Shoot it out

At last photography in Europe has its own Oscars equivalent – the Deutsche Börse Prize.

It’s official: photography has finally come of age. It’s up there with the big boys and their high- profile cultural awards. Art has the Turner Prize. Literature has the Man Booker and Whitbread. Applied arts has the Jerwood. Now photography is the front runner with the new Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, a £30 000 prize for the winner and £3000 each for the other three shortlisted candidates. Not bad, eh?

Cast your mind back to the early 1990s and you’d be hard pressed to find any prestigious photography awards. There was the Observer Hodge (targeting younger/ newer photojournalist talent) and the John Kobal Awards at the National Portrait Gallery. Both have been consistently popular – especially the NPG, which last year re-activated its open submission as the Schweppes Photographic Portrait Prize. This year, the NPG received 8000 entries.

The Deutsche Börse Prize is an award of a different order. Its predecessor, the Citigroup Photography Prize, was a timely intervention by the Photographers’ Gallery. It arrived precisely when photography in the UK started to be taken seriously by the art world. The photography community here needed such a prize and we have director Paul Wombell and his team to thank for the initiative.

Many people in the UK would like to think that the US is way behind us culturally – a land of too much choice and nothing you want to buy. Not true. Not as far as photography is concerned anyway. The US embraced photography from the outset. After all, it was a process that developed when the West was being opened up and railroads built. It was the medium of choice to record and celebrate the birth of modern America. Over there photographs have been avidly collected, exhibited and purchased – both privately and publicly.

In 1990s Britain, the Citigroup Prize hit the spot. It brought much-needed art prestige to the sometimes parochial world of British photography. To enter, you just had to be nominated. The judges shortlisted four people who then staged a show, using the Turner Prize model. Winners have varied from forgotten masters (photographers’ photographer Joel Sternfeld) to fashionistas extending their branding into the arena of conceptual art (fashion photographer Jürgen Teller).

Deutsche Börse, the world’s largest financial exchange, is a serious collector of photography. In 1997 it established the Art Collection Deutsche Börse centred around the work of the Becher School in Düsseldorf, to reflect the organisation’s corporate culture and values of ‘creativity, transparency and innovation’. Interesting, then, that the nominations this year have been filtered through an opaque system – an Academy, a diverse group of people invited by the Photographers’ Gallery from photography institutions across Europe. So unless you are on the cultural radar of these Euro-curators you are unlikely to be on the shortlist. The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize aims to ‘reward a living photographer, of any nationality, who has made the most significant contribution to the medium of photography during the past year’. So, let’s check out the shortlist – in alphabetical order, naturally.

First up is Luc Delahaye from France. A member of Magnum Photos, Delahaye uses large-scale panoramic landscapes of war zones and sites of civil unrest to ‘move us beyond the fragmented details of the media to give a fuller, more detached view’. To stay in business, photojournalists have to find different ways of presenting death and suffering. These images reference 19th-century war photography. They are wannabe epic – aspiring to the traditions of painting, while trying a new visual twist on conflict. Personally, I have always had reservations about making photographic art from other people’s misery. The panoramas are, of course, terrific.

Second, we have JH Engström from Sweden. At 36, he is the youngest and has been nominated for his recent book Trying to Dance, which ‘conveys the sense of his emotive and subjective experiences of the people and places around him’. What I saw was a collection of grungy, distressed images with people mostly unclothed, looking uncomfortable, in dishevelled environments – cue lots of soft-focus pubic hair, unmade beds, half-eaten meals and fuzzy landscapes. To some, this will be evocative and powerful work. For others, it reads as an indulgent, introspective and tedious depiction of Engström’s social circle.

Next we have Jörg Sasse, from Germany. He finds photographs rather than takes them. He selects his material from thousands of anonymous snapshots. Then he crops and treats them so they become fictions in Sasseworld. Pictorial, certainly. Meaningless, mostly. Yet strangely compelling, as we stare at the familiar, but unfamiliar, trying to figure out where the originals might have come from, who took it and why? Fragments from other people’s lives bring out the voyeur in the best of us.

Finally, there is Stephen Shore from the US. Rediscovered by a new generation of photographers two years ago – in the Tate’s Cruel & Tender exhibit followed by a solo show in the West End. His seminal book Uncommon Places was first published in 1982 and brought together the large-format colour images from his road trips across America in the 1970s. It was updated and reprinted in 2004 and he has been nominated for that body of work. It’s mostly topographic, with leanings towards Walker Evans – but in colour. The photographic quality is exemplary and it’s easy to see why it has been so inspiring.

That’s it then. We will have to wait until 11 May 2005 to find out who has won.

Work by the four nominees for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2005, announced on 16 December, will be on display at the Photographers’ Gallery, 5 & 8 Great Newport Street, London WC2 from 8 April to 5 June

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