Jody Brand’s Tumblr ‘Chomma’ starts off with images of hip hop band Dookoom (well-known from last year’s Larney You Poes music video, which got up Afriforum’s nose and garnered praise from EFF’s Andile Mngxitama). The band sits in a café eating Russians and chips and drinking Double O. Curiously different from Dookoom’s normal aesthetics, the shoot appears to have been printed in the nineties and left in a drawer for twenty years. This is followed by a shoot of another hip hop outfit, Dope St Jude, styled as backyard version of the Fifth Element. The images have been shot on an 90s point and shoot, with the oversharp look, harsh flash and a date stamp in the bottom right corner (set to February ‘94). Other photos seem to be of the kind of wild parties I don’t get invited to anymore, street photography and casual shots of friends. It’s a ragtag of styles linked by a film aesthetic.
Over at another Tumblr, ‘The Sketchbook‘, Lesedi Mogale’s photos all appear in stark black-and-white. Shots of dicks and beautiful young men are mixed with striking studio portraits. In one studio portrait a young man, eyes hidden behind retro sunglasses, looks ready to lead the revolution. In another, a man’s eyes are replaced by bougainvillea leaves, the flash head-on and bright, casts a dark shadow behind him. These, much like Brand’s, are mixed with street shots and candid portraits, all characterized by the black and white film.
Musa Nxumalo’s recent project In Search Of… has been picked up by galleries, showing this year both at Smac and the Goethe Institute. Shot between 2009 and 2015, the photos, characterized by film and flash, are of young black kids partying, showing tattoos and looking hot. In one striking photo, a young woman is turning from the camera, and almost the entire frame is taken by her afro. In the background an empty beer can and an exit sign signify this as a club. In another from Nxumalo’s earlier work, two slim men dance in an apartment, shirts off and totally transported.
Of course it is unfair to reduce three unique photographers to a comparison, which is tendentious. I would urge you to go and immerse yourselves in their websites to counteract this. What links the work of Brand, Mogale and Nxumalo, besides for the fact of being young, South African and black, is threefold. Firstly, they all seem to have similar progenitors, in particular photographers like Lolo Veleko, Nan Goldin, Wolfgang Tillmans and, perhaps most importantly, Ryan McGinley. They all use or reference film aesthetics, or even snapshot aesthetics, while being active on the internet. And they exhibit cool, both in the sense of a slight detachment, that is characteristic of photographers, and a style and identity that is secret, sexy and ineffable. I’ll deal with each of these ideas below.
The idea that the personal is political has its root in feminist thought, that is to say the daily lived experience of women reflected the oppressive system. In terms of photography, this is best seen in the work of Nan Goldin, whose famous series of her drag queen friends, in the late 70s, combined intensely personal and emotionally raw images with an oppressed, outsider culture. Goldin’s work in the 80s, in particular the series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, turns the adage upside down. In this series Goldin photographed the drug and queer culture of New York in which she was immersed. However, in these images the personal became a way of expressing counterculture, expressing a political message merely through living outside of the boundaries.
In 2003 the young photographer Ryan McGinley had a solo show at the Whitney Museum in New York titled ‘The Kids Are Alright.’ At the tender age of 25 he was the youngest artist ever to exhibit at the institution, and was suddenly a very big deal. McGinley seemed to be the natural successor of photographers like Nan Goldin: raw, emotionally honest and full of young people and friends of the artist. Sylvia Wolf, the curator at the Whitney, describes his subjects as ‘performing for the camera and exploring themselves with an acute self-awareness that is decidedly contemporary. They are savvy about visual culture, acutely aware of how identity can be not only communicated but created. They are willing collaborators’. McGinley’s work mostly comprised of ‘kids’, naked, partying, having fun.
In a sense this describes another shift. McGinley’s work, which also mostly focused on the queer culture of his friends, was in part performative, but mostly celebratory rather than revelatory. While Goldin’s work had an intensity and bleakness stemming from a culture outside of the mainstream, McGinley’s had a sense of freedom and lightness of a culture beginning to define itself on its own terms.
Brand, Mogale and Nxumalo fit into this narrative of the expression of identity and as a result their work feels new, and fresh. However, McGinley always seems to me to a have a little bit of a trust fund kid smugness, which is absent in the South Africans. Perhaps a better comparison, though fitting into a different trajectory, would be the work of Malick Sidibe, in particular his photographs of youths finding a new sense of identity, and sexiness, in post-independence Mali. In this sense, the work is post-Colonial. That is these three photographers seem to be revealing a culture which doesn’t fit into the narratives of contemporary politics, which in South Africa are still highly colonised, nor does it derive its style from historical representation.
However things get a little more complicated. All three photographers have an active web presence, and, perhaps more importantly, gel easily with current internet aesthetics. None of their work is out of place on Instagram, and with Brand and Mogale in particular, the shifting aesthetics and styles is very Tumblr. This gives me the sense, that while the work seems fresh and new in a local context, it is also tying into a bigger cultural expression, mediated by the Internet. Grasping this as a whole, seems to be beyond the scope of this article – and my brain.
What can certainly be said is that there seems to be a desire for authenticity, which is of course a familiar cultural trope, stemming from modernism. It finds its expression here in the use of film and retro-aesthetics, and as a language this signifies authenticity and authority. Film gives a sense of time past. But what is more is that it is mutable and unpredictable in a way that digital never is. This gives the work a rawness and honesty. Though in the digital realm, it begins to read more as style than content. This is a conundrum facing any art that is made now, not just photography, but it is particularly apparent here.
Finally there is the coolness of the work. In William Gibson’s novel, Spook Country, the creepy adman Hubertus Bigend states that, ‘secrets are the very root of cool’. This has always struck me as masterfully insightful, in the way that cool works both in marketing and socially. Knowing something that other people don’t is, in essence, what defines cool. It is this essence, that these young photographers know something that I never will, about identity, about blackness, about style and parties, that makes the photos so damn cool. This is the element that brings me back to the photographs and makes me want to investigate them. With this coolness, though, comes another conundrum, or perhaps a challenge.
Ryan McGinley, after exposing his friends to the scrutiny of his camera, couldn’t hold onto what made them cool. He ended up taking the performative element of his photographs further, and staging his photographs to a degree. In the end he made poor copies of Ryan McGinley’s. The more well known the photographers become, the less cool is embedded in the photographs. The challenge then, is to keep the freshness while maturing as a photographer, and to gain a measure of success without killing what made it successful.