Photo opportunity

Oliver Bennett takes a critical look at entries for the Citibank Photography Prize

Can photography be art? The question is now an old chestnut, for we are firmly in the era of the “art photograph”. Last autumn, Wolfgang Tillmans won the Turner Prize with his photographs. Although building on ground laid by previous Turner nominees such as Willie Doherty, he was the first to win with a photograph. And the Beck’s Futures Art Awards – the second year for this ICA-based prize – includes three photographers, or to use the art-world argot, three artists who “make” photographs.

But the biggest dedicated art photography prize is the Citibank Private Bank Photography Prize, now in its fifth year. It has certainly grabbed some of the publicity action: the media love a prize, and they also love sponsoring a prize (the Citibank is bankrolled by The Times).

This year competition for the prize is strong. The best among the contenders is Boris Mikhailov’s already famous Case History series, depicting down-and-outs in the Ukraine, and he must be the favourite to win. But once again, the prize has raised the issue of whether it has a wide enough brief. For not everyone appreciates the slant of the Citibank Prize. The British Journal of Photography featured an editorial in which it argued that it is not “a photography prize at all: it is an art prize whose candidates are limited to a single medium, the photograph”.

This is entirely fair, for the prize is composed of those who are avowed “artists”, and those in other areas of the photographic arena who – particularly in reportage – are disappointed by the prize’s narrow remit. Andy Blakemore, picture editor of the Independent on Sunday, agrees. “I think it’s on the fringes of photography, to be honest,” he says.

Blakemore says photographers have their own awards, the Nikon and the Kobal portrait awards among them. “I’m not knocking the prize and I am not anti contemporary art, but, in photographic terms, it’s marginal,” he adds.

John Easterby, the director of Independent Photographers Group, is similarly “disappointed” by the prize. “We don’t even bother to apply these days,” he says. “Its coverage clearly doesn’t include photojournalism.” That would be okay, adds Easterby, except that the public relates more to photojournalism than “art photography”, which he considers to be obscure much of the time. “I would argue that photojournalism captures the public imagination, whereas art photography generally doesn’t,” he says. “It indicates the wider problem that we have towards photography in this country.”

Nevertheless, the Citibank Prize moves on and becomes more powerful each year.

Photographs from The Citibank Private Bank Photography Prize are exhibited until 24 March at The Photographers Gallery, 5 and 8 Great Newport Street, London WC2

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