Through the lens: Exploring land and photography in SA

Marking 100 years since the introduction of the 1913 Land Act, four new books explore the relationship between land and photography through the lenses of prolific South African, French and British photographers.

A hardcover compilation of photographs of South Africa by six French and six local photographers, Transition features an illustration by award-winning author and illustrator Nolan Dennis.

Twice recreated as a mural, first in Arles at the Recontres photography festival in July and more recently in Cape Town during the University of Cape Town's Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts creative symposium, and titled Land, the sprawling drawing uses various legal, scientific, historical and literary texts to evoke a rolling landscape and culminates with a transcription of the 1913 Natives Land Act.

A decisive piece of legislation that formalised the colonial land grab and created a landless labour class, the legacy of the Act served as the thematic bull's-eye for various creative projects in 2013.

Transition, an exhibition and publishing project that forms part of the 2012-2013 South Africa-France Seasons, offers an at times oblique view of South Africa as physical territory.

Working with Pieter Hugo, French photographer Raphaël Dallaporta floated his camera over Johannesburg's mine dumps using a remote-controlled helicopter.

The photos were digitally sutured together into irregular composites that offer a surreal but true view of Johannesburg. "You pretty much feel you are on another kind of planet," Dallaporta says in an accompanying interview. Very true.

Alain Willaume, who travelled through the Karoo, photographed strangers and dust trails. The latter will become a prominent feature of Karoo life when hydraulic fracking commences, an industrial process that requires new dirt roads for the tankers supplying water to the rural work sites. Willaume's essay is paired with Santu Mofokeng's colour photographs of anti-fracking activism.

Thabiso Sekgala's photographs describe the ordinary ritual of living in the periurban sprawl of blighted mining regions.

Transition opens with essays by Thabiso Sekgala and Philippe Chancel, both photographed in Brits, Marikana and Rustenburg. Sekgala is a talent. His photographs, a mix of landscapes and portraits, describe the ordinary ritual and everyday ennui of living in the peri-urban sprawl of this blighted mining region.

Historically, South Africa's mining industry benefited greatly from the effects of taxes and mass evictions on rural land dwellers. A century later, its after-effects remain, as is witnessed by two new photo books focused on the mining industry.

Tales from the City of Gold
"After the mines came the dumps, and with them uncomfortable questions about what kind of country South Africa aims to be," writes Mara Kardas-Nelson in her introduction to British photographer Jason Larkin's accomplished book-length essay, Tales from the City of Gold (Kehrer Verlag).

Like Dallaporta, Larkin recognises the weird boundaries that define life in Johannesburg. In one photo taken in 2012 in Riverlea, a grey-brown RDP house with tiled roof, satellite dish and security board is presented abutting the lunar landscape of a dump.

One of Larkin's most striking photos shows the mine dump on which Top Star drive-in once sat being recycled.

Legacy of the Mine
Ilan Godfrey's Legacy of the Mine (Jacana), published after receiving the 2012 Ernest Cole Award, also includes a mandatory dump scene from Riverlea. It lacks the zing of either Larkin or Hugo's photographs of dumps.

People rather than places, perhaps, are Godfrey's strength. His portrait of four informal gold diggers in Roodepoort updates the image of mining as an enterprise funded by self-confident men in suits.

His portrait of Jan van Wyk, a prospector posed among rusting equipment in Windsorton, a diamond field founded in 1869 in the Northern Cape, summarises the destructive endurance of mining as an activity.

Destruction was central to the colonial and apartheid settlement of South Africa. Nowhere is this more evident than along the slopes of Table Mountain, where the scar of District Six remains visible.

People Apart: 1950s Cape Town Revisited
In the late 1940s, Bryan Heseltine, a Newlands-based Leica disciple, made photos of Bo-Kaap, District Six, Windermere and Langa. Exhibited locally in 1952, his astonishing portraits of industrious black barbers, tobacconists and cobblers, as well as people at leisure, have remained unseen since they were exhibited in London in 1955, three years after he emigrated.

Assiduously compiled into book form by photo historian Darren Newbury, People Apart: 1950s Cape Town Revisited (Black Dog Publishing) is mandatory for anyone interested in South African photography.

Bryan Heseltine's portraits lent themselves to the idea of a cosmopolitan urbanism in the 1940s.

Heseltine's photographs, writes Newbury, lend themselves – historically, but also projectively now in the present – to the "imagination of a more cosmopolitan urbanism". Cities, after all, are also a kind of landscape, an intensely peopled one.

Sean Otoole
Guest Author

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