24 November 2009

Deutsche Börse 2010 ~ Fashion Statement

For a while now, The Guardian has had up this slide show presenting some work by the four finalists for the Deutsche Börse prize. In his accompanying column Sean O'Hagan proclaims:
"Photography, like art, pop and literature before it, is now awash with prizes. . . . If the health of a medium corresponds to the number of gongs, contemporary photography would seem to be in fine fettle. It is, of course, not that simple. Prizes are not just a barometer of excellence, but of changing taste and, perhaps more importantly, curatorial values."
Let's not be naive. This is true enough but too polite by at least half. Professions form themselves - usually under the heavy hand of a select few discourse shapers - by institutionalizing venues and establishing the media of self-congratulation. In photography think only of the way John Szarkowski helped establish Walker Evans as the benchmark. In social science think of the way economists accrue capital via the Nobel Prize. In each instance the processes at work are deeply political and so, none-too-pretty. So, in the description just nipped from The Guardian what seems missing is that prizes do not so much reflect changing tastes as contribute to the process. The curators and other bestowers of honors are trying to create fashion (and dollar value) by promoting work that embodies their own preferences. By situating themselves as creators of fashion, as promoters of this or that hot artist, the curators can bask in the buzz and maybe score some new "major" show. Does any of that really need saying?

In any case, the four Deutsche Börse finalists this year are Anna Fox, Zoe Leonard, Donovan Wylie, and Sophie Ristelhueber. And a quick look at the short lists for the past half-decade, by the way, suggests that O'Hagan's claim about the emergence of "conceptual" work is strained, at best. Robert Adams won the prize in 2005. Esko Männikkö was picked in 2008 from a largely traditionalist short list. And last year the list was similarly recognizable. O'Hagan must've been working a tight deadline. Otherwise he might've looked for himself.

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Blogger Walter Dufresne said...

I'll withhold comment on the hagiography industry that's gathered and encircled Walker Evans since his 1975 death. Thirty-two years after stumbling on Evans in Newhall's History of Photography -- and following up in shock at the archive at George Eastman House -- Evans is still my benchmark. It's really, really hard, for example, to make work as good as Lange's and Lee's at the FSA, and I'm still astonished to find some Evans *better*.

02 December, 2009 15:02  

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