Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2015

The winner for this year’s Deutsche Borse Photography Prize was announced three days ago and the prize went to Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse for their publication, Ponte City (Steidl, 2014). I managed to view the exhibition a few weeks ago and went to their talk on the Wednesday that’s just past. For this year’s Deutsche Börse photography prize shortlist, it included the works of Viviane Sassen, Nikolai Bakharev and Zanele Muholi. When I first viewed the exhibition, Subotzky and Waterhouse’s project had the most impact on me with their work but I was really moved by Zanele Muholi’s series, Faces and Phases about the black LGBTI identity and politics in post-apartheid South Africa. Ponte City really stuck to me perhaps because of my architecture background.

“Ponte City depicts a 54-floor apartment block in Johannesburg which was built in 1976 for the white elite under apartheid rule. During the political transition in the 1980s and 90s, it became a refuge for black newcomers to the city and immigrants from all over Africa.” (Guardian website)

This is a building that dominates Johannesburg skyline and is an icon of the city. Subotzky and Waterhouse spent six years from 2008-2014 documenting Ponte City. They started out by photographing people in the lift as that was the central core where people had to use to get in and out of the building. That was also their way of getting to know people living in the building. In their talk, Subotzky and Waterhouse mentioned that there were some suspicion from the people in their first encounter but they would then print the images after they photographed and delivered it to their apartment in person. This was their way into the lives of the people living there. ponte-plan

Ponte City floor plan (from Lindsay Bremner’s blog)

One of the most interesting element of the project which I really enjoyed are the light boxes which was a recording of all the doors, windows and television set of every apartment within the building. The installation really works well and the viewer is like a voyeur looking into the lives of the people who lived there. This idea was inspired by a quote from Le Corbusier where he said that “the apertures of a building captures the spirit”. Waterhouse had heard this quote somewhere before (but could not find it!) and it got them thinking about creating these light boxes which showed the apertures of the whole building, following the typology of Ponte city. c87c8d21aa

Windows, Doors, Televisions – three light boxes by Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse

SOUTH AFRICA. Johannesburg. 2008. From the Ponte City project, A book about the tallest residential skyscraper in Africa. In collaboration with Patrick Waterhouse.

SOUTH AFRICA. Johannesburg. 2008. From the Ponte City project, A book about the tallest residential skyscraper in Africa. In collaboration with Patrick Waterhouse.

Windows, Doors, Televisions (close up) by Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse

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Looking up the Core, Ponte City, Johannesburg, 2008  

All images © Mikhael Subotzky / Patrick Waterhouse

Subotzky and Waterhouse’s compilation of the found images, history and documentary photographs reveals the complex layers of Ponte City. This is a great project and one not to miss. The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2015 exhibition, featuring work by all shortlisted artists is now on show at The Photographers’ Gallery until the 7th of June. Do try to catch it!

For more reading: Lindsay Bremner wrote an essay ‘Buildings are geological agents’ on her blog, which was an accompanying piece for Ponte City’s exhibition in Paris and is a great read!

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Second time round to Conflict, Time, Photography

Ultimately, then, when photographs are uncritically presented as historical documents, they are transformed into aesthetic objects. Accordingly, the pretence to historical understanding remains although that understanding has been replaced by aesthetic experience

(Sekula, 1991, p.123)

The quote above is part of a critical debate about documentary photography and one which we were asked to think about when we went round the Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition at Tate Modern a couple of weeks ago when the class went together.

Yesterday, I visited again, starting from the middle of the exhibition where I finished off last. There were a couple of series of photos that really stood out for me, which have the ‘punctum’. One particular series was Hiromi Tsuchida’s Hiroshima collection 1982-95. He photographed articles from the collection at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum 37 years after the event. These photos included text which gave a short description of the object and their owners. The physical photo of which they were printed in the gallery context was slightly bigger than A0 size and were gelatine silver print on paper.

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Hiromi Tsuchida
Hiroshima collection 1982-95

Due to the physical size of the print, I found the jacket image quite powerful as it was about human size printed and the imagination of what happened whilst you read the description is one that gripped me.

hiroshima jacket Hiromi Tsuchida
Hiroshima collection 1982-95

In the accompanying text right next to the prints, it described the photos like ‘a form of posthumous portraiture’. For me, the sense of calm of the simple images plays with the direct opposite of the historical event, one which we can only imagine. This really brings us back to the Sekula quote above.

Interesting enough, during my first visit, I chose the following photo, Shadow of a soldier remaining on the wooden wall of the Nagasaki military headquarters (Minami-Yamate macho, 4.5km from Ground Zero) by Matsumoto Eiichi as the photo which had the ‘punctum’. This photo was taken approximately three weeks after the atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki.

conflict_3_0 Shadow of a soldier remaining on the wooden wall of the Nagasaki military headquarters (1945) by Matsumoto Eiichi

The photo affected me personally as what I had initially thought was a shadow were actually caused by the heat of the bomb and as these humans and objects was exposed to the blast, ‘the intensity of the explosion had created ‘burned in’ shadows’. This image as compared to Tsuchida’s Hiroshima collection documents the remains of a Japanese guard in its context. The gelatine silver print on paper image is roughly A4 size (315mm x 207mm) and much smaller compared to Tsuchida’s images. It is very interesting to compare how these images were made at different times after the event and how both of them affected the viewer (i.e. me) differently.

One other series of photos taken 99 years after the event which stood out for me was Shot at Dawn by Chloe Dewe Mathews.

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Chloe-D-M-R08F09-final-10x8 Shot at Dawn by Chloe Dewe Mathews

The images were the locations where WW1 British, French and Belgian soldiers accused of cowardice and desertion on the western front were executed. She ‘took the images at the exact time at which the executions took place and as close as possible to the actual date’. If you looked purely at the images without reading the accompanying text next to the exhibited images, you see a landscape photograph. Once you read the accompanying text which states the names of the people executed there, the time and date of execution and the location, the viewer starts to see more in the image through the ‘evidence’ of the text.

Following the exhibition, I checked out the video where Chloe De Mathews talked about this body of work. She mentioned about the relationship of the text and the image which is like ‘stamping the presence of the person back into the empty landscape’, the point she is trying to make. It is the ‘absence that is glaringly present’.

It is such an interesting exhibition and one where you need time to slowly digest and understand the different approaches the different photographers and artists choose to represent conflict.