The 2008 Deutsche Borse Photography Prize show is up at The Photographers' Gallery . The competition awards £30,000 to the "living photographer of any nationality, who has made the most significant contribution to the medium of photography in Europe" from October 2006- September 2007. The award will be announced 6 March and the show will be up to 8 April. All of the work is interesting and worth a look and I hope to write more about it in the coming weeks.
The finalists are:
John Davies, for The British Landscape (exhibition, National Media Museum, Bradford)
Jacob Holdt for United States 1970-1975 (book, Steidl)
Esko Männikkö for Cocktails 2000-2007 (retrospective exhibition, Millesgarden, Stockholm)
Fazal Sheikh for Ladli- Beloved Daughter (book, Steidl)
The competition awards the individual based only on the specific body of work that appeared (in some cases re-appeared) in 2007. Much of this work was actually produced before 2007: Davies' work from 1979-2005, Holdt's in the early 1970s. Sheikh and Männikkö's work are of the last few years. The value of Davies landscapes is tied in part to the long duration of his project, and the value of Holdt's surely has to do with the congruities between these pictures as a record of the America that he experienced and the recent resurgence in interest in this kind of documentation through personal experience and snapshot aesthetics.
The DB prize is not a book prize or exhibition prize, but makes a claim about the state of photography (in Europe) as evidenced by book and exhibition output. Any competition is in the end a comment by the judges but in this case, the judges' remit seems to be especially complex as their comment speaks to- or through- the judgments of publishers and museums and galleries about what is good and worthwhile in photography in 2008.
What I don't know is: is the competition meant to be an indirect assessment of these gatekeeping institutions as much as it is of the bodies of work themselves? Prints from a book are not the same on a gallery wall, but it's not the book that's getting the award, it's the images that have been accepted for consideration by virtue of there having been a book. We won't see the most significant or best pictures of the year- that's for World Press Photo and such. And the Photographers' Prize does not recognize so much a group of pictures, but a group of pictures that has become a discrete unit through the work of publishers and galleries.
One would expect any potentially important body of work to have been shown and perhaps to be published, and prizes like this serve an interesting function- not unlike a borse- in creating a public venue through which anticipated value is confirmed (or not). While a prize like this is surely not the reason that a publisher produces books, this kind of recognition certainly helps to confirm the publisher's judgment.
The contribution to photography that is being recognized, then, is not so much a contribution to what is possible in the medium in any absolute sense, but a contribution to what is valuable, an indication of what is possible and desirable in certain institutional contexts. I'm not just talking about how art increases in financial worth, but of how these institutions contribute to the creation of canon.
Lensculture has a nice representation of these photographers's work though I'm not sure whether these are the images that are actually on show.
The Photographers Gallery Photography Prize has been around since 1996 but was sponsored by Citibank Private Bank before Deutsche Borse. Deutsche Borse has been very active in curating and collecting contemporary photography- see their XL, XL2 and XL3 books of work in their impressive collection. And an impressive collection it is, though an editorial description on Amazon, presumably from the publisher, gives me pause:
"At the turn of the millennium, the Deutsche Borse Group moved to new quarters in Frankfurt. Inspired by their blank walls, they began to assemble this world-class photography collection..."
Did they start the collection to decorate the Borse? Were the blank walls so very large that only XL prints would do? And how has this collection contributed to the general taste for large prints? This scale of collecting certainly adds a certain kind of value to the work, and well, it is a stock exchange.... (Well, ok, the prints in the collection are not in fact all XL and the artists' site is definitely worth a browse.) And DB does have some other activities promoting new photography as part of its corporate social responsibility program, including a Frankfurter Kunstverein residency and a program with C/O Berlin .
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