Capturing consumption on camera

BEIRUT: There are two striking things about “Yard Sale.” Adam Bartos’ series of photographs captures unwanted items heaped on trestle tables, front lawns and gravel driveways in American suburbia.

On one hand, as the photographer himself notes, they show seemingly obsolete objects seeking new life – reuse as an alternative to uncontrolled consumption. On the other, they emphasize just how many unwanted possessions are cluttering up the houses not of the wealthy, but of the average American – a person hoping to sell a set of 10 patterned pink wine glasses for $20.

This summer, the Beirut Exhibition Center is once again hosting “Prix Pictet,” an exhibition of images by the 11 photographers shortlisted for the fifth edition of the prize for photography and sustainability established in 2008. The theme of this year’s prize, presided over by ex-Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, is “Consumption.”

Photographers are nominated by a team of critics, curators, journalists and gallerists, based on their existing portfolios, rather than creating a new body of work in response to the theme. This year more than 700 photographers from 66 countries were nominated for the award. The winner was German photographer Michael Schmidt, who died three days after the announcement was made in last month.

Schmidt’s winning photos are from a series called “Lebensmittel” (Groceries), taken between 2006 and 2010. Some black-and-white, others in washed-out color, they capture food and the places it comes from in a series of close-ups, taken from unexpected angles that often make the images appear abstract at first glance.

The inside of an egg carton is reduced to a series of light and dark diamond shapes, where sunlight and shadows fall across the cardboard. The rounded backs of three pigs become hairy white sausages, their ears confusing whorls and puckers of skin. Captured in extreme close-up, the perfect sphere of a green apple casts its shadow onto a table like the balls used to teach students draftsmanship.

The clean lines and simple composition of Schmidt’s images form a striking contrast to the chaotic series “Project Family,” by Japanese photographer Motoyuki Daifu. Taken between 2007 and 2011, his photographs capture a home bursting at the seams with things.

A table is perpetually covered with papers, rubbish, half-eaten plates of food, condiments, bottles of pills. The sink overflows with dirty dishes and chopsticks crisscrossed like a messy game of pick-up sticks. Wooden bunk beds are festooned with items of clothing and dangling handbags. Colorful, chaotic and claustrophobic, “Project Family” shows a cramped home where objects have all but displaced the people who own them.

Chinese photographer Hong Hao’s work is likewise concerned with multiplicity and personal belongings. As colorful as Daifu’s work, Hao’s photos are their antithesis in composition, transforming chaos into order. In “My Things,” a series he began working on in 2001, he creates huge collages using scans of the everyday items lying around his house in Beijing.

Each object he uses on a particular day is scanned, and its image saved in digital format. Eventually, Hao integrates hundreds of these scans into huge, colorful abstract collages. In one image, discarded pill packets and gnawed chicken bones become part of a composition with empty soft drinks cans, books and the flaccid form of an empty yellow rubber glove.

Other pieces are neater and more systematic. In one work, Hao scans the bottom of household appliances, creating a neat geometric design in varying shades of beige and pink plastic. Another piece is a patchwork of book covers, receipts and tickets.

Particularly striking is British photographer Mishka Henner’s series “Beef & Oil.” Large-scale prints capture bird’s-eye views of landscapes shaped by two of North America’s most lucrative commodities. Viewed from above, enormous feedlots speckled with tiny dots of cattle become abstract patterns, made up of fields and feeding troughs. The land from which oil is extracted and distributed is reduced to arid, geometric planes of color.

Carefully selected from satellite imagery of Texas, Kansas and California, each of Henner’s compositions resembles a circuit board, the facilitator of a mechanical process carried out on an endless loop.

Just two women made the shortlist this year, both with projects concerned with the relationships between objects and humanity.

Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra photographed the same woman, Almerisa, over a period of 14 years. The series begins when Almerisa is 5 years old, a new arrival at a refugee center in Leiden. The images follow her through her teenage years, as her body develops and changes in her hair, makeup and clothes reflect less visible alternations in her character. In the final photograph, taken at age 19, Almerisa holds her own baby and the cycle begins again.

American photographer Laurie Simmons’ large photographs are perhaps the most immediately arresting in the exhibition. Her series “The Love Doll” centers on a high-quality, eerily real-looking latex woman, purchased from a supplier in Japan. From the moment the doll arrives, folded up in a cardboard box like a stowaway, Simmons imbues her with a sense of life.

Simmons’ photos capture an object designed to be used and sexually fetishized performing actions that lend it a sense of personality, a role beyond the purpose for which it was manufactured. By juxtaposing this commoditized body with material items associated with women and consumerism – capturing the doll’s naked form draped in 20 pounds of costume jewelry or propped on its arms gazing raptly down at a heap of high-heeled shoes – Simmons raises questions about consumption, objectification and identity.

A thought-provoking and varied show, “Prix Pictet” highlights the versatility of photography as a medium, while encouraging personal engagement with a subject of global importance.

“Prix Pictet” is up at the Beirut Exhibition Center until July 12. For more information, please call 01-962-000, ext. 2883.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 16, 2015, on page 16.




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