Opinion: Who needs a top photography prize which champions non-photographers? | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews
Opinion: Who needs a top photography prize which champions non-photographers?
Inclusive prize-giving shows how scared we've become of defining categories in art
Last night, someone who’s never professionally held a camera won the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Prize at the Photographers’ Gallery. John Stezaker is a collagist. Since the Seventies he’s been slicing found photographic images, often of Hollywood stars, to make new composite images. His work, pleasingly old-fashioned both technically and aesthetically, harks back to the Dada/Surrealist collages and photomontages of figures such as Hannah Höch and Joseph Cornell. After decades working in relative obscurity Stezaker finally achieved wide recognition with his exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, for which he was nominated for this prize.
Photography is a broad medium. It encompasses new and old technology. Indeed, the camera isn’t indispensible, since you can take photographs without one, just as Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray did back in the Twenties and Thirties, and just as many innovative photographers continue to do so today. This is how the first photographs came into being: the photographer placed objects onto sensitised paper and exposed the paper to light. In its earliest incarnation, the sun was the source of light. Everything else has been a refining of this basic process.
I’m not even sure whether the judges themselves took the award seriously
Now, when it comes to awarding big prizes, one might even have reservations about digital photography, but no-one can seriously object on the grounds that this isn’t photography. Photography’s elasticity as a category isn’t something we should get exercised about, since we’re not talking about the problematic definitions of art here, but about the use of a medium, a medium which the Photographers’ Gallery is meant to be championing. By offering the prize to an artist who uses found images, they’re surely showing a serious lack of faith in an art form which has always struggled to be taken seriously.
But given what I can only read as back-handed compliments regarding Stezaker’s work, I’m not even sure whether the judges themselves, or the presenter of the prize, Juergen Teller, took this year's award seriously. Teller said, "John Stezaker has been around for a good while, doggedly pursuing a particular idea and doing it very well", while Martin Parr, a member of the jury, was quoted earlier this year as having said, "He had a great show at the Whitechapel and I like the fact that he has one basic concept and he has explored it over the years and done so very effectively."
Doggedness, effectiveness, being around “for a good while” – none of this makes for particularly enthusiastic commendations, which is perhaps not surprising, since these are two photographers who’ve spent decades honing their craft. On a wider and more pertinent note, it shows just how nervous we've become about defining categories in art, lest we're taken for reactionary fools. But as someone on Twitter pointed out, Stezaker’s triumph is rather like Des Lynam winning sports personality of the year. Except in my opinion it’s worse – worse because at least Lynam promotes sport, and what is a prize for but to promote its special area of interest? The Photographers' Gallery, after all, should belong to photographers. It was founded on that basis. Meanwhile, Stezaker wins £30,000 for having not “significantly contributed to the medium of photography”.
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