Ana María Arévalo Gosen wins the 2021 Leica Oskar Barnack Award as the camera company reopens its multipurpose headquarters

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Leica Leitz-Park celebrates photography with a broad roster of exhibitions, a newly renovated museum and multiple international awards

“Wetzlar is a city of optics, a city of photography, and a city where Oskar Barnack changed the world, ” Manfred Wagner, lord mayor of Wetzlar, states at Leica’s prize-giving ceremony for both Hall of Fame and Oskar Barnack Award. A half-hour drive from Frankfurt, the industrial town is home to the renowned camera-maker, which still manufactures in the exact same place that Barnack invented the compact 35mm camera in 1913. A century on, Wetzlar has expanded around Leica and its generational headquarters, known as Leitz-Park. The complex includes a museum, hotel, factory, gallery, restaurant, archive, repairs facility and camera store.  

The purpose-built buildings in Leitz-Park are designed so as to allude to the appearance of a camera; the headquarters and factory curve just like a loosely unrolled spool of film, while the museum balcony is shaped like a classic Leica rangefinder. In most buildings, camera blueprints create a patterned wallpaper, while across the complex, circles are a recurring motif that reflects both the Leica logo and lenses built on-site. Locals, visitors and workers alike playfully describe the park as ‘Leica Land’, a semi-professional theme park for camera enthusiasts.

KOLYMA REGION, Russia – November 17, 2019. Remnants of barracks of the Butugychag forced labour camp. There, after the Second World War, prisoners of Stalin’s gulags mined uranium which was used in the Soviet nuclear weapons program.

Reopening after major renovations, the Ernst Leitz Museum, named after the optics company’s second director, now includes interactive and state-of-the-art permanent displays, as well as an exhibition space devoted to award winners. The history of the camera, and the technology behind it, are showcased throughout the building, with artefacts such as early Leica models scattered throughout the rooms.

Two of Leica’s awards, the Hall of Fame and Leica Oskar Barnack Award, are exhibited within the park’s public spaces. Now in its 41st year, the Leica Oskar Barnack Award – or LOBA – selects a shortlist of nine photographers in the main category and four in the newcomer category. Last week, Venezuelan photographer Ana María Arévalo Gosen’s series Días Eternos was announced as the 2021 winner. Meanwhile, German photographer Emile Ducke’s Kolyma – Along the Road of Bones won him the LOBA newcomer prize.

© Emile Ducke/LOBA 2021

“I refuse to be a photographer who not get involved. This work is my mission, and I’m going to do every thing I can to impact a change”

Ana María Arévalo Gosen

Ducke was raised in Germany but is based in Moscow. His series Kolyma – Along the Road of Bones charts a 2000km strip of road in Kolyma, a far-eastern region of Russia, and one of the coldest inhabited locations in the world. The road was built between 1932 to 1953 by incarcerated Gulag workers during Stalin’s rule, a part of history often deliberately overlooked by the Russian government. “In Kolyma, they say it is winter for 12 months of the year, and the others is summer, ” Ducke says. Equipped with a camera and a car, the young photographer travelled the region through December – the harshest point of winter – creating both drone-made aerial shots and portraits of the locals. “The remains of this time are sifting further and further into the snow, ” he explains. With many of the road’s workers now deceased, their trauma, memory and customs live on through the generations that call the territory home. Generational memory runs through the piece, as Ducke’s heartfelt approach to the tragic history keeps the past from sinking any further out of memory.

© Ana María Arévalo Gosen/LOBA 2021

The winner of LOBA’s main category, Ana María Arévalo Gosen’s series Días Eternos , or Eternal Days , documents the lives of the women surviving in overcrowded prisons and detention centres in Venezuela and other Latin American countries. Through her slow process of developing relationships with the inmates before even bringing the camera with her, Gosen stresses the importance of collaborative and assertive photography. “The [Venezuelan] government doesn’t want you to see these images, ” she says. When Gosen became aware of the severe overcrowding and a lack of medical resources found across the nation’s prisons, Días Eternos became greater than a photo series. She hopes to continue photographing the crisis in other parts of Latin America to raise further understanding of the women forgotten by an unjust system. Gosen happens to be in the process of beginning her very own charity for incarcerated women, and produced Días Eternos in partnership with Venezuelan NGO Una Ventana a la Libertad . “For me, photography alone is not enough, ” she explains. “I refuse to be a photographer who does not get involved. This work is my mission, and I’m going to do every thing I can to impact a big change, ” she adds. Gosen is currently working to provide incarcerated women with better living conditions, a goal close to her heart.

© Ana María Arévalo Gosen/LOBA 2021

Alongside the Oskar Barnack Award, Leica celebrates the 60-year career of American photographer Ralph Gibson, awarding him the 2021 Hall of Fame accolade. A devout Leica-user and a relentless image-maker, the 82-year old’s practice is on display across the headquarters, with one of his more recent works becoming the Leica Image of the Year. Gibson learned photography while in the US Navy, and went on to train underneath the likes of Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank. Later, he moved away from photojournalism to begin his own semi-surreal style, stressing light, shadow, and the contrasts found in between. “There is no conventional moment of truth in my pictures, I want it to be about the experience, the blending of form and content, ” he explains. Gibson’s oeuvre is not typified by a particular theme or concern but a clear aesthetic vision, one that always reflects the person behind the camera. “All my work is self-referential, ” he states. “I am a man without a message, and only as good as my next photograph. ”

© Ralph Gibson, Leica Hall of Fame Award 2021, Wetzlar 2021

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.

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