Thursday, 11 March 2010

The Deutsche Borse Photography Prize - The Photographers Gallery

Out of the four photographers selected to battle it out for this years £30,000 prize one stands head and shoulders above the rest. Magnum photographer Donovan Wylie's photographs of the Maze prison in Northern Ireland, taken after it had been decommissioned, make up an impression body of work on location, architecture and the relationship between politics and built environment.

Just to mention that the other contenders (all by women, by the way) were okay but fairly undergraduate compared with the mighty Wylie. This was partly due to subject matter and partly due to the ways in which work was presented. But this is my blog, so I don't have to talk about any of them. Back to the Maze (so to speak).

All of us in the UK with even a small knowledge of contemporary history will be familiar with the Maze prison, what is was and what it symbolised. This was the place where the worst of the worst prisoners from 'The Troubles' (always sounds like a dicky tummy rather than a decades long civil war) were sent. This was the place where Bobby Sands (among many others) died after going on hunger strike. This was the place where republican prisoners began using 'dirty protests' to make a point about their status as common criminals as opposed to political prisoners.

For those of you who have seen Steve McQueen's (no, not THAT Steve McQueen) film Hunger, you'll know that life in the Maze was at times extreme, brutal, inhumane (not that it's a documentary, I hasten to add).

Donovan Wylie's photographs show a very different set of buildings from those in your memory. The buildings, walls and fences that he documents are devoid of human life of any kind. All we see are the concrete and steel constructions left behind. Without any prisoners to set the scene the one storey, H-block buildings could almost pass for a modern school building, especially with the high fences which (rightly or wrongly) now surround many educational establishments. Even the bars at the windows (seen from the outside) could pass for vertical blinds.

The buildings become sterile, bland, uniform. A far cry from the contents they used to hold and the use to which they were put. It's very different from looking at, say, a Victorian prison (which at least alludes to the Gothic way in which prisoners are treated) or a concentration camp (which usually look like farm outbuildings - designed to hold humans viewed as animals).

These buildings look like your local doctors surgery or inland revenue office. What does that say about how we, as a society, viewed the buildings and the prisoners inside? Does it mean that as the images were somewhat sanitised, this made is easier to accept the conditions and treatment dished out on the inside?


There is an almost comical set of photos depicting the interiors of cells. Each one is taken from an angle that captures the windows/bars and the bed, many with early morning sunlight falling delicately onto walls that you imagine were once covered in human faeces. What is comical about these photos is that in each one there is a set of curtains to cover the windows at night. Every set of curtains is a different pattern, as if you were visiting various relatives' houses, where there is a different colour scheme and carefully thought out and matching soft furnishings.

It's difficult to know without doing further research, whether or not republican and loyalist prisoners ever used these cells but it would have been meaningless to decorate afterward. This means that violent, murderous men had their living quarters dolled up like your great aunt's living room. This is so surreal and so incongruous that it actually made me laugh.

After visiting the exhibition, I trundled off to the gallery's bookshop to look at the accompanying book for the photos. In the book, there is a long series of photos of different sections of the walls and fences, following the entire way around the Maze complex.

Looking systematically through this set of pics, with each section of wall, death strip and fence looking almost identical, leaves one feeling disoriented and confused. It also reminded me of those early video games in which you wandered around a maze, turning left, right, left, left, right until you found your treasure/the exit. At the end of these turns though, you only find a concrete wall.

The prints, in landscape and framed simply, are really nice. Almost all the photos look as if they were taken in overcast but bright daylight (in fact many were shot as near to dawn as possible) and are clean, fairly crisp and almost military or documentary in their style. He has used colour (and correction facilities) but it is washed out and very grey, although hardly surprising what with the amount of concrete. Most of the exterior shots feel very flat (he uses a digital Hasselblad) and even with the history of such a place, there is very little visual to attest to the nature of those previously imprisoned.

Anyway, I bloody loved them and I hope he wins.

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