The lights are out but not because of any fault of Eskom, not today. A silhouetted figure stoops over a lifeless electronic display in the late-afternoon murk. It is Mikhael Subotzky. He had just flown to Cape Town from his native Joburg and was fine-tuning his new video installation, due to be premiered at the Venice Biennale in May, when the lights tripped. The room smells of burnt electrical parts. An assistant flicks the trip switch. 

The lights go on, revealing curly-haired Subotzky, 33, in skinny jeans and white vest – but not for long. The power splutters. It is dark again. After a few minutes
of flailing we retire to an adjacent room. “You should make paintings, it is far easier,” I say as we sit down to discuss yet another year of career highs. “Or just make photographs,” he laughs. But isn’t that what this Tottenham FC supporter does, make photographs? Yes and no.

A lot has changed since 2004, when Subotzky became the first student at UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art to be awarded a perfect score (100%) for a series of panoramic photo-graphs detailing life at various Cape prisons. Exhibited in expanded form a year later inside Pollsmoor Prison, Subotzky’s Die Vier Hoeke project announced him as an inventive young torchbearer for this country’s documentary tradition. It also quickly gained him gallery representation.

Mikhael Subotzky
Mikhael Subotzky
Image: Aubrey Jonsson

In June 2005 I interviewed him at the Goodman Gallery in Parkwood. We spoke about his upbringing: he described his parents, frst-generation descendants of Latvian immigrants, as “very liberal and left-thinking”. He also talked about his uncle, photographer Gideon Mendel. He shared details of the making of his 
claustrophobic prison panoramas. “I would get locked in a cell and hang out. I would explain to as many people as possible in the room what I was doing before I took photographs. Anthropologists talk about ‘deep hanging out’ – I don’t like the term but I suppose I tried to do that.”

He also spoke about being represented by an art gallery. Much like Joburg, then a new city for him, the gallery and museum context confused him. “I am very happy to be sitting here, operating in this context,” he said, but then quickly switched to doubt. “I think it is a context that could be quite dangerous for my work. I always imagined starting off as a photojournalist. The most important thing about suddenly being represented by a gallery and having interest from the art world is that I focus on developing as a photo-grapher and image maker.”

And that he did. In 2005, he travelled to Zambia on behalf of the Telegraph newspaper to photograph Lindiwe Mutoma, a real-life counterpart to Alexander McCall Smith’s fictional lady detective, Mma Precious Ramotswe.

Doors, Ponte City, 2008-2010
Doors, Ponte City, 2008-2010

He also started working on a personal essay about the Karoo town of Beaufort West. But careers can only be pre-planned so much. Looking back, 2006 was a big year for Subotzky. While still resolutely a documentary photo-grapher, he was being pulled at from all sides. In between taking an aerial view of Beaufort West’s curious traffic island prison and hanging out at the local rubbish dump, in 2006 he travelled to New York for the opening of Nigerian-American curator Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition of new African photography.

His interest in film goes back to his student days, when he filmed inside prison and from the balcony of his rented flat

Titled Snap Judgments and presented at the International Center of Photography, it was Subotzky’s first professional engagement with Enwezor – this year’s Venice Biennale curator. He met the novelist Salman Rushdie at the opening and shared a cab with him afterwards.

The New York Times included a brief notice of Subotzky’s panoramas of “anonymous men behind bars” shown on Snap Judgments. Subotzky’s work was generating a lot of notice. Also in 2006, he was selected to participate in a professional mentorship for young 
documentary photographers in Amsterdam.

Organised by the World Press Photo organisation, the master class included mentors from Magnum Photos, the storied photographic co-operative founded by a group of postwar European photographers. “It was overwhelming and incredibly exciting and difficult all at the same time,” Subotzky told me a year later, in 2007. He had just won the KLM Paul Huf Award, a prestigious international photo award for early-career photographers, and been invited to join Magnum. “I had no idea how to approach a relationship with a gallery, a picture editor, or an international curator like Enwezor. It all really happened on top of one another.”

He quickly recognised the value of two things: hard work and sincerity. “When I was at art school I had this terrifying idea of what it would be like to be an artist. I thought it would be necessary to schmooze and know the right people, to play a social game. After the Pollsmoor work got the recognition it did I realised that these things weren’t the case, that I was getting recognised for making what I thought was good work.” Subotzky was just 25.

TVs, Ponte City, 2008-2010
TVs, Ponte City, 2008-2010

In Afrikaans there is a saying,  Vroeg ryp, vroeg vrot. The Dutch use it too. It cautions against betting on early bloomers. I think it is safe to venture that Subotzky is exempt from this truism. In 2008 his Beaufort West project was showcased at the Museum  of Modern Art’s annual showcase of young talent called  New Photography. Three years ago he won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for the Visual Arts. And this year, in addition to travelling to Venice, he is a finalist for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in London (with collaborator Patrick Waterhouse).  

Which is all a long-winded way of affirming Subotzky’s status as a photo-grapher. But Subotzky isn’t showing photos in Venice next month. Rather, and continuing in the vein of his 2012 Retinal Shift exhibition, he will be presenting a video installation. Titled Pixel Interface, the work takes shape around three
hand-built microscopes that analyse and relay micro-details of moving images to a transparent screen. The work explores the relationship between representation and abstraction. “I see it as putting the viewer inside my own experiment of trying to figure out where the power of an image resides.”

Subotzky’s new work is allied to a certain legacy of image making. Similar to Shutter Interface, a 1976 experimental film installation by American artist Paul
Sharits, Subotzky’s work is about the mechanics of perception. His interest in film goes back to his student days, when he filmed inside prison and from the balcony of his rented flat. But it was only after winning the Standard Bank award that he purposefully shifted gears and made something substantial.

I am greatly inspired by David Goldblatt’s life project of photographing his surroundings in SA.

Premiered at the 2012 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and shot entirely on location in the Eastern Cape, the four channel film Moses & Griffiths is a complex portrait of two local men, Moses Lamani and Griffiths Sokuyeka.

Architecture is a key theme of the  film, which is set across two venues: a Victorian camera obscura and the late modernist cultural centre that memorialises the arrival of English settlers in 1820.  “It is a rough work, not polished,” he concedes. “But I think it is the best thing I’ve ever done.” So no, Subotzky isn’t just a photo-grapher anymore. He has recalibrated his settings.

As recently as 2009 he was confident in asserting, “I am greatly inspired by David Goldblatt’s life project of photographing his surroundings in SA.” Sitting in the light-filled kitchen at the Goodman Gallery, he says where once he was awed by Goldblatt’s focus he now recognises that he doesn’t want to emulate
it: to exclusively focus on SA as the subject of his work. His next work, a film commissioned by an Australian art institute for exhibition next year, will be set in Australia, England and SA.

His Venice installation was partly conceived while on a residency in Paris.
Home, however, remains here, a flat in Killarney and studio in Maboneng. “I do think I am very connected to here,” he says. “But it is different now that I am not taking photographs.” You could say he is moving on, from the stillness of
photography to other possibilities.

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