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 of the 1990s – Gursky and Struth – without Sternfeld.
Once, photographs were meant to show us something extraordinary – an execution in war or a shadow at sundown. Nowadays that’s out. There’s a new aestheticisation of the banal that links the work of Sternfeld and the Dusseldorf photographers like Gursky, Hoefer and Ruff (who took my favourite ever photograph of a white formica kitchen unit). Where did it start? Quite possibly in the black and white images of shopping malls, industrial parks and advertising hoardings taken in the early 1970s by Robert Adams, another American nominee for this year’s Citigroup prize. It’s as if the new urban landscape of the very late 20th century required a new kind of photography. Adams’s gleaming and vacuous images of warehouses in the sun simultaneously mark the loss of another patch of the countryside and invite us to view the new structures as minimalist sculptures.
But one of the worst clich?s of current writing about photography is that old-fashioned photojournalism has had its day; that we no longer look at all those scenes of war and (usually African) suffering. Instead we are apparently drawn to a new generation of trendy young photographers who take snapshots of their junky friends in Hackney and the East Village. The absurdity of that argument is underlined by the work of classic photojournalists such as David Goldblatt. He has been taking pictures of South Africa for 30 years and his images of apartheid are world famous. He has a traditional eye for what Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment” – that millisecond in time when wonderful light combines with psychological revelation and social insight – the forlorn and exhausted black workers heading home in a bus, bathed in a Rembrandt-esque chiaro-scuro; the white boy and his black maid posed in front of the family farmland like an 18th-century portrait.
This year’s Citigroup shortlist is completed by the eccentric and marvellous work of British photographer Peter Fraser. Fraser belongs to the opposite school of photography from Sternfeld. He snaps dirty details rather than vast panoramas. There is a fold in a grubby carpet and a broken plastic canister full of bright blue detergent, the greasy castor wheel of a trolley and colourful electronic circuitry. At first this just looks like a guy who shoots weird close-ups, and it’s difficult to work out how it all goes together, but these pictures exploit photography’s by now well-known ability to turn dirt into beauty and to find emblems of the everyday. from the edges of our vision.
For me it’s between Fraser and Sternfeld, and Fraser has the edge, because he’s funny.
Exhibition runs 29th Jan to 28th March, prize announced 4th March