Prix Pictet shortlist: where there’s smoke

On April 26 1872, the Neapolitan photographer Giorgio Sommer got a hot scoop. Vesuvius was erupting. Leaving his studio, he took several pictures of ash, lava and smoke overwhelming the region, some of the earliest known photographs of a volcanic eruption. Photographers have been drawn to infernos ever since, creating a tinderbox dynamic that lies at the heart of this year’s Prix Pictet exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum — of which the FT is a media partner. Here a gallery of images captures the world on fire, often without a flame in sight.

Billed as the “global award in photography and sustainability”, the Prix Pictet is now in its ninth cycle (previous themes have included water, earth, power and consumption), with photographers nominated for an existing series rather than working to a brief. Following wildfires in America, Greece and Australia, and torched barricades in Myanmar and Hong Kong, fire proves a timely subject. Images of burnt-out homes, fleeing populations and devastated nature have become a depressingly common sight on news feeds — for those fortunate enough to be witnessing them only second-hand.

Such pictures are “postcards from the frontline of the climate emergency”, states Sir David King, chair of this year’s Prix Pictet jury and founder of the Centre for Climate Repair at the University of Cambridge. “These are not the harbingers of a crisis; they are the thing itself. This is it. The fire, long foreseen, has finally arrived.”

While some of the shortlisted photographers address the theme literally — there are documentary shots of the California fires and burn victims in India — others are more cryptic and technically experimental. Several focus on the medium’s ability to illuminate — or disguise — the furnace of human activity, in particular military, civil and social hostilities. As King remarks, “conflict and conflagration are never far apart”. Here, it is aggression and hubris that appear unsustainable.

‘Man holding large camera photographing a cataclysmic event, possibly a volcano erupting, 1908/2012’ 2012, by Lisa Oppenheim © Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles 

‘Billowing. As we were driving up to Norfolk yesterday I saw the Enfield fire; where a Sony distribution centre set ablaze by rioters was just pouring out smoke over the motorway. The sheer amount of smoke was quite surprising, and today smoke was still covering the motorway. I feel such despair at people who have taken to looting; so angry at the destruction people can cause, 2011/2012’ 2012, by Lisa Oppenheim
‘Billowing. As we were driving up to Norfolk yesterday I saw the Enfield fire; where a Sony distribution centre set ablaze by rioters was just pouring out smoke over the motorway. The sheer amount of smoke was quite surprising, and today smoke was still covering the motorway. I feel such despair at people who have taken to looting; so angry at the destruction people can cause, 2011/2012’ 2012, by Lisa Oppenheim © Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles 

There are echoes of Sommer’s pictures of Vesuvius in Lisa Oppenheim’s ongoing series Smoke, which also addresses volcanic activity — not that you would know it. Oppenheim appropriates press pictures of smoke plumes — from industrial accidents, bombings and natural catastrophes — but crops out the sources of the fires. In her darkroom, the images are “reprocessed” by printing from negatives using the light from a lit match to both expose and solarise the print. The original press captions are retained, providing further obfuscation.

While Oppenheim’s balletic abstractions of billowing clouds hark back to the canvases of John Constable and Gerhard Richter, they also deal with the mechanisms of muddying meaning and the unnerving separation of cause and effect. “Smoke can be thought of as a metonym,” observes Oppenheim, “standing in for and even obscuring a wider set of events and occurrences.”

Another smokescreen, evident in the work of the Cambodian photographer Mak Remissa, is the passing of time. His intensely personal portfolio, titled Left 3 Days (2014), revisits traumatic childhood memories of his family being displaced from their homes in Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Remissa created dioramas of the exodus using silhouetted figures in paper cut-outs, stones and cardboard stage sets of streets, and then infused these miniature landscapes with smoke swirling off burning coconut skin.

‘Khmer Rouge soldiers took control of Phnom Penh’, 2004 by Mak Remissa
‘Khmer Rouge soldiers took control of Phnom Penh’, 2004 by Mak Remissa © Mak Remissa, Prix Pictet

His photographs blur the boundaries between theatre, reportage and a form of hazy therapy. “I cannot re-create the scenes again because most of my family members passed away during the Khmer Rouge regimes,” he explains, adding that the story of genocide in Cambodia has faded from people’s mind “like smoke being blown away by the wind”.

Remembrance is also integral to the Blackwater series by Sally Mann, perhaps the most famous figure on the Prix Pictet shortlist. The American photographer, celebrated for her candid pictures of her young daughters, here captures a bleak legacy of inhumanity through a succession of stark, figureless landscapes taken in the Great Dismal Swamp of southern Virginia.

Situated near the appallingly named Point Comfort, where the first slave ship docked in America, the swamp became a snake-ridden haven for runaways being pursued by slave-catchers during the 18th and 19th centuries. When Mann photographed the swamp, between 2008 and 2012, the area was engulfed in wildfires. Using a large-format camera, she created monochrome tintypes — wet collodion-coated glass plates — of a charred no-man’s land punctuated by broken trees and pools of murky swamp water.

‘Wonder Beirut, the story of a pyromaniac photographer’ series, 1998-2006, by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige
‘Wonder Beirut, the story of a pyromaniac photographer’ series, 1998-2006, by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige © Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Prix Pictet

“Something about the deeply flawed American character seems to embrace the apocalyptic as solution,” Mann writes. It seems a fitting end, she notes, “that a place so filled with pain should, a century and a half later, be devoured by an all-cleansing fire”. Using a medium that dates back to the era of slavery, her dense, nightmarish photographs — they look baked rather than developed — raise difficult questions. Not least, can the wounds created by such horrors really be cauterised by scorched earth?

History also haunts Wonder Beirut (1998-2006), a project by Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. The pair used fiction and fire to unpick the legacy of civil unrest in their city. Collecting popular postcards of Beirut from the 1960s and 1970s, which remain a fixture in Lebanese bookshops, they attributed them to a fictional photographer called Abdallah Farah. The cards were then blistered with small burns — ostensibly by Farah — tracing the line of damage created by bombardments and battles. Photographs of these singed works complete a story of blown-up hotels and a “pyromaniac photographer”.

With their venture, Hadjithomas and Joreige took a flame to nostalgia. But it was affected by a further firestorm: their studio was damaged in the colossal explosion at the port of Beirut in 2020. Many of their photographic prints were lost in the blast. “The fire had destroyed them once again, and for good this time,” they observe. “Traces on traces, destruction on destruction.”

The disconnect between tourist-friendly representations — grand vistas and pristine developments — and the reality of the distressed terrain in which we often live is pivotal to much of the work shortlisted for the Prix Pictet. Giorgio Sommer would have recognised that disparity. Before he photographed Vesuvius’s ballooning ash clouds and their dreadful shadows, his stock-in-trade was a catalogue of picturesque panoramas of Pompeii and the Amalfi coast.

The winner of the Prix Pictet 2021 is announced on December 15. The exhibition at the V&A, London, runs until January 9; vam.ac.uk

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