/ 12 July 2012

This street style is ho-hum, not sharp-sharp

High and low fashion sensibilities collide on South Africa’s streets.
High and low fashion sensibilities collide on South Africa’s streets.

The luminous soft cover of photographer Ed Suter's Sharp Sharp, South Africa Street Style (Quivertree) has an immediate and jarring effect on the senses. So bright are the colours that the book screams: "Judge me by my cover!"

I do a quick flip through the book, the shape and size of the Bible, to seek clues to who Suter is and where his book belongs in the bigger scheme of local fashion, photography and art. And although its colourful brashness begs a special place on the shelves, this one is going to need time to establish its vintage status.

It is not automatically edgy like Boarding House by renowned photo-grapher Roger Ballen, also famed for inspiring cult rockers Die Antwoord.  And although it may take its cue from Lolo Veleko's pioneering work, neither can it be compared to her portraiture.

But the book is justified on other grounds. As somebody who reads local and international fashion blogs on a daily basis (The Sartorialist, Jak and Jil, and Face Hunter), I have come to understand the term "street style" to be something beyond the fashion that people wear on the street. Cleverly, Suter does not limit himself in his exploration of style.

In Sharp Sharp, Suter shares the myriad images of his journey across the three main cities of South Africa. It is a foray into what he calls the "aesthetically neglected community". Of course, he means a city-based community overlooked by suburbanites. It is they who, in discovering what lies beyond the ­Nelson Mandela Bridge, could benefit from the book's content. Here they will find a world that is not hostile to interact with. The photographs feature proud posers, street art by proficient graffiti artists such as faith47 and Rasty, and an impressive collection of hand-painted walls and sandwich boards depicting the hairstyles of 1990s African-American celebrities.  

Among the bold photographs of self-styled fashion icons and fat mamas at hair salon entrances is a sporadic glossary of street terms: chiskop (shaved head), kota (quarter loaf) and bunny chow. These are accompanied by quotes from street artists and other people about their work or their sartorial influences and perspectives.

Eventually, the imagery is blurred into a montage of monotony. I do not know whether it is because the city streets of South Africa are all the same or just a result of what the photographer chose to shoot.  

Cultural tourism
Although he is South African, Suter spent the better part of his career as a photographer in the United States and the United Kingdom. On his return to South Africa in 2006 he discovered the "forgotten, rough-edged, unpredictable and unsterile" streets of Cape Town, where shops sell corned tongue, vetkoek curries and "double Os" (cool drinks). He also discovered the streets of Jo'burg populated by those "left behind when the rest of the ­population migrate[d] to the bland 21st-century mall".

This "journey of discovery" is a somewhat naive approach to our situation. But Suter, as a white guy, probably means well. He went out and took photographs of things he finds interesting, possibly because they are unfamiliar to him – and to most people who buy coffee-table books.

Yet, as someone who is out on these streets regularly when I go to get my hair done in Yeoville or partying downtown, these images are not new. Not to me or to the other thousands who often do the cultural commute between urban and suburban spaces. Perhaps we need to be reminded that those cheesy hand-painted hair salon boards are interesting.  

Sharp Sharp relies on a juxtaposition of well-dressed and intriguing people with those who have clearly diluted the notion of high fashion. Here, a really interesting-looking black man wearing a West African dashiki, leather jacket and head wrap, who has a messy beard and no shoes and carries a well-aged leather satchel, appears next to a woman with a weave wearing a red peasant skirt, turquoise top, fuchsia scarf, beaded necklace and periwinkle handbag. She seems like nothing more than a clotheshorse for mainstream fashion stores such as Foschini and Truworths. The propaganda presents us in unity: we are all at one on the street.

In terms of the layout, the photographs are sandwiched against one another sans white space. Perhaps it is the author's attempt to say that in these streets space is disorganised compared with the barren but pristine streets of the suburbs or the organised alleys of the malls.  

The book, then, is meant to look like a representation of its subjects – bold, colourful and unrefined. But does it invite its reader to go out and discover the "real streets", to go and mingle with the people? Or is it merely a facsimile of a raw and real experience?

Either way, at a price of about R300, it is doubtful that Sharp Sharp is intended to be bought by the very people it portrays. And that raises another serious discussion.