Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2010, Photographers’ Gallery

There’s nothing more guaranteed to get the “bewildered shrugging shoulders” emoticon onto a photography messageboard than the announcement of a major photography prize. World Press Photo normally gets an easier ride because, well, the winners are normally dodging bullets (although this year’s winner did cause some bewilderment) but come the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize and it’s a given that there will not only be dissenting voices but also outright confusion at both the finalists selected and the winner chosen.

This year is no different, not least because if all four finalists have anything in common it’s that their imagery looks pretty straightforward. Donovan Wylie‘s images are stark – photographing the last days of the notorious Maze prison, highlighting its rabbit warren of identical corridors and walls. These are combined with a scrapbook from the days when the Maze was in use – Republican papers report on the oxymoron of British justice, American burgers are advertised for sale on the Shankhill Road. Zoe Leonard‘s images are less stark but crammed onto a couple of walls it’s hard to get a sense that they are anything beyond ‘just images’ of shopfronts, trees, windows – as a record of what’s out there it’s all fine, but there’s nothing in these shots that highlights anything unusual or opens a new way of seeing. The last runner-up is Anna Fox whose ongoing “Back to the Village” project is bright, funny and intriguing – heavily satured photos of people, usually masked or in costume. You want to know what’s going on, to understand a bit more.

Finally we have Sophie Ristelhueber who had already been announced as the winner before I went along to Ramilies Street. And, for once, I agree with the jury. Ristelhueber’s work, certainly as represented in this exhibition and catalogue, is the most engaging here. Returning to themes that have engaged her over thirty years – the Middle East, war, peace, emptiness, craters, that sort of thing – her presented work here comes from Eleven Blowups which she describes as being both true and false as the bomb craters pictured do exist but her images come from computer recreations of them (it says here). Definitely the sort of thing to get the bewildered emoticon out but by far the most arresting images and most intriguing thinking present in this year’s exhibition.

As usual the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize doesn’t really tell us anything about the wider world of contemporary photography and like the more famous Turner Prize there’s always the wonder about what it’s really for and how it’s judged – but at least it does provide a popular window on photography that attempts to go beyond the merely representational.

And, as the Photographers’ Gallery prepares to close until some time in 2011 to complete its refurbishment, we should be grateful that modern photography is so diverse, so exciting that it is home to not only the folk who frequent the galleries of Soho but also the keyboard warriors and their emoticons, bewildered or otherwise.

Besides, it’d be no fun if we all agreed all the time, would it?

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