DEUTSCHE BÖRSE PHOTOGRAPHY PRIZE, PHOTOGRAPHER'S GALLERY, REVIEW
Richard Dorment for The Telegraph, 2013
Like previous years, the 2013 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize at the Photographer's Gallery doesn't disappoint, says Richard Dorment.
Now in its 17th year, the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize never disappoints and in 2013 the exhibition of the work of the four shortlistedartists is particularly lively. That’s because artist in utterly different ways explores a different aspect of documentary photography. Not only does the choice of artists give the show a theme (which is rare in this kind of exhibition) but their work looks sensational on the walls of the newly renovated Photographer’s Gallery just off Oxford Circus.
Mishka Henner doesn’t take photographs at all — he finds them on the internet. To make his recent series No Man’s Land he first went to website forums where men trade information as to where to find prostitutes in Central American and Mediterranean countries who work out of doors. He then locates those places on Google Street View and downloads the nondescript colour photos showing the women waiting for customers at the side of litter-strewn highways and bridges, at the edge of a jungle or by a field of sugarcane.
Because the photos were taken in the daytime, the white glare of the tropical sun obliterates shadow, stripping away anonymity and revealing the stark reality of loneliness, boredom and degradation in the lives of sex workers. The images are made all the sadder by our knowledge that Google not only took pictures of the women without their knowledge, but then shared them with the world. They count for nothing.
There is documentary photography of a wholly different order in the vintage black and white photos of Chris Killip. What Happened — Great Britain 1970-1990 is his record of what he calls the de-industrial revolution, photos he took during the 20-year period when he lived among working-class communities in the Isle of Man and the North-East of England.
As a disciple of the American photographer Walker Evans, his timeless images of fishermen, farmers, factory workers and coal miners have a formal rigour and concern for composition, lighting and technique that in the age of the digital camera feels antediluvian. But even in the 1970s he must have been a maverick, for to work with black and white film back then was to ignore the fashion for colour photography. But black and white feels right for photos that often show scenes of working-class life that had not changed since the 1920s and ’30s.
Killip tries to show what really happened in these communities in the years before and after Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister – not what commentators on the left and right tell us happened. Plenty of photos show communities in which the young are unemployed and living conditions grim, but these date from both before and during her years in office. The photos show, too, that at the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, some of her most fervent supporters were working-class women. More, even, than the documentation of social conditions at a particular time and place, I think Killip’s larger theme is that when you look at communities from the inside, what people think and feel is not as straightforward as slogans or headlines would have us believe.
Christina De Middel’s mock-photojournalist installation Afronauts may not be great art but it’s certainly a hoot. Purporting to document Zambia’s attempt raise $700 million to send 10 astronauts and a 17-year-old African girl to the moon, De Middel’s photos look like they were taken with a Polaroid camera around the same time as the American moon landings.
As we read correspondence between Zambian officials about the project, we learn that the spacemen, who had acclimatised themselves to space travel by being rolled down a hill in a 40-gallon oil drum, would be propelled into space not with a rocket but with a catapult, and that the teenage girl would be taking her 10 cats with her. If this delightful nonsense has any point to make about journalism I couldn’t detect it, but for that very reason it would make a wonderful film.
Bertolt Brecht published War Primer in 1955. It is a collection of photographs of the Second World War that Brecht cut out of newspapers and magazines, juxtaposed with his own short verses commenting on their significance. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin bought several hundred copies of the 1998 English translation of Brecht’s book, which they then updated in their own version, War Primer 2, in which they superimpose photos from the “war on terror” over Brecht’s original photos, but leave his poems in place, as captions to both the old and the new images.
And so we are looking a visual and verbal palimpsest in which the meaning of each poem is subtly changed by the addition of the new image. For example, to the original black-and-white aerial photo of the bombardment of a German town they add one in colour of the second plane flying into the second of the twin towers, but the same verse is printed below both (“A cloud of smoke told us that they were here/ They were the sons of fire, not of light”).
Unlike the Turner Prize, in terms of an artist’s career it doesn’t matter much who wins the £30,000 prize, and in any case it’s almost comically unfair to put 40-year-old black-and-white photographs in competition with images taken by satellite camera.
Still, someone has to win, and for the sheer ambition of their project, for consistent visual interest and for the importance of what they have to say about the relationship between word and image, Broomberg and Chanarin deserve recognition.