In the two decades since the Photographers’ Gallery launched an annual prize to honour a living photographer, the profession has transformed almost beyond recognition. In 1997, the inaugural year of the prize, digital cameras were just beginning to be found in shops. Within ten years they were integrated into phones. Today, there is a camera in nearly every pocket. Images have become an increasingly easy and effective way of communicating, revolutionising the ways photography is seen, used and thought about.
Despite the expanded possibilities of the medium, the shortlist for this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, as it is now known, is dominated by those who work within traditional genres of portraiture, landscape and travel, and who use time-honoured, analogue methods. That said, each of the four nominees is unquestionably original.
An exhibition of the shortlist at the Photographers’ Gallery begins with Dutch photographer Dana Lixenberg, who shoots landscapes and portraits using a tripod and a large-format camera. She has been nominated for her strong yet sensitive portraits of a community in Watts, Los Angeles, taken between 1993 and 2015. The passage of time is difficult to detect in her crisp, monochrome silver-gelatine prints.
Another Dutch nominee, Awoiska van der Molen, also favours large-scale silver-gelatine prints, hand printed in the darkroom. Though her background is in urban spaces and interiors, since 2009 she has been making brooding pictures of unpeopled rural places, using long exposures at dusk or dawn. Landscape also looms large in the unconventional work of Swiss duo Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs, who have been nominated for “Eurasia”, an analogue film and photography project arising from a three-year road trip through Europe and central Asia. They play with our trust in the camera as an impartial observer, occasionally inserting huge images of objects found in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin into shots from their journey.
The most outlandish of the group is Sophie Calle, a French conceptual artist who began her career in a rather unusual way: by spontaneously following a man she saw on a Parisian street to Venice, photographing his movements from a window opposite his hotel, and publishing the results in a book, “Suite Vénitienne” (1979). Pairings of images and text, often describing deeply personal events, have since formed the basis of her work. Her latest project is no exception. “My mother, my cat, my father, in that order”, reflects, in a brilliantly deadpan way, on the deaths of her parents and cat, Souris. Humorous, touching and strange, Calle’s work stands out from the rest – perhaps enough to clinch the £30,000 prize.
“Toussaint” (1993) by Dana Lixenberg
In 1993, Lixenberg was sent by a magazine to photograph the areas in LA affected by the riots which followed the acquittal of four white police officers who had been filmed assaulting Rodney King, a black man. She returned independently several times to one housing project, Imperial Courts, over the course of 25 years, taking nearly 400 pictures in the same controlled way, staging her subjects in outdoor, communal spaces and using natural light. Lixenberg’s familiarity with the residents is clear in these portraits; her subjects return the camera’s gaze openly and patiently. The violence that initially brought Lixenberg to Imperial Courts is notably absent from her pictures, but audio recordings that she made of the residents looking through her photos, which you can listen to in the gallery, are peppered with references to sitters who are now dead or in jail.
“Zaha” (2013) by Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs
This photograph, shot with a large-format camera, is of a building designed by Zaha Hadid that Krebs and Onorato encountered in Baku, Azjerbaijan during their 50,000km road trip from Zurich to Kazakhstan. During their journey, the pair, who have collaborated since art school, noticed stark contrasts between traditional ways of life and new ones which are& rapidly replacing them. Showing the dirt and rubble beneath the smooth edifices of modern architecture and the manual labour that makes these utopian visions a reality, this image symbolises that process.
“#364-18” (2013) by Awoiska van der Molen
These photographs by Awoiska van der Molen are the result of the weeks she spent travelling alone in places as far afield as Japan, Norway and Crete, though she does not give any indication of their location in their titles. She uses long exposure times, which gives the resulting images a depth of darkness and a palpable sense of stillness. In this close-cropped composition, the camera has registered the subtle nuances of light and shade as the sun hits the canopy of a dense forest. The photographs are worth seeing in the flesh partly because of their large and immersive scale, but also because of the delicacy of their details. The complexity of these images becomes apparent only gradually, reflecting van der Molen’s description of her travels as a “slow dissolving in the place”.
“My mother, my cat, my father, in that order” (2012) by Sophie Calle
When Calle’s mother died, a text above this photograph tells us, she bought a taxidermy giraffe head and hung it in her studio. She named it after her mother. “Monique looks down at me with sadness and irony,” it says. Monique’s expression could well describe the tone of the display. Each photograph and its caption offer an intimate vignette of Calle’s relationships with her aging parents and her cat, told with such detachment that they often tip into comedy. A picture of her cat lying in a tiny coffin is accompanied by her poignant description of his last moments, his burial, and then this: “I received a message on my phone: Sophie, I am sorry about your cat. Could you ask Camille to pick up some vegetables maybe leeks or turnips if she sees any? Kisses.”
Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2017 The Photographers’ Gallery, until June 11th