Writing Art History Since 2002

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In the last decade new manifestations of documentary photography have emerged that allow for more creative responses to what was a highly conventionalised genre. This is significant in a medium that remained largely unchanged in its formal and conceptual elements throughout the apartheid era.

The photographer Dave Southwood, writing on ArtThrob, has remarked on “new currents, although slim, that are employing colour, flash, and more complicated narrative techniques to explore the extent of what can be termed ‘documentary'”. He remarks that the “strong, overly prescriptive codes” that previously dominated South African documentary photography are now being critiqued.

In an article published in the Mail & Guardian last year, Sean O’Toole further elaborated on this issue. “For many, the documentary tradition stands at the apex of the achievements of South African photography; it is sombre without being dull, objective yet informed by a sense of moral purpose, black and white.” According to O’Toole, “[t]he impetus of this statement has led to some overarching presuppositions about South African photography, some of them constituting invisible biases hindering the reception of newer modes of photographic practice”.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has also played its part, signalling more flexible definitions of “documentary” and “journalism”. The rule that documentaries have to aspire to pure objective reality has been eroded. In the apartheid era, the documentary image was typically overcoded, reinforcing a didactic public message. Today, such images put the emphasis on personal statement rather than political document. For instance, whereas Tillim’s earlier photographs focused on the explanatory and instructive, his recent work uses less didactic modes of storytelling, and the messages, like the images, are sometimes fragmented and blurred.

Gideon Mendel, Jabu, an HIV positive member of the Hlabisa Support Group, doing a condom demonstration among woman waiting at a rural health clinic in the Hlabisa District of Kwazulu, South Africa, from series A Broken Landscape

O’Toole, for instance, is “intrigued by the way Tillim’s photographs eschew the prescripts of his genre, presenting scenarios often defined by their lack of any definitive statement”. For his part, Southwood remarks: “In Guy Tillim’s photographs of Kuito, the war-ravaged Angolan town, the war itself never really appears. In its place there is an unnerving urgency in the way the pedestrians move, and the pressure that the omitted subject brings to bear is acute.”

Narrative structure has also altered through changes in presentation. Having overcome the stark divide between ‘truth’ (documentary) and ‘fiction’ (art), contemporary documentary photographers employ art conventions more readily. In Leopold and Mobutu, Tillim adopted the formats of diptych and triptych from the realm of creative photography. The diptych forces juxtaposition of subject and meaning: it is a useful ‘hinge’, connecting the seemingly unrelated and forcing a new reading and meaning. Perhaps a forerunner to Tillim’s departure from standard documentary narrative can be found in the work of Roger Meintjies. In his 1992 photo essay Van Riebeeck’s Hedge, a radical departure from convention, Meintjies questions the very codes he had previously endorsed as a documentary photographer during the Struggle era. In one sense the essay perpetuates documentary conventions, but in others it subverts them utterly. Earlier Meintjies had presented his photographs as “truth documents”, but here he interrogates and critically undermines the notion of “truth” or objectivity.

Meintjies adds no text apart from the title. The narrative is to be discovered, not in relationships between text and image, but in those among the photographs themselves. Some are very difficult to read — out of focus, blurred, arbitrarily cropped, atonal, abstracted. They are deliberately opaque. So the expectation of a linear narrative is cheated when the story never materialises properly and, as such, seems to have neither beginning nor end. Michael Godby, writing in the exhibition catalogue Through a Lens Darkly, in which Meintjies images are reprinted, observes: “All these techniques draw attention from the subject that photography is thought to record with utter transparency to the medium itself.”

The abstracted images Meintjies offers are sketches and reflections, a personal essay offering a private point of view. Its essence is that of something incomplete and partial, acknowledging the frame that can never include everything — in contrast to traditional documentary photography, in which framing attempts to reveal as much as possible. As Godby points out, the work is about concealment as well as revelation. Meintjies gives details of the urban environment without ever giving the identity of the place. Similarly he avoids giving any explanation of why he might have taken any particular photograph or why he took the photograph in the way he did. By refusing to enclose meaning within the photographs, Meintjies demands the viewer acknowledges the extent to which his or her own prejudices habitually contribute to the interpretation of documentary image.

Gideon Mendel’s work shows an incremental shift in this new narrative direction. His exhibition A Broken Landscape (2001) comprised mainly traditional documentary images, but supplemented by enlarged contact sheets and colour images that deviated from convention and did not appear in the book of the same name. The Harsh Divide (2003) represents a more radical departure. These 360-degree panoramas comprise individual digital photographs stitched together and animated so that the camera appears to be panning around the location. Unlike a conventional photograph, which reveals one point of view, the panorama reveals the whole environment. This approach is somewhere between film and photography, and is unusual for a documentary photographer.

The use of colour also breaks with convention. The stock social documentary image is black and white, which is meant to suggest a stark reality (the association of monochrome with uncorrupted truth being a learnt convention). In Beloofde Land (1988), Mendel abruptly departed from the black and white with which he had always worked and produced prints in saturated, exaggerated, hyperrealist colour. However, little of this kind of experimentation was seen again until quite recently, when Mendel and Tillim began to use colour increasingly. Even Goldblatt, in recent years, has departed from exclusively practising in black and white in his documentary work.For Tillim, colour emerged slowly in the muted tones of the Kunhinga Portraits (2002) — colours so subdued that they resemble hand-coloured black and white. In Leopold and Mobutu (2004), colour remains relatively low-key, interspersed with black and white. This trend could be due to a number of factors, including improvements in colour film quality, the digital medium that records the image in colour, improvements in digital printing and influences from international and local trends in art photography. It is now also possible to print very large images from 35 mm negatives, the medium traditionally associated with documentary photography.

The art market has also played an increasing role, some documentary works no longer generated primarily for publication, but rather for exhibition, as is the case with Zwelethu Mthethwa. Photographers such as Tillim and Goldblatt are now represented by dealers as well as photo agencies. Lucinda Jolly, writing in the Cape Argus, reports that Mendel has grown from a “typical concerned journalist” to, as he describes himself, an “activist conceptual artist”. What used to be a fairly rigid divide between documentary and art photography has now been eroded considerably, to such an extent that Tillim, traditionally regarded as a photojournalist, was awarded the 2004 DaimlerChrysler Art Award.

This movement in documentary photography may be part of the new criticality in post-apartheid South Africa, where notions of identity, history and representation are under scrutiny. It does not offer a ‘better’ or more significant body of documentary work than what preceded it; it merely constitutes a different practice, with different guiding principles. Contemporary documentary photography is still at the beginning of its quest to broaden and enlighten a dominant monolithic tradition. We might soon see a transformed documentary practice that, rather than rejecting the old social functions of the medium, reinvents them to allow a creative acknowledgement of the subjective and personal in the investigation of social issues.

Gideon Mendel’s The Harsh Divide can be viewed at: www.guardian.co.uk/flash/mendel.swf

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