One of our favourite photography prizes is showcasing its 2011 shortlist. Images are as varied as they are magnificent, but this year with The Photographers’ Gallery closed for refurbishment the shortlist for the prestigious (£30,000-prestigious) Deutsch Börse Photography Prize 2011 is being displayed in a fantastic industrial unit on Marylebone.
Main image: Jim Goldberg, Bangladesh. Dhaka. 2007. Drug addicts.
In today’s numbing context of white-washed gallery spaces of sterile frigidity there’s something very seductive about blindly following understated signage through industrial passageways hosting wrought iron, ribbed concrete and steel stairwells to find yourself stepping into a huge, unexpected space that bears the markings of life experience and of function.
Jim Goldberg, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, 2008, His radio is the sole possession that he took with him while escaping a rebel attack in his village. He now lives in a refugee camp with 60,000 other people where poverty, disease, and crime run rampant.
With its insistent tactile imperfections, the work of the first of the photographers on the shortlist similarly sheds the anaesthetising gloss of ‘high art’. Jim Goldberg’s series Open See is a documentary homage to the refugee, immigrant and trafficked population of Europe. Without meaning to sound unbelievably cynical, ethnicity and immigration are subject matters that one assumed were kind of ‘done’ in photography. But Goldberg’s approach to them is fresh and sincere without as much as a whiff of sanctimonious otherness. He manages to depict some of society’s most unfortunate people without the accompanying elevation of them to some glamorous and aestheticized abstract idea of hardship. The medium has often borne the accusation that by posing heartache prettily or finding composition in devastation, the ugly in this world is beautified and thus dismissed: its sufferers transformed into morbid supermodels. But in Goldberg’s work there is real honesty. His small polaroids bordered with textual scribbles from their subjects are without pretension. They are genuinely touching, providing each face pictured with real humanity rather than some awful role as representing ‘the immigrant’ or ‘the refugee’. Sellotape brazenly holds his larger images together, precariously unifying the fragments of the lives of these people, precariously overlapping the stark divides.
Roe Ethridge, Thanksgiving 1984, 2009
Roe Etheridge throws together the commercial with the editorial and the traditional. Etheridge’s skewing of ‘the genre’, and its presumed cast-iron position within the pictorial hierarchy, messes with the typology that we all lean on so heavily when viewing images. His monumentally enlarged photograph of a bowl of rotting fruit, all white fur and bruises, manifestly shows us the literal decay of ‘the genre’. Another image shows us a chipped and cracked slab of grey and black granite doubling up as an ash tray beside a bottle of hardcore liquor. Living life or dying trying. The bubbles and streaks in the white paint of the wall behind are shown in all their marvellous imperfection, are given as much emphasis as the objects that represent subject: background and foreground are made equals by Etheridge sabotaging the rules.
Elad Lassry, Man 071, 2007
Elad Lassry doesn’t so much tear up the rule book as swap the pages around until your sensory assumptions find themselves sitting awkwardly with unfamiliar bedfellows. Photography’s positioning within the all-encompassing category of ‘the picture’ is un-defined by Lassry rather than re-defined. He throws collage at you presented as photography; he shows video to you presented as painting. A series of one-night stands between the mediums produce some genuinely offbeat offspring, whose appearance forces you to question the validity of labelling either of their parents through the limitations of art vocab.
Thomas Demand, Heldenorgel, 2009
Our perceptual presumption is also deliberately screwed by Thomas Demand’s extraordinary photographs of re-creations of photographs. By re-creating the image of the source photograph as a 3D paper model and then re-photographing these obsessive labours of love, Demand plays with the idea of ‘the original’ until the word has lost all meaning. It is relevant and courageous – and heartbreaking as well – that Demand always destroys his meticulous paper re-creations after they have been documented by his lens. All we have left of the past is what he allows us to have.
The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2011 is on at Ambika P3, University of Westminster NW1 5LS until Sunday 1 May 2011. More info at photonet.org.uk