South African photography is hot -- at least, in the United States. This summer, not one but two New York museums have mounted major exhibitions of works by South African photographers. A monumental David Goldblatt exhibition is on view at the Jewish Museum, while a smaller Zwelethu Mthethwa show is at the Studio Museum in Harlem. In August, Darkroom: Photography and New Media in South Africa Since 1950, will open at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond. (The exhibition’s flawed but fascinating catalog, published by the University of Virginia Press, is the book under review here.) All of this activity, has generated a buzz about photography from South Africa, something that hasn’t been heard, in this country, in nearly two decades.
Back then, our interest had as much to do with the photographers' subject -- the struggle against apartheid, South Africa’s notorious system of white supremacy -- as with the photographs that they made. Given the stakes involved in the battle and its resonance with America’s own history of racism and segregation, it’s no surprise that many Americans couldn’t look away. For many of us, South African photos were dispatches from a strangely familiar land.
Darkroom cover. Photo of Miriam Makeba by Jurgen Schadeberg.
Sixteen years after the fall of apartheid and the birth of a new, democratic society, the American fascination with South Africa remains virtually undiminished, but the sense of political urgency is gone. While it’s a less exciting time, it’s also one that creates space to step back and take stock. Darkroom does just that.
According to Tosha Grantham, the exhibition’s curator and editor of the book, Darkroom aims to be "a brief survey of photography, photo-based installations, and video art made in South Africa since 1950." As far as I can tell, this is the first American attempt to take on such a daunting task. South African may be a relatively small country, but it’s nevertheless produced several distinct generations of fine photographers and visual artists, working in a variety of traditions. Deciding who to invite to the party and how to organize and interpret their photographic output presents challenges that Darkroom only partly overcomes.
There’s no complaining, however, about who’s included. The 18 artists and photographers are all well known internationally or ought to be. They represent a cross-section of practitioners -- young and old, black and white, male and female. Goldblatt and Mthethwa both make the cut, as do others who have long since established global reputations -- William Kentridge, Santu Mofokeng, Sue Williamson, Roger Ballen, and Ian Berry. (Williamson, Ballen, and Berry, while foreign-born, have lived and worked extensively in South Africa.)
David Goldblatt: Cup Final, Orlando Stadium, Soweto, Johannesburg. 1972. (Plate 20.) (Click directly on the image to see a larger version.)
Also included are photographers and artists whose work deserves wider recognition outside of South Africa. This group includes those who began their careers in the 1950s and ‘60s, such as Alf Kumalo, Jurgen Schadeberg, a German immigrant, and Sukhdeo Bobson Mohanlall, as well as others who are still in their thirties, for instance, Tracey Rose, Robin Rhode, and Nontsikelelo Veleko.
The book’s weaknesses have to do with exclusion, rather than inclusion -- the photographers and photographic movements that were left out. This isn’t fatal. There are still plenty of interesting things to look at. But it does prevent the book from being the representative survey that it aspires to be. The roots of this problem are both practical and theoretical.
First, over a third of the plates in the book (35 out of 110) are devoted to the work of just two men -- Goldblatt and Schadeberg. This is far too many, even for photographers of their undeniable stature. It gives their output undue weight and occupies space that would have been better used by opening the door to more photographers.
Second, the book misinterprets South African photography’s past and its present, constructing an implicit narrative of movement from documentary photography to fine art photography. The end of apartheid, writes Grantham, has allowed "documentary photography’s collective relevance" to be "overtaken by more individualistic and artistic aims." This storyline privileges art over documentary, a contestable perspective, to say the least. More importantly, it rests on a sharp, but unsustainable dichotomy between documentary practice, on the one hand, and art, on the other. I’ll return to these points later.
Jurgen Schadeberg: The Three Jazzolomos (Jacob "Mzala" Lepers, bass, Ben "Gwigwi" Mrwebi, alto, Sol "Beegeepee" Klaaste, piano), Johannesburg, 1953. (Plate 14.)
Whatever it’s weaknesses, Darkroom is full of photos that are wonderful to see. The deeply saturated full-length color portraits of urban Africans that Sukhdeo Bobson Mohanlall made in the 1960s and ‘70s will be a fascinating discovery, even for people who know something about South African photography. Jump forward 40 years, to Nontsikelelo Veleko’s street portraits of young Johannesburg hipsters (below), and see how both the subjects’ identities and the photographer’s style have become less local and more globalized.
Readers get a tantalizing, but far too brief glimpse of Mofokeng’s Black Photo Album series, in which he has rephotographed and reimagined nineteenth- and early twentieth-century studio portraits of the black middle class. They’ll also want to see more of Sue Williamson’s recent Better Lives project -- portraits of African immigrants to South Africa. It’s a sensitive and angry response to violent outbreaks of xenophobia within South Africa.
Goldblatt is the star of the show. The power and beauty of the images that he has created over a long career have made him the best known and most influential of all South African photographers. His images manage to be simultaneously subtle and direct, earnest and ironic. "Cup Final, Orlando Stadium, Soweto, Johannesburg. 1972." is an example (above). This wonderfully complex photograph was made at a time when apartheid seemed to be unshakable. The photo contains the expected -- a uniformed cop and a threatening German shepherd -- and the unexpected -- a beauty queen, an American luxury car, and, behind a chain link fence, a cheering crowd. It’s a photo about apartheid, all right, but its message isn’t obvious.
Nontsikelelo Veleko: Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder: Kepe I, 2003/2006. (Plate 103.)
Curiously, given the amount of space devoted to Goldblatt’s work, Darkroom doesn’t do him justice. It ignores two of his most important projects, Some Afrikaners Photographed and Boksburg, both of which were published as books. In them, his subjects are white South Africans, mostly Afrikaners, and their relationship to the country’s black majority. The photos are critical, compassionate, and often extraordinarily beautiful. Their absence is stunning.
The book also fails a much later series, in which Goldblatt photographed some of the many hand-lettered artisans’ signs that appear on urban roadsides. He then tracked down the artisans and made portraits of them in their working environments. It’s a brilliantly realized idea, connecting faces to the otherwise anonymous ads and exploring a vital niche in the post-apartheid economy. Darkroom includes a photo of one of signs, but not, inexplicably, the portrait of the man behind it. (His name is Corrie Jacobs. He and his sign appear in the book Rhizomes of Memory.)
This is an odd argument to make -- that there are too many Goldblatt photos, but too few of the right ones -- but so be it. Anyone interested in a tighter, yet more representative edit of his long and varied career should look at the chapter devoted to him in Paul Weinberg’s Then & Now: Eight South African Photographers (the link takes you to a slideshow of images from the book). In it, he was his own curator.
Schadeberg, Goldblatt’s contemporary (they began shooting professionally in the ‘50s and are still going strong), has 11 photos in the book, all but one from his early days as the photo editor at the now legendary Drum magazine. After a false start, Drum found its groove in the early ‘50s, catering to the tastes of urban and urbanizing Africans, covering politics, sports, and entertainment. Schadeberg and the photographers that he trained, including Kumalo, captured the energy and created the iconography of the era’s self-consciously cosmopolitan New Africans, from dapper political activists, such as the young Nelson Mandela, to jazz musicians in smoke-filled shebeens (above).
An interview with Zwelethu Mthethwa.
The photographs of Goldblatt, Schadeberg, and Kumalo call in to question the sharp dichotomy that the book draws between documentary and art. All have a documentary component, and some were first published and exhibited that way. After the fact, however, hanging on gallery walls or surrounded by thick white borders in elegant books, they’ve become art. The same photos, in different contexts, acquire new meanings.
Darkroom doesn’t see things this way. It relegates the older photographers (Goldblatt excepted) to a documentary past, in which even the best photos simply illustrated an unjust world. In contrast, the photos of younger generations of artists are seen to allow "complexity and contradictions to coexist," as Tumelo Mosaka writes in one of the accompanying essays. Yet complexity and contradiction were deeply embedded in many of the photographs that Schadeberg and Kumalo’s generation produced. The same can be said of most of the other photographs in the book. Mofokeng’s photographs of church ceremonies, Andrew Tshabangu’s street scenes, Mthethwa’s environmental portraits of workers and shanty dwellers, and Veleko’s urban hipsters -- all simultaneously describe and interpret. They don’t choose sides because they don’t have to; they are both documentary and art.
Darkroom’s condescending view of documentary work allows the book to exclude a number of significant photographers who worked in that mode and shaped the South African photographic tradition -- Bob Gosani, Ernest Cole, and Eli Weinberg. Well known documentary photographers who are still working, such as George Hallett and Jodi Bieber, are also missing. (Grantham hoped to include the work of Peter Magubane, a photojournalist who was probably South Africa’s best known photographer, in the 1970s, but his photos were not available.) Equally damaging is the absence of struggle photographers, who produced some of the most important work of the 1980s and ‘90s.
"Struggle photography" is something of a misnomer. Photographers associated with the movement produced a wide variety of work; it wasn’t the Bang Bang Club. For over a decade, struggle photography virtually defined documentary photography and photojournalism for many in South Africa and overseas. In the United States, their explicitly anti-apartheid and often elegantly crafted photographs were widely seen in newspapers and magazines, as well as in commercially successful books published by Norton and Aperture -- The Cordoned Heart (which included a documentary project by Goldblatt) and Beyond the Barricades. Many thousands of people also saw them in inexpensive, highly portable exhibitions that toured countless college campuses, church halls, and museums all over the country, generating support for the American anti-apartheid movement.
Who were the struggle photographers? Mofokeng was one, although the book is silent about that phase of his career. Graeme Williams, who is also in Darkroom, was another, a fact that you again won’t learn from the book. Those left out completely constitute a roster of important photographers who continue to influence photography in South Africa and beyond -- Omar Bashada, Paul Weinberg, Guy Tillim, Lesley Lawson, Gideon Mendel, and Chris Ledochowski to name a few of the most prominent.
In these conservative times, the struggle photographers’ highly politicized stance is embarrassing to some, and they find it easy to dismiss the entire movement. But there is no necessary contradiction between political commitment and good, even great photography. In fact, political engagement released an extraordinary creative energy. The evidence is in the photos that the struggle photographers produced -- alternately angry and lyrical, contemplative and direct. As Darren Newbury argues in his superb new book, Defiant Images: Photography and Apartheid South Africa, the struggle photographers were far from naive. Their photos constituted "a powerful indictment of apartheid. But it was not one that sacrificed complexity to broaden its appeal." Their impact on photography -- by no means just documentary photography -- was and is immense. No survey that aspires to be representative, let alone complete, can ignore this movement and the men and women who created it.
Should Darkroom have found space for all of the photographers that I’ve counted among the missing? Ideally, yes. In our less-than-perfect world, including everybody that I’ve mentioned was probably out of the question. But to include none of them and to ignore struggle photography altogether means that the book’s vision of South African photography is partial and distorted.
Although Darkroom fails as a survey of South African photography, it does present work that is almost always brilliant, challenging, and unknown to most Americans. In that sense, you can call it a success.
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Note: Another version of this review will appear in the International Journal of African Historical Studies.