Jenny Altschuler at The Gallery at Corporate Museum Frame
This summer season at the The Gallery at Corporate Museum Frame, Richmond, Virginia, has included two month-long exhibitions of photographic works from South Africa. The first show comprises of a selection of black and white images by Jenny Altschuler, South African-born photographic artist, Michaelis Fine Art graduate and Head lecturer of photography at CityVarsity Film, Television and Multimedia School.
Altschuler's show is a selection from three different bodies of work made over the past 20 years - People that I have never met (1999-2003), Between Moments (1998-2003) and a slide show of 30 images taken in the early to mid-1980s in South Africa.
In the compilation of images taken during the Apartheid era, Altschuler has included images from a commissioned enquiry (by the World Council of churches via the Anglican Churches of Cape Town), in 1984, into the causes and situation of children living on the street. This was photographed and compiled by Altschuler, Pam Warne (current curator of photography and new media at the Iziko's South African National Gallery) and Costa Christie (student of theirs at CAP at the time). Other themes in the slide show include conceptual images around the theme of enforced military conscription, and street-portraiture.
Altschuler took these pictures while employed full-time as a medical photographer, at the same time pursuing her passion for teaching photographic visual literacy. This she did on a voluntary basis at various community-based arts programmes including the Zonnebloem Arts Centre and the Community Arts Project in District Six, Cape Town.
Included in the slide show is Grandmother and child at the side of the road on the way to Greyton, Western Cape, taken in the early 80's. A child too old to be suckling, is suckling on the breast of a woman too old to be breastfeeding. This unusual partnership is both intimate and cruel, reiterated in the background, where the land is arid and unyielding. Altschuler's mother figure is arid and uncompromising, giving of her physical breast what she obviously does not have in the nurturing milk.
The image brings home the stubbornness of poverty, of not being able to give what you have not and the reminder that so many mothers have had to leave their children in the care of grandmothers due to migrant labour.
In Clandestine lovers at the maid's quarters at the back of the flats, also taken in the early 80s, a strange combination of intimacy and cruelty is again created. Here the sense that the lovers are there together for a short time, finding comfort and privacy where they can feel at ease, contrasts sharply with the environment's ugliness. Perhaps the dustbins, drains and toilets are all they deserve, as adultery is a sin. But this image also brings home the poverty and the degradation that ordinary people contend with.
In all the images there is a strong sense of emotional and psychological character. Somewhere inside the physical portraiture lies the inner content, where not only the spiritual and psychological character of the subject live, but also the photographer's spiritual and psychological state. Perhaps there is a combining of the two personae.
In Uitoorle die Vyand (Outwit the enemy) and David changing from a young man into a lieutenant Altschuler questions forced conscription. The first presents the image of a soldier's back as he stands frozen in front of brainwashing symbols - a loudspeaker, a light-switch, and a large wall slogan reminding that the enemy must be outwitted. The latter work is a conceptual series of a young man donning an army uniform in slow motion and transforming from an innocent and na�ve young person into a wizened and hardened lieutenant, who must be held accountable for his choices.
Altschuler says of her later work People I have never met, 'This work is part of my new work-in-progress which has a broad title of Self Suspicion. Here the connection between the subject and I sparks within a short space of time, but have I ever really known them? In many cases I have not even heard their voices. Perhaps to have spoken, may have taken us elsewhere, to another truth, which would have complicated, belied the first."
The images in this exhibition include a piercing look at the 80's in South Africa from a point of view that we have not seen here before, one that makes us think about the state of mind of the subjects, rather than just the state of their physical selves, or the pure documentary rendition of each situation, as well as the subjectivity of the photographer. The later work adds a layer of engagement with photographic discourse, also bringing into focus the photographer herself as a challenging her own identity as art producer and joint subject. Every image leads us back to the photographer and her acknowledgement that she affects and is affected by every photographed moment.
Says Altschuler, "In much of my work over the years, I have been interested in highlighting my presence within an image, and to admit that this presence alters reality. The subject negotiates with me, the photographer, on how to be seen and be represented within my frame. This for me, is a more exciting partnership. There is also the fact that they, the subjects, have seen me. I have in turn recorded them seeing me, therefore proving for myself that I exist. Without this proof, perhaps I do not exist."
The Gallery, Corporate Museum Frame, Virginia
Rima Geffen is Professor of Fine Art Photography at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia.