This year’s Deutsche Börse photography prize shortlist show is, as ever, a study in dramatically contrasting approaches to the medium. On one floor of The Photographers’ Gallery, Deana Lawson’s elaborately constructed tableaux of Black experience, which draw on, and deftly subvert, studio portraiture, documentary and vernacular traditions, give way to Gilles Peress’s visceral reportage from the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The two seem worlds apart.
Likewise, on a separate floor, there’s a jolting shift from the vivid colours and disorienting compositions of Anastasia Samoylova’s Miami to Jo Ractliffe’s stark South African landscapes. While traditional and contemporary strategies rub uneasily up against each other throughout, there is a kind of unity in the themes of community and belonging, struggle and self-definition.
If each room is a small, self-contained exhibition designed to illuminate a much bigger body of work, it is Samoylova and Ractliffe that come off best here. The former’s work-in-progress, FloodZone, transports you to a Ballardian future world that is already unfolding in real time. Her large-scale, almost dreamlike constructions depict the hyperreal iconography of Miami’s tourism and real estate industries as it exists alongside the ominous harbingers of impending eco-disaster: flooded basements, uprooted palm trees leaning precariously against art deco facades, cracked and crumbling concrete pavements beneath vast advertisements for high-end beachfront properties.
In a room painted aquamarine, the baby-doll pinkness of Miami’s walls and pavements takes on an even more sickly aspect – damp-stained, mould-covered, and in retreat from a force more inexorably powerful than capital and commerce.
In contrast, Ractliffe’s space is airy and light, her monochrome photographs exuding a quietude that is immediately palpable. For me, this is the most realised exhibition here, thoughtfully conceived and deftly curated to allow these stark, haunted landscapes to speak for themselves. Ractliffe’s subject is post-apartheid, rural South Africa, which she has photographed over 40 years. Her most obvious precursor is the late David Goldblatt, but Ractliffe’s landscapes are more elusive: vast, arid flatlands pockmarked by traces of the colonial past: the scattered ruins of concrete pipelines, industrial buildings and former shantytowns. Culled from her recent monograph, Photographs 1980s – Now, it is the work that most repays close attention, her quiet observational approach characterised by subtle visual rhythms and echoes that speak of a deep and patient engagement with the land, its people and its ghosts.
On the floor below, Deana Lawson’s Centropy is as ambitiously conceptual as its title suggests, her large-scale constructed portraits with mirrored frames existing somewhere between portraiture and myth, their symbolism often located within the domestic traditions of Black experience. In one striking tableau, Monetta Passing, an elderly man sits next to a dead woman who has been laid out in her finery on a semi-raised, silk-draped couch beneath gold curtains. His gaze is direct, stern and stoical. Beside him, an ornate display of flowers stand above a piece of exercise equipment – a glimpse of the functional amid the elaborate. The scale and rich colour tones combine with incidental details – her laced-gloved hands, his tattooed head – to create a scene both dramatically enhanced and, for all its artifice, authentic.
Elsewhere, a family snapshot of a mother and daughter, posing casually and beaming at the camera, has been enlarged, and perhaps treated, to foreground its signs of wear and tear: surface dirt, erosion, scratches. The scale lends an ordinary, unaffected portrait an even deeper charm, but the degraded state of the print makes one’s thoughts turn inevitably to the time between then and now, and all that may have happened in between.
Lawson’s ambitious images, which include holograms, always allow a lot of space for the viewer to enter in and form their own interpretations, while simultaneously holding something back. That something – embedded, complex, and elusive – is crucial in terms of the resonance these photographs possess. In his catalogue essay, pointedly titled Against Simplicity, writer and photographer Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa writes that “Lawson’s portaits demonstrate how it is that Blackness … cannot be both accurately and simply described”. Nor interpreted.
Of late, Peress has worked hard on reimagining – or repositioning – his vast archive of images from the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The work on display here, arranged floor to ceiling in unframed monochrome grids, is a mere fraction of the vast flow of images that make up his epic 2021 book Whatever You Say, Say Nothing. His aim was to create a work of “documentary fiction” that evokes the “helicoidal” nature of time in a conflict zone – days that spiral and repeat around rituals of protest, resistance, marching, violence and mourning.
The most obvious way to do this in a gallery would be through multiscreen projections rather than prints – and collages – on the wall, which, in this relatively small apace, fail to evoke the ambition of the project. The images themselves, though, are visceral and often uncannily evocative of the time, the juxtaposition of the ordinary – youngsters playing, teens snogging – with the arresting – a girl sweeping broken glass from her front yard while a soldier stands a few feet away, baton in hand, behind a riot shield.
Peress captures the tumult of the Troubles like few others: the walls a mad dance of imagery: sectarian graffiti, masked young people, Republican and Loyalist paraphernalia, bonfires, rioters and the deserted nocturnal streets of Belfast in a time of constant paranoia. In this context, though, the power of a single image, mounted and framed on a wall, has been lost amid the overload.
As ever, it’s hard to know what criteria one would use to select a winner from such disparate artists, but, given the times we live in, and the prize’s past penchant for photography that “interrogates the medium,” the smart money’s on Lawson or Samoylova. I’d bet on the former.