Mail & Guardian

Ghosts of the past

28 Feb 2009 06:00 | Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal looks at three photographic books that illuminate our history and raise some intriguing questions about the present

Republished late last year, Then and Now (Highveld) highlights the work of eight South African photographers and contrasts their work during the apartheid era with their work in the new democracy. Put together by Paul Weinberg, it is the companion volume to a travelling exhibition. Seven of the eight photographers were associated with the Afrapix collective, which did much to document the upheavals of the 1980s. Many images here are iconic, and that's not just because some of them appeared in The Weekly Mail. The photograph by Paul Weinberg (who also edited the book) of a lone woman raising her fists to two Casspirs feels as though it sums up the whole era.

The eighth photographer in the book is David Goldblatt, who was not an Afrapix member but was indubitably a kind of spiritual father to that generation of South African photographers. The contrasts between "then" and "now" are not necessarily as stark as one might expect; often there is an ironic resonance between the images of the two eras.

It is fascinating, though, to see how these socially engaged photographers have extended their work into the era of democracy. Some go beyond the borders of South Africa to see what is happening in the rest of the continent from which we were cut off for so long; others find a more personal register in which to interact with the world around them. Gisèle Wulfsohn, for instance, turns her lens on people living with HIV/Aids, whereas Graeme Williams moves closer towards the realm of "pure" or "art" photography.

Not that there wasn't art involved in making even the 1980s and early 1990s images. Guy Tillim's 1988 photo of a Transkei herder and cattle, say, is as much a gorgeous meditation on clouds, hides, landscape and movement as it is about a particular way of life in South Africa. Tillim's work since the end of apartheid both extends into other parts of Africa and refines its aesthetic concerns.

Tillim's own new book, Avenue Patrice Lumumba (Prestel), looks at the decaying and patched-together modernist buildings erected either in the dying days of colonialism in Africa or soon after independence. They represent what he calls "a walk through avenues of dreams" -- the deferred dream, perhaps, of a post-colonial accession to the modern, as well as the lost dream of revolutionaries such as Lumumba, murdered just as he articulated a new cry for African freedom. There's probably an Avenue Patrice Lumumba in most African capitals, ironically mythologizing a figure whose hopes and beliefs have been so often betrayed by post-colonial states.

The most obvious images here are those of colonial sculptures left to rot in some yard, or that in which a statue of Augustine Net, the Angolan leader at the time of independence, stands swathed in black plastic in the town square. Perhaps it has yet to be unveiled, but in the photo it reads as something half on display and half hidden, its status uncertain.

Sometimes the buildings Tillie portrays are empty, and he finds in them the sparse geometry of a desolate, skeletal kind of space, as well as the textures of decay -- which, as Breton Breytenbach pointed out some time ago, is also a kind of life. Sometimes the buildings and the photographs are inhabited, and a smiling or thoughtful face or the contours of a body remind us that people are living here.

Similar thoughts occur to one while looking at Goldblatt's Intersections Intersected (Civilização Editora and Museu Serralves), which is structured like Then and Now. Goldblatt images from the 1960s to the 1980s are set against those taken in the late 1990s and the 2000s; there are subtle contrasts and often harsh ironies. In a 1967 image, for instance, a portrait of HF Verwoerd hangs askew in a Cape voorkamer; in 2006, a bleached election poster of a smiling Thabo Mbeki hangs rather disconsolately on a low farm fence.

In the introductory text of Then and Now Michael Godby comments that in the 1980s the Afrapix photographers "would frequently both avoid the centre of the format, seemingly to allow for a multiple focus in the picture, and work with the margins, as if to acknowledge — the fact that life obviously continued beyond the frame". This may have felt like the more democratic thing to do, at a time when South Africa yearned for democracy, so it's interesting to see how Goldblatt moves so inexorably in that direction in his most recent works. It's as though his world is now less centred, less obviously focused, in the time of democracy than it was "then".

His street scenes (one of many in which there is no human face or body at all) are exemplary of this tendency, filling the frame with human activity and inanimate structure to speak of an urban landscape in which the individual face barely manages to provide a focal point -- or comes to be one only after the eye has slid off a whole lot of other surfaces and found the human expression almost hidden or lost in the busyness.

In another image this tendency seems to reach its logical conclusion. It shows a suburban garden almost overflowing with plants that all but obscure the wall that cuts through them. At first I saw it simply as a portrait of greenery getting on with its own life, a contrast perhaps to the images of streets and people or those of dry veld and cracked monuments. But then, over the page, I read the caption: "Our summer garden and ADT", it says, and a return to the photograph and a more careful gaze reveals the sign of suburban security concerns all but lost in the foliage. Even amid green growth, there is a reminder of threat.

Images such as those made by Goldblatt, Tillim and the photographers represented in Then and Now allow us to see beyond the borders of our own little worlds, or to see our own worlds afresh.

David Goldblatt revisits the subject of his book In Boksburg (1982), which featured photographs taken in 1979 and 1980. The show (at Michael Stevenson in Cape Town from February 26) exhibits new prints of those pictures, with some previously unseen works from the same series and with new photographs of the area today. The gallery is at 160 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock. Then and Now shows at the PhotoZA Gallery, 153 Oxford Road, Rosebank, Johannesburg, until March 15

View the original online publication here