Deutsche Börse 2015/Clare Strand - Study Visit. 23rd May 2015.

This visit took place at The Photographers Gallery on 23rd May 2105 and was hosted by Sharon Boothroyd. The visit was to be a review of the work of the four candidates for this year's Deutsche Börse prize, the winner of which will be announced on 28th May. The four candidates are Nikolai Bakharev, Zanele Muholi, Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse and Viviane Sassen.

This was my first proper introduction to a photography award and it was interesting to see such a diverse set of images from the 'competitors' — if that's the right word. There were four photographers (actually five as one body of work was from a partnership) Nikolai Bakharev, Zanele Muholi, Viviane Sassen and the partnership of Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse.

The first body of work was 'Relationship' by Nikolai Bakharev. Bakharev was born in Russia in 1946 and to support his income (his primary work was also as a photographer) he began taking photographs of people on public beaches within the USSR. The photographs were all in greyscale and were staged or posed, not candid or voyeuristic. In the USSR at the time - the 1970s - artistic freedom was limited, as was the public's access to art; images of intimate and personal life were not deemed appropriate by the government; so what Bakharev was doing was circumventing the situation by photographing people outdoors. So the work was fundamentally a set of images showing individuals, cavorting couples or groups of beach-going sunbathers enjoying their holiday. Of the four bodies of work, this one appealed to me most. I will try and explain my reasoning in the summary. 

The second body of work was by South African photographer Zanele Muholi (b.1972) and was entitled 'Faces and Phases 2006-2014'. Muholi identifies herself as a 'visual activist' and this particular body of work is a series of greyscale portraits of black South African men and women who have faced discrimination and/or violence because of their sexual orientation. Alongside the photographs were personal stories of those depicted. There was also a video of some of the other work that Muholi has been involved with amongst the LGBTI community in South Africa.  

We then headed upstairs to the second pair of exhibitors Viviane Sassen and the partnership of Subotzky and Waterhouse. Viviane Sassen's work was entitled 'Umbra' or translated from Latin, 'shadow'. Rather esoterically (or perhaps more accurately 'vague') the title was meant to serve as 'a metaphor for the human psyche and it's manifestations'. I didn't really understand this and Sassen's display as a whole was a bit too cryptic and disjointed for me. There were however, some interesting images and I particularly liked the 'mirrors in the sand' images which were actually quite difficult to figure out. However, these images were held amongst others which didn't seem to have any real connection that I could see. For me, there needs to be a clear or decipherable connection within a body of work for it to succeed in my mind and this one didn't. There was also a rather annoying audio which played on a short loop as I viewed the images. I am prepared to be enlightened on Sassen's work as I do feel like I'm missing something with this!

Subotzky and Waterhouse's 'Ponte City' was very different from Sassen's in that the images were clearly held together by the subject - the 54-storey residential tower block, built for the South African middle class during the apartheid years. It was subsequently abandoned and then inhabited by the less wealthy and the criminal. Subotzky and Waterhouse used original photographs, archive materials and found objects to show the tower in a very different light to how it was originally pictured.

After the visit we sat in the cafe with Sharon and splitting into 4 groups we decided on which of the submissions we liked best and which we thought would actually win. I did predict that Ponte City would win (as it actually did) but my own personal preference was for Nikolai Bakharev's Relationship. I liked Bakharev's images particularly as they were simple, and showed a range of characters which one couldn't help but be intrigued by. There was nothing esoteric of hidden about it and for me this is important. Contrasting this with Sassen's work for example and the difference is clear - to me Sassen's work was muddled and confusing. Maybe I will learn to view things differently as I progress. I did like Ponte City and I believed it would win simply because it was done so well. It was a little heavy on the non-photographic element and this put me off slightly but it was well organised and interesting to look at. 

After viewing the Deutsch Borse exhibition  we headed off to see the Clare Strand exhibition in the Grimaldi Gavin gallery. Here's how the gallery described this exhibition:

Getting Better and Worse at the Same Time is an exhibition of new work by British artist Clare Strand. The exhibition will employ kinetic machines, film and photography to reveal Strand’s discordant relationship with the photographic medium, exploring its promise and limitations through unexpected and eccentric means.

A lot of thought goes into Clare Strand's work, that is clear, but for me this wasn't really about photography, nor was it a photography exhibition - consequently I didn't feel that I learned very much. It was interesting and enjoyable in a way but at this stage in my studies I find this kind of work too far from what I regard photography to be. I have seen some of Strand's other work which is more accessible, but which is still 'quirky' and slightly cryptic. In the British Journal of Photography, Strand is described as 'marching to the beat of her own drum', which certainly seems true! Photography and its definition sits on a long continuum and Clare Strand's take on it is certainly not in the comfortable mainstream. I didn't get a lot from this part of the visit other than perhaps to understand a little more about how photography is interpreted and used by others.