'After Apartheid: 10 South African Documentary Photographers' at the Sasol Museum
by Dave Southwood
Southwood is one of the 10 photographers whose work is included on this exhibition
South African photographers are not famous for their musings on the documentary method. In fact, critical discourse on the genre by its practitioners amounts to little more than a reluctant whisper. Apartheid action, and the very immediate exigencies of its reporting, meant that what was in front of the lens generally averted attention from the photographers themselves. After apartheid, a protracted stasis in the mode of South African documentary photography followed. But in this exhibition, curator Michael Godby has selected work to show that shifts in concept, technique and subject matter have taken place and are becoming evident.
Entering a room full of black and white 35mm photographs in this country usually signals catharsis, as this medium is traditionally the bearer of bad news. However, even when the works on 'After Apartheid' pertain to difficult themes, their narratives are often couched in novel and altogether less declamatory ways: time and subject have become covert operators in the frame.
Until recently, South African documentary photography had its form dictated by modernist principles: latterly from "street photography", as practised mainly in America, and formerly from colonialist tropes of "scientific" photography. Sharpness was privileged over gesture, contrast over gradation, and the binaries implied by this structuralist dialectic resulted in a way of seeing that left little to the imagination and a large gap between us and them. There is an abbreviated series by Andrew Tshabangu on this show which I believe best exemplifies a subversion of these rules. It is brilliant.
Tshabangu's series of four photographs depicts women preparing food over braziers in central Johannesburg. The scenes are smoky and it is difficult to measure how far away the photographer is standing. Fore, middle and background are conflated in the haze and the pictures look similar enough to have been taken together. Time - within the frame and the series - is muddled, allowing a synchronous reading. The usual strict formal codes defining space and time are absent. Tshabangu observes a distance from these women and their environment which precludes pathos, a prescriptive unfolding of time, and places him - and us also - in a measured, comfortable place.
In sharp contrast to this is a series by Gideon Mendel charting the demise of a young black man who finally dies of Aids. Tonally the prints have a fuller range than Tshabangu's, and are so beautiful I could eat one if they were not covered in glass and editioned. They are classic in the sense that the story unfolds very clearly within each frame and within the series. The staggered arrangement of the elements in each work implicates the viewer in the scene; the formal structuring results in the vectors and perspectives being extrapolated out of the frame to encompass the viewer and position him or her in space. For example, in the funerary photograph, one's relation to the portrait, the casket and the group of choristers is so strong that the spectator feels physically involved, as if to stroke the boy's cheek would be easy. I find Tshabangu's distance and resisting of pathos far more interesting, and it is a technique I try and employ in my medium and large-format colour photographs, also included on the show, to allow for some speculation on the part of the viewer.
Since the 1950s and the beginning of the documentary tradition, the tail end of which the show investigates, another shift in emphasis has occurred. Initially dubbed "victim" photography because it focused on people in the process of having something happen to them, the genre changed in the last decade to depicting its subjects as proactive, and is now, by omission, often more about the photographer. Not only is the subject matter less spectacular, and photographed in a less dramatic way, but sometimes it seems the photographer has avoided the crux of the issue altogether.
In Guy Tillim's photographs of Cuito, the war-ravaged Angolan town, the war itself never really appears. In its place there is an unnerving urgency in the way pedestrians move, and the pressure that the omitted subject brings to bear is acute. Godby mentions a conversation with Tillim in which the photographer expressed the need to photograph with a larger-format camera in order to properly portray the "fabric" of war, rather than the hackneyed depictions of conflict which are so common. Tillim's treatment of volume, in a shot dominated by a bombed cross-section of tenement house on the left, with three tiny humans to the right of the frame, is very clever and telling in its construction.
Apart from my work, Zwelethu Mthetwa's photographs are the only ones in colour, and this is perhaps the one weakness of the show. While current shifts in pictorial quality and theme are evident, a large room filled with mainly 35mm black and white photographs at eye level still conveys the weight and art-historical gravitas that we are used to. There are other new currents, although slim, that are employing colour, flash and more complicated narrative techniques to explore the extent of what can be termed "documentary".
What might have been lost, however, if an entirely new genre of photography had been shown, would be the indexical link between what came before and what is being seen now. The fluidity, equivocation and lack of commitment to a viewpoint that often pervade contemporary photography can be pretty boring. Why this show works as a comparative study is because some of the basic tenets of previous ways of seeing are still apparent and serve as benchmarks.
In all, I believe 'After Apartheid' is highly successful. For too long, South African documentary photography has been dominated by strong, overly prescriptive codes. It is clear that it is turning in on itself, and this exhibition offers a fine start to that critique.