The 17th running of the Deutsche Borse Prize brought a wide-ranging collection of photography to that special little corner on Ramillies place. The work on show illustrated how photography has evolved technically and in ideology into this century, with highly conceptual work pitched against tradition.
In Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarins’ book War Primer 2 they curated and collaged found imagery of contemporary conflict from Internet and mobile sources into pages taken from Bertolt Brecht’s book War Primer 1 (1955) which illustrated the Second World War through newspaper cuttings and poems. The work has historical validity, Hamilton and Kennard for example used found imagery to make political and social comment. However I found after just a few pages that I had got the message (a full page image from WW2 of open graves overlaid with an image of a dead Iraqi being recorded by troupes on their mobiles, the act of recording death just as ghoulish in 2004 as it was in 1944 for example) that the human race has learned nothing and gained little through conflict, the view of many I suspect after the events of recent years. From a personal point of view, other than admiring the sharp juxtapositions and connections especially to prose, their the work lacked the personal physical input and impact gained from looking at photographs that have been through the makers mind and camera.
This feeling continued looking at the work of Mishka Henner who curated imagery from Google Street View of sex workers on what oddly looked (if your after trade!) like fairly deserted Mediterranean roads and lanes for the project No Mans Land. I found the images (some on a very large scale which had the expected effect on overall quality) dull, and although the message is undoubtedly serious about the dehumanising effects of the sex trade on people and the fact that we are all subjected to unrelenting and in many case drone-like surveillance I felt this work was really a case of ‘The Kings New clothes’ and no substitute for getting in there and making truly meaningful work. A more whimsical approach came from Cristina de Middel’s The Afronauts, inspired almost unbelievably by a failed Zambian government attempt to get a space programme going in the early 1960s (apparently Mars was the target!). Her dreamy surreal mockumentary in large scale photographs and book form complete with fake news clippings and other ‘supporting’ artifacts, entertained and amused; men in batik space suits for instance the sun glinting off their protective helmets as they gaze into space!
Having investigated the now, Chris Killip provided the past with What happened-Great Britain 1970-1990. Given the current economic conditions and the effect on society it seems prophetic to be reviewing Killips’ work with all its warning about consequence. Traditional black and white prints containing imagery full of message that can only be made by someone who is embedded both in and with the subject matter. Killip’s work is from the North East of England and the Isle of Man, however this microcosm of life does not seem limited by geography, the hopelessness of poverty and unemployment is clear in the faces and locations, this universally understood message requires little written explanation.
It is to be applauded that the Deutsche Borse Prize and the Photographers Gallery present photography that shows the breadth of the art form today, from black and white film to unconscious digital snaps. However as a viewer I was less than engaged by the majority of the images, and I have a very open mind as to the application and interpretation of photography; I felt uncomfortable that two selections of work, intelligent though they are, were more skillful exercises in editing than seeking out a new vision and interrogating the world with a camera. I wonder if in 30 years time the contemporary work will be viewed and reflected upon in the way that Killip’s work is today?