The four entries in this year’s Deutsche-Börse Photography Prize are currently showing at the Photographers’ Gallery, London (until 9 September). The first thing to note is how different the entries are; about the only thing they have in common is that they all needed the camera. Judging one against another is counter-productive, but even when assessing them separately your own internal criteria are bound to give you a strong preference. I cannot find the competition’s judging criteria published anywhere, so everyone is free to use their own, and to disagree with the final result! Such lack of transparency adds to the competition’s mystique and (I add rather cynically) to the publicity generated.
Two of the entrants, Pieter Hugo and Rinko Kawauchi, were nominated for publications, while the other two, John Stezaker and Christopher Williams, for exhibitions. This aught to leave Hugo and Kawauchi at a disadvantage since what you see is an exhibit not a book, and this leads to the first (officially unanswered) question: should we evaluate the original nomination, whether book or exhibition, or should we be concentrating only on the images we see at the Photographers’ Gallery? I have no choice; for me it is the latter since I haven’t seen the originals, but what will the judges do?
Pieter Hugo’s bleak and unsmiling images give us an insight into and start us questioning the disposal of our technological waste. Their life-size scale looks you straight in the eye and dares you to find the justice in the situation or deny the dignity of those depicted. Despite their documentary power, the distance necessary to create these environmental portraits also diminished their ability to engage me; I found myself viewing them as works of art on the wall, thus failing to engage me in quite the same way as, say, Greg Constantine’s images at the LSE.
At first I found Rinko Kawauchi’s images rather scrapbook-like in their selection and display, suggesting an intuitive, work-in-progress approach. And yet the nomination is for a book and thus a finished piece of work. The images are quiet and feminine and seem to have a post-exposure association as if little planning took place. This results in an exhibition that has a random appearance in a charming, dream-like, immature sort of way. The work is called Illuminance but the only thing it illuminated was the world of Kawauchi rather than providing insight into the world in general.
I found Marriage, Betrayal and Muse the most interesting of John Stezaker’s image series, though as a retrospective, it was good to see all the images. The Third Person Archive series showed an interesting use of repeated motif that exposes the sameness of images. All the images used are appropriated and re-purposed, which, to me, produces an artist’s comment on photography as much as a photographer’s insight into life. This isn’t a bad thing, it just means that the images work at several levels. I find myself empathising with Stezaker’s witty juxtapositioning of images. Even when the novelty of the approach wears off, I find myself returning to these images as if they have a small, quiet message that I can’t quite articulate in words yet.
I cannot help but think what a wasted opportunity this exhibition is for Williams; surely he must have more work than this that has value? Although the few images are competent enough, I am overwhelmed by the pretence of the display and can derive nothing but question marks, rather than articulated questions, from Williams’ approach. He’s asking me to trust him because he’s an artist – oh c’mon, get real! True, it’s not the number of images that counts, and I suppose it is possible for even a single image to win the Deutsche-Börse prize, but it would be hard to justify it in given the evidence on display here.
And my winner is: John Stezaker
Worthy runners-up: Pieter Hugo followed by Rinko Kawauchi
Threw his jockey at the first jump: Christopher Williams