20 March 2010

Prizes, Critics, and the Uses of Photography

Fire-Escape (from the series “House on Myasnitskaya), 1925.
Photograph © Alexander Rodchenko.

French photographer Sophie Ristelhueber has won the 2010 Deutsche Börse prize. You can find a report here. This has prompted Sean O'Hagan, photo critic at The Guardian, to renew his lament that “the Deutsche Börse judges have shown a distinct bias for a certain kind of conceptual art photography that might be better suited to the Turner prize shortlist.” The problem with this attempted gerrymander is three-fold, at least.

First, as I mentioned in this earlier post, responding to an earlier iteration of his complaint, O'Hagan doesn't seem to grasp what actually has happened in the selection process over the past few years. To save you having to follow the link, I pointed out that "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." Conceptual Art? Not hardly.

Second, in the same post I suggested that O'Hagan seems to have a naive view of the purpose of prizes - they are, on my view, largely about agenda setting in one or another way. He seems to think there is some nefarious move afoot to subvert the claims of "traditional photographs." In a remarkably un-self-reflective way he fails to notice that his own complaints are attempts at agenda setting of just the sort for which he criticizes the judging panel. Would he, for instance, suggest that, say, Rodchenko or Man Ray not have been plausible candidates for a prize of this sort?

Finally, if we think more about photography as a way of doing things - say, following Patrick Maynard, as a technology that allows us to mark surfaces and thereby enhance and amplify our ability to see or imagine - then the defensiveness O'Hagan evinces is misplaced. There is no need to define the remit of a photography prize conservatively as being bestowed on someone for creating pile of photographs. We might instead simply see the point of such awards - at least in part - as recognizing creative uses of photographic technology for whatever the purpose might be.

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Blogger bastinptc said...

In O'Hagan's comments, and those of Joanna Pitman's (who he links), there seems to be some idea that photography should not only be demonstrations of a technical proficiency, but also be full of "life and energy." Very admirable qualities, yes, but a bit of a fossilization of ideas, kind of like if Thatcher and Reagan were accomplished with the camera. Just a gut feeling.

If photographers of all ilks consider themselves to be artists, as well they should if they so desire, then there should be no issue taken with artists who happen to use a camera.

20 March, 2010 14:58  

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