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18 December 2010


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Two things are particularly striking about this astonishing collection of photographs by Elisofon:

1. There's no question in my mind that by choosing to shoot from the air and by presenting a blasted landscape devoid of humans he intended to portray the destruction of Sophiatown as an act of war on par with the destruction of European cities as depicted in war photography from WW2. The orderly grid patterns, the ruined masonry, the church bell tower still intact in the midst of the destruction - it's all there and so familiar to the American/western reader. Seen this way, Sophiatown was not going to be perceived as some distant exotic slum in a little known part of the world, but as recognisable and as immediate as Dresden or Hamburg or Coventry.

2. For so long most of the photography of the destruction of Sophiatown has focussed on the victimization of the inhabitants and in presenting images of their displaced belongings, their defeat, and of the the dismantled and disordely streetscape at close range, these photographs have, perhaps inadvertently, reinforced the impression of Sophiatown as a slum. By stepping back, shooting from a distance, emphasizing the grid pattern of the blocks and streets, and in color, Elisofon gives us the impression of an orderly settlement brutally disembowelled.

As for Larabbee, she has always struck me as an exemplar of the tension between ideology/belief and art, and in her case art invariably wins out. It's as if she can't help being an artist no matter what her ideological intentions are. Hard as she might try to produce "native studies," time and time again she produces some of the most un-condescending and beautiful photographs of black South Africans such as this marvellous shot of Huddleston and the children.


I'm not sure precisely why Elisofon hired a airplane and pilot. I agree, however, that once he was in the air, he saw things that reminded him of the destruction that bombers had visited on Europe and Asia during World War Two. He had seen a considerable amount of action as a war photographer.

I'll also agree that many of Larrabee's "native studies" are, as you say, un-condescending and beautiful. But the studies that she chose to publish and exhibit nevertheless render Africans as rooted in local, rural, tribal identities. Her personal work -- as opposed to paid assignments -- rarely depicted urban Africans. I discuss this here: http://johnedwinmason.typepad.com/john_edwin_mason_photogra/2010/08/constance-stuart-larrabee-ndebele.html

ekapa's interpretation of the photos is very much to the point, and to go further, brings into sharp focus controversial comparisons between German Nazism and white nationalism in South Africa. Tribalistic regimes less sophisticated than the nascent cosmopolitanisms they sought to disperse. It seems extraordinary in retrospect that either regime thought that what was occurring in Weimar Berlin or post-war Johannesburg could be not only erased, but reversed. Viva Sophiatown, viva.


I just finished reading your excellent(typically so) post on Larrabee and found it quite illuminating. I absolutely agree with you that her intent was to render black Africans in a condescendingly romantic fashion as people who existed in some static pre-modern milieu completely untouched by the march of time and the changing world around them. What I've always found interesting about her work is that despite her intentions, her ideology, and the careful editing and curating intended to eliminate any signs of modernity, the subjects of her photographs seem to always defy and subvert her intention. The gaze, body language, and most importantly, her skill in photographing dark skin correctly, make it such that despite the contrived "authentic" settings, the deliberately pre-modern attire, and the careful elision of western artifacts, the people in the pictures are unquestionably modern, fully engaged in the rapidly changing world that they live in. My point is that, yes, Larrabee set out to produce "native studies", but despite her intentions, the product was something other than what she intended.

Thank you. Your point about comparisons between Nazism and white nationalism is certainly food for thought.

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