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Rave Memoirs

by Sean O'Toole / 11.02.2010

It was 1998, the arse-end of rave. Three escapees from a maximum-security gym in Randburg are gurning and grinding on a dance floor in Newtown. One of them wears silver pants. Another sunglasses. It’s tragic. Ugly really. Unlike James Murphy, who claims to have always been everywhere, that’s if you believe what he says on that LCD Soundsystem song, Graeme Williams was there. He even has a photo to prove it.

It’s not that I feel any great rapture when I look at his photograph of Sarah Connor times three at a jol. But, and forgive me for only loosely quoting Chris Rock here – “I unner-stand”. For years I displayed a blank Polaroid on my fridge. It was dated 1996 and was taken at the Cream rave in Newtown. The black square said it all, I long thought, until I saw Graeme’s photo.

You can view the photo in its fuller, proper context in The Inner City (2000), a criminally overlooked book that showcases Graeme at his pre-colour best. Observational not judgemental, wandering and curious, The Inner City is a drifting, meditative essay on a notionally vieslike plek, Joburg.

Graeme Williams, Newtown, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1998

Graeme Williams, Newtown, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1998

Writing about the ideas and emotions he invested into this book, Graeme states: “I felt very removed from the day-to-day realities of the world. I think that in part this was due to the extremes that I had been exposed to during the five-year period that I was covering the violence and intense politics leading up to 1994. But I think it was this sense of isolation, and apartness, that drove this project and, for me, gave it a sense of cohesion, as well as meaning. I would often immerse myself in these feelings before heading out to photograph and then I would see what came my way.”

These days Graeme, a geologist by training, is more upbeat. He is currently showing some of his new photos, made on travels across Africa, in the warren-like interiors of Arts on Main, at Studio 53 (until February 13). Don’t let the bright colours in his new photos deceive you.

“I think I started taking these photographs as a way of coming to terms with the harsh realisation that much of Africa’s natural beauty has been eliminated as the need for food and arable land has increased,” he says of his still life compositions, works that are not entirely discontinuous from his loose, often obliquely framed photographs of life on the margins of contemporary South Africa made during the years 2004-07.



Adds Graeme about his new work: “Kitsch representations of the previous splendour and colour of Africa have replaced the former natural beauty. In hotels, restaurants and public spaces, the presence of unnaturally bright, artificial flowers, wild animals and other depictions in a poor reminder of the past. The modern effigies, often made in China, are juxtaposed against backdrops that are often stark and unadorned. Public buildings and hotels often date to colonial times and their tired, worn surfaces form another reminder of time lost.”

If this statement reads as overly slick and prepared, that’s because it is. It comes from Graeme’s press release. Rest assured, he’s not one of those “all theory and no practice” types, as Michael MacGarry succinctly phrased the dilemma once. “I don’t think I would have become a photographer if I was eloquent in any other way,” Graeme told me a few years ago when I first met and interviewed him.

With typical modesty and candour, he offered: “When I am forced to speak about what a photograph means or what it means to me, I find it really difficult. It is often not one thought pattern; it is a whole series of emotions or ideas that have been knocking about in my head. By explaining a photograph in words it seldom gives it any real life.”

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