Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, Ponte City, 2008-14
Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, Ponte City, 2008-14

Is it a golden age for South African photography? Perhaps, although it really depends on how much weight one attaches to foreign awards and praise, 
which have generously been directed in the way of a handful of South Africans. In May, Johannesburg photographer Mikhael  Subotzky, together with his English designer pal Patrick Waterhouse, won the 2015 Deutsche Börse 
Photography Prize for their collaborative book project Ponte City, about the chimney-shaped residential block in central Johannesburg.

Photographers are continually made aware of power
dynamics

The pair triumphed over three other shortlisted photographers, including 
Viviane Sassen, a Dutch photographer whose fashion and art projects extensively use African settings and subjects; and gender activist Zanele Muholi who in 2013 received a Prince Claus Award for achievements in the field of culture and development. Muholi is exhibiting at the Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Her solo exhibition, Isibonelo/Evidence, includes a grid of 60 black-and-white portraits of black lesbians from Muholi’s on-going Faces and Phases series – started in 2006 and exhibited to great acclaim at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany, in 2012. The New York Times heaped praise on her uniformly sized
portraits, likening them to German painter Gerhard Richter’s 48 portraits of men of letters that he painted for the German pavilion at the 1972 Venice Biennale.
Two years ago, Muholi’s portrait series appeared in the South African Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale.

Brent Stirton’s Prix Pictet nominated Congo essay: rangers evacuate the bodies of four mountain gorillas killed in Virunga National Park. July 2007, Bukima, Democratic Republic of Congo. Courtesy Brent Stirton/Prix Pictet Ltd 2015
Brent Stirton’s Prix Pictet nominated Congo essay: rangers evacuate the bodies of four mountain gorillas killed in Virunga National Park. July 2007, Bukima, Democratic Republic of Congo. Courtesy Brent Stirton/Prix Pictet Ltd 2015

This year, Subotzky, whose Ponte photos have just been acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, is showing a new video work on artistic director Okwui Enwezor’s main exhibition at the Venice Biennale, which closes in November. But the achievements of two photographers don’t 
constitute a golden age – so let me cast the spotlight a little wider.  In July, three other South African photographers – Cape Town-based Pieter Hugo, London-based Gideon Mendel and New York-based Brent Stirton were short-listed for the Prix Pictet, a global photo competition offering a R1.3m first prize.

Twelve photographers have been shortlisted, from SA, France, Israel and the US. Stirton, a multiple World Press Photo award winner, has been shortlisted for his series on the battle to safeguard Virunga National Park in the Democratic
Republic of Congo. Mendel, who is an uncle of Subotzky, was selected for his long-term project documenting global warming and flooding. Hugo was nominated for his 2009 essay Permanent Error, which focuses on an electronic waste dump in Ghana.

Gideon Mendel, Christa and Salomon Raymond Fils, September 2008, Decade Village, Haiti Courtesy Prix Pictet Ltd 2015
Gideon Mendel, Christa and Salomon Raymond Fils, September 2008, Decade Village, Haiti Courtesy Prix Pictet Ltd 2015

Like much of Hugo’s earlier portraiture, Permanent Error, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, encapsulates his interest in photographing marginalised figures and peripheral realities with pin-sharp accuracy and craftsman-like finesse. While some photographers, privately at least, bemoan the international success of Hugo, Muholi and Subotzky, their achievements tend to suggest the operability of John F Kennedy’s famous 1963 remark that “a rising tide lifts all the boats”.

Oliver Kruger, a former assistant to Hugo, has just had his first book, Golden Youth, published by Italian photobook imprint L’Artiere Editions. The Deutsche Bank Collection recently bought a selection of photographs from Thabiso Sekgala, who was mentored by Subotzky. They include excerpts from his breakout Homeland essay: colour portraits of young men and women living in KwaNdebele and Bophuthatswana.

Zanele Muholi, self-portrait, Vredehoek, Cape Town, 2011
Zanele Muholi, self-portrait, Vredehoek, Cape Town, 2011

John Peffer, a US art historian on a research fellowship at Wits, cautions against too broadly interpreting these achievements as evidence of a wider interest in South African photography. Pointing to the uplift younger photographers like Kruger and Sekgala (who committed suicide in 2014) received through their past associations, he says that there is in fact only a “small subset” of individuals reaping the benefits of international exposure. And most tend to work in a defined mode. 

“There is still much homage to the social documentary tradition here, even though it is more the look of documentary than the substance. That kind of old-fashioned photography still appeals to a mass audience.” SA is also well known abroad for its visual journalism exposing inequity and brutality, he adds. “So to some extent the rest of the world is receptive to realist images emanating from SA via photography. Much of the current interest is a continuation of this.”

Pieter Hugo, Aissah Salifu, Agbogbloshie Market, 2010, Accra, Ghana
Pieter Hugo, Aissah Salifu, Agbogbloshie Market, 2010, Accra, Ghana

Peffer concedes that his argumentative attitude belies his sense that there is “something special here, which is why I keep coming back to this swirling pot of greed, ambition, corruption, talent, beauty and heart”. “Our stuff is oddball, exotic, looks exciting and has that element of ‘holy shit’,” says designer Garth Walker, who collected Hugo and Muholi early into their careers. Walker is the publisher of the irregular little magazine ijusi, which has released two photographic portfolios showcasing work by Hugo, Subotzky and Roger Ballen. 

The portfolio found few private buyers, he says, but has been snapped up by international museums. Issues of journalism and oddity are not the only reason South African photography is such hot property abroad, says Kirsty Cockerill, director of the New Church Museum in Cape Town. There is also the freighted history of photography and its discredited uses in cataloguing and classifying people.

Pieter Hugo, self- portrait for NRC Deluxe, 2015
Pieter Hugo, self- portrait for NRC Deluxe, 2015

“South African photographers, both black and white, are continually made aware of the  power dynamics when photographing the other. They have been made aware through social discourse that their own identity is not neutral. Maybe that’s why they invest time and find intimacy with their subjects.” Perhaps describing the accomplishments of a handful of committed documentarians as a golden age is a bit of stretch. Let’s settle on a proud whoop!


September 2015

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