Just off busy Oxford Street lies a not so hidden gem, The Photographers’ Gallery. I had been wanting to visit for a long time and finally made my way there this past weekend to view the current display of nominees for the Deutsche Boerse Price.
Annually (since 1996) The Photographers’ Gallery awards a photographer of any nationality for his or her outstanding contribution to the medium of photography in the previous year. The Deutsche Boerse has been sponsoring the £30 000 prize since 2005. This year’s nominees were Alberto Garcia-Alix (Spain), Jochen Lempert (Germany), Richard Mosse (Ireland) and Lorna Simpson (US). On May 12th 2014 the prize was awarded to Richard Mosse.
The nominees’ works are displayed over two of the four exhibition flours of the gallery. Upon entering the lower floor, I was greeted with the black and white works of Alberto Garcia-Alix. The works of Garcia-Alix, who was nominated for his publication Autorretrato/Self-portrait, consist of his self-exploratory portraits, documenting his experiences with drugs, prostitutes, and the Spanish punk-scene of the late 70s and 80s.
In a kind of nostalgic retrospective of cause and effect, these relics from his youth are juxtaposed in particular with his 2002 self-portrait My Feminine Side. I found the latter especially engrossing, as it captures the photographer’s body as an ultimate testament to his past and present. The body, covered in tattoos, is at the same time seemingly emaciated by past drug-abuse. This stands in opposition to his clenched fists, a posture of determinism and strength, again contrasting his facial expression, which displays a sense of defeat and, as the title suggests, an air of gentleness or femininity.
On the same floor are displayed the photographs by Jochen Lempert. These formed part of his solo-exhibition at Hamburger Kunsthalle in 2013. I found his photography to be equally as intimate as Garcia-Alix’s, although in quite a different way.
In his work, former biologist Lempert has occupied himself closely with nature. He seems to have done so in a way that is twofold – firstly, in his subject matter, composed of plants and animals, and secondly, in his inquiry into the medium of photography itself through the exploration of the properties of light. These interests are mirrored for instance, in his photograms Four Frogs from 2010.
From afar, pinned directly and unframed onto the wall, the series blurs to a set of greyish monochrome papers with a few white dots strewn across. However, viewed closely, the white dots disclose themselves to be tiny frogs, which have, whether by chance or not, rested on the light-sensitive paper to leave their contour.
The works of the two remaining artists are displayed one floor up. Here the large-scale and impressively coloured photographs by Richard Mosse are given a lot more breathing space then the tightly hung works of Garcia-Alix and Lempert on the level below. This way of displaying Mosse’s photographs seems to reflect their grandeur, while the close hang of Garcia-Alix and Lempert’s works mirrors their intimacy.
Mosse’s images are beautiful to look at with their vibrant tones of red, contrasting a foggy green and pale blue. However, their subject matter is that of a landscape infiltrated by human tragedy and war. These works, part of the exhibition The Enclave which was displayed at the Irish Pavillion at last year’s Venice Biennial, show the landscape of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The incredible colours are in fact the result of the use of military surveillance film, rendering the landscape in the vibrant spectrum of infrared light.
In a corner of the upper level, almost hidden, hangs Lorna Simpson’s work LA ‘57-NY ’09 (2009). It consists of numerous small square black and white photographs from the 1950s and 1960s in which a black women, performing household tasks or striking poses within her domestic environment, coyly poses in front of the camera. These photographs are almost indiscernible from a second set of photographs that intersperses the former. In these the artist herself can be seen imitating and re-staging the historic pictures.
By juxtaposing the black women’s past and present, Simpson comments on gender and memory and thus, goes on to explore her own identity. In this context, it appeared as a (unintentional) paradox to me that her work was given so little space in the exhibition.
Mosse, whose works without doubt are equally visually stunning, as well as, in regards to their content, fascinating and at the same time disturbing, was chosen as the recipient of the prize. Nevertheless, for myself I have to say, I was a lot more captivated by the intimacy of Garcia-Alix’s self-documentation, or even Lempert’s close encounter with nature. Simpson’s work, for some reason, left me rather untouched and indifferent. Then again, I imagine that it is precisely the fact, that all four artists are so different (and produce work so different from each other) that makes this year’s nominees and the display at the Photographer’s Gallery especially exciting.
The exhibition is still on until June 22nd.
Mon – Sat 10.00 – 18.00, Thu 10.00 – 20.00, Sun 11.30 – 18.00