Brighton based photographer Sam Nobes reviews this years prize for Vignette Magazine:
Now in its sixteenth year, the competition originally set up by The Photographers’ Gallery is one of the most prestigious events in the photographic calendar. Artists are nominated from all over the world for having made the most significant contributions to the photographic medium in Europe. Previous winners include Joel Sternfeld, Rineke Dijkstra, Paul Graham and Luc Delahaye to name a few.
This years £30,000 cash prize will be going to one of the four following shortlisted artists; Pieter Hugo, Rinko Kawauchi, John Stezaker and Christopher Williams.
On entering the top floor gallery you are confronted with the work of Rinko Kawauchi, the Japanese nominee whose publication Illuminance (2011) won her a place on this year’s shortlist. Kawauchi’s photographs abstractly demonstrate a fictitious time-lapse that consists of beautifully composed fragments of life. Her use of natural light and soft colour combine to create a series of intimate yet universal images that turn quotidian moments into a poetic body of work whilst playing with notions of time and memory.
Kawauchi also presents us with a film displayed alongside her photographic stills which further emphasises the time-lapse narrative. It features carefully considered and wonderfully composed slices of the everyday, shot in such a way that the viewer is invited to read it as if it were a collage of disparate moments all occurring simultaneously.
On the same floor, Pieter Hugo’s Permanent Error installation has an altogether different affect. The bleak, desaturated and almost apocalyptic images taken in Agbogbloshire, are in direct contrast to the poetic subtlety of Rinko Kawauchi’s Illuminance. The South African photographer visited the West African country of Ghana during 2009 and 2010 to document the vast technological wastelands situated just outside the capital.
Many Western countries forgo recycling their electronic waste as there are so many strict regulations in place. Instead they donate their waste to developing countries as a means of reducing the digital divide and helping people. The reality, however, is far more sinister.
In Agbogbloshire, the inhabitants burn the technological waste to extract the precious metals within. This process has led to major contamination of the air, soil and water inside and surrounding the slum. The toxins from the fumes (including; Lead, Hydrogen Cyanide, Mercury, Thallium and PVC) are highly carcinogenic and it would not be unrealistic to suspect that traces can be found in food grown near the dumping ground.
In a short film produced to go alongside the exhibition, it was interesting to hear Pieter Hugo state that although he initially went into this project with artistic and aesthetic intentions. Yet having been exposed to the reality of the slum, it was difficult for him not to feel like an activist.
Such is the nature of this body of work. It unveils the harsh existence of the inhabitants of Agbogbloshire and brings to light the growing obsession the west has with consumption and the current unsustainability of the relentless advances in technology.
Downstairs in the fourth floor gallery is the second half of the exhibition where the remaining two artists John Stezaker and Christopher Williams have their nominated pieces on show.
On the left, you have the work of John Stezaker who was nominated for his solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in early 2011. His installation consists of a carefully curated segment of work taken from his on-going project with found imagery. Stezaker began collecting photographs, postcards and illustrations in the 1970s. He originally collected images so that he could paint them and create artistic copies, yet he came to the conclusion quite early on that the found imagery was always better than his reproductions. This encouraged him to investigate our various relationships with photographs, his findings and subsequent appropriations have a way of confusing conventional reading strategies. In his series entitled ‘Marriage’, he combines the faces of both men and women using classical movie stills from Hollywood’s golden era. The relationship between the combined images overrides the originals and they operate together to create original works of art which generate altogether new meanings.
Last but not least, Christopher Williams, whose exhibition Kapitalistischer Realismus (2011) in the Czech Republic won him his place in the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize 2012. The first thing you notice about his installation is the abundance of space allocated to each of the photographs which are large in size and spread out across two walls. Though there are only three images, they present the viewer with a concise yet bold cross section of Williams’ work.
The lack of context and seemingly bland imagery make for difficult reading. The conscious lack of signifiers to help guide the viewer make this series of work by far the most ambiguous of the shortlisted nominees but also one of the most intriguing. The photographer’s hidden layers of meaning and sub themes form a kind of cryptic puzzle that the audience is encouraged to engage with.
Williams’ varying use of subject often points to the technical processes within photography itself. By using the advertising aesthetic as a method of representation, he begins to dig deep into the methods of contemporary visual communication and looks to both question and expose the way in which aesthetics control our understanding of reality.
The exhibition is on show at The Photographers’ Gallery in London until 9 September, 2012. This year’s jury consists of François Hébel, Director, Les Rencontres d’Arles; Martin Parr, artist; Beatrix Ruf, Director/Curator, Kunsthalle Zürich; and Anne-Marie Beckmann, Curator, Art Collection Deutsche Börse, Germany. Brett Rogers, Director of The Photographers’ Gallery, is the non-voting Chair.
For more info, visit http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/