Monday, 22 October 2012

OCA Study visit to Prix Pictet Exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery

The Prix Pictet competition was established by the Swiss bank Pictet and Cie in 2008 and in each of the four years has had a different theme.  Previously, these have been Water, Earth and Growth, and now in 2012 the theme is Power, claimed by the exhibition website to have “great creative reach” and to … “embrace contradiction and paradox in equal measures.  The same forces that result in disaster and despair can also generate hope and renewal”.  The Prix Pictet claims to reach an audience of 400 million and uncovers “outstanding photography applied to confront the most pressing social and environmental challenges of today”.  Twenty one of us from various stages of the OCA Photography degree course met to view and discuss the photographs on show, and we were aided in our deliberations by OCA tutors Clive White, Gareth Dent, Sharon Boothroyd and Robert Bloomfield .  There were twelve artists selected for the short list and whose work appeared in the exhibition.

One of the clearest things that emerged for me was that sometimes the images offered by an artist clearly formed part of a sequence or narrative, whereas others stood as a number of individual pictures without connection other than their perceived association with the Power theme.  The prize winner was Luc Delahaye with Various Works : 2008 – 2011, and he has been one of my favourite photographers for some time;  I was asked by one of the tutors why this should be, and although I found this difficult to answer, I think it is to do with the questions that his images ask.  What was there before the image was taken, at what time after the event portrayed did he actually press the shutter, and was any degree of ‘staging’ used to empower the message?  Delahaye claims to be an artist rather than photographer and indeed the line between his photojournalism and art is often obscure, at least to me.  We discussed Ambush, Ramadi for some time; was the dust the result of the explosion or was it just blowing at the time, with the ambush having taken place sometime before?  The tyre tracks lead away from the scene and much debris has fallen over them indicating that they were made before the ambush.  For me, it is a remarkable image with its universal monotone, destruction, lack of any obvious life and the whole scene enveloped in a thick dust cloud that maybe hides some of the answers -  these were all aspects that really struck me with the gallery image at full size and which had escaped me entirely when I first saw it on the website. 

Ambush, Ramadi.  Copyright Luc Delahaye.  Used with kind permission of Prix Pictet and the Saatchi Gallery
This was actually a recurrent theme when comparing between the impact of various photographs in their screen size and gallery size;  in some instances I thought that there was little difference in how I felt when seeing the ‘life sized’ pictures in the gallery and how I felt when I reviewed them earlier on screen.  This was certainly true of Robert Adams Turning Back, which along with Arab Domains from Jacqueline Hassink, had little impact on me however I looked at them.  Hassink’s work looked at the interiors of houses owned by powerful female Arab business leaders and failed to affect me at any level; looking at dining rooms of varying degrees of opulence had no appeal.  However, Charlotte Cotton has an opposing view and has said that the photographs “ .. have a seemingly effortless simplicity to them ..” and that they “… carefully position the viewer as an observer onto each scene”.   It didn’t work for me.

From Arab Domains.  Copyright Jacqueline Hassink.  Used with kind permission of Prix Pictet and the Saatchi Gallery
I also mention Robert Adams as an artist whose photographs failed to connect with me at any emotional level.  They were the smallest of the pictures on show, thus making a significant visual contrast with the epic images of Delahaye and others, and appeared to be deliberately hung in a pattern as if clinging together for support.  The images featured various stages of deforestation and the stripping of tracts of woodland to expose the bare earth, but I felt they went no further than this.  I was surprised to read a couple of weeks ago that Sean O’Hagan in the Guardian wrote that Adams was his choice to be winner of the Prix Pictet, although there was no specific rationale as to why.  O’Hagan’s view of the judging was that Prix Pictet has a tendency to reward epic works such as Nadav Kander in 2010 and Mitch Epstein last year over more “reflective and restrained” offerings such as those from Adams, although he did concede that Delahaye’s mixing of epic and conceptual themes would make him a strong candidate for the prize.  I can see where Adams’ work fits into the Power theme and its stated association with sustainability, but it seems a greater leap to identify the touch points with Delahaye’s portfolio.

Turning Back 007.  Copyright Robert Adams.  Used with kind permission of Prix Pictet and the Saatchi Gallery
A phrase that was used by a number of us during the visit was that “it’s all in the back story” which really illustrated how often it seemed that some knowledge of the artists intentions, or at least an image title, and what was behind the photographs was essential to really understand where they were going. The most obvious example of this I thought was the work of Daniel Beltra.  His aerial images of Spill from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico are stunning in the beauty of their colours and the patterns that he has exposed as the oil was being gathered and burned or emulsified, but he has been accused of beautifying an environmental and economic disaster of enormous proportions.  This is arguably correct based on the four images shown in the gallery or the ten on the exhibition website, but I know that Beltra has also captured and highlighted the impact of the spill on the bird and marine life in the area, even winning the World Wildlife Photographer of the Year prize in 2011for “Still life in oil” depicting oiled pelicans.  Having said that Adams deforestation photographs failed to excite me, there is an interesting contrast with the work that Beltra did on the same subject to win the Prince’s Rainforest Projects prize at the Sony World Photography awards in 2009, for me a very moving set of images compared to Adams’ roots and stumps.

Spill 001b.  Copyright Daniel Beltra.  Used with kind permission of Prix Pictet and the Saatchi Gallery
Spill 006b.  Copyright Daniela Beltra.  Used with kind permission of Prix Pictet and the Saatchi Gallery
Philippe Chancel’s Fukushima, the Irresistible Power of Nature, Beltra’s Spill, Rena Effendi’s Still life in the Zone (about the area around Chernobyl) complete the disaster documentary cast for the exhibition and Chancel’s work left me constantly stunned by the power of the forces of the tsunami that had moved a whole ship in land and caused such devastation.  I thought it was a clear work to understand and the link to power strikingly obvious in comparison with more tenuous links from some other artists.  Effendi’s work from Chernobyl illustrated well the stark and harsh realities facing people still living in the zone of radioactive fallout and presented itself to me as being more of an illustrated diary – interesting, but not having an impact on how I felt, and leaving me feeling rather neutral.

On a different theme was the work of Edmund Clarke who used his access to the Guantanamo Bay facility to record ‘features’ of the camp that faced the detainees.  The absence of all human life in the photographs and the cleanliness of the facility and its contents was clinical and in a way sinister, although it certainly illustrated power through dominance of one group over another.  Although it was not shown in the exhibition, but was on the website, one of Clarke’s images which was the most minimalist and most disturbing was Camp Four, Arrow Pointing to Mecca and Ring for Ankle Shackles, which juxtaposed some apparent concession to religion with subjugation and captivity. 
Guantanamo HR006.  Copyright Edmund Clarke.  Ysed with kind permission of Prix Pictet and the Saatchi Gallery

Joel Sternfeld’s When it Changed presented a different view to the other portfolios in that it was entirely of quite close portrait shots taken at the Montreal climate summit, all bar one of the photographs being of single individuals rather than groups, and shows the intensity and tension in the faces.  Power is in the hands of these individuals to make potentially far reaching changes, but I suspect all are tied by the realities of political and voter pressure and will never reach meaningful agreement.

The study day was my first, and although I was unsure quite what to expect, I was pleased with how much I got out of the gathering and what an excellent venue the Saatchi Gallery was.  It was great to meet some of the regular names on the OCA student forum and on flickr, as well as catch up with students I first met at the residential weekend in Leeds back in September.  Of the twenty one attendees, there were only seven who had not attended a study day before, which sums up the attraction of these events and the desire for distance learning to have a physical focus once in a while.  Quite a number of the same folks will reconvene at the Brighton Biennial in a couple of weeks, and I am already looking forward to that one.

I have a little more to add to this post, especially around An-My Li, but I'm still thinking about that!


  1. Very interesting to read. You move fluently between objective and subjective views of the images.

  2. Many thanks Catherine - very much appreciated. It was an excellent day, so let's hope the Brighton weekend is as good!

  3. Hi Dave. You've created a comprehensive and thoughtful write up of the exhibition, which is really helpful for a beginner like me.

    I'm also going to the Brighton study weekend and I'm really looking forward to the exhibitions there. It will be good to meet some fellow students too!

  4. Hi Dave, thanks for commenting on mine - I actually replied to you over on mine about the use of images which you might find interesting :) I really enjoyed reading your review too. I didnt know about the Brighton weekend until that study visit when some people mentioned it and I already have plans which is a pity - I'm sure we'll meet again at another one in London sometime though.