Through a Glass Darkly

Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2010
The Photographers’ Gallery
, London. 12th February – 17th April 2010

Maybe I’m going blind. Perhaps, I just can’t see the diversity of approach among the work on show from the international photographers included on the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2010 shortlist. Do photographers the world over, really choose to confine their efforts to recording, to the exclusion of almost anything else, doom, gloom and shabyness, or that the judges selections conform to a similar brief.

Taken by themselves, Magnum photographer, Donavon Wylie’s beautifully-executed pictures of the deconstruction of the infamous Maze Prison in Northern Ireland are undoubtably a powerful and passionate response to his subject but at the same time, set the mood of despondency, running throughout this exhibition. Sophie Ristelhueber and Zoe Leonard do little to lift the gloom. Even the notable exception, Anna Fox, whose whimsical and kitschy ‘My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words’, in which she juxtaposes tiny images of the assortment of ordinary objects she discovered while sifting through said cupboards, against dry comments in tiny script from her father, also includes her series ‘Gifts from the Cats’: images of dead birds and mice.

Maybe, some of those who posted comments about the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2010 on The Photographers’ Gallery blog have problems with their eyes, too:

Doctor Andrew Stevens, February 18th, 2010: Looking at the submissions and at the a lot of current students’ work I sometimes feel I’m in a totally different profession – I travel all over the globe shooting advertising and corporate photography on high res digital backs and haven’t seen anything that relates to everyday photography and actually earning a living as a practitioner – or perhaps we are in a different profession.

Marjorium, February 23rd, 2010: The photographs I saw today don’t look anything like the stuff me and my friends take… Except for Anna Fox photographs, it all feels really serious and dry. It’s a complete turn off, pretty boring and doesn’t make me feel hopeful about my future as a photographer…Is this what I have to do to show my work in a gallery?!!!

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3 Responses to “Through a Glass Darkly”

  1. Bill says:

    Perhaps the problem is that stills photography has lost much of it’s impact because it is just so ubiquitous. There are now a plethora of competitions and websites which allow what would once have been called the ‘amateur photographer’ to display their work as professionals. Digital technology has allowed people to produce work in volume then polish it to a fairly high standard (a friend of mine commented recently that he felt “the standard of mediocrity has never been higher’) so we are now awash with the stuff. Add to that the sheer volume of images uploaded everyday to picture sites like FlickR, and it’s no wonder we yearn for some relief, or at least from something from the professionals that is fresh and breaks through the cliche ridden and repetitive stuff we are often served up.
    I’d be interested to know if, as someone who commissioned lots of material yourself, you think that massive photo libraries and cautious commissioning by the publishing and advertising industries have contributed to this situation?

  2. PedroSilmon says:

    My post concerns, specifically, the low mood inherent within the shortlisted photographers’ work for this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, whereas *you ask the broader question: ‘Whither professional photography?’ – which is a complex and very difficult question for me and, I suppose, anyone else concerned with it, to attempt to answer.

    First, some context… Once upon a time, there was painting, then in the mid-19th century, along came photography, which was seen as a new and quite separate art form. Things were much simpler then and as with painting, photography was only available to those who had the money to pursue it. Photographic equipment was heavy, its transport difficult, and the processes involved, slow and laborious. The half-tone screen was invented but wouldn’t be considered refined enough to go into general use until the early 1900s.

    Fast forward to the 21st Century… Like all their peers – even those from relatively poor backgrounds – my daughters – both in their early twenties – post photographs of their friends and themselves, showing where they are or have been, like stand-alone, visual conversations, on the internet site Facebook, rarely printing any images out. In the immediacy stakes, newspapers and magazines – which became the traditional home of sophisticated 20th century photography – have been marginalised by television and the internet. It is vital to Sky, the dominant TV news station, to broadcast live footage, or the nearest available substitute – occasionally shot by a member of the public on a mobile phone, the quality of the low-resolution, jerky sequences, contributing to the grittiness of the situation. Despite the development of digital cameras, which facilitate lightening fast transmission of photographs from professional photographers to print media, there remains a significant time lag before their output can appear in print. In consequence, while photojournalism itself has become devalued – unless presented in essay form – photojournalists, or those who are still describe or refer to themselves as such – sadly, paparazzi photography is perhaps, the last stronghold of the news photographer – exhibit their work in galleries, selling prints for hundreds or even thousands of £s, €s, and $s (apologies, I can’t find the symbol for Yen) – archive material often fetching much more. On the other hand, Sam Taylor Wood, a fine artist, chooses photography as her medium (which is not new: Moholy Nagy at the Bauhaus, Man Ray and Andy Warhol are prominent predecessors) as do, among others, Thomas Struth and Hiroshi Sugimoto, again, earning large amounts of money for their efforts.

    Stock photography agencies have been with us since long before I became involved in magazines but their collections were relatively small and often specialised – you would go to one for sport (Allsport), another for general news (Rex), others for historical British stuff (Keystone or Hulton–Deutsch), and so on. There is no doubt that the advent of the giant on-line photo libraries, who bought up just about every independent library within their field of vision, has changed all of that:

    Alamy: ‘Buy and sell stock photos at the web’s largest stock photography site. Search over 18.09 million royalty free and rights managed stock images.’

    Getty Images: ‘We offer high-quality, diverse and relevant stock photos, stock footage, stock music and editorial images for creative professionals.’

    These über-libraries made themselves into image hypermarkets, where almost anything advertising agencies, branding companies or magazines might need could be dumped into a virtual shopping trolley and downloaded without the recipients having gone anywhere near a photographer, thus avoiding any production costs. Picture agency fees, in sharp contrast to those involved in commissioned photography, can work out to be minute. Even if the original image quality is not great, with a little help from a deft art director using Photoshop, or some other image-enhancing programme, pictures can be improved, manipulated, montaged or altered to fulfil almost any possible requirement. In a time of economic uncertainty, such as now, picture agencies are at a distinct advantage.

    In answer to your question: as I see it, while television news played a significant role in the demise of photojournalism, forcing some of its proponents to seek alternative outlets of expression, the massive photo libraries are largely responsible for the downgrading of the role of commercial photography (with some exceptions, eg: hi-end fashion photography, accessories and related perfume products due to there innate exclusivity have managed to remained immune) and in consequence that of the commercial photographer. I don’t know where all of this will lead, however, we’ll just have to wait and see.

    * I should make it clear, in responding to Bill’s comment, that having gone right through art college together, we have known one another for many years. After the RCA, Bill went into advertising and I into magazines. I was around photojournalism for many years at The Sunday Times Magazine, when that photographic genre was the mainstay, however, it was really the domain of Michael Rand, John Tennant and Ian Denning and, of course, picture editors, Bruce Bernard and Suzanne Hodgart. Elevated to art director in 1992, as part of a new regime, which would take the magazine in a somewhat different direction; I was more involved with portraiture, fashion and ‘lifestyle’ features. In Germany where I lived and worked for almost seven years, Elle – where I was art director – was devoted entirely to fashion and beauty, but at Weltbild – where I was creative director – I commissioned the full gamut of editorial photography, including reportage, with help from picture editor, Annelise Noebel. Back in the UK, at Tatler, with picture editors, Caroline Metcalfe and Millie Simpson, I used and commissioned a wide variety of visual material including controlled paparazzi-style images, portraiture, travel and beauty.

  3. Bill says:

    I realised at about midnight last night that I had wandered off the point of your article… apologies for that.
    Perhaps the gloomy subject matter is just a reflection of difficult times, though you would imagine people to want a bit of optimism and escapism too.
    I feel that a lot of photographers explore that downbeat area of study because they regarded it as inherently more serious and worthy and therefore more likely to win peer approval (and prizes) rather in the same way that ad agencies regard charity accounts as a shoe-in to win awards.

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