Brakpanby Sean O'Toole / 14.03.2013
You know how it is with a photograph. Unlike the short story, a concise, supple and generous literary form that feeds the imagination by thrift, a photograph is a wordless proposition. It exists in spite of words, even if words are what we inevitably use to make sense of a photograph, its facts, its circumstances, its size, its many tonalities, also its commercial availability, its visual affinities, its intellectual kinship and, yes, its limitations too. If words legislate, as in tell us how, when, where, what and why, a photograph simply describes. It is a record of looking and seeing. Therein lies the plenitude of a photograph. It is always on the verge of becoming in the imagination, always latent, always without words.
For five or so years, I have repeatedly returned to Marc Shoul’s photographs of Brakpan and slept amongst them. I mean this quite literally. On visits to Johannesburg, I would stay in Marc’s spare bedroom in his Killarney apartment, the walls of his guest bedroom filled with contact prints of people from Brakpan doing, making, playing, preening, begging, dancing, googling, smooching and loafing, all the actions that fill a life. I drifted into sleep next to Nontando, who wears her hair braided and lives in Nolia Court. I woke up to Marius, who has a tattoo on his upper left arm and lives in Regina Court. His exhausted physique, so present yet evidently diminishing, intrigued as much as the crocheted tablecloth.
Drag Racing Fire, Nitro Raceway, Brakpan Airfield, South Africa, 2012
I was introduced – gradually, because the photo essay demands surplus production if it is to achieve distilled concision – to bikers, shop assistants, puppet masters, security guards, beauty queens, gold prospectors and a bedraggled Father Christmas. The closer I looked at the vast, constantly updated jigsaw puzzle of humanity that occupied two whole walls of his home, the more familiar this world appeared. Even though set in a town on the far eastern edge of Johannesburg, Brakpan was also Krugersdorp, Roodepoort, Vanderbijlpark, quite possibly even Pretoria, where I am from.
Perhaps it is the precast concrete walls that demarcate here and there, my place from yours, that make me think this. Or the variegated brick walls and oil-stained forecourts of Brakpan’s anonymous public spaces, where people are encouraged to deposit litter into bombproof concrete dustbins (one of the many tiny reminders of the apartheid years in this essay) before heading off in a two models out-of-date Ford. Sameness. It is what compelled David Goldblatt to pause in Boksburg, a nearby municipality, and photograph the minutia of everyday life under apartheid. There is a strange symmetry between Boksburg then and Brakpan now. Thirty years ago, in the shadow of an indifferent Boksburg sun, people danced and mourned and communed. They do the same now, the sun still warming everything, creating shadows.
Derrick, Jan Smuts Dam, Brakpan, 2008
Goldblatt… his influence, his eye, his patient commitment to describing a cosseted world that, in its solitude, was a metonym of something much bigger … how does one ignore all that? You don’t. But it is also limiting to read this essay only in relation to Goldblatt’s In Boksburg. Coolly assessed, Brakpan forms part of an established body of social enquiry interested in whiteness, its privileges and its failures. Some key works in this loose genre of South African photography include E.G. Malherbe’s photographic contributions to a 1932 Carnegie Commission report titled “The Poor White Problem in South Africa”. Malherbe, who travelled to places that Roger Ballen would visit five decades later, described poor whites the “skeleton in our cupboard”. The photographs he returned with are poised somewhere between ethnographic study and the social modernism of the work of the Farm Security Administration.
In the early post-war years, Constance Stuart Larrabee, an accomplished formalist, also photographed poor whites, albeit in an urban context. The apartheid city, with its plentiful bylaws and proscriptions, was how white bureaucrats hoped to extinguish white poverty. In 1947, or thereabouts, Stuart Larrabee photographed a handicapped cobbler finishing off a veldskoen (leather shoe). Taken in side profile, her photograph recalls Lewis Hine; the photograph also anticipated a 2008 portrait of a retail security officer in Brakpan named Herbert. Herbert wears a moustache and tie to work everyday. Like Freddie, a security guard who whiles away the hours seated beneath a grass-roofed shelter at a fuel station on Voortrekker Road, Brakpan’s main road, Herbert’s job involves watching. That’s all. Being alert, unobtrusive, there but not.
Herbert, PQS Factory Clearers, Voortrekker Road, Brakpan, South Africa,
Herbert was one of the men I slept next to first. He was pasted onto Marc’s wall early on into his project, when his Brakpan project was more explicitly about white failure, this before he started seeing past the limitations of race, and finding strange reciprocities – in attitude and leisure and desire – between Brakpan’s racially discrete communities. Herbert refused to see me. His attention was always directed elsewhere. Sometimes at Tinus and Jason, the two young bucks who like to paint themselves blue after their favourite rugby team, but end up looking like they’re about to participate in a blackface pantomime. More recently, Herbert was staring at a scrap metal hunter scratching at an already devastated landscape in search of tenuous riches.
I read Herbert’s refusal to see me, this while I stare at him, as a kind of permission. It allows me to clandestinely search his fingers for a wedding band, to journey with my eyes from his fingers to his wrist (a watch!), and from there up the through the savannah of his arms to the epaulette that dignifies a degrading job with meaning, authority, attachment. Herbert is a strange presence in this essay. For the most part, Brakpan is occupied with describing people at leisure. We see the town’s inhabitants in clubs, on sports grounds, next to the pool, indoors, seated on a couch, lying in a bed, sometimes only partially clothed, at ease. Standing there, tie knotted, moustache trimmed, shirt tucked in, Herbert is like a photographer. He waits, watches, observes, interprets, decides. Failure is implicit in this routine. Nothing happens allot of the time. But poise, anticipation, repetition, they are everything.
Enzo, Grant Street, Brakpan, South Africa, 2011
Jesus Festival (Jees Fees), Voortrekker Road, Brakpan, South Africa, 2009
Maurius at home, Regina Court, Brakpan, South Africa, 2012
Villie and James, Blue Bulls Supporters, Brakpan, South Africa, 2009
Mister and Miss Brakpan’s only black entrant, Brakpan Town Hall, South Africa, 2009
Nontando having her braids done, Nolia Court, Brakpan, South Africa, 2011
Freddie, Exel Garage, Voortrekker Road, Brakpan, 2012
Down Town Sports Bar, Elliot Road, Brakpan, 2008
*Opening image: Disused Mine, Pamodzi Gold Mine, Shaft 6, Brakpan, South Africa, 2009