According to its mission statement: “The Prix Pictet aims to harness the power of photography – all genres of photography – to draw global attention to the issues of sustainability, especially those that concern the environment.” This year’s theme is Consumption.
The exhibition room was smaller than expected and the work maybe not quite as impactful as the last cycle’s Power theme, but very interesting nevertheless.
I just saw the sad news that Michael Schmidt died on Saturday, a few days after hearing that he had won the 100,000 Swiss franc prize. He had apparently been too ill to pick up the accolade in person.
His work Lebensmittel is about the mass production of food and depicts images from factories, farms and slaughterhouses. The presentation reminded me of the huge Moriyama wall at the Tate Modern joint retrospective with Klein. Schmidt’s approach is much more academic, though. None of the images were impressive in their own right (presumably a conscious decision?) – reference book style and old-fashioned. The repetition of lines and rhythms and textures help it to work as montage but I found that the low contrast of the monochromes, the apparent randomness of colour images interspersed and the lack of clear narrative left me cold. And it bothered me slightly that the photograph of the box of cucumbers (?) was the only one that was repeated.
Judges said his work was "an epic and hugely topical investigation into the ways in which we feed ourselves" but I didn’t feel that this ‘investigation’ really revealed anything that we did not already know. I would have preferred to see this as a rapid slide show, with its 1940s/50s documentary feel.
My two favourites were Mishka Henner and Hong Hao. I have a soft spot for Henner having heard his thoughts on art and appropriation at the OCA student weekend in Leeds and I do genuinely find this work (Beef & Oil) to be extremely powerful. It doesn’t trouble me at all that he didn’t press the shutter for these images although I can understand that some people would baulk at describing him as a ‘photographer’ rather than an ‘artist’. A fascinating can of worms:
Whatever Henner is or isn’t, his work always captures my imagination and I think this set should be a real eye-opener to many people who have not contemplated the scale of US cattle farms. The size of the feedlots is almost as unfathomable from a space-eye view as from the ground and Henner creates stunning art out of a repulsive reality. The two pieces on display at the V&A were by far the most appealing in the room, to my eye, as well as creating a very emotional response.
This is worth reading to provide more context about the feedlots: http://photoworks.org.uk/coronado-feeders-dalhart-texas/
Whilst Henner nails the big picture of consumption, Hong Hao succeeds by effectively showing us consumption on a very personal level. His project My Things started in 2001 with Hao scanning objects and then creating large scale collages. These images are beautiful and work on a number of different levels visually. Seen small online they look like bright, beautiful patterns; up close, the full sized images provide an incredible journal of daily life. We see juxtapositions, undersides, angles and throw-aways that normally have no significance, on an epic scale. I would love to see all of the work together in one place.
Simple, painstaking, brilliant.
Of the others on the shortlist, I found the work of Adam Bartos to be quite appealing. His series Yard Sale consists of some simple still life compositions showing the recycling culture in the US – a delightful contrast to mass consumerism and ‘Walmartisation’. These are quiet, voyeuristic depictions - there are no people present; light seems to be natural, even a little clumsy at times; there is not a central focus with messy compositions and elements spilling out of frame. Bartos uses colour, texture, light and line to create delightful images you can gaze at for a long time.
Juan Fernando Herrán’s Escalas explores the blurring of boundaries between urban and rural areas and particularly the lack of living space in Medellin, a large city in Colombia. We see the signs of the humans taking over of the landscape and even mundane subject matter has been presented beautifully here. The colours are warm and earthy giving a warm homely feel to even the bleakest of spaces. These look like film sets to me. I wonder if the V & A deliberately placed Herrán’s images either side of a doorway?
The Untitled 2012 series by Abraham Oghobase stands out for being all black and white, heavily contrasted and nicely coherent as a series. The subject matter again addresses the issue of urban space, showing how in Lagos every bit of wall space is used for painted classified ads. The photographer places himself in the images, performing alongside the theme of the ads (eg piano lessons, laundry, car services). The work does not really say ‘consumption’ to me or have much resonance on an emotional level but it does appeal aesthetically – I really like the heavy contrast and the rich textures and the gritty, dynamic street feel.
Motoyuki Daifu’s Project Family is introduced as “My mother sleeps every day. My Dad does chores. My brothers fight. There are trash bags all over the place. Half-eaten dinners, cat poop, mountains of clothes: this is my lovable daily life, and a lovable Japan.” This series did not work for me on any level. I found the lighting too harsh and depth of field in the foreground to be too soft. Clive said that these elements and the blown out bits were “all part of the semiotic” and we all discussed how differently these images could have been. They just didn’t strike me as being very authentic, for some reason, although they have clearly achieved a sense of manageable chaos and claustrophobia.
Comparisons were made with Richard Billingham and Stephen Shore photographing food, by students who are much cleverer than I. It just reminded me of my Aunt Lil’s house in Keighley and I kicked myself for not photographing it while before it was too late.
Rineke Dijkstra has created an appealing series of portraits of Almerisa, a Bosnian refugee. We watch as the five year old grows up and transitions into an adult in her new surroundings in the Netherlands. There are some very nice touches – how her feet can’t reach the ground for the first few years but later are firmly and defiantly rooted or tucked under her; her body posture –in the early teens, showing rebellion through to confident grounded adulthood; the type of chair; the vertical and horizontal lines; neutral lighting; colour blocks etc. Good mise-en-scène, in other words.
I admire Dijkstra’s work and understand that any theme is open to a wide interpretation but this just did not fit well for me - I cannot really see the link with ‘consumption’.
Allan Sekula’s Fish Story similarly felt out of place but in this case because the images looked so dated. I am not sure exactly what the series is about even after reading the artist’s statement. There is a strong documentary feel to these images, which were taken in the early 90s, and it makes for fairly unchallenging viewing but didn’t evoke anything much in me.
Laurie Simmons’ series The Love Doll was the most troubling. I am still none the wiser about what the artist is actually trying to say – in fact her statement on the Prix Pictet website comes across as slightly unhinged to my ears (“I began to tease out a personality from this commodified subject and allowed her persona to emerge.”). There are very many complex issues at play such as identity, exploitation, fetishisation, surrogacy and control here as well as the gender landmine and the allegedly central theme of consumption.
I am not too familiar with Simmons’ other work so there is almost certainly much more context to this but, in isolation, I found it to be quite creepy. It reminded me of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room (and so many terrifying true stories of the abduction and imprisonment of women) and of George Saunders’ The Semplica-Girls Diaries. The lighting and composition are superb and I do applaud this kind of conceptual work but I confess I could not look at it for very long.
Tea Coffee Cappuccino includes a bare bottom, in full daylight, on a busy street, so this must be Boris Mikhailov! The series aims to chronicle the changes in the photographer’s hometown of Kharkov, where blatant consumerism has become rampant. “The reality of globalization has come and extended to the places where we live and rest. A flux of cheap commodities has conquered ubiquitously, creating a colourful new plastic reality.” The Prix Pictet website does not (cannot) display this work very accurately so it was quite a surprise to see it “in the flesh”. The images are snapshot sized, which pulls the viewer in to an intriguing world. It is happy and bright, colourful and lively but the angles, chaotic subject matter and juxtapositions manage to create a sense of dystopia. These could be sets for an Andrea Arnold movie.
All in all, a very interesting collection of images and ideas in this small room at the V & A and another great OCA study visit.
Take-aways to think about for my own work….
- Narrative is important unless every individual image can stand up for itself
- Ordinary stuff can be very compelling if collected and presented in an authentic way
- My shots of Dad’s garage are almost as good as Bartos’ Yard Sale images
- Photoshop does just have to be about manipulation, it can also work very well to present truths more powerfully
- Develop something visually appealing into a more compelling narrative and show more context (eg doorways and windows)
- If family and friends talk about something in such a way that it is clearly extraordinary (like Aunt Lil’s house) then it is certainly worth photographing
- Size matters – small can be very powerful too
- Never underestimate how different a print on a gallery wall can be from an image on a website