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Wide angle on SA life

Every picture paints a thousand words, they tell me. They also tell me that I’ve got 500 words to describe thousands of pictures in over 150 venues. It seems an unfortunate dilemma, and there’s no way I can do justice to even a fraction of the excellent work on display. With this impossible task in mind, I’m going to have to pick out only the highlights of the Cape Town Month of Photography (MOP).

This does a disservice to MOP: an exhibition needs to be judged on its weaknesses as well as its merits. Without this relief the praise inevitably sounds a little overdone and it’s difficult to describe the quality of works without the reviewer announcing his critical base. With this caveat, let’s wade right in.

I loved the show at Bang the Gallery. It seemed to sum up what the MOP organisers were trying to do by having such a diverse range of work on show all over town. The juxtapositions were instructive. Kim Ludbrook’s Bikers, stylised black and white documentary realism of superb quality, was displayed close to Valentina Love’s richly subjective colour shots of psychedelic nature scenes. Ludbrook’s pictures are a loving insight into a body of people, members of a biker club, with whom he obviously has an affinity. But his eye doesn’t allow him to clothe them in romanticism, and they are presented unashamedly. Love’s work is all about creating a mystique around people, dressing them up in colours and credos, and making them the focus of an almost cultic imagination.

Elsewhere in town you could be wrenched out of these pretty considerations by being confronted by more serious subject matter. Guy Tillim’s Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone, for instance, is haunting shots of young, unsmiling kids holding weapons of war, the kind of subject matter that opens up all sorts of debates around the dignity of the photographed subject.

If considerations of an ideological nature didn’t interest you and you wanted photographs that were about the sheer beauty of the visual, there was also lots to choose from. Jeremy Jowell’s stylised landscape shots of Namibia, for instance, or Pentti Sammallahti’s crystalline snowshots, to mention two obvious binary shows. Dave Southwood’s peculiarly particular photographs of South African landscapes were about both: beauty as ideology, if you will, where the familiar — a petrol station forecourt, for example — is taken and exposed as something to be looked at, not just seen.

Some of the photographs were all about foregrounding the artifice inherent in choosing a subject matter, such as Claire Sarembock’s intensely intimate close ups of the contents of boxes, collections of simple objects that speak entire lives when captured by the photographer. Or Graham Abbot’s pictures of a woman beneath the Cape Town flyover, a collision of concrete and flesh that is appealing in its obviousness.

Right, I hope that gives you a taste of the smorgasbord that was the Cape Town MOP. If you couldn’t make all the shows — and who could — then buy the catalogue, a bizarrely indexed but beautiful collection of the best from each photographer.

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Chris Roper
Chris Roper

Chris Roper was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian from July 2013 - July 2015.

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