Monday 7 January 2013

Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2013

Brad Feuerhelm takes a close look at the recently announced shortlist for this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Prize and discovers a bold effort to conceive an ontology of photographic practice.

It’s the time of year when many voices whine in unison over the shortlisted artists for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. As an award worth £30,000 and a whole new set of paradigms for representations, further projects, and gallery deals (if not already achieved) up for grabs its contentious nature is plain to see.

Yet the four contenders on 2013’s shortlist should offer naysayers much less to moan about compared to previous years if one takes into consideration the fact that the award has shifted its parameters to really encompass the diversity of photographic output that exists today.

As a side note, I had portfolio reviews in Vienna this November and to my own ironic chagrin, found that while encountering reviewees, my first question was “photographer or artist?” as if it mattered. To the affirmative, most stumbled, but declared artist rather than photographer. Indeed the backsliding of photographers levelling themselves into the porous and vacuous suck and pull of the art chasm caused a chuckle every time. Let’s face it, we are ashamed to be photographers anymore, so is it any surprise we are moving forward to break rules, conceptualise, and regurgitate what came before us, all in haste of cogitating over its meaning?

Starting then with what I perceive to be the problematic nomination, Mishka Henner’s No Man’s Land would be a convincingly clever interpretation of lucid geography, technocracy (albeit with lightweight theoretical drive) if I had not seen very similar modes of dissemination before. Not only is it derivative but the project completes a vicious circle of unpleasant attitudes of human currency and a new attempt to denigrate women to that of commerce even further.

No Man’s Land, is an alleged pseudo-documentary project wherein the author has appropriated Google Earth images showing what can only be prostitutes selling their wares. The coordinates of the place of ‘shooting’ are often labelled on the page, so if you want go fornicate with women for money and add to their misery, Henner has given you the guide as to how to do so. Further, even if this was a fake project using Photoshop, for example, would the punch line be any different? No, it would be worse. And let’s not for a minute digress that the idea of prostitution in the work is the viewer’s implementation. Girls alongside the road in Spain or Italy dressed a certain way with a mattress next to them undoubtedly attest to this. It is not as interpretive as Henner may have us believe. Why have we chosen to champion a project and a career heavily nuanced by borrowed material and by material of aggregate and impolite societal discord?

What I propose in my malaise over the first entry discussed here is that perhaps we need to examine exactly what it is we are rewarding, over that of what photography is at present. There seems to be a wide chasm of indifference or intolerance when making accusations or distilling what can and can’t be photography. What we do not need to do is nominate something that rewards us with a surface glance, without the actual removal of photographic skin and tissue. Surely we should be focusing on meaning and less on outwardly dogmatic pursuits over what is and what is not photography? 

The next body of work, I would rather champion, is Cristina De Middel’s Afronauts book nomination. Just as we cannot complain that someone like Killip is too ‘old guard’ to receive the award, we cannot take away from De Middel’s superb self-published entry and first major body of work. It has incredible angles and depth throughout. From the biographic (Abuela Made The Costumes), to the outlandish movements of counter-fiction in post-colonial Africa, the book and work merits inclusion within this list. It is a refreshing and sincere project, and a novel one at that, not borrowed from somebody else’s idea bank. 

Elsewhere, artist duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are my picks for their outstanding contributions to photographic literature with War Primer II. It is an intelligent meditation on media, war, conflict, modernist behaviour, and the re-examination of text in photography or vice versa. Though out of print and ridiculously expensive (i.e. elite to own one now), I nevertheless find the message undisturbed by their internal highbrow leanings. All bases are covered as per usual. Broomberg and Chanarin have really taken it up a notch with this dystopian commentary on the frailness of human emotion and the cyclical volumes of butchery and brutality that are often shelved when contemplated within the condition of being human. For my money, I feel this is the strongest and most deserving body of work. It is my hopes that between these two great artists and Cristina De Middel, that we will awake, re-evaluate and make the choice for integrity of photographic output over its incipit divisions. 

Finally, there is Chris Killip - an amazing photographer. To this sentiment, there is no doubt. We do not have to water him down with pretentious preening or art world credibility. He is a photographer and his works are exemplary. He is being nominated for his show at Le Bal in Paris entitled What Happened / Great Britain 1970-90, the work of which proposes to show Britain through the lens of the Thatcher years into the early 90’s. The notion of upheaval and difficult social and economic uncertainty make Killip’s work as a native a skillfully mastered set of documents chronicling the ailments of Britain’s post-industrial everything. If I were to challenge myself to stay semantically in line with the ‘photography award’, I would almost have to lean towards Killip or De Middel’s for their more traditional use of normative photography, within that of again also, photographic practice.

There is no profundity here to my own thoughts, simply a discourse that needs to be opened up when we award somebody something that is calculated to be derived that promotes a backsliding in what we nominate. We must also take it upon ourselves to really understand that the discourse of what we call photography now has its legions within ‘photographic practice’ and this understanding once reached will be a service to all. Sharpen the knife before digging into the plate.
Brad Feuerhelm