“ The Photographers' Gallery, 8 and 5 Great Newport Street, London WC2H 7HY. Tel: +44 020 7831 1772. Fax +44 020 7836 9704. „
The Citibank Prize nominations are touted on the Photographers' Gallery website as showing "diversity, imagination and technical brilliance" - however, what seems to be sadly missing from this exhibition is general accessibility and any kind of interpretation. Maybe I should illustrate where I'm coming from here - an enthusiastic amateur photographer who doesn't go to many exhibitions, I had read of the Citibank Prize in the listings section of the Guardian, among other places. Taking a trip to London with other members of the university photo society to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) exhibition, I thought it would be the ideal opportunity to seek out the Photographers' Gallery and see this exhibition, which had been praised in every review I'd seen. However, those of us who went were sorely disappointed, and the Citibank certainly came off worse for the unavoidable comparison with the WPY exhibition First of all the good news: the gallery was very easy to find, and free to enter. Good points about the exhibition itself...? I'm trying to be charitable here, I really am, but all I can think of is that the prints are of the highest standard, and consistently framed and presented. That's all very well, but I came out of the exhibition with very little extra knowledge about the artists, their images, or the stories behind them; the show created far more questions than it answered. First of all, there's no leaflet or catalogue of any kind. There's a small (less than A4) label describing the photographer's background, and one paragraph on the selection of images they're exhibiting for the prize, but that's all. Evidently the newspaper reviewers were so hungry for information that they had to repeat practically all of it - I learned next to nothing on top of what I had gleaned before I came to the show. To make it even more difficult, these labels are often placed in reall y inconvenient places, like next to the door, creating bottlenecks as people queued up to try and find some kind of contextual hook to hang the exhibits on. I wonder how many of them were as disappointed as we were? As for information on the individual images, there's none of consequence. Mostly just artist and title, print size, and the collection it came from - none of which I would call essential since the prints are arranged by artist (there are just five), and the title was more often than not "Untitled". We craved details - where the photo was taken, when, who of, what the context is, what the artist is trying to communicate, even technical information such as the film type, so that we could learn something from the photos on show. They weren't especially attractive, or "artistic" in the conventional sense, and so really needed a context to bring them to life. Showing in the gallery at number 5 Great Newport Street were some short films made by Channel 4 about the photographers, and we hoped for some enlightenment there, but they were shown on a single, small TV on a pedestal, and it was impossible to stand and watch without your feet beginning to ache, or without you being in someone's way. The five photographers could be separated into two broad categories. Two, Roni Horn and Jem Southam, deal with natural features, the surface of water and rocky cliffs respectively. The others deal very directly with human subjects: Boris Mikhailov shows the homeless of the Ukraine in a stark and somewhat disturbing light; Hannah Starkey's shots are of everyday working-class women and girls; and Joanna Woodall's subjects are young girls on the very edge of womanhood. Mikhailov's images of the forgotten homeless of Kharkov are shocking, perhaps more so as they are placed just inside the front door. These people expose their bodies to the camera while loking directly "at" the viewer, their aged a nd often deformed flesh reproduced in great detail at near-life size, in vast colour prints which are simple pinned to the wall, unframed. To what end the subjects think they are posing, apart from (I assume) some small amount of money, is unclear. Starkey's shots are also posed, in a style reminiscent of the photo-stories of the 80s, but without the slush-romance narrative to take us through their stories, they seem somewhat lost. Joanna Woodall's images are perhaps the best, or at least the most coherent, of the "people" photographs, but for the most part her young female subjects seem lost in sad, almost sulky contemplation of the big wide world which is drawing them irresistibly onwards into womanhood. We felt a desire to know their backgrounds, their families, their hopes and aspirations, but were left wondering. As an environmental scientist by education, I couldn't help but find Horn's and Southam's images reminiscent of textbook illustrations, clear in their details but undoubtedly in need of a caption referring to cliff erosion rates, or the cause of the visible turbulence in the water. Despite Horn's obscure captioning of various areas of her photos via tiny numbers, I was still unenlightened, and also distracted from what could, if presented in the right way, be very beautiful images. Maybe our disappointment is as much a function of misplaced expectations as anything else - I suppose the prints are supposed to speak for themselves, and everyone is supposed to take their own meaning away from the exhibition, but we felt like we were merely second-guessing the photographer's intentions, and therefore somehow failing to gain the full benefit of the show. We've all seen great photographs that really do speak for themselves, but they usually show moments of great emotion, or situations with which we can identify. The Citibank photos on the whole don't capture that, and are therefore in real need of the information which is so lacking. Without it, my friends and I felt that we were "missing something", maybe not understanding something that was very obvious to other people, and in that sense the exhibition felt rather elitist and alienating. All of us left feeling somehow empty, and that much more could have been made of what were potentially very powerful images.