In the first of our reviews of one of 2013’s premier photo exhibitions we look at No Man’s Land, a work by Mishka Henner shortlisted for the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize 2013 at the Photographers’ Gallery.
Mishka Henner, shortlisted for the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize at the Photographers’ Gallery London, 2013. Based in Manchester in the UK, Henner is known for High-Concept photo-projects and books such as the controversial Less Americains, where Henner digitally erased the content from Robert Frank’s classic Les Americains. Henner’s not above having a chuckle and a wink at the viewer with his titles.
No-Man’s Land, nominated for the Deutsche Borse, originally a print-on-demand book featuring images of tracts of roads and intersections in France and Italy where prostitutes gather to ply their trade. The difference is that these are ‘found-images’, from Google Street View, stills from the Camera Car. As much as this about the plight of female sex workers, the images feature women in utterly desolate spaces just hanging around, waiting, waiting, waiting. Think Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot located at a bypass. Henner explains in an interview with Pete Brook at Prison Photography, “My motivation isn’t to make you feel or to care – it’s to make you think”, but they are images of loneliness. The fact these images are taken by a machine, means they are by definition, without empathy. Yet they still make you think.
The woman sitting under an umbrella surrounded by signposts. These anonymous gestures of communication – “Stop” signs, “Give Way,” “Stay Right” – amplify the human silence, the absent voice of these women and the stark emptiness of an intersection where nothing intersects. In the widest sense, this is no-man’s land, a desolate space only visible via the eye of a computer.
From smarttphones to surveillance cameras to Google Street View, we are seeing images of the world that we have never seen or imagined. Most of them you wouldn’t want to imagine. It’s changing our expectation of all kinds of imagery, not least advertising, but in this instance the robo-photographer begs the question of the nature of the documentary image. In his dialogue with Pete Brook, Henner responds to what he sees as a ‘nostalgic’ view of photography. “And your response,” says Henner to Brook, “is reactionary because it validates and dismisses work according to quite spurious and nebulous criteria. What does it matter if I released the shutter or not? A social reality has been captured by a remote device taking billions of pictures no one else ever looked at or collected in this way before. You’re only seeing this record because I’ve put it together.” In the age of multiple frames per second, of cameras everywhere, it’s an extension of the trend of the photographer as editor.
Which Image? Which Room?
Seeing these images on your laptop and they’re kind of like any other interesting image. Seeing them in the white cube of the gallery space, the silence of the white walls just adds to the emotional distance you feel about these images. But choosing one for a wall in you own home is a different context and reminds me that this work is all about context: the context of the fact they were taken by a machine; the context that they were ‘found’ and selected by Mishka Henner. Having this image in your house, literally brings this ‘social reality’ home. I’d choose the narrative image below, a robot’s version of a Gregory Crewdson photo. I’d put it in the hall, so I could see it as a passerby, like Google Street View. A conversation point for visitors. The most exciting aspect of the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize is that it always throws a light on your own assumptions around photography and demands you evaluate and question them – what is it about this work that makes me like/dislike it? Henner’s work is a great example of this.
One question for the Image Maker?
Which camera, Google or Bing?