Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 07

Artvehicle 11/Review

9th February 2007 — 9th April 2007

In the late 60s Anders Petersen spent nearly three years photographing the carousing denizens of an unruly bar in Hamburg's red light district. The collected black and white images became the now legendary book, 'Cafe Lehmitz' which tenderly evokes the joys of impolite society. Petersen has continued to chronicle marginal characters, but with the passage of time his vision has become very bleak indeed. Gap and St Etienne comprises four clusters of unframed grainy prints so contrasty that at their darkest they are a sooty charcoal that sucks the brightness from the room. Petersen states that he doesn't take photos of what he sees, but what he feels. Many of these pictures make only fleeting impressions like jerky streams of consciousness...footprints in a snowy graveyard...dogs...a weird cat...a faceless bride...insects crowding a lamp.. A plate of curly, elongated sausages...faces, wall eyed stares and gone looks. Two naked bodies on a tousled mattress. One's back is arched and a sinewy Doberman licks his head. A moment of contentment that the photographer has chosen to deny us. The joyfulness of Petersen's early work has given way to gloom and despondency.

Adjoining Petersen's space is DPRK, Philippe Chancel's colour essay on North Korea and, initially, the mood appears much more upbeat. In slightly enhanced Magic Kingdom colours, with lots of whiteness, rather formal-looking looking people, and clean, rather nondescript-looking streets. One frame is full of young women in brown Chairman Mao uniforms and red star caps, quick-marching somewhere. One reveals a paisley cuff that emphasises the uniformity of the others. An impossibly wide boulevard, flanked by unnaturally large high-rise blocks. The road is eerily lacking in traffic, and the few pedestrians are nothing more than specks in relation to their surroundings. This is an enigmatic nation that most of us know little about except for shaky footage videoed through holes in shoulder-bags, news coverage of a terrible train accident, and a recent cry for attention involving an atom bomb. Chancel wangled the opportunity to photograph, agreeing to confine his gaze to 'distinctive signs of power'. He has succeeded in producing a body of work that is sufficiently ambiguous to cut two ways. On the surface of it, we are presented with views you might expect to find on a set of DPRK government approved postcards. After a while the ubiquity of Kim Il Sung and Kim Il Jong imagery, the pomposity of the architecture and compulsive-obsessive sense of order start to take hold. Seen from this point of view, they become a dispassionate study of the use of propaganda as a means of subjugation and control. I'm not completely convinced by the selection that has been made for the exhibition, though. You need to look at the book for to get the full effect.

Walid Raad/ The Atlas Group project: On one wall, huge blow-ups of 35mm snapshots. They are very badly scratched, and flecked with colour. In one, the tiny shape of a jet fighter can just be made out, and there seems to be a halo around it. Anti aircraft fire? Probably. Two more show rooftops, and plumes of smoke. Bombs? Maybe. One is mostly empty. Along the bottom, a row of heads. Looking up at the jet fighters, possibly. In another, a man, most likely a soldier, is lying down, probably resting, beside the tracks of a tank. On the other wall, smaller photos of pages from a dossier of some sort. Photos of buildings, covered with different coloured dots. There are line diagrams and penciled notes on the facing pages. The dots represent where shrapnel and bullets have pock-marked the buildings. We read that the young Walid Raad made a collection of bullets. Aha! A textbook example of disassociation! The best way for a boy to make sense of the horror around him. The colours of the dots represent their country of manufacture. On a further page of the dossier is a photo of a tree, totally festooned in dots. Beautiful! Well, Maybe not that, exactly. It becomes apparent that all is not what it seems. The viewer has become entangled in a chimera that is at least partly of his own making. The Atlas Group couldn't possibly have accurately located all those entry points, in fact they are not a 'we' at all, but one man, Walid Raad, the 'curator' of these and other semi-fictional archives of an undeniably factual war.

Fiona Tan also has her archivist's hat on. On one side of the space is Vox Populi, one of a series of assemblages comprising 200 odd snapshots, this time snaffled from the collections of ninety Sydney residents that go to make up a universal photograph album. Even though I don't think I know anyone in Australia, I found myself thinking I recognised people. The images are vaguely organised by subject: fishing, sunsets, people in water, barbecues, Sydney Opera House, the desert, people asleep.......although after a while such classification inevitably breaks down, or starts up again elsewhere on the wall, while other random themes kick in. The pictures seem to span three or four decades and some mighty amusing haircuts and a guy in a superman costume pretending to hold up the traffic are just two of the little gems on offer. Everyone seems to get a great deal of pleasure looking at these snaps and I'm sure Fiona Tan had hours of fun selecting, organising, and re-organising them. Like Raad, Tan is playing with notions of popular memory but this piece is extremely satisfying any way you look at it. At their best people's snapshots can't be beat. The second part of Tan's exhibit comprises School photos of Japanese Schoolgirls from the 20s with a murmuring voiceover that is too quiet to be heard over the people chattering about the Vox Populi. The winner will be announced on the 21st March. I think Philippe Chancel should get it.


Photographers' Gallery
5 & 8 Great Newport Street
London WC2H 7H

Monday-Saturday, 11am-6pm
Thursday, 11am-8pm
Sunday, 12pm-6pm

Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 07 — Camden Arts Centre Aernout Mik, Training Ground, 2006 Video installation © the artist Courtesy of carlier | gebauer, Berlin and The Project, New York,
              collection Dennis and Debra Scholl Set photo:
            Florian Braun, Berlin

Camden Arts Centre
Aernout Mik, Training Ground, 2006
Video installation © the artist
Courtesy of carlier | gebauer, Berlin and The Project, New York, collection Dennis and Debra Scholl Set photo: Florian Braun, Berlin