Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2014, The Photographers’ Gallery, London – review

This annual exhibition has tended to polarise opinion among members of the various photographic tribes. But this time there is no hesitation in saying that you should go, see and think.

Two candidates present films that are much stronger than the photographs on the walls. Richard Mosse made Enclave, an artwork that is inescapably a film, a searing trip through the lunatic micro-wars of the Kivu lands in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was shot on obsolete military infrared film stock and is shown this time on eight screens in a basement car park not far from the gallery.

Mosse shows only a handful of pictures, which deal with part of his enquiry but sell it short. The photographs in the gallery are no more indicative of the whole film than posters outside would be. Infrared film shows vegetation in a range of pinks and crimsons and puces, and one of the points of Mosse’s film is that cruel, mad lawlessness is hard to see in the standard tropes of western war photography or journalism. It is no coincidence that infrared film was designed to make the invisible visible. It’s a brilliant metaphorical tool, as well as a technical medium. But only a fraction of what it can do is on the walls. Seen only as photographs, Mosse’s deeply troubling film is emasculated.

The opposite applies to Alberto García-Alix, who has made something quite different: in effect a slide-show of his own images over a number of years. All autobiography involves a degree of navel-gazing, but this autobiography doesn’t rise above that. Once you gather that García-Alix is happy to put it all out for us – from the smack needle in his arm to a view in a bathroom mirror of his urinating penis – there is not very much left. Outcast rebel rocker survives heroin and various other abuses, and grows to be a famous artist in Spain, and here are a few not-very-illuminating snaps to show the journey. It’s all rather conventional outlawry, with Harley-Davidson, for example, taken very much at its own brand value. The fact that this took place as Spain moved from Francoism to its more liberal present is neither here nor there. The film, De Donde No Se Vuelve (From Whence There is No Return), adds elements that take this humdrum stuff and elevate it. Careful sequencing and a degree of movement give it rhythm. Music sets a mood as only music can. And the voice of the artist talking slowly over the pictures successfully gives them an intimacy, a poetry and a poignancy that the pictures on their own lack.

Jochen Lempert shows a very likable set of pictures about patterns in nature. Trained as a biologist, Lempert takes the cataloguing, listing aspect of photography and makes it poetical. The best of his pictures are elegant little groups, deliberately unframed and taped directly to the walls, in which patterns form and reform to make shapes that we – anthropocentric as we are – can’t help but scan for meaning. So a skein of geese high in the sky takes the shape of a face – and not any face, but a recognisable face: Lempert gives it the title “Fromme Helene” (Pious Helene), a well-known 19th-century comic character.

A lovely group of photograms of frogs show the creatures’ delightfully graphic shapes. Some of them scooted as the pictures were taken, and Lempert has rendered the skittering movements between long periods of stillness that are characteristic of the beast. These are nicely weighted things at a fine intersection between science and whimsy.

They rely, though, too heavily on whatever words go with them. They are pictures to which anybody – the artist, loyal friendly critic, viewer, prize panel – can attach their own meanings. They are empty vessels to be filled by anything anybody wants to think when confronted by them. That’s a very common trick in contemporary art, but it misses photography’s primary function as a means of communication.

Lorna Simpson is represented by a set of pictures, “Summer ’57/Summer ’09”, that goes far beyond charm. Simpson found a set of anonymous pictures from 1957 of an African-American woman in Los Angeles. The woman’s partner, a shutterbug, had taken pictures of her in a series of cheesecake poses in playsuits and other informal clothing. Simpson later re-enacted some of these poses, and she exhibits the two series as one. In doing so she brings modern feminist and critical thinking to bear on her archive hoard.

But it’s not just the absurdities of the pin-up role that are examined; we’re looking deep into the territory that Maya Angelou and Walter Mosely made their own, of the black diaspora from the South and from poverty. The pin-up poses are set in a sparsely furnished middle-modest new development in a suburb. A convertible called a Sunliner is proudly shown off. There is hope and sunshine and new furniture on the hire-purchase plan. Yet there is also a scrupulous artist asking us to leaven the original standard readings of these vernacular pictures into something richer, darker and more complex.

In one of the pictures, the modelling was done one sunny afternoon in a park. The woman wears a bikini and has eyes only for the photographer. Behind her, two white men in Stetson-type hats are fully clothed and although they share the park with her, they don’t really inhabit the same world. With neither tub-thumping nor academic gobbledegook, this clever set of small black-and-white pictures take us a long way into thinking about some aspects of the African-American experience, about the dream of prosperity for all, about changing attitudes to women, and about the business of reworking history.

This is good stuff. Each of the four artists can stand for a separate tendency in modern photography. Mosse takes his place among the likes of Donovan Wylie or Simon Norfolk or Sophie Ristelhueber in offering new ways of thinking about conflict. García-Alix and Lorna Simpson both use the camera to tell us about themselves, García-Alix more narcissistically while Simpson is much more in touch with cultural and sociological patterns. And Lempert is pushing hard at the boundaries where photography crashes into science. In all of them, we are asked to do more than simply see pictures. We’re asked to slow down and savour the full range of expression possible in photography.

Until June 22,

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