14 February 2008

Deutsche Börse Prize 2008 (2)

A few days back I posted on the finalists for this year's Deutsche Börse Prize. I have been thinking about the nominees (who, for the plethora of prizes they distribute for this or that, the Brits refer to as those "short listed" for the Prize) and oddly enough have arrived at my "pick" - John Davies. I say "oddly" because I recently read this essay in The Guardian in which the author, Adrian Searle, also picked Davies but for reasons that are contrary to those I would adduce. I want to see if I can say what I think is at stake in our disagreement.

Agecroft Power Station, Salford (1983) © John Davies

I focus on this particular image both because I have posted on it here before and because, as you will see, Searle himself suggests it is perhaps Davies' single best-known work. Before getting to the image itself let's see what Searle has to say about Davies.

John Davies' photographs have been in my mind for a long time. His best known is probably a 1983 view of Agecroft Power Station in Salford. Photographed in black and white on a bright winter day, the four cooling towers of the coal-fired power station dominate the landscape. On the reclaimed land between the river and canal, two games of amateur football are being played. In the scrappy woodland beneath where Davies has set up his large-format camera, a few cars are parked, next to a scattered pile of fly-tipped rubbish. In the haze to the south looms the enclosed winding gear of the last surviving colliery in the Lancashire coalfield. (The pit closed in 1990, the power station three years later. It has now been demolished; a prison stands on the site today.) Davies's photographs keep you looking for a long time.

Time, in fact, is what they dwell on most. Davies' black-and-white work, with its slow, studied positioning and panoramic depth of field and focus, is a kind of social document. This, in any case, is a role that photography can hardly avoid.
Here is a sketch of what Searle says about the other nominees. He criticizes Jacob Holdt for presenting a "deeply disturbing and unpalatable" view of America as (in Holdt's words) a "therapeutically healing journey through the deep racist subconsciousness of the spectator." Searle finds that claim offensive even if he also (rightly to my mind) finds Holdt's work sophomoric. He criticizes Fazal Sheikh in parallel terms. Here, though, it is not the quality of the photography but the problematic match between highly professional images and highly disturbing subject matter that leaves Searle feeling squeamish. He considers Sheikh's work highly compromised not simply because he makes "beautiful" images of troubling subjects, but because along with the images Sheikh offers accompanying text in which he "ruminates on social injustice." By contrast, Searle appreciates the remaining nominee Esko Männikkö precisely because in his work "he takes no moral position." In this, according to Searle, Männikkö differs from Holdt and Sheikh and resembles Davies. Here is how Searle concludes:
In the end, one has to ask who should win the Deutsche Börse prize, and it is Davies' photographs that won't leave me alone. They are dispassionate and compelling. In them, we see geology overlain with the social; the landscape quartered by roads and railways, viaducts and canals; back-to-back housing giving way to high-rise tower blocks that themselves are flattened. There is history in them, as well as light. They tell us things about cities and our relationship to the landscapes on which they are built, about human endeavour and folly. The slag heaps of the closed mines are forested; slate quarries become tourist attractions; trains wind between the houses on a Welsh hillside, carting containers of spent nuclear fuel. Racing pigeons wheel across a mild sky over Sheffield lofts that are about to be cleared for another round of urban expansion and renewal. There is no nostalgia here, only a kind of resignation. Neither Davies' photographs nor his accompanying commentaries tell you what to think or feel, for which I am hugely grateful. He deserves to win.
Where to begin? First, the claim that Männikkö has no moral position is unpersuasive - as though his ironism is not a moral stance. Indeed, irony establishes a distance and a judgement (a sly wink to the sophisticated art world audience) that plays off of the explicit gesture toward the authenticity of man and nature. Second, Searle and I largely agree about Holdt although I find his self-righteous pronouncements less troubling than the banality and haphazardness of the photographs themselves. Third, Sheikh makes beautiful images of disturbing subjects. As I have argued here repeatedly (e.g., [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] ... ) that hardly is an indictment. And might it not be that the beauty of Sheikh's images and his ruminations conspire to trouble Searle precisely because they challenge the sort of ironic distancing he finds so attractve in Männikkö?

Having said all that, I think Davies' work is deeply political. If we focus, for example, on the photo of Agecroft we can recall that 1983 was the year prior to the massive, disastrous miner's strike in Britian. The colliery Searle refers to didn't just close, it was closed by the Thatcher government. Part of what I find irritating about Searle's assessment is the passivity he projects. No one is doing anything, things just happen. And that is why - by projection - he sees Davies' landscapes so naively. I think Searle is correct, there is no nostalgia in the images. But there is nevertheless a sense of loss. There is no resignation either but recognition that what we are seeing is a political landscape on which not just labor, but conflict and loss have been (and still are) intimately inscribed by contending parties.

In short, Davies is not just trying to reveal the human condition in its inevitablity; he is showing us how the landscape reveals (if we look and inquire) the ways some folks lose in the course of history. Instead of seeing forested (hence "renewed' or 'recovered') slagheaps, as does Searle, we might ask what lays under that forest, and from whence did it come, and what has happened that it its become overgrown? And we might ask too about the eradicaiton of memory involved in the reccovery of land previously used for industrial purposes. The answers to those questions would be political; they would take us into the conflicts and decisions and actions that fashion and shape the political landscape. Unfortunately, those are quesitons Searle never bothers to ask.

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Blogger Stan B. said...

Although not that familiar with Männikkö's work, I have great respect and greater familiarity with the work of the other "candidates." And while not really concerned with Searle's opinions, I'd have to vote for Davies simply because he's my favorite landscape photographer. I just find his sense of light and composition utterly seductive. And beautiful as his photographs are, one can't avoid all the social, political, economic, environmental and historical implications that are interwoven into every scar, modification and addition that has transformed those landscapes.

15 February, 2008 02:39  
Anonymous Dawei from Beijing said...

Reading Adrian Searle's essay, and then contrasting it with your post, I find that neither of you makes a convincing, or persuasive, argument, either way. Writing about the values, politics, and ideologies contained inside a photo is like when composers say things like: "E Minor sounds green, to me." You both use phrases like "the photo contains a sense of....a recognition that...." Am I the only one who finds such proclamations void of any substance? Don't get me wrong, Jim, I'm interested in your perspective, and the lens you use to analyze images. That said, am I reading anything more that just that -- one person's perspective? I guess I find the seriousness of it all a bit silly. As if any of the notions put forth by critics are more than mere opinion; opinion that is ultimately informed by one's taste.

15 February, 2008 19:32  

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