In our digital age, photography as a medium of expression — not always artistic — is probably the most widely used, and least appreciated.
A ubiquitous camera is packaged within our smartphones, and in the plethora of instant posting opportunities we have become blasé about seeking meaning in capturing a moment for posterity. The image’s meaning can be clear or complex, laden with emotion or tersely objective, a metaphor for something awful or mundane. The depiction itself can convey human authenticity, or the humanness may lie in the very process of creating the image and trying to understand.
Recently on exhibit at the Barnard Gallery, situated in a pleasant confluence of restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques and residential side-streets in Newlands, Cape Town, were two contrasting and deeply meaningful displays by SA photographers Tshepiso Seleke and Alastair Whitton.
Whitton’s Metropolis is an ongoing project. Started in 2017, so far it incorporates the iconic cities of New York, London and Paris. In a zoom-in-zoom-out approach, he concentrates on well-known structures and characteristic architecture, strange buildings and unknown streets, and sometimes the tiny details within design features. Seleke’s section of the exhibition was entirely SA; titled Sowetan, it focused on the people of this historically famous township — now less a township and more the beating heart of the country’s epicentre.
Whitton works exclusively in black and white. “Black and white are the colours of photography. To me they symbolise the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected,” he believes, quoting and paying homage to the legendary photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank.
Although Seleke’s photographs are in colour, the palette is de-saturated, or muted, in keeping with the hardship of the lives he portrays. His images are tightly focused, capturing smiles or struggles, faces showing anger or ambivalence, fire in their eyes or a sense of soulful simplicity. Those showing people getting on with tasks they need to do seem to say, “You can have this moment, now let me carry on.”
Others are more penetrative, prompting us to ponder the backdrop. In Days we played in the sun, where has the man been on his bicycle? Hubcapped and prettified as best possible, the contraption might be his pride and joy, but its state of disrepair may mirror the man’s despair at limited possibilities, indicated by the man’s downward gaze upon a dusty road.
What has the man in Hiding in a maze been up to? Is he masked because he’s physically hiding after misdeeds, or is he hiding psychologically from society, shamed at having to live in a home he drags around with him? Or, his mask may simply be a convenient Covid-19 covering on a cold day. Our interpretation, and how definitively we arrive at it, forces us to examine our prejudices or preconditioning, making the photographer an agent of circumspection not only upon the subject, but also into our own selves.
Of Seleke’s seven photographs on exhibit, I find Hard body particularly moving. The straightforward antithesis is between the woman’s robust body and the small chicken. There’s a deeper contradiction in how the jaunty hat and baseball sneakers top and tail her ragged clothes. Her face is etched in world-weariness.
She is alive because the bird is not, and the image conveys, in microcosm, how people eke out a living in the direst of circumstances. Seleke agrees it’s the most powerful within the selection. “I feel it tells the story of survival in the face of economic meltdown,” he says.
Hard body also encapsulates the full Sowetan exhibition. Seleke shows us proud people; many are downtrodden, but they refuse to appear so — this, Seleke conveys, is both the tragedy and triumph of normal life in a SA township thirty years after democracy. We understand that Hard body is a euphemistic title for “hard life”. It is to the artist’s credit that we can observe these Sowetans without feeling we are patronising them. Seleke reflects a deep respect for his subjects. Born and bred in Soweto, he is showing us his people.
Whitton’s general style is to leverage the contrast between deep blacks and sharp whites
The striking difference in Whitton’s Metropolis selection is the overall paucity of people. “I’m a closet architect,” says Whitton, by way of explaining his obsession with the structure of edifices, which has led him to explore and capture the designs, shapes and spaces within humanity’s great cities.
I’m intrigued by the upward perspective, or a tilt, in many of the photographs. Occasionally, a street level shot is included, but very rarely is the angle downwards. This is unusual: most cityscapes try to capture the subject, or skyline, from above. “I can’t say I’m particularly conscious of this when composing an image. Rather it’s an instinctual viewpoint — it’s the way I relate to and see the world around me,” says Whitton.
His use of the word “instinct” is interesting, because I find his composition impeccable. Enormous patience and planning went into each photograph. Heathrow, one of the busiest places in the world, is absent of the remotest sign of people; logistically, Whitton waited a long time to get the image he wanted. The Covid lockdown helped, he admits. I sense this might become one of the seminal images of the pandemic — in 30 years’ time, will the next generation see it as a bizarre marker of an unimaginable hiatus in the hectic life of London?
The story behind what we see
Whitton’s general style is to leverage the contrast between deep blacks and sharp whites, and to use the textbook “rule of thirds” composition technique — the careful alignment according to the human eye’s natural focal points — to direct our gaze to the core of what he wants us to notice.
In Beggar, London the multiple leading lines accentuate the subject. The rigid symmetry sharpens the man’s desperation, his solitude. Whitton has minimised the use of empty space here, as if alluding to fragmentary hope despite the beggar’s prostration. The subject is the very centre of the image, and the photographer may be conveying the faintest possibility — the wish — that the poor man may regain a more dignified centre.
But Whitton demonstrates his technical versatility, too, in other, softer compositions, like Hotel room, London, the textured greys and out-of-focus, veiled perspective creating a dreamy feel which hints at the occupant’s loneliness.
Strangely, despite the direct discrepancy between cities and landscapes, some of Whitton’s work reminds me of the pioneering American landscape photographer Ansel Adams. Adams also created in black and white — colour techniques were less advanced in the 1920s and 30s, but they were available to him — because he felt it gave a purer, undistracted image. Adams’ most iconic photograph is Monolith: The Face of Half-Dome, taken in the Yosemite National Park in 1927, which has a counterpoint in the skyscrapers of Whitton’s Central Park, New York.
The skyline in this photograph is grand, the skyscrapers, particularly in the Billionaire’s Row southside corridor, seeming to beseech the heavens, One57’s and City Spire’s prominent curvatures breaking the preponderance of right angles. The biggest, most famous urban park in the world, captured in black and white, tells its own story: we know it must be full-bloom green, but with the colours forfeited, this is New York as a sadder city. Indeed, as Whitton points out in conversation, just beyond the fringes of Central Park are blocks of poor neighbourhoods, with noticeable signs of genuine poverty.
The Barnard is a contemplative space, and it is possible to ponder and interpret more into any of the exhibits. More obviously so for the Sowetan photographs, which loop us back in time to consider the ongoing impacts of apartheid and colonialism. Seleke’s images are mesmerising because they tell stories of people, and by documenting days in the lives of millions of marginalised South Africans, he fills a void in our understanding, our compassion.
Seleke does, indeed, want to chronicle daily life in other SA townships, and possibly Lesotho and Mozambique, too
Whitton prompts, instead, further questions, especially in the context of the climate emergency. Metropolis presents the world’s wealthiest cities in their glory and glamour — but also, at least in part, their pointlessness. Are these the full fruits of centuries of industrialisation and capitalism?
The photographs are captivating precisely because they largely bypass the citizens of the cities he explores; his calculated proportions and perspectives seem to represent a search for order among the chaos, an attempt to find sense despite the nature of cities that never sleep and corral millions in unnatural, even alienating conditions.
I’m interested in whether these two talented photographers intend to spread their respective artistic explorations to other cities. Seleke does, indeed, want to chronicle daily life in other SA townships, and possibly Lesotho and Mozambique, too. Whitton rattles off a list of cities, but eventually settles on one: “Tokyo would be great!”
Metropolis by Alastair Whitton and Sowetan by Tshepiso Seleke ran until 18 October 2022.
- Barnard Gallery, 55 Main Street, Newlands, Cape Town, +27 21 671 1553.