The ubiquity and accessibility of photography in the contemporary moment often works against it as a fine art medium. Anyone with a smartphone can these days take reasonably sophisticated photographs, assisted by the lenses and filters of the built-in technology of the phone.
One of the greatest casualties of the phenomenon worldwide has been the relative lack of attention paid to sensitive, properly composed, framed and shot social documentary photography. This is a medium with which SA has a particular affinity, since it grew in the country out of a need to document a national social ill — apartheid. Social documentary photography in this sense has as much in common with photojournalism as it does with fine art. The country’s finest photographers in this idiom — David Goldblatt, Mikhael Subotzky, Pieter Hugo — all take as their subjects landscapes and portraits that have close affinities with the work of great SA photojournalists such as Kevin Carter and Peter Magubane.
More than this, the social repression that engendered much great photographic work in SA finds echoes and versions elsewhere in the world — even in the supposedly greatest democracy of them all, the US.
This is the premise behind the Goodman Gallery Johannesburg’s magisterial new exhibition Against the Grain: Photography from SA and the US, featuring Ernest Cole, Goldblatt, Ruth Motau, Ming Smith and Lindokuhle Sobekwa. Conceived in part not only as a transnational dialogue between the SA photographers and the work of social realist American photographer Ming Smith, it is also an intergenerational dialogue, with the work of Cole and Goldblatt at one end of that spectrum and Sobekwa, born after the demise of institutional apartheid, at the other.
The works chosen reflect explicitly on the social and political contexts of each photographer, and stretch historically from the 1960s to the present. The title comes from the approach of each photographer to documenting social injustice as a means to combat it and raise awareness of it — this going against the social grain. The title also echoes Roland Barthes’s famous book The Grain of the Voice, apt, since all photographers bring their own unique visual vocabulary to the scenes they shoot.
The work from Cole’s masterpiece photo essay, House of Bondage, first published in 1967, and subsequently out of print for 50 years before being recently reprinted by Aperture in the US, mostly secretly documented black lives in a time of racial repression and trauma. The show puts Cole’s work in dialogue with Goldblatt’s from a similar time frame, as he documented, as he says in his last interview, “not the events of the time but the quiet and commonplace where nothing ‘happened’ and yet all was contained and imminent” (The Last Interview, Steidl, 2019).
The American photographer Ming Smith, based in Harlem, became the first female member of black photographers collective the Kamoinge Workshop, which worked to photograph black life from a black perspective. Smith has often described her work as “celebrating the struggle, the survival and to find grace in it”.
Ruth Motau came to photography in the early 1990s while studying at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg. Motau was the first black female photographer employed by a newspaper at the dawn of a new democracy, and her domestic scenes of black life have a much more journalistic voice.
Like Cole, Lindokuhle Sobekwa intends to create awareness with his photographs, reflecting on local issues and public discourse across geographies. This is perhaps best expressed in his image Death of George Floyd (2020), which shows Sobekwa’s family and friends absorbed by the devastating news of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the Minneapolis police, and brings the parallels between the historical and geographical reach of these photographers full circle.
Against the Grain
Goodman Gallery Johannesburg
Until April 15