During my dissolute youth, I spent about five years cooking in restaurants. In one of them -- maybe the best of the bunch -- we had three rules: there's never too much butter, there's never too much garlic, and there's never too much chocolate. I stand by them to this day.
I feel the same way about photographs. The more, the merrier. If you're feeling overwhelmed, walk away and do something else for a while.
The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, the sprawling exhibition of South African photography that has just opened at the International Center of Photography [ICP], pushes my taste for abundance almost to the breaking point. It’s a massive show. Occupying both floors of the ICP’s exhibition space and displaying over 500 works (mostly photos, but including other media) by nearly 70 artists, it comes dangerously close to being too much.
I was at the ICP for the opening and went back the next day. Despite having spent a total of four or five hours looking at the show, I don’t think that I can do it justice. There comes a point at which you simply can’t look, think, and feel any longer. The photography on display is consistently superb, but, as with good bourbon, too much is simply too much. So this is not a review. Think of it as a series of notes to myself.
Note 1. Don’t get me wrong. The mere fact that this exhibition exists is a cause for celebration. For at least five decades, South Africa has been producing more than its share of prolific and creative photographers. This has been no secret to the rest of the world. Figures like David Goldblatt and Santu Mofokeng are art world stars with many solo shows to their credit. They and others have been included in high profile group exhibitions in Europe, the US, Asia, and Africa.
It’s fair to say that Rise and Fall trumps them all in terms of its scale and its comprehensive coverage of South African photojournalists, documentary photographers, and those working in what Walker Evans called "the documentary style."
Gille de Vlieg: Coffins at the mass funeral held in KwaThema, Gauteng, July 23, 1985.
Note 2. The curators, Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester, are very much taken with “the aesthetic power of the documentary form,” as the ICP’s press release puts it. There’s no question that much of the work on display happily erases the absurd and empty dichotomy that’s sometimes drawn between documentary photography and fine art photography.
But the show, as its title suggests, is interested in much more than aesthetics. Rise and Fall is profoundly political. The curators are explicit about this. The show is about the ways in which photography -- “from the photo essay to reportage, social documentary to photojournalism and art” -- recorded, analyzed, articulated, and confronted the structures and culture of apartheid, South Africa's notorious system of white supremacy.
There’s no question that photos in the tradition that Enwezor and Bester trace played a significant role in bringing apartheid to an end. At the same time, their "aesthetic power" is equally undeniable.
Note 3. The curators are a couple of hard working dudes. Nobody can reasonably complain about the photographers that they decided to include. Within the parameters of the post-1948 documentary tradition, they’ve covered most of the bases, with few, if any, significant omissions. There are also some surprising inclusions. Here I’m thinking here of photographers like Rashid Lombard and Chris Ledochowski, who are often overlooked outside of South Africa. (I was disappointed to see, however, that neither is represented by his best or most representative work.)
Eli Weinberg: Nelson Mandela portrait wearing traditional beads and a bed spread. Hiding out from the police during his period as the "black pimpernel," 1961.
Note 4. Abundance isn’t free. All this inclusiveness comes at a price. In part its paid by serious viewers, who will have to return to the show more than once if they hope to take it all in. In part it’s paid by the photographers themselves, each of whom will be overlooked by one viewer or another as they run out of time and energy. And, in part, its paid by those things that have had to be left out.
The most important (near) omission is context. The historical and photographic contexts for understanding this work are provided by blocks of text on the gallery's walls -- a few large, mostly small, none particularly instructive.
Viewers who know little South African history -- the vast majority of them since this is New York, not Johannesburg -- will emerge from the exhibition wondering precisely what these particular images had to do with apartheid’s rise and with its fall. Sure, the images depict violence, suffering, hope, resistance, and dignified endurance. But what these events were all about and the role that the photos played in promoting change are left largely unexplained.
Note 5. Enwezor and Bester make an argument that leaves me scratching my head. They contend that “South African photography, as we know it today, was essentially invented in 1948,” when the National Party, the party of apartheid, came to power. The brutal realities of apartheid, they say, “changed the pictorial perception of the country from a purely colonial space based on racial segregation to a highly contested space based on the ideals of equality, democracy, and civil rights.”
There are several problems here. First, the photography in Rise and Fall is indeed hugely important, and the struggle against apartheid gave these photographers one of their most compelling subjects. But it’s not all the South African photography that “we” know about. Other types of photography are and have been widely disseminated and sometimes played just as critical a role in South African history.
“We” know, for instance, about photos of wild animals, game reserves, and exotic “native types.” We know about the ways in which the apartheid state used photography for propaganda and repression. We know about the powerful photography that Constance Stuart-Larrabee produced during World War 2 as well as her modernist fine art images of African women and children from the 1940s and 1950s. We know about photography like Shack Chic. Anyone who’s visited South Africa has also seen plenty of mundane commercial and vernacular photography, from advertising to family snapshots.
Second, the documentary tradition wasn’t invented at any single time or place. It emerged slowly, over many years. With that slow emergence came the perception that photographers as diverse as, say, Bob Gosani, Eli Weinberg, Zwelethu Mthethwa, and Guy Tillim can be seen as part of a coherent, specifically South African tradition. I can’t trace this idea back any further than the late 1980s. (If you can, please let me know.)
Third, to say that South African photography existed in a "purely colonial space" prior to 1948 is absurd, as, for instance, Santu Mofokeng's Black Photo Album makes perfectly clear.
Graeme Williams: Mandela released. South Africa, Cape, Paarl, 1990.
Note 6. Despite its claims, Rise and Fall isn’t a comprehensive look at black life during the apartheid era. Instead its focus is on the horrors of apartheid and on the struggle against them. In this way, the exhibition is a summation rather than an exercise in clearing new ground. It reinforces what we know rather than opening new vistas. There's nothing wrong with that. Sometimes we need to add things up and look them over before we can move on.
It's important to recognize, however, that black South Africans refused to define themselves solely in terms of oppression, exploitation, and resistance. Virtually all of the photographers included in this show understood this very well. Their images of family and community, music and sports, and spirituality and more earthy pursuits are largely missing from Rise and Fall, yet they could populate an entire parallel exhibition.
In the same way, vernacular photography, especially portraits, can tell us much about the ways in which black South Africans shaped and reshaped their sense of themselves.
Someday soon, some clever person is going to mount an exhibition that is truly concerned with everyday experiences under apartheid. It will be a major departure and a real contribution to our understanding of South African history.
Cedric Nunn: From the series "Blood Relatives."
Note 7. The exhibition as a whole can be read as an essay on photography as a democratic medium. It’s not new, of course, to suggest that photography is democratic -- and in at least two senses.
First, George Eastman’s popularization of roll film and the Kodak Brownie camera, in the late nineteenth century, gave everyone with a few dollars the means of visual expression and self-representation. They seized on it by the millions. No longer did people need the talent and training to paint, sketch, or sculpt. And photography itself was no longer confined to professionals and wealthy amateurs with the money and leisure to learn a difficult craft. For the first time, ordinary people -- people without skill, talent, or training; people who couldn’t afford to visit a professional photographer -- could record the most important as well as the most mundane events in their lives.
Second, photography can be a tool of democratization, that is, of social reform. Some photographers who started with Brownies and other simple cameras went on to contribute to the sort of political movements with which Rise and Fall is concerned. Most people were content to record the lives of their families and friends. Yet even snapshots were precious to those who made them and saw them. When they survive, they're invaluable documents for historians.
Many of the photographers included in Rise and Fall began as poor kids with a cheap camera and a dream. They became skilled professionals whose images chipped away at the foundations of apartheid.
No one would argue, however, that photography is always democratic. When I was in New York for the opening of Rise and Fall, I visited a gallery on 5th Avenue and saw some of the finest new photography that I’ve seen in a long time -- challenging, poetic, and deeply moving self-portraits. I’d like to hang one or two on my wall. But the (figurative) price tags of $30,000 to $185,000 suggest that it's art for the 1%, not for me. (Interestingly, the photographer in question is largely self-taught.)
As I mentioned a few paragraphs back, photography has also been a tool of repression. Another parallel show to Rise and Fall would document the use of photography by the South African government. Apartheid is an extreme case, but photography that seeks to manipulate our desires and encourage us to spend is everywhere to be seen.
None of this obviates one of the most important lessons that Rise and Fall can teach us. In South Africa during the apartheid era, photography was often often a radically democratic medium at the same time that it was a vital part of the ultimately successful struggle for democracy.
This kind of story isn’t unique to South Africa, of course. I could tell a similar tale about African-Americans and photography. Others will add their own examples.
Unidentified photographer: [Part of the crowd near the drill hall on the opening day of the Treason Trial, December 19, 1956.] Times Media Collection, Museum Africa, Johannesburg.
Note 8. I suspect that the catalogue will be better than the show in at least two ways. First, a book is the answer to the problem of abundance. (I was told that it will be available in November.) Gallery-goers tend to want to take everything in at once. In this show, it's simply impossible to do. Yet few gallery-goers are willing or able (given distance and expense) to come back a second or third time.
With a book, there's hardly ever too much. When you've reached your saturation point, you put the book down and do something else. When you come back, an hour or a week later, the book is there waiting for you.
Second, the book will almost certainly solve the context problem. The curators and, perhaps, others will contextualize the photos and explain to the uninitiated precisely what the images have to do with the rise and fall of apartheid. I wish that I could have bought a copy at the opening.
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The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life is on view from 14 September 2012 to 6 January 2013, at the International Center of Photography, 1133 6th Avenue, New York City.