A4 Arts Foundation
11.02 - 21.05.2022
Photo book! Photo-book! Photobook! at the A4 Foundation in Cape Town comprises over five hundred books from art writer Sean O’Toole’s personal library. Together, they chronicle the history of South African photography and the history of South Africa through photography from 1945 to the present.
The books are displayed chronologically on shallow ledges at eye level and, away from the walls, glass cases enclose additional fragile texts. These are interspersed with handwritten note cards drawing attention to one or another fact. (For example, Johannesburg is younger than photography). There are also artworks and objects of interest, such as Walter Battiss’s typewriter and a stop-motion-esque Robin Rhode photo series.
Photo book! Photo-book! Photobook! is an archive. Because it isn’t presented through a more staid institution, and because of the self-questioning tone of the title, it manages to be lighthearted about the term. Although playful about its archive status, it is an authoritative show.
With most exhibitions, there’s a grain of truth at the centre. As a viewer, you’re encountering an experience that gradually leads you to that truth. It can feel like a riddle or a pill hidden in a block of cheese for a pet. Photo book! Photo-book! Photobook! is the opposite. Here, the truth is blatant and abundant. As with Zanele Muholi’s work, which is amply represented in book form, it feels as though it’s watching, waiting for a reaction or response. How to respond when the weight of history feels present in the air?
Sure, there is debate to be had about the factors that mitigate the truth value of an image (from the accessibility of photographic technology, to framing and cropping, to post processing, to multiple levels of selection and curation). But whichever way you look at it, these images of our history are confronting and non-negotiable.
Many from the earlier years feel naive – perhaps harmless – but nevertheless show the power of the photographer to frame reality. Take Hanns Reich’s Portrait of Southern Africa which, when opened to pages 85 and 86, shows a bare-breasted Ndebele woman balancing a gourd in front of an ornately decorated home. Opposite her (this time in colour), a mother and child sit in a doorway. A dark interior and the same motifs frame the pair. The subjects are meant to illustrate the life of tribal women. Although this photographer thinks himself generous (in the introduction he describes the “Bantu” as having a “gay charm”), these nameless portraits are essentialising synecdoches.
Sometimes, the intention is to show one version of reality, but another version overtakes the desired meaning. The image ‘happy farmer’ in Suid Afrikca / South Africa depicts a smiley, stringy man showing off an armful of ripening corn stalks. The image is greyscale, but you can tell he’s wearing khaki. The low angle of the shot cues him to be aspirational, but there’s a geeky glee that upsets the illusion of peak agricultural dominance. Here, the individuality of the subject breaks through the generic-ness of the stereotype.
Also in this section is Sam Haskin’s 1962 hardback Five Girls, in which models take turns to cavort in various costumes and stages of undress. It’s softcore; the word ‘caper’ comes to mind before ‘condom.’ And yet, Five Girls makes it on the list of Jacobsen’s Index Of Objectionable Literature, clamped to a shelf a few metres away. This hyperbolic gesture symbolises the white-knuckled grip of censorship during Apartheid. It’s also a bit of wordplay, noting how an obsessive attention to ‘vice’ was such an integral part of maintaining ‘virtue.’ The tome – its black cover shiny like the shell of an enormous beetle – includes the names of many other publications in Photo book! Photo-book! Photobook! that were either outright banned or restricted.
As the exhibition skirts a second corner, the ethnographic tropes and benign subject matter of the early photo books give way to a different sort of compendium. Social documentary photography by activists revealing the living conditions of people under Apartheid are published (against the odds) in books such as House of Bondage by Ernest Cole. After Cole was reclassified from ‘Black’ to ‘Coloured,’ he escaped South Africa, publishing House of Bondage in New York in 1967. House of Bondage delivers an enduring and damning portrayal of the suffering of non-white South Africans including the trials of the job-seeker’s market, poverty, the insults of segregation and the abuses of the state. The tone of the writing is outraged but economical.
In a chapter titled ‘Below Subsistence,’ Cole writes that, as of 1959, “One half of all black children die before they are sixteen.” The reason being that “the Africans are kept artificially poor. The white establishment accomplishes this by barring Africans from all but the most menial of jobs, paying them intolerably low wages, and leaving them no recourse within the law by which to change their condition.”
In ‘For Whites Only’ he muses sardonically: “Beaches are clearly marked for color. A recent session of the Nationalist Parliament delved in all seriousness into the question of whether apartheid should extend the high-tide or the low-tide mark. Either way, The M.P.s concluded that the Africans could wade across from black beaches into white water, thus ‘spoiling’ it for white swimmers. The solution […] was to use the precedent of international convention: Apartheid was extended out to the three-mile limit.”
Cole’s writing (with Thomas Flaherty) provides devastating context to clear and unflinching images. In a chapter in which he lays out the improbability of a black child finishing school, there is an image captioned earnest boy squats on haunches and strains to follow lesson in heat of packed classroom. It shows a boy, maybe seven years old, with droplets of sweat tracing their way down his face. His book is clutched between his knees and chest. A tight fist grips a pencil stub.
Adding further context to House of Bondage is Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White by Joseph Lelyveld, Cole’s contemporary and ally. His book takes two biopsies of South Africa. In the first, he is uitgeskop on reporting tour during the height of Apartheid in 1966. (As he left, he helped smuggle out some of Cole’s negatives). In the second, he returns fourteen years later. Unlike many of O’Toole’s books which are rare or dear, Lelyveld’s Pulitzer prize winning account is available as an ebook and it keeps me uneasy company as I write. What grips me are the strange details that a history curriculum necessarily elides. For example, the fact that Verwoed, the architect of Apartheid proper, “started out as a behavioral psychologist” or that, in an incredible demonstration of the mental gymnastics it would later take to justify Apartheid as a moral system, Verwoed, himself an imigrant, “resisted Jewish immigration from Nazi Germany on grounds that it was necessary to limit the number of Jews in order to prevent the spread of anti-Semitism.”
Lelyveld’s books chronicle the evils of Apartheid, from the expendability with which the average black person was treated to the torture endured by those who tried to act against the state. Yet during his second trip, Lelyveld notices, with some irritation, whites asking him if he sees the changes in South Africa:
“Do you see the changes?” was usually not a question, I discovered, but an assertion that they were all around, that they were dramatic, and that if you didn’t acknowledge them fast, your political and intellectual credentials would be open to question.
Do I see the changes? It’s a question I am asking myself as I reach the last third of the exhibition. There is less of an obvious theme among practitioners of photography in the post-Apartheid years. Many still use the medium to document social ills or attempt to show one population or another. Memorials and architecture are somewhat altered as documented in David Goldblatt’s photo essays Structures Under Baaskap and Structures Under Democracy. There are fewer images of outright atrocities. But in terms of spatial occupancy and economic upliftment in South Africa… not the most change.
Lelyveld’s point remains salient. He argues that, towards the end of Apartheid, people could verbally disavow the system without the consequence of giving up white supremacy. In a way, this endures. As a country, we are ideologically opposed to Apartheid, but still, outcomes for the majority of South Africans are predicted by race.
What I do notice is a shift away from totalising portrayals of identity. This begins to shine through in a style of photography that feels fondly self-styling. Photographers like Ashley Walters document the neighbourhoods and communities in which they grew up with humour and aspiration; his c-print Kaylin’s Matric Ball, Eureka, 2013 depicts immaculately presented snack foods on a red organza tablecloth. Pineapple slices, fruit squares, devilled eggs and bottles of J. C. Le Roux signal a set of tastes. Walters views the table as an insider.
Similarly, Daniel Malan shoots temporary repairs to car windows (mostly using duct tape or brown packaging tape). There is a scrappy resourcefulness in these images which are collected into a zine called Broken Window. In Informal Arrangements, Peter Bialobrzeski catalogues the interiors of shacks in Kliptown, a poor suburb of Soweto and the site of the first informal settlements built in 1903. These dwellings are noteworthy for their decoration: a poster of a white woman with heart-shaped earrings and ski-glasses, a selection of tchotchkes, a doily on a bread-bin. All three of these photographers take portraits where the subject is evident only in his or her impact on space. The figure is absent, but their personality – the warmth from their body, the smell of their cigarette smoke or perfume, the sounds of their voice – feels close-by.
Despite his escape from South Africa, Ernest Cole’s story ends sadly. He finds in America “racial attitudes that were very much like those [in] South Africa.” He becomes homeless and dispossessed. Soon after his arrival in the US, he laments that “recording the truth at whatever cost is one thing, [but] having to live a lifetime of being a chronicler of misery and injustice and callousness is another.” The photographer in this 21st century section seems to have escaped the confines of this singular mode of image making. There is room for playfulness and absurdity as well as pain.
As Ariella Azoulay writes in The Civil Contract Of Photography, “As long as photographs exist, […] we can see in them and through them the way in which [a civil] contract […] enables the injured parties to present their grievances, in person or through others, now or in the future.” Photo book! Photo-book! Photobook!’s almost century long survey facilitates this interaction with the people that make up our shared history. It overrides the mental modelling that one inevitably uses to inaccurately reconstruct the past and stages, as O’Toole writes, in Apartheid & After, “viewings that invite and allow more nuanced readings of the past.”