Uncomfortably Familiar

David Goldblatt, Saturday afternoon in Sunward Park, 1979; gelatin silver print; 6 7/8 x 6 7/8 in. (17.5 x 17.5 cm); Collection SFMOMA, purchase through a gift of Mark McCain and the Accessions Committee Fund; © David Goldblatt

We were insiders, all three of us: Ernest Cole, Billy Monk, and me. We each photographed from the inside what we most intimately knew.

—David Goldblatt

SFMOMA’s exhibition, South Africa in Apartheid and After, is an interesting way of addressing life under apartheid. It’s not what I’d call overtly political photography but instead presents what different insiders* in different spheres of society saw and allows us to make the connections ourselves. This is kind of the same approach which SFMOMA tried to do with it’s Photography in Mexico show. While it didn’t work for me in that show, it works really well in this one.

*Obligatory link to my post on Insiders and Outsiders for a little more background on how I approach this concept.

The show is centered around David Goldblatt in that it includes both his work and his recommendation to also show work by Ernest Cole and Billy Monk. While Goldblatt is world-renowned, he understands the limitations of his viewpoint and how it needs to be seen with other viewpoints in order to put together a larger, more important, story. Goldblatt’s In Boksburg, Cole, and Monk all cover the “in apartheid” portion of the show while two other Goldblatt projects—Ex-Offenders and Intersections—cover the “and after” portion.

Ernest Cole, Africans throng Johannesburg station platform during late afternoon rush., 1960–1966; gelatin silver print; 8 11/16 x 12 5/8 in. (22 x 32 cm); Courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation, Gothenburg, Sweden; © The Ernest Cole Family Trust

In Boksburg and Cole in particular work extremely well together in showing daily life and the realities of living in white or black communities under Apartheid. There are some images where the racism is palpable and others which are just photos of people living and enjoying their lives. This is especially nice to see with Cole’s photos since, all too often, it seems like the narrative for this kind of pairing is white obliviousness versus black unrest with some whites in uniforms and blacks being arrested by uniforms thrown into both groups.

It is worth noting the mix of photos in the media kit* suggest this narrative much more strongly than the show does. While I don’t doubt that the narrative of struggle existed—it’s certainly the easiest one to grasp—it’s not what truly interests me.

*I attended a media preview. Tweets in this review are from that preview.

People lived under apartheid for decades to the point where it must have been just a fact of life. I like seeing images of the normalcy—kids playing, families just being, couples dancing, people going to work, etc. It’s this approach which distinguished much of Gordon Parks’s civil rights work in the US. But we need the sense of what’s normal for multiple segments of society in order to truly compare them.

If we look at In Boksburg, we see normal white suburban life. If we look at Cole’s work we see normal urban black life. Then we put them together and begin seeing how they describe the same country. There are blacks in Goldblatt’s work and whites in Cole’s but in both cases, they don’t belong in those worlds.

Now, I have only a cursory understanding of the politics of South Africa and I’m pretty ignorant about its photographic history. What I do know has been gleaned from John Edwin Mason—in particular his post on the ICP show on the Rise and Fall of Apartheid. So I tend to fall back on seeing these images with an American point of view and thinking about how they are applicable to my experience. And a lot of these look eerily similar to images I’ve seen of America’s past.

Ernest Cole, Every African must show his pass before being allowed to go about his business. Sometimes check broadens into search of a man's person and belongings., 1960–1966; © The Ernest Cole Family Trust

Black cities where few whites go. White suburbs with blacks doing the menial labor in the background. As a Californian, it’s also very easy for me to substitute latinos for blacks. Many of Cole’s images discuss how blacks had to carry and show their passes to prove that they were allowed to be where they were. Many of Goldblatt’s images show that much of the menial labor in the suburbs was done by blacks. How far have we really come in the US?

Much of Cole’s work is conventionally powerful. The power of In Boksburg is that it is self-aware of the fact that it’s presenting life inside the echo chamber. And that it does so without mocking or dismissing who it depicts. Viewing it less than a month after Election Day is an uncomfortable reminder of how easy it is to go through life with blinders on and how simple it is to look back at the past and think that things used to be better.

Billy Monk’s work adds another insider perspective and fleshes out the normalcy of everyday life. It’s sort of easy to say that it doesn’t mesh as well with Cole and Goldblatt, but we have to remember that Goldblatt himself suggested that Monk be shown.

Billy Monk, The Catacombs, 5 February 1968, © Estate of Billy Monk

Monk’s work is photography in possibly its most-pure form: fun photos of people having fun so they can remember and show others how much fun they had. Just with this view they’re fantastic to see. But in counterpoint to Cole and Goldblatt, it serves to humanize the society and adds to Goldblatt’s view of the echo chamber as being human.

Monk is also photographing a culture which is not as strictly prohibitive as the cultures Goldblatt and Cole photographed. While I didn’t see any black faces in the images, I did see a lot of people who didn’t look pure white. There’s no pressure to conform in these photos and they serve to remind us how much conformity the daily life must have had. Both Goldblatt and Cole show us societies of rules. Monk shows those rules being bent.

David Goldblatt, Ugqirha Wisintu (traditional healer) Dr. Paul. Hofmeyr. Eastern Cape. 4 August 2006, © David Goldblatt

The “and after” section is similarly subtle. Ex-Offenders contains numerous layers of implied meaning, all of which have to do with recovering from past guilt and trying to go straight in the future. At it’s most basic level, it’s a fascinating series of images and stories. I’m still shaken by the frankness of Ellen Pakkies’s portrait and the description of how she strangled her own son.

But as a group, the series also talks about the South Africa’s past and how complicated it is to deal with the multiple ways it wronged people. All the portraits detail lives which were already damaged before the crimes were committed. This damage goes a long way toward explaining how there is only one white ex-offender pictured. To go straight it’s necessary to understand how the crime and the past which lead to the crime are related. This is also South Africa’s task in how to deal with apartheid.

It’s applicable to most any culture too.

Intersections meanwhile shows how much is left to accomplish. It’s hard to believe that we’re looking at the same country as many of the other photos on display. And there’s definitely a sense that we’re not around any white neighborhoods. It’s not that apartheid still exists in rural areas, just perhaps that rural areas have kind of been marooned by progress.

When I look at them, I’m reminded of Indian reservations and some of the photographs from Mexico. I think that comparison is apt too. From a US point of view, those are both populations which we’ve used and abused and sort of marooned in a world which has one foot in the past and one in the present.

As the world becomes smaller, it’s going to be more and more important for all of us to recognize and take some responsibility for who’s been left behind.

So yeah. Lots to think about in this show. It’s about South Africa. It’s extremely relevant to the US today. Our racial legacy is not so good. Earlier this month we reached a tipping point of sorts in the power dynamic. We’re going to have to figure out how to deal with our past, and our fond memories of it, very soon ourselves as we move toward the future.

Notes on technique

I don’t typically write about technique when reviewing photo exhibitions. I tend to approach art from a “how does it make me feel” and “what does it make me think” point of view rather than getting involved in the nitty gritty of how it was made. But in this case I couldn’t help but make distinct observations about how Goldblatt, Cole, and Monk are all useful examples of how to break rules which most photographers cite.

David Goldblatt, Eyesight testing at the Vosloorus Eye Clinic of the Boksburg Lions Club, 1980; © David Goldblatt

Goldblatt has all kinds of things peeking in from his edges. Not in a distracting way (I bet most people don’t even notice), it’s just how the photographs are. I was fascinated to discover that after mentally cropped all the stuff out, I felt like the compositions all suffered as a result.

Cole directly contradicts the oft-quoted Robert Capa truism “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Cole’s work is typically seen heavily cropped for even more “impact.” In this show, it’s all shown full-frame. They lose none of their impact and the subject matter gains from having room to breath. His photo of the medical examination in the mines is much better with the banal details of papers on the floor and the washbasin in the corner. His point is that all these things are normal and boring. And that the banality is the most insidious component of it all.

Billy Monk, The Catacombs, 1968, © Estate of Billy Monk

Monk meanwhile should be required viewing for anyone who feels inclined to go down the Strobist rabbit hole of dismissing on-camera direct flash. Or anyone who dismisses Instagram or any other Facebook-worthy photos as being not important or worthwhile.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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