Private Schoolby Sean O'Toole, images Rose Kotze / 11.02.2011
Rose Kotze’s photographic essay on affluent Cape Town teens out on the jol and at home was one of the highlights from the Michaelis Graduate exhibition. Sean O’Toole asks the questions.
Mahala: You graduated from Michaelis School of Fine Art last year, your graduate thesis a photo essay titled Private School. Which schools did you focus on?
Rose Kotze: I primarily focused on my old high school, Reddam House, as my sister had just started grade eight there. From there I branched out to other schools such as Springfield Convent, Bishops and Herschel. Many of the teenagers photographed at social events came from public, but affluent schools like Camps Bay High and SACS.
Rose Kotze, Staying at a Friend (Club Bliss, Claremont), 2010, Lightfast Pigment Inks on Cotton Rag Baryta Paper, 56 x 145,5cm.
When you initially started the essay you created portraits that were far more rhetorical, artsy and constructed. What prompted you to opt to work in a more naturalistic visual style?
I think because of the nature of my subjects, in them being young, beautiful and manicured, it became difficult to separate my images from the type imagery found in tweenie fashion magazines. My more styled images, even when trying (badly) to take on some sort of art historical context, would often end up looking like a Miley Cyrus CD cover, which would often undermine the integrity of my images.
Naturalism notwithstanding, some of the photos have been ‘doctored’. The rugby player’s nose is made to bleed, for instance, and the club scenes are composites of many smaller scenes. This corrupts the authenticity of your essay as a truth telling exercise. Agree/disagree?
I think that in some cases, it became necessary to stage my shots in order to successfully convey an environment or mood. I spent many cold Saturday mornings documenting high school rugby matches but was never able to produce an image that managed to evoke the spirit of the boys. The First Team rugby jock is a prominent archetype in South African teenagedom, so I don’t think the fact that he was doctored made him any less authentic. I was trying to evoke an idea rather than an individual, which is why in those particular night-time portraits I had chosen not to include the subject’s name in the title. Furthermore, I felt that the night-time scenes needed to be quite aesthetically beautiful in order to visually demonstrate the idealised environment in which these teens reside. It is impossible to take a picture of a crowd of drunken teenagers without somebody returning the gaze of the camera, pulling a funny face or a zap sign – in doctoring my images I tried to create the most ‘candid’ type of image I could by making compositions of many different images taken of the same place throughout the course of one night. I also think that exploring the concept of adolescence as a construction by constructing my own adolescents becomes quite interesting.
Rose Kotze, Night Swimming 1 (Newlands Inter School Gala), 2010, Lightfast Pigment Inks on Cotton Rag Baryta Paper, 56 x 41cm.
There are a number of photographic precedents for what you’ve done. I think of Larry Fink, Jacques Henri Lartigue, even Steven Meisel’s Versace portraits. Who did you look at to help guide your eye, so to speak?
I was greatly influenced by photographers like Massimo Vitali (and his crowded club shots), Catherine Opie (for her beautifully lit portraits of football playing American youths), also Charlie White, Rineke Dijkstra and Bill Henson for their representations of adolescents.
Of the loosely grouped photos – bedroom and sports portraits, nightclub and horse club panoramas – which was the most difficult to do?
The night-time panoramas were definitely the most labour intensive, as they demanded a lot of Photoshop work to stitch together. However, I think the outdoor horse riding photographs were probably the most difficult to photograph, due mainly to getting the lighting and the horses to co-operate.
Rose Kotze, Night Swimming 4 (Newlands Inter School Gala), 2010, Lightfast Pigment Inks on Cotton Rag Baryta Paper, 56 x 41cm.
Some of the subjects are very close to you, including your sister and her circle of friends. Did this ever create problems in terms of getting the photographs you wanted (as opposed to how they wanted to be seen)?
It is hard to tell a young teenager how to pose without them worrying about looking stupid. Eventually I gave up and let them do their own thing with a small amount of guidance. I found that often the images in which they chose how to compose themselves were more successful.
In the catalogue to the Michaelis Graduate Exhibition you say that your photo essay is an exploration of “the construction of identity as performed by white, upper middle class Capetonians”. What are some of the visual markers of how they construct their identity?
Apart from things like horses, scooters and flashy cell-phones, I think the most apparent visual marker of their particular identities is the way in which they groom themselves. It is commonplace for the girls to sport R1000 heads of highlights and expensive designer jeans; similarly the boys more often than not own the latest and most expensive electronic gadgets. For me it seemed as if they construct their identities based on very adult and very “chic” ideals, shopping at the same exclusive shops as their mothers and sporting labels that seemed obnoxious or far too “old” for young teenagers.
Rose Kotze, Night Swimming 2 (Newlands Inter School Gala), 2010, Lightfast Pigment Inks on Cotton Rag Baryta Paper, 56 x 41cm
You show a world of wealth and privilege that is exclusively white. Is this because of the subjects you selected, or is it that the suburbs of Constantia, Bishopscourt and surrounds are still largely white?
While making this body of work issues of race didn’t really enter my thoughts until much later on. As it happens, none of my sister’s immediate group of friends are black or coloured, and the vast majority of teenagers attending the social events I documented were white, so yes, I think this does suggest an imbalance of whites and blacks living in these areas and attending these schools. I photographed an under eighteen party at Springboks pub in Newlands which had a VIP entrance, which was more expensive than the regular entrance; almost nobody in the non-VIP section was white and almost everybody in VIP section was. I think it was then that I realised that politics of inclusion and exclusion were very much at play within these social circles and the idea of focusing specifically on the rich (and generally white) elite started to materialise.
Did working on this essay give you any personal and/or critical insights into the world of wealth and privilege you yourself grew up in?
I think that producing this body of work has opened my eyes to the degree of polarisation within Cape Town’s post-apartheid terrain. The idea that the wealthy and privileged attending the ‘top’ schools in the city are still mostly white, eight years after I entered high school myself, says a lot about the social climate of Cape Town. Making this work, and revisiting the places (schools, clubs, events) that I was situated within as a teenager was pleasantly nostalgic, but at the same time it was troubling to realise just how exclusive these places still are. I think there’s a weird duality between feeling fondly towards experiencing a charmed upbringing, but then also understanding that, in a South African context, this comes at the expense of a lot of other people. A lot of the time I worried about how it would look being a rich person taking pictures of other rich people having a great time – I think personally that made me feel a bit guilty. Also, after spending so much time with these teenagers I started to feel a bit jealous that my daddy hadn’t bought me a pony when I was thirteen!
You’re embarking on a law degree this year. Can we expect an essay on the late night doings of law graduates?
Unfortunately I think my late nights will have less to do with socialising and more to do with weeping over textbooks.
Rose Kotze, The Snake Charmer 1 (after Gérôme), 2010, Lightfast Pigment Inks on Cotton Rag Baryta Paper, 56 x 41cm.
*Opening image credit: Rose Kotze, Night Swimming 3 (Newlands Inter School Gala), 2010, Lightfast Pigment Inks on Cotton Rag Baryta Paper, 56 x 41cm.
**All images © Rose Kotze.