The four competitors for the Deutsche Börse Prize are now in exhibition at the Photographer's Gallery. It's an interesting show, in the sense that it sheds an informative light on the kind of photography that gets selected for these prestigious awards nowadays.
For me there's only one possible winner. Spanish photographer Alberto Garcia-Alix has been taking pictures of himself and his world since the Seventies, when the overthrow of Franco unleashed a new freedom, and the young Garcia-Alix gave up on the career path mapped out for him, and embraced photography, motorbikes, drugs and hedonism.
He has a wonderful unflinching eye. Especially when looking at himself, as here, with "My Feminine Side" from 2002:
An accompanying film has him talking philosophically over his photos. "When we photograph people we are just photographing future corpses" - or words to that effect. Amusingly morbid. And, as I say, with a very fine eye.
Elsewhere, well, it's all downhill. Instead of photography of the world - of life - we get photographers being clever about photography. Metaphotography. Which of course is what curators of these kind of events really like.
Richard Mosse had the conceit of taking photographs of the Democratic Republic of the Congo using discontinued military surveillance film, which renders greenery a kind of purple colour. The results are fairly striking, but the claim that this enterprise has some deeper significance really don't bear scrutiny:
At the project’s heart are the points of failure of documentary photography, and its inability to adequately communicate this complex and horrific cycle of violence.
And portraying it in different colours somehow overcomes these problems?
I kept wondering if perhaps there was an assumption that showing a landscape in deep red was meant to convey the idea of a "blood-soaked" war zone, but such an idea had to be left unspoken as, if articulated, it would immediately be perceived as embarrassingly literal and simple-minded. But who knows?
Adrian Searle's analysis of Richard Mosse's project is flawed by taking an aesthetic and Kantian (purely visual) consumption of the work.
Look at the material production of the film: it is shot on a now defunct and obsolete Kodak film that was designed specifically for Military use, its purpose being to reveal soldiers wearing camouflage uniforms in the natural landscape.
That is why the vegetation is rendered in pink hues. This foregrounds the materials used to construct the film as a representation that is now relative to its instrumentality. This is one current concern of contemporary art - the creation of of work that is relative as well as subject to relativism.
This is important in an age of neoliberal aesthetics where work is assessed on its relations of Identity and Affect in a postmodern methodology that foregrounds minority status without really knowing, and wins acceptance (of the art critic here - Searle) despite its formal poverty. How do we redefine formal poverty? From Aesthetics to poetics.
The other two contenders present just the kind of work that's really only of interest to curators of photography exhibitions. Lorna Simpson found some old Fifties photos of a woman in a variety of fairly tasteful but cheesy glamour-type shots. She then took similar photos of herself, and - shades of Cindy Sherman - mixed them all up with the originals, so it's difficult to distinguish the originals from the new versions. And that's it. Or, as the blurb has it:
Simpson’s work links photography, text, video installations, most recently archival material and found objects. Emphasizing a conceptual and performative approach, she explores themes of gender, identity, culture, memory and body. Simpson works within the charged duality of past and present, word and image but also plays with the interplay between still and moving images.
Finally Jochen Lempert eschews frames, just sticking poorly-produced images direct to the wall, thus - oh I don't know - questioning our preconceptions of what might be worth looking at or something, and referencing the early days of photography in a deeply uninteresting way.
Garcia-Alix is so obviously the oustanding candidate here - so I doubt he'll win.