|Written by Max Houghton|
|14 Jan 2010|
Make sure they pay upfront… no-one could resist a wisecrack when I was invited to lead the jury for Icelandic Press Photography Prize 2009. Arguably, there’s never been a more interesting time for Icelandic photography, or at least the need has never been more urgent for a critical tradition of documentary photography to emerge.
While the very best of the work submitted for the prize is striving to find new ways of telling the contemporary story of this beautiful country, much of it is stuck in an aesthetic that contents itself with whatever happens to be in front of the camera or, worse, one which dwells in the zone of the advertising product shot, sometimes so bizarrely embellished a la Photoshop that the subject disappears altogether. The good news is that the Iceland Press Photographers’ Association – my hosts – are incredibly active. This prize spawns an annual exhibition at the Kopavogur Art Museum, Gerdarsafn and a substantial book featuring the winning images. And the questions from the floor at a talk I gave at the Reykjavik Photography Museum proved that there is a desire to engage with a more discursive practice.
The jury – two prominent Icelandic photographers, Christopher Lund and Petur Thomsen, Kjartan Dagbjartsson from Nordic Photo and me – spent a day and half in a darkened room (it doesn’t get light until 11am in January in Reykjavik anyway), choosing winners in the categories of News, Daily Life, Sport, Portrait, Environment, Magazine and Photo Series, as well as three further choices for Photo of the Year, Most Icelandic Photo of the Year and Humorous Photo of the Year. The ‘Photo Series’ does not translate as ‘Photo Story’, and, disappointingly, most entrants for this category submitted either a kind of typology or a sequence of similar images of one event. The other talk at the Photography Museum by Brynjar Gunnarson and Arni Torfason addressed this chasm in contemporary Icelandic photography, so it is to be hoped that next year’s entrants might rise to this specific challenge.
The News category was brimming with images from Iceland’s first ever riots, in which the police employed maize and riot shields to deal with protestors’ fury with the government for capitalism’ most catastrophic national banking crisis. 2009 was also the year that Hotel Valhalla, on the site of the first Viking Parliament – now a World Heritage Site - burnt to the ground and the country’s finance minister returned to his former career as a vet. The Prime Minister looked by turns elegantly manicured and utterly exhausted. Bankers packed boxes and quietly turned out the lights.
The submissions for the Daily Life category revealed what could be perceived to be a lack of interest in the quotidian. This is in some ways understandable. Iceland was voted the happiest country in the world a couple of years ago, and, even now, it’s evident that its inhabitants are used to an extremely high standard of living, and then added to that there’s a terrific sense of community here. Everyone’s in the phonebook, including the president, listed by their first name. It’s hard to document happiness, as Tolstoy knew. I think that this unprecedented national disaster will inevitably lead to a period of reflection in which that which has previously been taken for granted or has remained unexplored will be seen with fresh eyes.
Bragi Thor Josefsson
Sport brought the usual plethora of action shots, too few of them from the championship for disabled athletes and amputees last summer. The winner of this category showed an astute sense of the unexpected, but more than that I cannot reveal as all information about the winners is embargoed until 06 March, when the awards ceremony takes place, usually attended by the president, no less.
The serious contenders for the portrait prize were revealing or witty or exquisitely moving. Others had borrowed their aesthetic from the (bad) PR shot, resulting in meaningless close-ups of someone you’ll never know or want to. A (bad) photographer’s defence might be that they had no time in which to take the shot, having been dispatched by the newspaper or magazine at short notice. Some of the more superficial of submissions in themselves make an excellent argument for slow photography, or at the very least one that allows for a conversation with the journalist writing the profile, if not the subject themselves.
The ‘Environment’ category can also translate as ‘Landscape’ and it was partly this double meaning that divided the judges’ final decision for some time. The landscape tradition in Iceland doesn’t seem to have moved much beyond the perfect postcard or calendar image – and in a country with as many unblemished vistas as Iceland, again, it’s easy to see why. Is the unrivalled beauty of the northern lights or a mist-enveloped mountain enough to fill the frame and hold the gaze? Do we need to be awed by the magnificence of natural beauty to remind us that some things are eternal? Maybe, but as a personal preference I would rather witness it in the raw than in a frame. I want the photograph to show me something I can’t see for myself, or at least to help make it visible. As I write that sentence it occurs to me it is an unreasonable request, but one that I will hold to. For this judge, excited as I was to see the geysirs and the waterfalls and the thermal pools, I didn’t want to see them as photographs.
I have to confess I didn’t really understand the ‘Magazine’ category, and when I heard it was originally created so that members of the Association who photographed food or architecture could be included in the Prize, I understood it even less. It has also historically been the place where it is permissible to include heavily Photoshopped images, and for some, as already intimated, this has become an end in itself. I found it impossible to select one perfect plate of coiffed cuisine over another and even harder to feel anything for the indulgently overstyled fashion pictures that hogged this group. A winner was found, and I like it, but for all the wrong reasons, I suspect (I’ll reveal why in March!).
One of the Photo Series entrants was no less than world class. I want to wax entirely lyrical about it but can’t yet for reasons stated. Suffice to say that the Photo of the Year was from that story too and that it will make a memorable cover to the book of the 2009 prize, a year that Iceland may be loathe to repeat, but one that it may learn from in unexpected ways.
Graffiti all along the main shopping street in Reykjavik’s fashionable 101 district asked ‘Where’s your hate for the state?’. Those fortunate enough to wield a camera rather than a spray can might be better placed to make the necessary challenge.