Eyes on the Prize

Now in its third year, the Citibank Private Bank Photography Prize is gaining in stature. Short Channel 4 films devoted to the five contestants have been shown every evening this week, and each year the prize makes publicity gains. Held at the Photographers’ Gallery in London’s Covent Garden, it is rapidly becoming a significant cultural event.

The prize still has a way to go before it reaches the frenzied status of the Turner and Booker prizes, both of which have become media feeding troughs. The Turner is a paradigm of the modern publicity-seeking prize, in that it aims to raise the profile of the contemporary arts. It has clearly achieved its goal. Turner Prize exhibitions are well-attended, and the prize has contributed to the unprecedented popular interest in contemporary visual art. Although, it must be said that the coverage, which tends to be derisive, competitive or personality-based, is not always the critical dialogue hoped for by the Turner’s curators. Equally, each year the Turner Prize re-awakens the rift between skills-based traditionalists and the neo-conceptual tendency – or, as they perhaps should be known, the Saatchi Supremacy.

The Citibank Prize seems to be festering in a similar enmity, between a school which believes the prize should represent reportage and documentary photography, and the “art photography” that it actively represents. The prize encourages the avant-garde, by rewarding the “most significant contribution to the medium of photography over the last year”, with the judging panel drawn from the visual arts firmament, and less from the specialist photography arena.

“I think it’s a little bit ghettoised,” says Neil Burgess, director of the Network Photographic Agency. “It represents that peculiar tendency that has emerged over the last ten years – ‘artists who happen to use photography’.” Though Burgess admires previous prize winners – Andreas Gursky and Richard Billingham – its narrow boundaries concern him.

Colin Jacobson, editor of Reportage magazine and a senior research fellow at Cardiff University, is equally ambivalent about the prize. “It’s the first time in the UK that photography has been acknowledged in such a grand, public way. But it is judged primarily by a magic circle of people from the gallery and art critical circuits, and they have nothing to do with the kind of photography – namely photojournalism – which can touch the widest band of ordinary people.” The Citibank Prize tendency represents, thinks Jacobson, a “new orthodoxy” which filters all the way down into art colleges and photography courses.

Some graphic designers, particularly those using photography in their work, are also critical of the prize. Joe Ewart of design consultancy Society, also a visiting lecturer in MA Typography at London College of Printing, thinks its art-based criteria “perpetuate a kind of hands-off elitism. The work is filtered through a middle-class art sensibility and excludes many other types of image-makers.”

Of course, there are awards for press and advertising photographers, giving any case for their exclusion a little less credence. But the Citibank has become the highest-profile UK prize for photography and some think it is too close to the Turner Prize, upon which it was modelled. “The Citibank Prize has certainly hit a sort of Brit Art mood, but I don’t think its remit is wide enough,” says Nick Hall, picture editor of The Independent Saturday magazine. “If this is the forefront of photography then people will be disappointed.”

The prize, continues Burgess, is a manifestation of a wider historical problem: the lack of recognition and support for photography from the visual arts community. “Institutions such as the Tate Gallery have historically denied photographers the title of ‘artist’… except that it now purchases photographs, but only those made by ‘artists who work with photography’. It’s an insulting attitude, particularly as photography is the art form of the 20th century, whether still, moving, black and white, or colour.” Perhaps, as Paul Wombell, director of the Photographers’ Gallery has argued, the “history of art needs to be rewritten because the history of art is the history of a dialogue between photography and other visual arts”. Yet few would argue for a situation where contemporary art museums have to reintegrate earlier photography into their collections.

This situation might be resolved by a proper power centre for photography, and here I must mention the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Photography Gallery, opened last year under the auspices of Mark Haworth-Booth. But the Photographers’ Gallery – location for this exhibition – serves its medium poorly, believes Burgess. “It takes a very narrow view by promoting the experimental to the detriment of those working in more traditional, classical forms of photography. It ignores people who have made photography exciting.”

Yet, perhaps, the onus is on photojournalism to remodel itself to the era. Jacobson admits that reportage is “demoralised. Few students want to do it. They want to work with the accent on the digital, personal, subjective and conceptual.” This concerns him deeply. “Are we to forget about our visual history? Fifty years on, will our age be seen by this work?” It may be easier to work in this way, as the art-cringe – a fear of misunderstanding work – may © obscure the value of the work. As a picture editor on a national newspaper told me, “If Craigie Horsfield (a former Turner Prize nominated artist using photography) showed me his portfolio and they were all like his Turner work, I wouldn’t commission him.”

Some practitioners are anxious about the conflation of photography with art. “I see photography as a convenient way of getting an image into mass production,” says editorial photographer Brian Harris, most recently on The Independent and a columnist for the British Journal of Photography. “I see photography’s home primarily at the business end of graphics, not as a great art form for the gallery. It’s a popular mode of expression. I see it more as a craft: a chemical, technical, mechanical process. Elevating it to art is a dangerous thing to do.”

The thing to celebrate about photography, says Harris, is that “anyone can take a picture”. Indeed, while he may lambast the dignifiers of “art photography”, Harris also flies in the face of those who canonise great reportage photographers such as Robert Capa and Weegee. He points out that it is notable that some of the most meaningful images in the most recent end-of-year TV round-ups were taken by “lucky amateurs. The person who took the photo of the Oklahoma bombing was a solicitor on his way to work,” he adds.

Perhaps in these cases, says Harris, there is simply a fortuitous “geometry in the rectangle” which makes the image stand out as having more than just a documentary function; and we can all become agents of this power. Whatever the reason, the resonant images made by these anonymous photographers is the raw antithesis to the Citibank Prize, with its market hinterland of limited editions, lock-and-key negatives and photograph-using artists.

PAUL M SMITH

Also featured in Charles Saatchi’s current show – the wince-inducingly titled New Neurotic Realism – Paul M Smith’s work is deeper than it first appears: initially you are amused, then you think. He takes group shots of young men in ‘male’ situations – boozing it up in Make My Night (left), and soldiers at battle in Artists Rifles. Using Photoshop’s digital imaging, he makes himself into each character. Born in 1969, Smith graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1997, but more interesting than his academic record is the fact that he was a soldier in the Royal Engineers, where he became an army photographer. ‘It helped me develop an eye,’ he has said. When he left he lived in the Australian outback with aborigines to study their art, and on another occasion he became photographer-in-residence to the Duke of Edinburgh Award, which involved taking pictures of Prince Philip and Prince Edward as they travelled around the world promoting the award. These unusual experiences give Smith’s work an edge it might otherwise lack, and it also gives credence to the notion that his work in some sense refers to the submergence of male identity within the group.

AUGUSTO ALVES DA SILVA

This Portuguese photographer divides his time between Lisbon and London, and the works at the Citibank show comprise a personal travelogue of his native country. First, you see an installation of his large-scale colour photographs in a linked series: a power station, a beach, disembodied torsos of tourists and a highway, all on the Portuguese coast. Then, in a darkened room, is Road Works (right), an installation of projected slides showing a mountain road, which changes perspectives slightly and almost imperceptibly as the frames dissolve into one another. Various elements appear and disappear – a few horses, cattle, goats, a car and a dog – and a torpid dream-like atmosphere pervades, as if progressing slowly along a road. It has a cinematic aura, although not strong enough to make me want to stop and digest the whole sequence.

YINKA SHONIBARE

Like Smith, this artist has put his own image at the centre of this series – called Diary of a Victorian Dandy (above). His work is similarly characterised by wit and humour. In elaborate Victorian room sets (the location is a stately home in Hertfordshire), Yinka Shonibare has had himself photographed as the central character in scenes of aristocratic languor dressed as a dandy-ish, betweeded gentleman. He is British of African heritage and Shonibare’s playful scenarios raise all kinds of spectral allusions to Empire and decadence, and poke at the British collective nostalgia, manifest in our appetite for heritage drama in film and TV. These works were first exhibited in posters on the London Underground, where they would have been seen by a ‘non-art’ audience, including young black Britons, many of whom dress with an echo of the dandy’s perfectionist zeal – a point which seems to complete Shonibare’s historical circle.

ALEX HARTLEY

Alex Hartley’s contribution to the Citibank Prize is Viewer, a large-scale slide-viewer reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg’s scaled-up objects such as lipsticks. It is apparently based on an early Sixties make of a slide case and exhibited with large slides placed as if tumbling from the case. The photographic images on the slides are of the gallery in which the piece is shown. Viewer, with its double-entendre title, therefore conjures a dynamic interplay between the object and subject; artist and audience; picture and place of viewing. A second part of the installation is in an ante-room adjacent to the slide viewer, at the end of which is the gallery scene behind a lightbox-type image. Hartley’s piece has a conceptual complexity which will amuse those who enjoy cool and cerebral sculpture-making. But as it is the furthest away from representational photography in the show, it will not appeal to those who prefer pictorial immediacy.

RINEKE DIJKSTRA

This 39-year-old Dutch photographer (there are no limits to either nationality or age in the Citibank Prize, so long as the artists have been exhibited or published in Britain within the last year) lives in Amsterdam, and among the people I spoke with, she seemed the favourite to win. Her works are the most arresting in the show, consisting of large-scale, high-resolution colour portraits (Villa Franca is pictured, left). At the Photographers’ Gallery there is a small selection of images from a couple of her series, including portraits of adolescents on European beaches, where the unremarkable youths, though gawky and uncomfortable-looking, conjure a sense of classical figure study. Other works in the show are from her series of matadors emerging bloodied from the bullring, which have an almost erotic intimacy. Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits have included adolescent nightclubbers in Liverpool and The Netherlands, and mothers who have just given birth, indicating an interest in individuals undergoing personal rites of passage. She is influenced by Diane Arbus, the late American photographer. But whereas Arbus seems bleak and pitiless towards her subjects, Dijkstra’s portraits seem humanitarian, compassionate and above all, consensual.

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