PGDB Shortlist: Fazal Sheikh

Fazal Sheikh’s work is far better for me in the book (and on the web) than on the gallery wall. On his web site he describes himself as “an artist-activist who uses photography to create a sustained portrait of different communities around the world, addressing their beliefs and traditions, as well as their political and economic problems. By establishing a context of respect and understanding, his photographs demand we learn more about the people in them and about the circumstances in which they live.”

Reading the exhibition labels, and even more so the book, I found the texts considerably more interesting than the photographs. You can read the complete book, Ladli – ‘Beloved Daughter’ in either English or French on his web site (or of course you can buy it in print.) The text on the web (actually present as images) is just a little small for my comfort on the web, but the images are well reproduced.

Part of the problem on the gallery wall is the scale of the images. In his work, Sheikh makes use of a narrow plane of focus, usually rendering the eyes and face sharp, while the side of the head and ears are out of focus. It’s a technique that for me only really works at a particular size of print, as the print size alters the apparent degree of ‘fuzziness’, giving a different effect at different scales. The web images, at around 13.5 cms high are a little too small, and just look slightly annoyingly unsharp, for example the ears in the portrait of Kajal. It looks more like a slight mistake than deliberate decision, while in the large gallery prints they seemed too fuzzy. There is an uneasy line between when a ‘signature’ becomes merely a ‘formula’ and seeing all these works gathered together on the gallery wall rather than embedded in the lengthy text of the book did start to make me find the approach relentless.

Sheik’s prints are inkjet prints, and according to the catalogue are maked on “handmade Photo Rag paper.” They are actually pretty good prints, but the paper looked to me rather like a machine made Hahnemuhle paper that many of us use for our exhibition prints. But perhaps this is just another manifestation of the extreme problem that galleries have in spitting out (or gicleeing) the “i” word.

I think his are fine books, and that they deal with important issues. However I think that other photographers have produced essays around these topics that are more powerful photographically, less mannered and more direct.

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