Redefining Visual Culture

In recent years, photography has become the most accessible and affordable art form, however with this in mind, photographers must continue to drive the medium forward.

Photography awards are as ubiquitous as the image itself. As the medium has advanced in recent years, artists are confronted with the challenge of finding new and innovative ways to push the boundaries of photography even further. It’s not always digital manipulation or post-production that holds the answer, but rather concept, which is driving the image forward. Every year, the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize awards a living photographer of any nationality, who has made a significant contribution in exhibition or publication format to the medium of photography in Europe. This year’s shortlisted photographers are Thomas Demand (b. 1964, Germany), Roe Ethridge (b. 1953, USA), Jim Goldberg (b. 1953, USA) and Elad Lassry (b. 1977, Israel).

Each photographer is contributing to the wider image-revolution. They are making a highly significant contribution to the medium by re-thinking the exact position of the image and re-defining its potential. Demand, who is nominated for his exhibition, Nationalgalerie in Berlin, often uses photographs drawn from the media, turning them into life size and painstakingly constructed three-dimensional paper models, which he then photographs. This construction of the “set” and the image is the ultimate critique on value systems and pictorial authority. Roe Ethridge has been put forward for the prize for his solo exhibition at Les Rencontres d’Arles in 2010. Ethridge is particularly interested in the unpredictability of image-making, often taking “outtakes” from his commercial work, pouncing on the banal and the mundane, depicting a new Americana.

Jim Goldberg received his nomination for Open See, a highly politicised project that focuses on the plight of refugee, immigrant and trafficked populations to Europe. However, it’s Goldberg’s fusion of image, text, ephemera, as well as large and medium photographs that make his work a document of the visual narrative. Finally, Elad Lassry, the youngest photographer this year, is nominated for his exhibition, Elad Lassry at Kunsthalle in Zurich. Through collage and found images, Lassry creates a meaningful discourse around appropriation, authorship and originality.

The shortlist is particularly diverse this year, with each photographer demonstrating an individual style and cultural critique. This year’s Curator of the Prize and the Photographer’s Gallery, Stefanie Braun is well versed in photographic innovation with over 10 years experience. This year’s prize and exhibition sets the benchmark for photographic innovation, recording an exciting moment in photography’s 150-year history and cementing its place in the fine art world.

The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize is now in its 15th year, and has rewarded some of the most influential photographers of our times, what is the main criterion for being shortlisted?
The criterion is quite straightforward: photographers can be nominated for an exhibition or a publication that was exhibited / published in Europe between 1 October 2009 – 30 September 2010. Each year, we ask our so-called “Academy” of nominators, a group of about 100 writers, curators and critics from across Europe, to send us up to two names of artists they were particularly impressed with over the last year. The Award is recognition of a specific exhibition or publication, so it’s not a life-time achievement award, but a celebration of a distinct body of work. This has generated some very interesting and varied finalists over the last 15 years as photographers can be nominated for work that was recently produced as well as retrospectives or re-editions of previously produced bodies of work. This ability to reassess and re-celebrate previous works (such as Joel Sternfeld who won the Prize in 2004 or Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places, which made it onto the shortlist in 2005) as well as the inclusion of relatively unknown artists alongside, such as Richard Billingham who won in 1997 with Ray’s a Laugh or Shirana Shahbazi, winner in 2002 for her images of everyday life in Tehran, is for me one of the great strengths of the prize.

Since the Prize was launched, which photographers have been the most memorable, particularly with winners like Robert Adams, Esko Männikkö, and Paul Graham in recent years?
I guess that’s difficult to say because we all have different views on what’s “memorable” or good. And this is exactly why I like the exhibition so much, as it generates debate among our audience and the people in the wider photographic community. A competition always creates strong reactions from people: why did the jury choose him or her? Why do they deserve to be in this selection? For me, the Prize is much more about the shortlist than about the winner, and I like its unpredictability due, in part, to the jury who change every year. I remember in 2005 for example JH Engström was included on the shortlist – a young and relatively unknown Swedish photographer who produced a beautiful, diary style publication called Trying to Dance. He was up against Luc Delahaye (who won that year), Stephen Shore and Jörg Sasse, but was often mentioned in the reviews and has since gone on to become a big figure in the photography scene. Or Jacob Holdt, who was shortlisted in 2008, and whose work had never been seen in an art context – for me his work was the (re-)discovery of that year.

Elad Lassry uses innovative photography and film techniques, how does he play with the ideas of appropriation, authorship and originality?
Lassry’s work is very much concerned with images that as he puts it “have been exhausted of their meaning” – stock photography, advertising images, studio portraiture – images that we all know too well and that Elad makes us look at again in a different way. He raises questions about the uniqueness of photographs with his playful images that are either photographs made in the studio in front of monochrome backdrops, often mimicking 1970s product photography, silkscreens on magazine covers or found C-prints or collages that fuse photographic prints with images he has taken himself. Rendering the over-familiar and clichéd – a kitten, a pretty model, lipsticks, a carton of eggs – strangely peculiar, Lassry’s very diverse approach embraces and plays with the multiple histories that photography has generated.

Jim Goldberg’s Open See is poignant in today’s political climate with its limits and restrictions. Through Goldberg’s juxtaposition of text and image, how do you think he balances politics and aesthetics?
I think Goldberg sees it as his responsibility to provide a voice for others who lack the means or power to express their rights, while opening up many questions about the veracity of the photographic image and authorial power. He wants to expose social injustice and encourage change and at the same time he is pushing the boundaries of documentary photography through his innovative way of storytelling, which directly involves his subjects. Open See took over six years to complete (2003 – 2009) and is a photographic narrative of the lives and experiences of illegal immigrants, refugees, displaced people and asylum seekers who are trying to make new beginnings and a better future in Europe.

Thomas Demand’s exhibition, Nationalgalerie explores German history since 1945, how do you feel his enigmatic constructions deconstruct meaning, time and memory?
Demand investigates the relations between fiction and documentary in an interesting and unsettling way in his meticulously constructed photographs. His approach is really a photographic practice based on sculpture that is concerned with the aesthetic as much as the ethical or political. For Nationalgalerie, Demand selected images that especially relate to Germany – places of wider historical meanings such as the interior of the Bonn Parliament or more intimate, personal importance such as the artist’s children’s room. He also conceived the exhibition as a large-scale sculptural installation in itself with the works being hung in front of curtain covered walls accompanied by more elusive statements written about the individual pieces by the playwright, Botho Strauss.

Roe Ethridge’s work is descriptive and captures a narrative in a non-linear manner by fusing the commercial with the editorial; can you tell me more about his shortlisted exhibition pieces?
Roe Ethridge has created a diverse body of work which includes fashion-style portraiture, deadpan suburban domesticity, landscapes and brightly coloured still lifes that nevertheless carry the clear stamp of his artistic vision. Relating to contemporary American culture, Roe’s work is inherently critical, but also humorous about the medium – he once said: “Images are redundant and I am implicating myself as part of that redundancy” – subverting photography in unusual ways with his eclectic photographic compositions.

What are the main aims of the Prize and how is it different from other high profile photography prizes?
The aim is to celebrate photography and to stimulate public debate about the medium. It also reflects the growing importance of the role photography plays in contemporary culture. I think it’s wonderful that the Prize rewards photography in all its forms which can be seen in the wide variety of previous winners such as Juergen Teller, Robert Adams, Andreas Gursky and last year Sophie Ristelhueber, shifting seamlessly between fashion and documentary photography and between contemporary and conceptual art. There are always different practices and concerns among the shortlist, but all are trying to push the boundaries of the medium in some way.

Finally, how do you think photography has evolved in recent years with regards to artistic practice and cultural acceptance, what are photographers doing today that they weren’t 10 or 20 years ago?
I think there is a much greater fluidity in the medium today – artists and photographers combine analogue techniques with digital technology, still with moving imagery, and they exhibit in galleries and online too. The ubiquity of the photographic image does prove a challenge to artists and how to make sense of it in a creative and engaging way. In an institutional sense, photography has firmly established itself in the artistic canon – places like Tate Modern now have a dedicated curator for photography, The National Media Museum is building a second home in London and the Photographers’ Gallery has evolved over the last 10 years from a constrained premises in Great Newport Street to a newly converted building with double the exhibition space and a dedicated education space. All these provide more opportunities for photographers to show work and for audiences to engage with it.

The exhibition opened 5 April – 1 May 2011 at Ambika P3.

Cherie Federico