Big Photos about Small Momentsby 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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.