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Big Photos about Small Moments

Big Photos about Small Moments

by Sean O'Toole / 13.11.2009

The centrepiece of Mikhael Subotzky’s current exhibition at Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery is a panoramic photograph of a group of uniformed workers in hardhats standing at the base of the cylindrical Ponte tower block. The photograph, which measures just over two metres across, locates you in the ruins of architect Rodney Grosskopff’s uncompromisingly brutal creation, a 54-storey ode to modernist logic that was built at a cost of R11-million and completed in 1975. A chromogenic colour print on Diasec face mount, the photograph retails for R324,900 (including VAT). Available in a limited edition of three, two copies have already been sold.

Ponte Ruins

I have consciously tried to relay this information as objectively as possible. In saying this, I’m well aware that I’m abutting disconnected things up against one another for conscious effect. In other words, the juxtaposition of visual description, contextual information and price is intentional. It is meant to provoke a relational question. What does the experience of seeing and knowing have to do with the price of owning one person’s way of looking and telling?

The principled answer should be emphatic: nothing. The two are divorced. But let’s not kid ourselves here: art appreciation, by which I mean the way in which you and I talk amongst ourselves about an artist and our experience of her/his work, is a messy business. What we presume to be objective insight, or criticality, might actually be nothing more than envy prancing around in camouflage. Let me rephrase this. To what extent is our appreciation of a large-scale photograph by Mikhael Subotzky coloured by its hefty price tag? Would we think differently about it were it cheaper, even more expensive, or simply not for sale?

Subotzky at the Goodman Gallery

This leads me to Duane Michals. A historically significant American photographer, Michals’ photographic practice (started in 1958) could variously be described as playful, experimental, droll and self-reflexive. In 2007 Michals published a small book of satirical photos and epigrammatic statements touching on the condition of contemporary photography. “Photography has never been about money, it had always been about photography,” argues Michals in Foto Follies: How Photography Lost Its Virginity on the Way to the Bank. “Now that the Haute Kunsters have deemed it art, it’s all about money and not about photography.”

Mikhael Subotzky

Standing inside the Goodman looking at Mikhael Subotzky’s large-scale photo of workers astride some of the jettisoned rubble from Ponte’s 470 bachelor, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, I couldn’t help thinking about Duane Michals. More pointedly his proposition, “Never trust any photograph so large that it can only fit inside a museum.” By this account, there is a lot of recent South African photography we ought to be distrustful off.

Before I go there, let me at least say this. There is a thin line between humorous critique, irony, satire – call it what you want – and bitterness: analysis that can’t distinguish between these two poles doesn’t deserve to go by the appellation “criticism”. I say this because I think Michals has a tendency to lapse into bitterness in his book. However, on the issue of scale he is curiously right. Bigness has become the sine qua non of contemporary photography, locally and abroad. No doubt intended to prompt deep looking, all too often it simply conveys the outsized ambition of the photographer.

Subotzky Book

Perhaps I am biased in my judgement here. I prefer photobooks to photo prints. For one, they’re cheaper. Books also explain things better. Subotzky’s show offers both. Resting on a white plinth at the opposite end of the gallery from the 360-degree panorama of the workers is a mock-up of a photobook about Ponte. It is in this working proof of a possible, as of yet unrealised photobook that the exhibition’s disconnected photographs – mostly portraits of lift users, as well as a R500,000 one-off concertina fold version of his dummy book – coalesce, offering something approaching a sustained narrative.

Annotated in the photographer’s hand on almost every page, Subotzky’s dummy book is an articulate vehicle for describing his manifestly social enquiry into a building that is also a metaphor – for Joburg, architecture, race relations in South Africa, photography, for all of the aforementioned. Unlike Pieter Hugo or Lolo Veleko, both accomplished portrait photographers whose work is nonetheless painfully devoid of event, and sometimes airless as a consequence, the book once again reinforced Subotzky’s position as a skilled photographic essayist.

Portraits in Lifts

The origin of the noun “essay” is neither frivolous nor singularly literary, deriving from the old French word essai (trial), which comes from the late Latin word exagium (weighing). You could say then that an essay then is a considered position, which strikes me as a fair assessment of Subotzky’s project as a photographer. Inquisitive, engaged and committed, he uses the camera to evoke complexity, entanglement and multiplicity. It is probably for this reason that his Goodman show fails to win me over, it achieves none of these attributes as an exhibition. It is too concerned with the singular, the iconic, the ostentatiously large-scale and ornamental. Please Mikhael, publish this work as a book.

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  1. Doctor L. says:

    What is it with white people taking pictures of us all the time?

    Isn’t that how this whole mess started?

    Hate you, sometimes, white people.

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  2. djf says:

    That’s right Dr L, only whiteys are capable of being racist….

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  3. Andy says:

    Doctor L are you in any of these pictures? Oh wait I get it you’re playing the race card. Yawn. When you say “us”, you’re talking about all black people. And when you look at Subotzky’s pictures you lump him in a box that’s labelled “all white people”.

    Please, for the sake of a relevant argument, engage with the subject matter of the article

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  4. Aryan Jerkmeoff says:

    What is it with black people taking swipes at us all the time?

    Isn’t that how this whole mess started?

    Love you, sometimes, black people.

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  5. Moose says:

    I thought Doctor L was being funny…
    Damn you internet for not providing tone of voice!

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  6. Doctor L. says:

    What’s the point of getting tangled in semantics? What I said is clear and white South African art has to answer to this.

    Why do Hugo and Subotzky and countless other white portrait photographers have to take pictures of black people to gain relevance/comment socially/be successful in the art world?

    Seems ingenuine/boring/imposing/Gavin Hood-y.

    Yes I said “us” even though I am not in the pictures because that’s how we relate to/refer to each other. In my language it’s not as ‘us and them’ as it sounds in English. I can say this about black people because we do it all the time in a self-aware way. We/I know we are not all the same, but neither are we post-structuralists (though I am, a little bit, when I turn my white side on).

    “Please, for the sake of a relevant argument, engage with the subject matter of the article”

    Can this article engage with the subjects in the portaits? Is this art relevant to begin with? What are it’s goals?

    I’m just pointing out what annoys me. When I said “Hate you, sometimes, white people” I meant in an irked, but ultimately kind-hearted way. Relax.

    Some of my best friends are [your race].

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  7. Aryan Cantgetenough says:

    What is it with black people wearing our style of clothing all the time?

    Isn’t that how this whole mess started?

    Question you, sometimes, black people.

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  8. Doctor L. says:

    Okay. Do not argue with me. I will express myself with more clarity in this comment.

    Love you, white people [since 1987]

    Hate you, sometimes, white South African art [since 2002].

    Love, Ed Young. Best white South African artist ever.

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  9. Sine says:

    Poor black subjects make white artists rich

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  10. Andy says:

    OK I get it now and really I do. But the article points to the fact that ol’ SOT believes these artworks are over-priced. But I don’t think Hugo and Subotzky go out to shoot their subjects with skin colour in mind. I don’t think they position themselves as white artists, just artists. And they take photos of people. Individuals. And I doubt they intellectualise it as much, they just call it art and sell it for a small fortune.

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  11. Joerg says:

    Yeah I mean sure, the Hyena people are black – but I mean come on – they’re the Hyena people. The Nollywood actors may be black, but come on – that’s some serious Nollywood getups. And not everybody in Messina or Beaufort West was black either.

    It’s the Americans coming to “Africa” taking photos of the locals that we should be angry at. Take a look at this rubbish (or maybe don’t ‘cos it’s going to wind you up): http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2009/06/soccer_in_south_africa.html

    But I agree with Sean – a book would be much more precious.

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  12. Optional says:

    Dr L has a point. Why is no one building careers on images of white people?

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  13. Anonymous says:

    Roger Ballen

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  14. Anonymous says:

    Peculiar white people

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  15. Sean says:

    Doctor L, I’ve been thinking about what you wrote. Last week Thembinkosi G. said the same of Suw Williamson’s art. It’s what prompted Candice Breitz and Brenda Atkinson to do that book Grey Areas in the late 1990s. Anyway.

    Doctor L, I’m curious to read your response to David Goldblatt’s speech at the opening of an exhibition of photographs by Mthambo Khanyo, a group of photographers from the townships of the Cape Flats, Cape Town, circa 1977:

    “Some years ago I went to visit the editor of a photographic magazine in Lucerne, Switzerland. I arrived at his apartment, as arranged, at about ten in the morning. However, he’d had a night out and had just got out of bed. So, after showing me into the living room, he disappeared into the bathroom, leaving the door open so that we could talk – or shout. Between splashings we introduced ourselves. After a few questions he asked me, “What are you?” To which I immediately replied, “I am a white South African English speaking Jew.”
    The splashing stopped; he came to the door half-naked and said, “Are you mad?”
    It hit me then with great force that other people define themselves in other ways, less strange and certainly less obsessed by race. Yes, I was mad: that obsession with race which runs so deeply through South African society had infected me too, much as I would have liked to believe the contrary.
    Since then I’ve sometimes allowed my now acknowledged madness to run free. I’ve imagined giving an account of my country’s contributions to world culture. In this regard I think we have two major and unique accomplishments to our credit.
    The first, of course, is Liqui Fruit. Here is a product of unparalleled purity and simplicity. Where else in the world is unadulterated fruit juice so widely available without refrigeration at so low a cost?
    The other is apartheid. A product of unparalleled impurity and complexity, pervasively degrading of almost every aspect of life and so costly as to be beyond reckoning.
    Truly, we are unique!”

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  16. Anonymous says:

    I doubt we are unique – the world is apparently as obsessed by race and difference. We just articulate it differently.

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  17. Lesiba says:

    One question: Will the young black church boy in the lift get any royalties from the sales of his “own” image??

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  18. Roger Young says:

    Lesiba, that is a very interesting question. When an image is taken in order to advertise a product then the person in the image is entitled to royalties and payment. But when the image is taken in service of Art or self expression then generally no royalties are paid (I do not know what the case is in this instance) . But then the artwork becomes the product. Where does this leave the royalty question. Does the payment of royalties unduly influence the subject of the image? Does looking at something change it? Would this kind of Art be possible if the photographer had to pay everyone he photographs, regardless of whether the image is sold or not? Should there be an agreement to pay those in the images only if the artwork is sold?

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  19. Sean says:

    Lesiba: you raise a pertinent question. I can’t really answer it straightforward, but I’ll try nonetheless. In March 1936 the documentary photographer Dorothea Lange, working for the Resettlement Administration, made arguably one of the most famous photos in photographic history, a portrait of the sharecropper Florence Owens Thompson with her two children leaning into her shoulders. Check it out at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Owens_Thompson

    The reason I bring it up is because for nearly four decades the identity of the “migrant mother” (the language of the caption as it traveled through time) was unknown. I’ll quote Wikipedia here for brevity: “It was only in the late 1970s that Thompson’s identity was discovered. In 1978, acting on a tip, Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan located Thompson at her mobile home in Space 24 of the Modesto Mobile Village and recognized her from the 40-year-old photograph. A letter Thompson wrote was published in The Modesto Bee and the Associated Press sent a story around entitled “Woman Fighting Mad Over Famous Depression Photo.” Florence was quoted as saying “I wish she [Lange] hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”

    Of interest, and perhaps directly relevant to your question: on October 8, 2009, a gelatin silver print by Dorothea Lange of Owens sold for $86,500 (including buyer’s premium) at an auction hosted by Christie’s, New York.

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  20. D says:

    partly nationalize all galleries…….not the most popular idea as bill would say…..then these talented young fine art documentary photograhers could be put on a salary and their work hung in libraries and schools around the country -they would then document peoples of all classes and different states of ability and intellect-these subjects should receive some form of reward for their participation ,either financial, educational or maybe inter-class introductions for the wealthy-and the photographers could make additional income from book sales.Then the priveledge of perspective can be shared

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  21. Mike Miller (USA) says:

    Teddy Hockin says Therdiochles & “What about Inky”

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  22. Wayne says:


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  23. Douchebag says:

    Holy crap this thread bores me. Moving right along people, nothing to see.

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  24. South African. says:

    Seriously, you cats are Ignorant in debating this topic from a racial point of view! The photographic study is not based on “black people” but people living in the Ponte tower and the myths surrounding it. Would have thought that was obvious. Black people, white people, green people….. come right, there is more to life and art!

    This same photographer has done photographic essays on coloured people, black people and ever the good old boere.

    And as far as cost and payment, well are you guys buying or selling these prints? So mind your own business.

    Magnumphoto.com Mikhael Subotzky, check it out.

    Wake up people.

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