by Sue Williamson (August, 2007)
Seemingly marked for stardom right from art school days when he was the only student at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town ever to achieve 100% as a final year mark, Mikhael Subotzky was snapped up by Johannesburg's Goodman Gallery at his student show. By that time he had already established what has become his working method: to immerse himself into a situation that interests him, about which he wants to learn more, to spend time and engage at a one-to-one level with the people involved, and then to take photographs.
In that final year at Michaelis, Subotzky spent most of his working time over three months inside the walls of Pollsmoor Prison, a hopelessly overcrowded correctional facility largely controlled by gangs, talking to the prisoners and the warders, teaching classes in photography to the inmates, taking his own images. At that point Subotzky was working digitally, and a key feature of the Pollsmoor work was panoramic images in which he would stitch together a number of shots to give a 360 degree view of the jammed prison wards and spaces. The view given of the prison interiors was unique.
What was notable about the photos was not so much that they were taken within a prison, not in itself groundbreaking, but in the particular qualities Subotzky's images conveyed. The desperate sense of men beaten down and entirely caged within a harsh institutional environment came through, and yet there were moments which showed how the human spirit survives, even under the direst circumstances. The photographs were even more an indictment of the South African prison system than of those condemned to endure it.
The series was entitled Vier Hoeke - gang terminology for any prison space, not just Pollsmoor. Not only does the term refer literally to 'the four corners' of a prison cell, but also, and more importantly, to a space where different rules from the outside apply - gang rule, gang control and gang history and mythology.
The following year, Subotzky spent several more months at Pollsmoor, teaching classes in photography to prisoners, and on Freedom Day in April 2005, a one day exhibition was held for the first time within the walls of the prison, showing some of the Subotzky's work, but mainly the photographs shot by the prisoners in the workshops.
In a second series, Umjiegwana (2005) Subotzky investigated the lives and reintegration - or not - into society of released prisoners.
'The main thing for me in my work is trying to find a way to make sense of the world, so photography becomes a way of attempting to do that. I don't really achieve that understanding, but the fact that I am trying comforts me', says Subotzky.
In June this year, Subotzky learned that he had been nominated to join the world's most famous photo agency, Magnum, founded by the legendary Henri Cartier Bresson and artistic home for many of the world's top practitioners. To belong to this exclusive fellowship means that a photographer's work is showcased in the most prestigious journals and annuals, and the attention of collectors and curators interested in photography is guaranteed.
In the same month, the French city of Perpignan awarded Subotzky their Young Photographer Award, to be handed over at 'Visa Pour L'Image' at Perpignan in September. An exhibition and a handsome cash prize are part of the award.
Most of this year, Subotzky has been furthering his explorations into the marginalised of society, shifting his gaze onto the rather typical small South African town of Beaufort West, situated on the main road halfway between Johannesburg and Cape Town. Atypically, the town jail is situated on a large traffic circle in the middle of town, in plain view, yet hardly noticed as the cars swing by on their way north. Subotzky's new series of work explores this milieu, both inside the jail itself, and all around the town; from a family living on the earnings of the daughter of the house, a prostitute, to the frantic excavations at the town's rubbish dump, as people scrabble for anything of value. By now, Subotzky is working only with medium format film, using only available light. His photos carry a charge, an intensity, that comes only with a genuine involvement with his subject.
At the end of last year, Subotzky was invited to participate in the 2006 Joop Swart Masterclass, organised by the World Press Photo organisation in Amsterdam. It was a time of intense and stimulating discussion for Subotzky.
In August 2007, Subotzky will show his Beaufort West series at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town. Two of the photos will also be shown at Flowers East Gallery in London, on a group show entitled 'says the junk in the yard'.
AND AFTER THAT
The following month, September 2007, Subotzky will be involved in no less than five international exhibitions, including a C Photo Magazine exhibition in New York which includes such participants as Andreas Gursky, Malick Sidibe, Seydou Keita, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, and Hiroshi Sugimoto. A residency at Civitella Ranieri, Italy is scheduled for 2008.
Born September 15, 1981 in Cape Town, South Africa. Based in Cape Town.
2007 'Beaufort West', Goodman Gallery Cape, Cape Town
2006 'Die Vier Hoeke and Umjiegwana', Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
'Die Vier Hoeke', Constitution Hill, Johannesburg
2005 'Die Vier Hoeke' in the Nelson Mandela Cell at Pollsmoor Prison, ape Town
2007 'The Loaded Lens', Goodman Gallery Cape, Cape Town
'Lumo 07 - Us', 7th International Photography Triennale, Jyvaskyl
Art 38 Basel, Goodman Gallery
'Lift off II', Goodman Gallery Cape
'Contemporary Art Photography from South Africa: Reality Check�, NBK, Berlin
'Risk', Exhibition of the 2006 Joop Swart Masterclass, FOAM, Amsterdam
2006 Art Basel, Miami Beach, Goodman Gallery
'The Living is Easy', Flowers East Gallery, London
Art 37 Basel, Goodman Gallery
'New Code', Studio La Citta, Verona
'Snap Judgements: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography'
at the International Center for Photography, New York curated by Okwui Enwezor
'Personae & Scenarios - New African Photography', Brancolini Grimaldi Arte
'Olvida quien soy [Erase me from who I am]', Centro Atlantico de Art Moderno,
VIes Recontres Africaines de la Photographie, Bamako, Mali
2005 'The Pantagruel Syndrome', T1, Turin Triennial curated
by Francesco Bonami and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev
Art 36 Basel, Goodman Gallery
Art Basel, Miami Beach, Goodman Gallery
'Click', Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
'Vyf Kurators, Vyftien Kunstenaars [Five Curators, Fifteen Artists]'
at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees
Winner of the 2007 City of Perpignan Young Photographer Award, Perpignan
Winner of the 2007 KLM Paul Huff Award, Amsterdam
Winner of the F25 Award for Concerned Photography, Fabrica, Italy, 2006
Winner of the Special Jurors' Prize at the VIes Recontres Africaines de la Photographie, Bamako, Mali, 2005
Merit Award winner at the 2005 ABSA L'Atelier Competition
GRANTS AND RESIDENCIES
Recipient of a Civitella Ranieri fellowship, Italy, 2007/2008
One-year residency at Fabrica, Treviso commenced in 2007
Participated in the 2006 Joop Swart Masterclass, World Press Photo, Amsterdam
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Iziko South African National Gallery, Johannesburg Art Gallery