The Deutsche Borse exhibition at the Photographers Gallery shows the work from two publications and two exhibitions of four nominees: Deana Lawson, Anastasia Samoylova, Jo Ractliffe and Gilles Peress. All four photographers challenge, in different ways, preconceived histories by using their own photographic evidence to posit alternative perspectives. Each body of work demonstrates the power of photography to describe the visual manifestation of viewpoints that do not conform to standard or official positions. Whether the work of an outsider observing or an insider who feels a sense of belonging, each photographer confronts difficult issues: the iconography of tourism in Miami that ignores the reality of climate change; the contested framing of black lives and culture; the traces of colonial history in degraded landscapes; the personal experiences of people during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The photographers document these tensions and, at the same time, concern themselves with persuasive formal means to jolt the viewer into recognition of their own involvement in the acceptance of existing conditions.
Guest review by Sarah Mulvey
The winner of the prize will be announced on 12 May 2022.
Deana Lawson (b.1979, Rochester, New York) Centropy, Kunsthalle, Basel from 9 June – 11 October 2020.
Deana Lawson’s exhibition space shows her range of experimental ventures in photography. She works with holograms which are often inserted into larger photographs; she frames her photographic works with mirrors, problematising the relationship between viewer and sitter; she tampers with photos and prints large-scale the degeneration these processes bring about, and she explores mythical Afro-American lives in large-format portraits. In the two interior portraits presented in the exhibition her sitters suggest stories and characters which demand interrogation. The main characters in Ode to Yemaya and Monetta Passing stare directly at the viewer, seeming to demand dialogue through their probing gaze. But it is a relationship we cannot fathom; like Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall, Lawson constructs interior tableaux, often using the same location to tell different stories. She invites strangers to inhabit her carefully composed interiors and chooses telling objects to reflect her interest in Black social and cultural life of the diaspora. making reference to interiors that she has experienced or remembered. However, everything she uses to tell her stories through her stage sets and characters become strange and discomforting; they refuse comfortable readings. The colours she uses are highly saturated, the textures sumptuous, the patterns clashing. The characters, though at first glance are recognisable, suggest unknowable, complex personal histories. The foregrounds are tipped forward so that the figures seem to spill out into our space further eradicating the barrier between viewer and sitter and thrusting us into their mysterious worlds.
Anastasia Samoylova (b.1984, Moscow) FloodZone, Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow, from 8 June – 28 July, 2021.
Anastasia Samoylova takes photos which show the effects of the climate crisis on Miami which, because of its low-lying terrain, is prone to sea level rise and flooding. She takes photos of the encroachment of nature in the city, focusing on the vegetation that exploits damp surfaces or pools of water to proliferate. Like a vile green disease they colonise the pastel coloured building facades that have made Miami famous. Lush green hues defile carefully engineered human endeavour, trees are ripped from their moorings in the street, plants proliferate in large puddles, underground spaces are filled with seawater. Humans are presented as onlookers, seemingly divested of their power to halt the advance of the shimmering, reflecting, rising ocean. These are beautiful large format photos that show the seductive advance of natural degradation but also suggest the hubris of humans who believe that there is a human engineered solution to climate change that can combat Nature’s natural propensity to invade and occupy. She foregrounds the imagery on billboard advertisements that promote an alternative myth of the good life in Florida. One of these, (only shown in the exhibition catalogue), which shows a couple kissing in a swimming pool next to an apartment block, is attached to a wire fence in front of a construction site which reflects the pattern of the chicken wire across its surface, thus disrupting the carefully composed fantasy of the ad photo.
Jo Ractliffe (b.1961, Cape Town), Photographs 1980s – now, published by The Walther Collection/Steidl, 2021.
Jo Ractliffe’s austere black and white photographs show unremarkable landscapes, town streets and industrial ruins that are revisited over a period of time from the mid-1980s to the present. The views of the landscape Ractliffe selects are fairly characterless and are punctuated by drab buildings or remnants of some past use. It is only when you read the captions that you realise that these nondescript objects mark vestiges of a disturbing history. A series of photos show the remains of the abandoned Pomfret asbestos mine camp, South Africa, built in the 1960s. However, there are still people who live in the area, as shown by a photograph of young men walking towards the mill of the abandoned mine. Why are they still there? Another photograph shows a path made up of slabs apparently leading nowhere. These mark the temporary military base in Riemvasmaak, South Africa, set up in the early 1970s. The people who had settled there were removed by the apartheid government to make way for the site. But in the exhibition we are not given this information. We have to find it out for ourselves, investigate these past interventions into the landscape, to understand their significance. A bit of research reveals that some of the Angolan soldiers who were brought to work in the asbestos mine still live in the town of Pomfret even though the local South African government has tried to evict them. Even without this knowledge the photographs are dispiriting, but fascinating at the same time, powerful in their restrained perspectives. Stranded bins on a beach, or a comfort station, located on a FAPLA base in Angola, Ractliffe photographs these objects within the landscape in order to ‘explore the ways past violence manifests in the space of the present – both forensically and symbolically – and intersects with current questions around land, ownership and belonging.’
Gilles Peress (b.1946, Neuilly-sur-Seine) Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, published by Steidl, 2021.
Gilles Peress’s black and white photographs are pictorial records of the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland. They cannot speak but they evoke the noise and chaos of his experience, and the many ways that the people of Northern Ireland involved themselves in conflict, entertained themselves or went about their daily lives during the Troubles. Peress took photographs in the streets of Belfast and Londonderry in the 1970s and 80s. His photos testify to the way that ordinary people adapted to a way of life underpinned by violent and extreme politics. Graffiti gathers in layers on the walls, children play in the street on a makeshift swing from a pole or drink lemonade at the wedding celebration of Prince Andrew and Fergie, teenagers snog near burning rubbish, men sleep on the grass after a parade, bands perform, boys stare at soldiers. The exhibition includes a selection of the thousands of images that are presented in the book Whatever You Say, Say Nothing and is a reminder of the legacy and continuation of colonial rule in the northern tip of Ireland and the impact that it has had on both Protestants and Catholic people. The publication includes two volumes of photographs and a companion almanac of contextual material, Annals of the North. The photographs are arranged according to a series of twenty-two ‘semi-fictional days’ – a kind of diary of Peress’s experiences where he strived to ‘describe Everything’ without trying to establish a single narrative. This sense of chronological dislocation is reflected in the exhibition layout. The wall text that accompanies each series of photos describes random thoughts and memories of the time that Peress spent in Northern Ireland. A selection of the photos from the publication are displayed in a variety of ways to reflect the protean nature of his account.
Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation prize – 2022 until 12 June 2022.
Sarah Mulvey is an art history graduate and has worked in education for over twenty-five years, teaching art and photography. She has written on art and fashion. Her passion is visiting galleries and museums. When not working she finds time to draw and paint and to take photos on her strolls around London.
Image Credits: All photos taken in the exhibition by Sarah Mulvey