Photography is subjective. To a point. Taste may vary according to style and subject but some work pushes the art form to a new height and the value of that to the culture as a whole cannot be denied. You may or may not like it, but it’s changing the entire game, so it matters.
The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize is an institution that supports such projects. Awarding a living photographer, of any nationality, £30k for a body of work in an exhibition or publication, which has “significantly contributed to photography in Europe in the last year”, the prize is a true celebration of the power of the medium to shake things up.
Previous winners include Raised By Wolves auteur Jim Goldberg (one of Ed Templeton’s faves, fyi) for his exhibition Open See, which documents the experiences of refugees, immigrants and displaced people from Africa, the Middle East and eastern Europe in collaborative images and text; and prestigious celebrity deconstructionist Juergen Teller for his project Märchenstüberl – roughly translated as “my cosy little world” – which featured intimate self-portraits and candid A-lister nudes that subverted the glossy catwalk aesthetic to present a grittier side to fashion life.
This year’s nominees presented a particularly strong selection of progressive stills and they awarded fine art documentary photographer Richard Mosse the prestigious prize last night, May 12. Here’s a mini breakdown of the mega talent that was up for judgment.
Richard Mosse (b.1980, Ireland)
Exhibition The Enclave at Venice Biennale, Irish Pavilion (1 June – 24 November 2013)
Richard Mosse’s The Enclave – a multi-screen Super16 installation which also recently popped up under a car park in Soho, London – has fired an art-shaped arrow in the heart of photojournalism. Documenting violent and unstable Congo and its inhabitants on discontinued military surveillance film (which converts all the greens into bright pinks) Mosse has brought new eyes on an often overlooked issue. His critics call him out for ‘aestheticising violence’ – objectifying real people and their real tragedies for his artful compositions – but Mosse rejects this viewpoint, insisting he wants to make visible an invisible conflict. He elaborates in an interview with Aperture in 2011: “Robert Adams said: ‘Photographers have generally been held to a different set of responsibilities than have painters and sculptors, chiefly because of the widespread supposition the photographers want to and can give us objective Truth: the word ‘documentary’ has abetted the prejudice. But does a photographer really have less right to arrange life into a composition, into form, than a painter or sculptor?’ How much more limiting are your traditions when they are saturated with a moral imperative? The photographer is expected to be “responsible,” but responsible to whom? Documentary photographers whose work bears some relation to photojournalism are particularly constrained.”
Alberto García-Alix (b. 1956, Spain)
Publication Autorretrato/Selfportrait, La Fabrica Editorial (2013)
Unmade beds, used condoms, broken bones and tattooed limbs are just some of the visceral and sometimes controversial elements of Spanish documentarian Alberto García-Alix’s new book Autorretrato/Selfportrait, which captures the artist’s life over nearly forty years. Immortalising the La Movida Madrileña era (a hedonistic countercultural movement translated as ‘The Madrilenian Groove Scene’), which swept through the youth of all major Spanish cities after Spain was liberated from Franco’s oppressive rule in the mid-late 1970s, Autorretrato/Selfportrait is an iconic depiction of a time and a place, seen through the stark eyes of someone who has lived more than most.
Jochen Lempert (b. 1958, Germany)
Exhibition Jochen Lempert at Hamburger Kunsthalle (22 June – 29 Sept 2013)
Inspiring arthouse filmmaker Werner Herzog once said: “You will learn more by walking from Canada to Guatemala than you will ever learn in film school.” And it’s a sentiment that resonates well with Jochen Lempert’s refreshing approach to fine art photography. Originally trained as a biologist, Lempert uses his camera like a scalpel, dissecting his subjects to archive the minutiae of their existence. His curiosity for human form and the natural world might be macro, but in his detail the sensitive archivist reveals something grander about the complexities of organic life.
Lorna Simpson (b. 1960, USA)
Exhibition Lorna Simpson (Retrospective) at Jeu de Paume, Paris (28 May – 1 September 2013)
In her exhibition 1957-2009, Lorna Simpson pairs up some of the 299 images she found of an African American woman in 1950s LA – posing in some classic Hollywood styles – with almost mirror-image portraits of herself. It feels like the rug has been pulled from underneath your feet. Which is which? Why do both sets of images feel so dated and yet so timeless? Why do we choose to perform our identity the way we do? Always working with photography, text, video and archival material, Simpson’s work challenges conventional views of gender, class, race, culture, history and memory and thrusts you into a surreal space where the vulnerableness of others makes you try to better understand yourself.
Visit The Photographers’ Gallery website to find out more.