion industry, and in capitalist consumerism more generally. That is the tendency to appropriate, homogenise and repackage aspects of a culture which are for whatever reason perceived as appealing, often with little respect for the culture itself or it’s custodians, but with a singular view to making money. Making this point this isn’t exactly to accuse Sassen herself of a sort of cultural appropriation, I think the connection she feels to Africa is most likely genuine, but I think it may be at least a small part of her success in this industry. Sassen’s work is very interesting, and this show comes highly recommended, but it also I think rather inadvertently highlights some of the difficulties of transplanting photographs primarily produced in the service of profit, and viewing them instead in the context of art.

Analemma: Fashion Photography 1992 – 2012 is on at The Photographers Gallery from 31 October 2014 – 18 January 2015

Review – Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia at The Photographers Gallery

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PT Ivanov, First year of the military service, 1911

I must admit I had no idea that 2014 was the United Kingdom-Russia Year of Culture, I suppose in part because it has been so overshadowed in the news by Russia’s misadventure in Ukraine and a souring in relations with the UK. To mark this year a major program of visual arts has been organised including a number of photography exhibitions, the latest of which has just opened at The Photographers Gallery. Primrose is survey of early Russian colour photography, which uses the evolution of the medium as a way to mirror and chart the profound changes occurring in Russia from the 1860’s through to the final years of the Soviet Union.

The exhibition is split across two gallery spaces, the first covering photography in the Tsarist period, and the second looking at the post-revolutionary period. In the first space the selection of photographs and the definition of ‘colour photography’ is wonderfully broad and we’re offered everything from a series of strikingly contemporary autochromes by Pyotr Vedenisov, to hand painted photographs by anonymous amateurs and jobbing photographers.

These hand tinted photographs are wonderful, offering an intriguing middle ground between painting and photography, and reflecting the continued desirability of the former long after the invention of the latter. On some of these photographs the overpainting is so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable, on others it completely obliterates and hides the original image. In others still the two co-exist in an awkward harmony, as in a series of photographs of soldiers who have had their uniforms augmented with amusingly two dimensional capes and hats. This overpainting is also an interesting precursor to the much better known manipulation of photographs that would occur during the Soviet era.

The second gallery covers the post-revolutionary period and will I suspect have broader appeal, if only in the sense that it deals with an outwardly more dramatic period of history, and one which many more people are conscious of. Again the definition of colour photography is thrown wide, starting with a series of brilliant revolutionary photomontages made by Varvara Stepanova and Aleksander Rodchenko. Moving into the Stalin era, the straightjacketing of art with the introduction of socialist realism in 1932 is nicely illustrated with work by Vasily Ulitin made before and after this date. We see his shift away from pictorialism and ‘bourgeoise’ subjects like landscapes and into line with the tedious official prescriptions on acceptable artistic subjects and genres.

Perhaps the best represented photographer in the second gallery is Dimitri Balamants, known by most for his dynamic and often very beautiful black and white photographs of Russia’s Great Patriotic War. Knowing these images well it’s an odd experience to see the incredibly stilted colour work he produced after the war as an official photographer working to a very different brief, often staging photographs rather than responding to dynamic events. For example one photograph ‘Do you see the Fault’ shows two children inspecting a model plane with extreme seriousness, presumably portending future careers as aircraft engineers. The death of Stalin (also documented by Balamants) marked a political and artistic thaw, and his work from the fifties onwards shifts towards a more relaxed – although in some ways oddly less interesting – style of photography more akin to western reportage.

The contemporary end of the spectrum is somewhat inevitably represented by Boris Mikahlov. His photographs are as ever brilliantly funny and sharp, and feel all the more so when you come to them after spending an hour or two looking at the rest of the photography, which is in various senses rather rigid. In this way at least his inclusion is a nice touch because it gives you a sense of what an explosive effect his work must have made when he first began showing it at small artists gatherings in the Soviet Union. In all this is a great show which gives a fascinating oversight of a vast topic in a surprisingly compact space. It might have been nice to see some less recognisable names from the Soviet era, and equally the timing of the show seems a little strange, opening as it did only shortly before the contemporary Russian photography exhibition at Calvert 22 closes, but these are two very minor complaints.

Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia is on at The Photographers Gallery until October 19th 2014.

Review – Dalston Anatomy by Lorenzo Vitturi at The Photographers Gallery

Green Stripes #1 from the Dalston Anatomy series - 2013
Lorenzo Vitturi: Dalston Anatomy
The Photographers’ Gallery, London

Gentrification is a hot topic in London these days, as house prices soar and areas which were once staunchly working class are gradually overrun. Now an acclaimed photobook which draws inspiration from the changing face of the city has become the basis for a show at The Photographers Gallery. Lorenzo Vitturi was inspired by the diverse community around Ridley Road market in Dalston, east London, which like many areas in the city finds itself undergoing dramatic change. Collecting materials from the market, Vitturi constructs complex temporary sculptures in his studio which are then photographed before, and sometimes after, they collapse back into their constituent parts.

These photographs, along with portraits of some of the market stallholders and locals (themselves often rephotographed after being overlaid with objects from the market) form the core of the exhibition. The gallery space is also dominated by several large sculpture-installations, which make this undeniably the most spatially ambitious show to inhabit the gallery since it reopened in 2012, and reflect Vitturi’s original career as a cinema set designer. Even the floor becomes part of the display, festooned with a large rug emblazoned with words taken from a poem which Vitturi commissioned local beat poet Sam Berkson to write about the market.

Vitturi’s tenuous sculptures work very effectively as metaphors for the multicultural, polysocial communities that dot London. Like his creations, these groups are often much more than the sum of their disparate parts, more fragile than they might seem from the outside, and once lost are virtually impossible to recreate. The components of the sculptures, which are mostly market foodstuffs in various states of decomposition, recall the fruit motifs of Dutch vanitas paintings, making these images feel rather appropriately like memento moris for the vanishing face and faces of London. In short the photographs are captivating, the exhibition is imaginative and ambitious, and the subject is deeply relevant.

Still I have some small misgivings about it, which perhaps stem more from personal connection to the subject than from anything fundamentally wrong with the work itself. Vitturi’s self-stated aim is to distil the essence of the market before it disappears, a goal which somewhat echoes the ambitions of photographers of the cast of Edward Curtis, a self-styled chronicler of the final days of Native America. There is an implication that like some antiquated tribe facing the onslaught of modernity, the disappearance of these London communities is rather inevitable, and that equally, like trying to challenge the force of gravity which is slowly tearing down Vitturi’s sculptures, it would be futile to resist.

Perhaps resistance is futile, and the best we can hope to do is record them before they pass away, but as someone who has grown up in such a community and has seen it change drastically in the past few years, I’m still not quite yet ready to accept that.

Dalston Anatomy is on at The Photographers Gallery until October 19th 2014.