Deutsche Borse 2015 Photography Prize, The Photographers’ Gallery.
This annual prize rewards a living photographer for a specific body of work in an exhibition or publication format, within Europe, which has significantly contributed to photography.
Nikolai Bakharev (b. 1946, Russia) Relationship
Bakharev, a mechanic, took these pictures during the 1980s when any form of public nudity was illegal. He has captured some very private moments in public spaces and has created wonderful set of images.
The composition is quite centralised with the images cropped into sqares; all in black and white, some seemingly intimate family snapshots but of strangers. I wondered how much they were posed – did he drape hands and ask for specific angles and groupings? Almost all involve some form of physical touch and rhythm is created from the contours of the bodies.
Some seem uncomfortable and understandably so given the political climate.
Whilst I enjoyed the work and was fascinated by the context, this seemed the least strong within the competition.
Viviane Sassen (b. 1972, The Netherlands) Umbra
This was quite experimental. It is called Umbra (latin for shadow) and combines photos, installation art, sound and other media. According to the artist’s statement, she uses Umbra as “a metaphor for the human psyche and its manifestations.” It is a mixture of realism and abstraction with bright colours as well as light and dark. Lots of strong contrasts and textures and dynamic movement to represent alter ego. This work left me cold although some fellow students felt that it forces engagement by pushing the boundaries.
Zanele Muholi (b. 1972, South Africa) Faces and Phases 2006
These incredible portraits are of the LGBTI community on post-apartheid South Africa. Some of her subjects have shared their personal stories of homophobia, transphobia and ‘curative rape’ often resulting in murder. Muholi considers herself to be a “visual activist” and appeals for resistance to hate, oppression and brutality.
The images have a striking uniformity in presentation – all images are the same size, sitter looking at the camera, often in ¾ pose) but the personality of the subject radiates as these people open up and confront their stigmas. The different backdrops also add to the story and drama of the images. This served to make them all seem united with common connections but fiercely different, strong and independent.
The film screen showed some colour images of quite explicit poses; gestures with blur; very grainy – beautiful. I was not so taken with the white cloth sheet with writing over it – this just felt a bit too amateur for me, compared with the impact of the portraits
Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse (b.1981 South Africa & b. 1981 UK) Ponte City
This work focuses on a 54 storey high building Ponte City built in 1976 for white supremacists in Johannesburg. It has since become a massive squat for drug dealers, refugees, criminals and the poor. The project documents the failed regeneration scheme in 2008 and combines portraits of the residents with archival and found material to convey the idea of a dreamland and dystopia.
This part of the exhibition absolutely blew me away. I loved the meticulous dedication to this epic project but also the brave creativity. Snapshots found in abandoned rooms have figures cut out and displaced. Old images are combined with new portrayals of the rooms they were found in. There are paint-splattered pictures; “after-images”; large lightboxes display hundreds of captures of doors, walls and lifts. One display is entirely of pictures of TVs. The exhibit also includes letters of asylum applications and appeals; medical supplies and other historical documents to bring the inhabitants of this block to life. Very inspirational and for me a firm winner.