This was the second year I had covered the Deutsche Börse for the London Student. It was a very interesting set of photographers, but nothing about the curation of the show made them work together (or maybe that’s the point). I think exhibitions like the Deutsche Börse and perhaps also the Turner Prize, but to an extent even New Contemporaries, have put too much weight on finding a winner of some kind in contemporary visual culture. Of course artists must be rewarded for the work they do, but are the exhibitions their work is showcased in actually productive, or does the prize dominate over the art? Is external gratification what we are told to look for?
Now in its fourteenth year, the Deutsche Borse photography prize rewards the best photographer as decided by a panel of curators, critics and artists, and has in the past featured the work of Andreas Gursky and Juergen Teller. So, how do you condense the last twelve months of international photography down to occupying a room and a half in Ramilies Street? Unfortunately for the Photographer’s Gallery, long term host of the prize, the four shortlisted artists just don’t work in the same space. The problem this year is that the works on display cover what seems to be the entire scope of contemporary photography, everything from the politics of the warzone and the objective survey, to the nostalgia of childhood and capturing of the overlooked and everyday.
Sophie Ristelheuber’s large-scale photographs dominate the ground floor, and promise a powerful exhibition. Her diptych Vulaines I is an intense exploration of childhood senses. In one image we are onlookers, approaching four children from behind as if to admonish them. In its sister image, we find ourselves between two life-sized single beds, hiding from what might be the same punishment we were about to administer and actively engaged in the game. Tugging the viewer back into the lost paradise and perpetual cheekiness of childhood, while simultaneously making us an adult-figure about to arrest the playfulness of others, Ristelheuber vividly conjures up the inevitability of innocence in a world of adult rules. Her other pieces vary hugely, the work of a prolific and multifarious creative process. Because of Dust Breeding – an homage to Man Ray’s photograph of Duchamp’s Large Glass that explores the abstract qualities of the camera lens – is another of Ristelheuber’s mature and interesting images.
Upstairs, Anna Fox’s amusing reminiscences on her father’s punitive sayings and the contents of her mother’s kitchen cupboards, likewise offer us images of a tainted nostalgia. However, unlike the powerful feelings encapsulated by Ristelheuber, most of Fox’s work becomes contrived through its hotch-potch and cluttered display, and relies on its quirky humour and diary-like format to say anything at all. Far from using photography in a contemporary way, Zoe Leonard engages with its history, picking up where Walker Evans left off in a series from her 11-year project Analogue Portfolio. A ‘chronicler of the overlooked’ as her exhibition blurb states in its opening line (ironically, isn’t everyone?), Leonard’s work frames gaudy and decaying shop fronts. By capturing the concise compositions of the windows, where rolls of fabric are piled to bursting point, and grafitti spells out what looks like ‘gold’ in Spanish, Leonard possessively records the beauty and value of the everyday street scene in all its modest, pock-marked regalia.
Donovan Wylie, born and raised in Belfast, is represented by a series cataloguing the architecture of the eponymous Maze Prison before it was destroyed in 2006. His description of the curling, ribbon-like qualities of crushed metal fencing and repetitive buildings engages with the expressive poetry of formalism as much as with the political overtones of the location, and fuses banality with sensuous abstraction. However, as can be expected from this type of exhibition and the motives behind it, the competitive and cramped context of display detracts from the photographs’ power to arrest and invoke. Our interaction with them is intercepted by the gallery; mediating, muscling in on what could otherwise be subtle, emotive, and beautifully lyrical works of art. A striking shortlist, but a disappointing show. Winner announced 17th march, show runs until 18th april.