Berliner Salon: The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize and Alec Soth

Alec Soth, Untitled 02, Bogotá, Chromogenic Color Print, 2002. Courtesy the artist.

Disclaimer: the following post is biased, self-indulgent, anecdotal and probably too long for a blog.

Yesterday I had the delight of seeing one of my all time favorite people for the first time in almost two years, the brilliantly poetic photographer Alec Soth. Alec was in Berlin for two openings, Dog Days, Bogotá at Wohnmaschine and Fashion Magazine, Paris/Minnesota at C/O Berlin, the latter of which was being presented in conjunction with the annual Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, given this year to Esko Männikkö. Alec had been shortlisted for the prize in 2006, which was ultimately rewarded to Art21 Season 4 artist Robert Adams, who then promptly donated the entire £30,000 cash award to a human rights organization.

I first came to know Alec when he was picked up by Gagosian Gallery, where I had recently begun working after graduating from a small liberal arts college in Vermont. The combination of a modest, laid-back Minnesota native and an idealistic and totally naïve Vermont transplant, both (relatively) new to the elite milieu that is Gagosian had the potential to be utterly disastrous. Fortunately, we somehow managed to survive his first exhibition at the gallery, despite the opening being pushed up by several months, not to mention technical difficulties at the printers and a slew of other behind-the-scenes obstacles.

Alec’s show, NIAGARA, was well received and the accompanying monograph, published by Steidl, won that year’s Golden Light Book Award. He is a Magnum Photos associate photographer and he was recently exhibited at the Jeu de Paume in Paris and yet, Alec remains one of the most humble, self-deprecating and genuine artists, with whom I have had the pleasure of working. “I was just in China and I’ve been wearing the same clothes for I don’t know how many days. I just want to hide,” he told me before leaving Wohnmaschine to give his speech at C/O Berlin. “Don’t worry,” I assured him, “wearing the same clothes for multiple days means you’re truly a Berliner.”

When addressing the audience that had gathered in C/O’s upper floor in honor of the Deutsche Borse, Alec stayed true to form, emphasizing that he had, in fact, been a Deutsche Börse “loser.” His works on view, a series of photographs depicting the world and personalities of couture fashion, are not emblematic of his signature style (typically melancholic portrayals of banal beauty and subtle humanity), which Alec also noted. “These are fashion photographs, but I’m not a fashion photographer. There are also advertising photographs, but I’m not an advertising photographer…and I’m here in Berlin, with stylish 20 year-olds everywhere I look, but as you can see,” he gestured towards his black t-shirt over black jeans, “I’m not really stylish, and so I’m not really a Berliner.”

The connection between Alec’s photography and the shortlisted nominees for this year’s prize is precisely the social conscious, however fragile, that Dog Days, Bogota exposes. Images of forlorn stray animals, vacant decaying living quarters and other intimate spaces, wide-eyed children and overcast ramshackle urban landscapes dominate the exhibition. Similarly, John Davies (UK), Jacob Holdt (Denmark), Esko Männikkö (Finland) and Fazal Sheikh (USA) all address these themes through their individual lenses, converging in an exhibition that speaks of the human spirit, as well as the pain that we, as a collective society, inflict on ourselves and on our natural habitat.

The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize will be exhibited at C/O Berlin through July 18. Dog Days, Bogota will be on view at Wohnmaschine until June 28. Both exhibitions are absolutely worth seeing and every photographer included should be accredited with contributing a powerful and honest voice to the international discourse of contemporary art and photographic imagery. Schoenes Wochenende.