It seems to me that the most interesting art around today is by photographers. Why so? Art is a complicated and over-theorised area, but photographs are documents and never have to be “art”; they can just be interesting. A photographer can still get away with Renaissance perspective, figuration (real people and things) and telling stories.
Over the last decade photography has risen to become one of the most highly regarded and highly priced art media around. In 2002 I witnessed the sale of the world’s most expensive photograph: Andreas Gursky’s picture of trainers – just one in an edition of six – sold for over ?400,000 at auction in London. So why doesn’t London have a major photography exhibition space, like the four-storey Maison Europ?enne de la Photographie in Paris? We do have one glamorous museum of photography – but it’s in Bradford. Also, its full title is the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, and the last time I visited, the photos had been put away to make room for a Star Wars exhibition.
This wouldn’t matter if only Britain’s galleries put on more photographic shows. The V&A has one of the best collections of photographs in the world, but only exhibits 50 or so at any one time in a couple of inadequate spaces. The lonely task of carrying the torch for photography in Britain has fallen to the cupboard-like Photographers’ Gallery, off Leicester Square which for the past eight years has been running Britain’s best art gong, the Citigroup photography prize. Unlike the Turner prize, it is international, not anglo-centric. And unlike the Turner prize, the work is good.
Joel Sternfeld, one of the nominations for this year’s prize, was the man responsible for American Prospects, a book of colour photos of America from the 1980s. Using a large format camera, like 19th-century photographers, Sternfeld created an ironically romanticised panorama of American surburban and semi-rural developments – horse-riders picking their way through western-style scrubland with skyscrapers in the distance; an escaped elephant collapsed on the highway, surrounded by patrol cars. The material was epic and pathetic, a photography that ignored the psychological and social sincerity of most 1970s US photography. It was self-conscious, posed, phoney: perfectly 1980s. It created the appearance of objectivity (itself phoney) and gave a nod to the ordinariness of the photographic medium. It is impossible to imagine the celebrated German giants…