Photography's biggest award: Images from the sharp end

The shortlist for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize reveals obsessions with politics, nationality – and a famous pair of legs. Charlotte Cripps previews next year's Deutsche Börse prize
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The celebrated rock star Alison Goldfrapp restaged the murder of Fanny Adams (whose name became a part of the language) in photographs taken by the UK photographer Anna Fox, one of this year's shortlist of four up for the prestigious international Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. It's the world's biggest general prize of its kind, and is worth £30,000.

The singer is lying amongst bluebells or under bushes in red stilettos, in colourful images which were shown this year in Fox's exhibition Cockroach Diary and Other Stories, for which she was nominated for the prize.

"Anna and I would get together at weekends and go off into to the countryside to take photos," explains Alison Goldfrapp. "We both lived near to where Fanny Adams was murdered in Hampshire in 1867 and were both fascinated by the story. It was like playing together, because we would take some clothes and improvise. I like Anna's brutal and honest photographic style. We were both trying to get a larger-than-life effect with colour and light."

Fox, 48, emerged from the British colour documentary movement of the 1980s to snap the strange and ordinary of British life in rural villages of southern England – even turning the lens on her mother's neat cupboards at home.

She's one of four photographers, two of whom are from the UK and three of whom are women, whittled down from a long-list of 90 from all over the world, who are deemed to have made the most significant contribution to photography in Europe over the last year, either by way of an exhibition or a publication. The winner will be announced at a special awards ceremony on 17 March 2010 at Lomdon's Photographers' Gallery.

The French photographer Sophie Ristelhueber, 60, has been using photography and, more recently, moving image, to document the scars that conflicts leave on the landscape.

Her 2005 West Bank shots reveal rocks and concrete blocks that cut off roads between villages and cities, reflecting Israel's long-standing policy of separation and the restriction of movement imposed on Palestinians.

She even flew over the Kuwait desert in a helicopter following the end of the first Gulf war to capture abstract shapes, as well as walking through this tricky terrain to take pictures of personal belongings, including a pair of shoes in the sand. Ristelhueber not only challenges the conventions of war reportage in the way she approaches her subjects, but also in the original way she installs and presents her photographs, which are often large-scale and applied directly onto walls.

The Belfast-born Donovan Wylie, 38, who is nominated for his exhibition MAZE 2007/8, at Belfast Exposed, investigates the psychology of architecture through the Maze prison.

He was the first photographer to have access to the prison when it closed in 2003 – and he roamed around the complex, snapping whatever took his fancy until its demolition in 2006.

His photographs, shot with a cool colour palette, give an eerie beauty to the barbed wire that bursts forth in front of the prison complex. His understated approach – reflected in the detached position he depicts the subject from – reveals the hidden traces of what went on inside the Maze during a particularly violent historical period.

Wylie's work is concerned with post-conflict Northern Ireland and explores identity, history and territory, such as in his 2007 series British Watch Towers.

The American photographer Zoe Leonard, 48, takes a unique approach to urban anthropology, by collecting found objects and recording the effects of globalization.

Her latest body of work, Analogue (1998-2009), which was part of her retrospective exhibition, Zoe Leonard: Photographs, at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich this year, for which she was nominated, includes images of a television set nestled in a wheel barrow. She also captures small independent shops in New York, such as the yellow-painted front of a small independent photography shop, which faces extinction in the face of the digital age.

Working mainly in black and white with the border of the negative visible on her prints, Leonard's work is also a commentary on photography itself.

Other shots by Leonard include a selection from the Tree and Fence series, which shows trees growing through the fences and gates which are constraining them. These were taken in New York City during the late 1990s – and were also part of the same retrospective exhibition.

"The one thing this prize is not supposed to be is a lifetime achievement award," says Brett Rogers, chair of the jury and director of the Photographers' Gallery, where an exhibition of the four nominated photographers' work goes on show in February. "Each of the four short-listed photographers, in their own way, explore pertinent ideas around gender, nationality, surveillance and political conflict... they demonstrate the power of photography to reveal profoundly new ways of seeing and understanding the world. The jury is looking for work that distinguishes itself from the rest of the crowd by raising important questions about the medium of photography either by building upon current and historical trajectories or by stretching the boundaries in some significant way."

The exhibition is at The Photographers' Gallery from 12 February until 18 April 2010, with the winner announced at a special awards ceremony on 17 March 2010. For more information, visit