Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2015

Photography has arguably never been more popular. The combination of mobile phones with ever improving camera technology and the popularity of social media has created a vast army of amateur photographers constantly documenting the minutiae of everyday life in ever greater detail.

The Photographers’ Gallery‘s annual photography prize rolls around for another year.

Sometimes it feels like I know what I’m going to get before I even walk through the door – there’ll be some large, black and white portraits of people on the edge of society staring defiantly at the viewer, there’ll be conceptual piece put together with crudely created photographers and probably some text written on an old typewriter, then some large, hyper-detailed colour photographs of somewhere in the world showing mans effects on the environment in some suitably awe inspiring way.

This year’s selection has that same feel of boxes being ticked, and it doesn’t feel like the strongest of years, but it did throw up some surprises.

The exhibits were spread across the two upper floors.

Nikolai Bakharev’s black and white portraits of couples and families relaxing in the sunshine taken over ….. There was a refreshing honesty to the images – we’re so used to seeing perfect bodies, unblemished faces staring out from photographs every day in magazines and advertising, being confronted with real people’s bodies of all shapes and sizes in such relaxed and contented poses actually felt quite striking.

Zanele Muholi’s portraits highlighting the lives of lesbian and gay people in South Africa felt flat afterwards – I struggled to understand what the wall of similarly composed portraits was trying to say. The photographs felt too similar to numerous other series of images capturing groups or cultures I’d seen over the years.

By this point I felt slightly jaded – like the photographic equiveltn of an Elbow album, worthy but slightly dull, expertly crafted but also slightly routine.

The next floor though turned this upside down.

Mikhael Sobotzky and Patrick Waterhouse work centres around Ponte City, a tower block in Johannesburg built originally for high-end clients, only to slide into disrepair and become home instead to the fringes of society. The image that represents the collection on the cover of the Photographer’s Gallery catalogue is striking but familiar, a black and white shot of the tower’s interior shaft highlighting the awesome scale but also the grim neglect. I was primed for a series of large-scale architectural works contrasting grandeur and folly – but found instead something far more varied and interesting.

The centre-piece for me was a vertical wall of transparencies showing views from the tower’s windows laid out like an enormous contact strip, each row representing a floor of the building. This formal grid of images, itself broken down further by the frames of the windows, or blocked out by the melancholy haze of a new curtains. As your eye scans the work from ground level, literally around your feet, up towards the highest floors way above eye level, the scenes change. The highly detailed images are so small, that initially you take them in simply as colours or shapes. By the upper floors the cityscapes int eh photos themselves are becoming ever more hazy and indistinct.

There are two accompanying pieces, less successful but still interesting, looking inwards rather than out, focussed not the doorways to the apartments. Once again the initial response is to the structure, the shift in colours between floors, from blacks, blue, browns then red. The lift shafts frame the piece on both sides – its a strange collage, a mix of photographic reportage with a touch of Gilbert & George.

Against another wall three large prints shift the exhibition to a more human scale, a photograph of a boy in chair is pock-marked with white blotches like a snowstorm. But the highlight for me, is a young black girl in the kitchen of one of the apartments; she is stood on tiptoes with a smile on her face, looking at something on the fridge door – her reflection maybe? Despite all the poverty and claustrophobia of the other work, she shows the innocent happiness of childhood.

Tower Blocks come with a certain baggage on the popular imagination – fear and trepidation – claustrophobia and violence. growing up in the Seventies and Eighties as the backlash against high-rise living gathered pace, it’s slightly strange to see the amount of ‘luxury’ blocks being thrown up around London as cash boxes for the rich. Their fleetingly-fashionable design and cheap looking construction often looking dated by the time they’re finally completed for habitation – I can’t help wondering if we’re constructing the social phantoms of the future.

The final room displays the work of Viviane Sassen; it’s as varied as the previous room but more experimental. One wall shows simple shots of the interplay of daylight with a mirror and shadows cast from simple coloured prespex – the results look could be from an exhibition on Russian Constructivist art of the nineteen-twenties.