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© Stephan Sahm, from the series 'My Cage is My Castle'

© Stephan Sahm, from the series 'My Cage is My Castle'

It takes something special to jolt me from my ‘prison-photo-myopia’.

The European Prize of Architectural Photography has the most cohesive group of fine art photography winners and honorable mentions I’ve seen in the past five years. The theme was “New Homeland”. Each photographer has four prints as representative works and each mini-set is a treat!

Outstanding quality.

© Jacky Longstaff

© Jacky Longstaff

You can browse the links provided below, but first see the 2009 Prize Winners Gallery.

Photographers formally recognised are Stephan Sahm, Tim Griffith, Jacky Longstaff, Freudenberger & Bachmeier, Kai-Uwe Gundlach, Frank Meyl, Szymon Necki, Menno Aden, Johanna Ahlert, Nicolas Briffod, Judith Buss, Walter Fogel, Andreas Fragel, Matthieu Gafsou, Benjamin Gerull, Juri Gottschall, Hanna Kohl, Shimizu Ken, Meike Hansen, Jonas Holthaus, Werner Huthmacher, Christian Kain, Sally-Ann Norman, Florian Profitlich, Andrew Phelps, Martin Richter, Martin Roemers, Michael Schnabel, Marcus Schwier, Michael van den Bogaard.

I was only aware of Fragel, Gafsou and Phelps previously.

© Frank Meyl

© Frank Meyl

© Matthieu Gafsou

© Matthieu Gafsou

© Marcus Schwier

© Marcus Schwier

© Kal Uwe Gundlach

© Kal Uwe Gundlach

I suppose if I were to push for a relation of any of these works to ‘Photography Within Sites of Incarceration’ I would want to begin a dialogue on Sahm’s Hamster-Pop representations of confinement. Sahm was the grand prize winner.

With Jurgen Chill winning two years ago, and the presumed associations of borders and immigration within the theme of “New Homeland”, the European Prize of Architectural Photography apparently rewards photography that emphasises the psychological impact of architectural forms on its users/subjects – in which, notions of containment and non-containment are central.

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I am aware Prison Photography has been preoccupied with fine art depictions of prison space recently and I intend to redress this genre imbalance in the coming weeks with more documentary works.

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In 2007, Jürgen Chill‘s Zellen series won him the European Architectural Photography Prize in the “Favorite Places” category. Awarded every two years since 1995, the international prize is now organized by the nonprofit architekturbild.eV (since 2005). The 2007 jury – chaired by Hans Eberhard Hess, chief editor of Photo International magazine – was impressed by Chill’s strict central overhead perspective and chose four images.

Today, the 2009 prize winners are announced, so it seems like a good time to recall Chill’s intriguing images.

Jürgen Chill’s Zellen photographs are a unique perspective upon prison space. Of all the positions in the cell, this floating light-fixture-eye-view should be the least claustrophobic, and yet, the central (physically impossible) high vantage point is dizzying. How does the camera (let alone cameraman) take up such a position? From here, what is there left to do but fall?

Has Chill has pioneered a new photographic typology? I was fascinated by the order of each work; the order of each cell. I must presume this order is the inmates doing and not the photographers. Chill’s work is labour intensive. The reason he nor the camera falls is because each image is a stitch of over one hundred photographs, captured by a digital SLR mounted on a boom, pressed – facing downward – against the ceiling surface.

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Chill is aware that entering his work in the category ‘Favourite Places’ may seem careless or even cynical, especially as the inmates are not pictured. On the other hand, as he notes on his website, “the barren rooms of the inmates are highly individualized and at least temporary qualify as de facto ‘Favorite Places’.” In 2006 he stated:

A person’s favourite place is a place which can be chosen at will. The person’s freedom is presupposed. Freedom, however, is not granted to all. Those that do not have it must adjust to whatever opportunities exist and strive to create their own place. A cell is perhaps the smallest possible space for habitation that a person can have. Personal and functional items are all accommodated in the tightest space. The spaces are represented as they are found. The Spaces are represented as they are found. The proportions of the photographs mach those of the rooms. All details in the rooms are shown orthogonally from above, nothing has been altered.

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I contacted Jürgen via email to ask about the practicalities of making Zellen, and to secure his comments on the series concept.

Jürgen, please introduce your work.
My photographs are most like a map of the prison cells; like a Google Earth view of a landscape.  I try to communicate information about the individuals that have to live in perhaps the smallest possible space for habitation that a person can have – without showing this person himself. Personal and functional items are all accommodated in the tightest space.

I’m interested in how a person arranges personal and functional items in their small cell. And what kind of person can it be [based upon the visible evidence]? Is it possible to get a “picture” of a person by having a view of his private space? It’s a view and perspective that you normally would never get of these cells. So it is not really “real”, more a scenery set or something similar.

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Where are the cells?
The are all in Germany in big cities in the area of Nordrhein Westfalen.

Are the photographs made in the same institution?
I made 16 photographs in 6 different prisons in the cities of Bochum, Hagen, Duisburg, Gelsenkirchen, Essen and Geldern

Where were the prisoners when you took the photographs?
I had a short conversation with the prisoners in their cells; explained my project, my concept and my motivation. Some of them were really interested in my work and my kind of photography. The prisoners allowed me to spend about 45 minutes alone in their cells, while they are waited outside, in the alleyway, guarded by one or two persons from the prison.

After my work, for their permission to photograph and publish their private things and space, I gave them a small gift; a packet of coffee or cigarettes. Later I sent them all the photograph of their rooms. Some of them asked for it to have as a kind of souvenir for when they are released from prison.

How long did set up take and what equipment did you use?
Just to photograph takes about 30 minutes. With the test shoots and everything it takes about 75 minutes in one cell. The main work, the montage to one photo takes about one week. So it took a long time to make the photo series. You can see how the images were made in the youtube clip of this German television show from October, 2007.

Does the collection and order of all worldly possessions in a single space fascinate you?
It’s the combination of personal and functional items in a small space. First, the cell must contain all the functions of a house in one room: bedroom, toilet, living-room, store-room and sometimes a kitchen. Then the prisoner combines it with his personal possessions and create his private space in about 8 square metres. How does a person arrange such a small space with personal items so that it [also] keeps its basic functions ? And that arrangement exists for years. So my photographs try to draw a picture of an individual person.

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Americans, in particular, are starting to realise that they must use/waste less petrol, possessions, energy, space and give up personal largess for the benefit of community. Does the modesty of the prison cell appeal to you? Do future modes of living relate to the cell?

For me, as the artist and maker of these photographs, my intention is not to call out [to people] to give up personal largess for the benefit of community or for other kinds of social and political attitudes or activities. I just want to show the state of things in the visual of photography and try to show these things in an unusual perspective or context. Just to ask questions about it and not to give answers. That’s the viewers job.

Would you put your images into a history of visual culture that represents humans under duress and finding humanity in the smallest places/between the cracks? Or, is the Zellen series a totally modern piece, completely divided from historical context?

About historical context: I think every art work (the good ones) can not be divided from cultural and historical contexts. The Zellen series, and the new photographic series of whorehouse rooms, which I’m now working on, tells us about situations and the state of things now.

But the contemporary associations of now ( the “Zeitgeist” ) result from the past. The series Zellen was shown in a large exposition about prisons, CUSTODY/SPACES OF SURVEILLANCE in the Summer of 2008 in Frankfurt, Germany. The photographs were shown there in the historical context of humanity under surveillance; within imprisonment and [in the context of] prison architectures.

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Thanks to Jürgen for his kind help and time in piecing this article together.

All Images ©  Jürgen Chill.

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The blogo-photo-sphere has been spinning the past couple of days with the 2009 Pulitzer Prize announcements. Damon Winter took one gong for “his memorable array of pictures deftly capturing multiple facets of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.” (Featured Photography). Patrick Farrell secured the other with his “provocative, impeccably composed images of despair after Hurricane Ike and other lethal storms caused a humanitarian disaster in Haiti.” (Breaking News Story)

Winter’s images are eye-catching, but to be honest I am suffering from ‘Obama-fatigue’. So saturated were we with so many high-quality images of the new 44th President, I now look for different material. A quick shufties through Winters website revealed all. His portraits of sports stars show a precocious willing to improvise with technique and composition. Winter has a seriously sentimental side also epitomised by his portraits of American Olympians from the 1984 Los Angeles games.

I guess, my hope is that he doesn’t become known as ‘that guy that did Obama’ … which is why I am more interested in his Angola Prison Rodeo photojournalism.

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The rodeo featuring the prisoners of Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola, is an old – even traditional – event in the Louisiana calendar. Damon Winter is one of many photographers that have covered the community event. It is a raucous spectacle that brings together populations in and outside of the prison.

I still cannot reconcile this event my existing ethics which this event. There’s a charge that the rodeo is exploitative entertainment for which prisoners can suffer serious injury. Yet, I have not witnessed the rodeo-weekend first hand and I have read in the past that this is an event that provides long-term focus and short-term adulation for the prisoner-competitors. All I want to do is bring Winter’s photographs to your attention and hope they’ll compete with Obama for your attentions!

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Winter’s pictures capture the strong forces and consequent risks of rodeo competition. I deliberately picked his colour images. The black & white stripes of inmates harry within Winter’s ‘red, white and blue’ palette. The star-spangled palette imbues the series with patriotism, pomp and faux-purpose. I almost feel we are subliminally less inclined to question Angola’s unique display of pseudo-gladiatorial entertainment when the games are suffused with hues of the American flag.

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View Damon Winter’s Obama campaign coverage for the New York Times, and listen to an audio interview with Winter about his experiences. Winter and PDN did an interview in 2008.

“I’m not interested in the political side of it at all. I don’t deny it and know it filters into the work, but I’m just not approaching it from that perspective. I’m interested in exploring inner exile and profound beauty as redemptive and liberating. There is that famous Dostoyevsky quote that ‘Beauty will redeem the world.’”

Anna Shteynshleyger, in an email to Tim Davis. April 21st, 2005

Perm (Grasses), 2001. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Perm (Grasses), 2001. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Guggenheim time again. Seven photographers were recipients of the big one. All of them are preoccupied with the passage of time. Thomas Joshua Cooper studies waves for a long time; Osamu James Nakagawa studies waves crashing in to cliffs for a long time; Suzanne Opton records the melancholy of veteran soldiers (a subject that will likely last a long time); Cheryle St. Onge makes reference to her Grandmother’s times; and Byron Wolfe has “for nearly twenty years held a deep and abiding interest in ideas about time, change, and the personal relationships one makes with a place.” Brian Ulrich‘s relation to time is that he is the hardest working man in the business and operates like there’s no time left. (I admit, that one’s a step too far).

Prison Photography‘s interest in the Guggenheim Awards for 2009 is specifically with Anna Shteynshleyger.

Siberia is Shteynshleyger’s visual record of the topography of prison labour camp sites and works. Critics and public are likely to know her more accessible work done at the Port Authority of unextraordinary people on escalators unextraordinarily unaware. Port Authority is an ordinary project; I cannot give it much time. Or perhaps Shteynshleyger’s versatility pulling the viewer from Port Authority‘s whim to the import and nonchalance of Siberia is too big of a conversion to devote the belief in both.

Kolyma (Floor), 2002. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Kolyma (Floor), 2002. © Anna Shteynshleyger

With steady assurance Siberia deals with time, as it deals with the site, as it deals with the intelligence of the viewer. Too often a photographer rushes to the physical clue – the visual pointer – to drive home the importance of the political statement he or she intends to make. Shteynshleyger is not interested in explanation. Without the title on the wall and without the catalogue essay her pictures are simply a competent, nay beautiful, collection of large-format colour prints. They are mostly landscapes and, in truth, landscapes that could be from any continent on earth.

Perm (Bush), 2001. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Perm (Bush), 2001. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Tim Davis wrote an excellent piece on Shteynshleyger’s Siberia citing ‘paintings of absense’ from art historical cannon, one-off expressions of ‘the sublime’ by genre painters, and the philosophy of modern cinema auteurs. Davis deliberately talks about as many things other than Shteynshleyger’s work in an attempt to position and thus explain Shteynshleyger’s work. It is a fine, fine judgement call;

Anna’s photographs of Siberia, a territory as suffused with suffering as any place on the planet, do not “bear witness” to anything. They are not documents of anyone’s journey. They are not war monuments; they are not apologies. Though her camera is pointing in the direction of historical sites of unremembered trauma, her pictures are not records of the locations of past crimes. They do not reckon with the past. They sidestep the inevitable failure of the photograph to stand for historical events. They are oblique and difficult, refusing any Spielbergian urge to heal through reliving previous horrors.

Some might argue Davis is wrong. That what he identifies as a resourceful, no-label, psuedo-documentary response to massive ideological violence is in fact a confusion of approach on Shteynshleyger’s part. But they would be wrong. William Meyer wrote a critique of Siberia beginning with the observation that many artists and photographers have sifted and surveyed Nazi concentration camps, and frequently (on the shoulders of other artists) have produced resonant work. The audience for art reflecting the holocaust and concentration camp trauma is well versed in the visual vocabulary of such. For Meyer, the Gulag is in a different position;

How many agitate on behalf of its victims? There are few memorials, few markers, few museums, few tourists. Out of sight, out of mind. But Ms. Shteynshleyger wants to show us.

Shteynshleyger is a pioneer and she is showing us how we can understand horror and how we can understand that horror passes. To me, it seems her images are as private as old men and women who hold silent testimony to past events. Just because something is understood doesn’t mean it should be said, and just because something is said does not make it understood.

Untitled (Tires), 2002. © Anna Shteynshleyger

Untitled (Tires), 2002. © Anna Shteynshleyger

It isn’t that Shteynshleyger’s work is evasive; it just seems she wants a rigorously curious audience as opposed to a docile one. She is quoted as saying;

… be it a metaphysical or cultural concern, whether it’s a critique or a celebration, art remains a practice rooted deeply in the material world. We make likenesses of what we see and transform our world in a very tangible way. Any situation can reveal a reality not apparent at first examination.

If Dostoyevsky is right and beauty is to redeem the world, beauty must either be apolitical or the most beautiful consensus-sealing political position never reached. Politics, in the common understanding of the term, can be a brutish and rude affair. If there is a message to take away from Shteynshleyger’s work it is, perhaps, that we should search for beauty more rigorously and pay more attention to understated, and dare I say it, apolitical positions.

Untitled (Perm Clouds), 2002 © Anna Shteynshleyger

Untitled (Perm Clouds), 2002 © Anna Shteynshleyger

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Anna Shteynshleyger was born in Moscow, Russia in 1977. She came to the United States in 1992. Shteynshleyger received a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art (1999) and an MFA from Yale University (2001). In 2004 the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago mounted a solo exhibition of her Siberia pictures. In 2006, her (12×12 project) was exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and Art Basel Miami Beach at the Jacob Karpio gallery in Miami, FL. Other exhibitions have been mounted at Moti Hasson Gallery, NY; Murray Guy Gallery, NY; Lombard-Fried Fine Arts, NY; Artists Space, NY; Vedanta Gallery, Chicago; Thomas McCormick Gallery, Chicago; Zolla Lieberman Gallery, Chicago. Shteynshleyger’s work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; LaSalle Bank Photography Collection, Chicago; Yale University Libraries and the University of Maine Museum of Art. She is the recipient of an Illinois Art Council Finalist Award, Blair Dickinson Memorial Award and Guggenheim Fellowship. Shteynshleyger is currently an adjunct professor of photography at Columbia College Chicago and McHenry County College.

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At the 2009 World Press Photo Awards, it was the work of Roger Cremers‘ tourist behaviours at Auschwitz-Birkenau that caught my eye.

In a photography climate that frequently pours cynicism and scorn on global tourism, Cremers is on tricky ground. He can thank Martin Parr for making his path a little more tricky. How do we not dismiss Cremers’ work as stating the obvious?

Cremers does not reduce his tourists to unthinking crowds. Instead, he isolates his subjects; they’re in their own thoughts, their own photo-trance and their own space. There is no throng at Auschwitz and nor is there in Cremers’ images … except for the tightly-packed shuttle bus.

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Many of the prisons and concentration camps of the Third Reich have since been incorporated into the culture & heritage industry. Auschwitz receives 750,000/year and Dachau 900,000/year (Young, 1993). In the fifteen years since, one would expect figures to have risen.

Lennon & Foley’s excellent book Dark Tourism argues these sites ‘constitute attractions and they cannot simply be classified as “Genocide Monuments” since a monument in this context conveys a different meaning’. Furthermore, ‘these sites present major problems in interpretation … major problems for the language utilized in interpretation to adequately convey the horrors of the camps. Consequently, historical records and visual representation is extensively used.’

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Used not only by the site curators, but created by the visitors for later return. I am not comfortable saying that visitors to Auschwitz consume in the same way tourists do at other sites. I believe the subjects of Cremers photographs are creating their own visual memories of the site AND I believe Auschwitz visitors do so with a consciously different sensibility than at other sites.

I visited Auschwitz in 2000. Words were redundant, the scale of the crime overwhelming and agog meditation my modus operandi. It would be cognizant of the average visitor – knowing they may never return to the site – and unable to muster words, to muster a few images.

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Recommended: the Guardian Photo Editor’s summary of the World Press Photo Awards, 2009

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