Founded in 1996, the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize annually awards £30,000 to a contemporary photographer whose work made the most significant contribution to European photography within the last calendar year. The winning series—Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s Ponte City—was unmistakable, unmissable. The series consists of strong, compelling images that are presented in an original, impactful way. The more time one spends with the series, the more its fundamental binary contrasts become clear—the public and the private, the political and the personal, light and shadow.
Combining photographs of a derelict Johannesburg skyscraper—one of the city’s icons—with abandoned objects found within, Subotzky and Waterhouse’s work commands attention through its narrative nature. The tower, named Ponte City, was initially intended for Apartheid Johannesburg’s white elite. After a real estate bust, it eventually became a refuge for immigrants, dealers, and criminals—and a lightning rod for controversy. When news of the building’s refurbishment sent squatters scattering, snapshots and personal papers left behind illustrated life inside Ponte City. The layering of snapshots against images of the abandoned apartments creates a keen and thoughtful contrast. Light boxes display photographs of Ponte City’s doors and the scenes from its windows, mimicking the ironically aspirational architecture of the building.
Of course, besides the winning series, the rest of the Prize’s short list offered its own opportunities for discovery and delight. In Relationship, Nikolai Bakharev exhibits his work as a “beach photographer,” a title he assumed in order to get away with showing the Russian people at their most casual during the 1970’s (when intimate photography was prohibited). The result is a collection of striking black and white images showing couples, families, and friends grouped together outside in swim suits, exposing imperfect bodies, cigarettes dangling from their mouths. Seeming simultaneously impromptu and staged, Bakharev’s work exposes the rarely seen private sphere of Soviet-era Russia.
Also working in black and white, the self-proclaimed “Visual Activist” Zanele Muholi shares her work Faces and Phases. The project challenges homophobia, violence, and “curative” rape. As a publication, Faces and Phases pairs striking portraits with poems and compelling accounts of life as a member Africa’s LBGTI community. The prints, pinned from floor to ceiling across an entire wall of the gallery space, confront the viewer. Proud, angry, hurt, defiant—the intense eye contact in each image is a visual call to action.
Viviane Sassen, known for her fashion photography as well as her work in the fine arts, explores shadow in her exposition
Umbra. Combining photography, collage, and video installation (which layers Maria Barnas’s poetry over images), Sassen pushes at the boundaries of her medium. While the title created an expectation of the absence of color, her work was saturated with primary hues. The exhibition plays with the contrast between abstract and realist imagery, each piece connected by the overarching metaphor of the human psyche as shadow.
While Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse emerged as the recipients of the 2015 prize, the presentation of this wide-ranging group of artists is compelling. United by the strength of their work, as well as the complexity behind their images, the combination of Bakharev, Muholi, Subotzky and Waterhouse, and Sassen makes for an impactful exhibition that should linger with you for some time.
Editor’s Note: Although The Photographer’s Gallery exhibition is now over, you can still catch this show at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, Germany from June 20th to September 20th. Don’t miss it!