Today I went with some off my fellow students to visit firstly the Deutsche Börse exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery, London and then following a short trip to look at some of Clare Strand’s work at the Grimaldi Gavin Gallery.
I recorded my initial impressions of each of the four projects on show at the Deutsche Börse exhibition and from these impressions I assessed which project of the four I liked best and whether this choice should go on to win the prize. This was a challenge the organiser of the study visit had set and I found it rewarding later on to discuss in the group, which project was strongest and why.
Nikolai Bakharev, nominated for the prize for his exhibition at the 55th Biennale of Art in Venice (1June – 24th November 2013), was the first project I looked at. I found the cropping or framing very tight, which I felt added to the intimacy of the portraits, event though the subjects were strangers. As well as this, the softish focus and square format helped with this intimacy, which I thought was deliberate. The tight framing/cropping may have been deliberate but it lent to the informality of the portraits, which incidentally tended to be quite uptight as the subjects were quite clearly strangers. This unusual combination of uptight yet intimate makes the viewer (or at least me) a bit uncertain of the mood of each photograph and this multiplies somewhat when seen as a set.
I felt this challenged the time and circumstances when these photographs were taken (1980s), where nudity and to a certain extent, intimacy was prohibited.
Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases 2006-2014 (Steidl, 2014) was very impactful for me, not only in the issues she – ‘a self-titled visual activist’ – (The Photographers’ Gallery, 2015), had chosen to address but also in the way it had been chosen to be displayed. Upon walking into the exhibition room you were immediately ‘confronted’ by a wall of black and white portraits, all staring at you. To the left was writing from seemingly many different hands and the messages were poignant to say the least. To the right was a couple of videos and headphones to listen to the videos with.
Apart form the visual impact, the portraits were difficult for me to place and I questioned myself repeatedly whether they did indeed show insight into the horrible things happening in South Africa concerning the black LGBTI identity and politics. One thing that was clear to me was the defiance and perhaps pride in the faces on the wall in front of me, although I was unsure whether Muholi had intentionally or otherwise depicted the people photographed as if they weren’t facing such problems. Two other visual components the portraits shared were they wore quite proudly their assumed typical clothing and their posture indicated their apparent resistance to the things happening. One thing that wasn’t shared was that a disparity existed in the backdrops for each portrait. As the framing was quite tight for each portrait, there wasn’t really any environment clearly shown but some were taken outside with hints of surroundings, while others appeared as though taken in a studio. Maybe Muholi was suggesting the people themselves photographed were enough to tell what she wanted to say. By having the photographs framed quite similarly, the set was much stronger in my opinion, as the subjects were all different but the same, which conversely might have been what Muholi wanted the viewer to infer about people in general in relation to the people photographed here.
Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s Ponte City (Steidl, 2014), was my favourite project of the four and also the one I felt should go on to win for the reasons I’ve outlined below.
Firstly, I thought the range of photographic techniques on display was very impressive and more importantly worked well for the purposes the photographs and collection of photographs aimed to convey.
The more ‘conventional’ if you will landscape photographs told obvious and incisive stories for me; as a set and more succinctly singularly. This was something I have been thinking about with my landscape photography by using figures in the landscapes for instance. Therefore, because they managed to do this so well in my eyes, made viewing these photographs quite inspirational for me.
Then, there were the light boxes of typographical windows or doors forming towers of photographs. My favourite of these was the ‘doors’ tower, just because the doors were inherently more similar and so the typographical effect was a bit stronger in my eyes. However, they both worked well, with an initial ‘wow’ factor, when you first saw them that only increased when you viewed the detail present within each photograph making up the towers (I don’t think I was alone here!) The many ‘doors’ and ‘windows’ photographs did have differences of course, while remaining typographical and one of these differences was different figures present in the frames, whose poverty from living in the tower, was evident. The photographs taken inside the tower being displayed as a tower in the form of the light boxes was a nice touch too, I felt.
Lastly, there was a different (but very effective) way of showing what was happening in the tower shown on one wall of the exhibition. Here, a pictures-in-picture idea was employed; kind of similar to some ideas I had recently been working on. This was where a picture ‘matched up’ with where it had originally been taken. I thought this idea had been excellently negotiated and executed by Subotzky and Waterhouse, mainly because I had found when I had been experimenting that it was harder to photograph the scenes with pictures of the same scene in them than it looked! The fact that the pictures-in-pictures were actually found photographs inside the tower that residents of the tower had taken, made this more semantically and cognitively impressive. Also, while I had been envisaging placing the pictures-within-pictures within the scene and then photographing it, Subotzky and Waterhouse had stuck the found photographs on to the scene so they lined up instead. This gave me something to think about going forwards as I believed the semantics behind each approach were quite different in terms of what the viewer was to infer. With Subotzky and Waterhouse’s approach I reckoned they did this in order to show the finite nature of the found photographs and to make the viewer think harder about the tower where the photographs had been found in terms of materiality.
Viviane Sassen’s Umbra (2014) exhibition was the final nomination. I felt this was a refreshing approach to photography. As your eyes regarded the many abstract (and greatly varying in size and production) photographs on display and tried to resolve one of them into some kind of order, there was often for me a kind of confusing moment when I realised it was disorderly, unresolvable, thought-provoking and perhaps meant to be. The overwhelming feeling I got from looking at her work was that it challenged life somehow and silently asked the viewer to question it too. However, it was her uncanny knack of finding the unusual in the usual that I thought I could learn from. For instance, her use of shadows was very commanding for me. An example of this that caught my eye was: Lucius, from the series Rebus (Sassen, 2010). Here, a seemingly simple overhead shot of a young child was turned into something much more deep and maybe even sinister by capturing the shot at the angle where her shadow loomed over the child. Another noteworthy element of her work for me was her use of minimalism, where she ‘honed in’ on her subject, so it was just what she was trying to communicate that took centre stage.
Sassen’s Umbra (2014) was my second favourite project after Ponte City (2014, Steidl) by Subotzky and Waterhouse. My reason was mainly the variety the latter duo’s Ponte City displayed in terms of presentation and in my personal opinion the photographs singularly and as a set were very cohesive and inspiring to look at. It was also the project I thought should win the prize, for the reasons aforementioned.
Clare Strand’s Getting Better and Worse at the Same Time (2015) at the Grimaldi Gavin Gallery, I found to be very quirky and mind-bending but also very destructive in terms of the (often destructive) photographic processes. I have to admit I didn’t understand a few of the parts to the exhibition but I quickly found my favourite part on show and that was the series Rubbings (Strand, 2015).
When I first regarded the Rubbings series I thought there was a set of very similar tree trunk limbs, not unlike the limbs of humans in shape and size. There was something quite unusual and worn out about the set, which encouraged the viewer to have a closer look. However, I didn’t realise until I read about it at the exhibition that the photographs were in pairs: the first a photograph of a tree trunk, which had actually been stuck to the tree and left to be exposed to the elements and the second a photograph documenting this transition as the original photograph was stuck on the tree. What wasn’t immediately apparent was the original photograph of the tree trunk was never actually shown. This for me typified the mind-bending nature of all of Getting Better and Worse at the Same Time.
Deutshce Börse Photography Prize 2015. [Exhibition] 17th Apr – 7 Jun 2015. The Photographer’s Gallery, London.
Strand, C. 2015. Getting Better and Worse at the Same Time. [Exhibition] 29 Apr – 6 Jun 2015. Grimaldi Gavin, London.