Wednesday, July 6, 2011



Although this day was largely about the aesthetics of visiting the exhibition of South African photography, it was also a chnce to try and get to know a new wide angle lens I recently bought. Its' easy to obsess about camera equipment with some people seeing it as the reason for a good image yet one does not want to ignore the effect of focal length on the way images appear! I found the lens helped me get images I would not have otherwise been able to make but required a little work in the Lens Correction panel of Lightroom to adjust the perspective while it is not easy to get rid of distortion completely.

using a wide angle to shoot without people realising! this image has been cropped to a panoramic

My car roared down the motorway towards the station as I experienced the uneasy sensation that I was not going to reach the station by 8.08 a.m. in spite of having risen in good time before leaving; near the station there were road works and I was held up further. Fortunately though, I was mistaken in the time of departure and was able to make the train and my pre-booked first class seat that is offered at less than the cost of an ordinary second class seat at week-ends during the summer.

I did not want to miss the OCA day! At the station, I could not find the appropriate piece of banker’s plastic with which to pay for my pre-ordered ticket but I was allowed to the front of the queue and the ticket office saw fit to accept a different card. The train sped to London but arrived almost half an hour late though this did not matter, or so it seemed, since I still had another half hour to reach the V+A. However, the Circle line was not running and the queue for taxis very long! I started jogging through the streets and eventually found a taxi ... “I’ll get you there mate! but Exhibition Road is closed to traffic at the moment!”

students and tutors outside the V+A Museum

I was only 5 minutes late in meeting up with the OCA throng that consisted of tutors Jose Navarro and Clive White as well as Gareth Dent, the OCA CEO, and various female students a number of whom I recognized from previous days. Jose reminded us of what the day was about, not just a social event but also a chance to study and discuss what we were about to see. Moments later, we were shuffling into the exhibition to find ourselves confronted with Pieter Hugo’s image of “Pieter and Maryna Vermeulen with Timana Phosiwa”, an image that the curator discussed in a talk I attended; the image reflects the difficult transformation that South African society underwent in the 1990’s. This image is by someone of Dutch ethnicity and features those of Dutch ethnicity though the central figure, a small yet plump child, is distinctly African.

entrance to the exhibition

I had already seen the exhibition. What might I learn from a second viewing? Looking again I felt I might see things I had not seen the first time and gain a deeper understanding of the exhibition as a whole. I had been interested by the title, “Fact and Fictions” and wondered whether it was making a comment on photography as a whole rather than just describing this exhibition. I think it is yet perhaps many major exhibitions are making a comment on photography as well as the subject they are dealing with since curators are usually highly knowledgeable and not just picking their favourite images but ones that are representative of a genre or pushing the limits of that genre.

looking at the exhibition; this space showed images by David Goldblatt

Of course, by being with three tutors and other students, one had a chance to learn more from the experience. I don’t want to quote anyone in particular as off the cuff statements can easily be misread and so the views expressed here although sometimes suggested by others, are best understood as my own. Apologies to anyone if they feel I have hijacked their views!

a photo used to advertise the exhibition

One of the first images one sees if making one’s way clockwise through the exhibition is that of Martin Machapa by Zanele Muholi; it is also used in advertising the exhibition. There is something disturbing in the awkward pose of this man that might however appear sensuous to gay men; there is elegance but also an apparent submission to western dress and culture.

As on my first visit, the most outstanding photographs were made by a couple of Muslim twins who have cleverly worked their way around their traditional background to present images that seem to blur the differences between the real and the unreal. They photograph themselves at work in an abbatoir, taking it in turns to take the photographs and photoshopping when they need more than two people in the frame. One feels the reality of the situations are not being compromised by computer work.

Guy Tillim photographs African people; there is much use of black while the colours tend to be pastel.

Mikhael Subotzky’s photograph of a security guard standing outside a hut that in turn stands outside a much larger house, was again an image that drew me while others also liked it.

Van Wyck’s large photographs of heads and shoulders on black backgrounds was work not so easy to understand. Soft lighting here really brings out the detail. Form seemed to be dominating content.

Jodi Beiber with her photographs of semi-naked women are quite challenging and derive from a series of photographs depicting the real woman. Here, the women show something of their other selves that might well be otherwise hidden.

LUNCH : Gareth is not fond of having his photograph taken

After seeing the exhibition, an hour and a half seemed barely enough time, we went for lunch in the museum's excellent restaurant; Gareth once again financed our feast!

Do photographs need text? Might not really good images be free of text because they convey their entire message visually? This is a well worn topic! Some of Santu Mofokeng’s photographs definitely do need some text since his images of a group of teenagers is entitled “Child-lead Households”; knowing this and the fact that the parents have died of AIDS helps us to reflect upon the nature of the work.

Typology seems to feature in this exhibition. In fact, the curator mentioned this in her talk, saying that the exhibition shows work that follows some of the major genres of South African photography of which photographing people of certain types was used to document people for surveillance purposes.

students and tutors interact in the David Goldblatt exhibition

Of all the photographers, that of David Goldblatt stands out, not because he is necessarily the best but because he is the oldest and has taught the others. His work is very much of the traditional social documentary approach and there is another gallery at the V+A devoted to his finely crafted black and white work. We visited this exhibition after lunch. The work here reads more like a history of South Africa over the second half of the last century with images placed in chronological sequence.

those who lingered went back to the restaurant later on for a cup of tea; large meringues were also on sale
I decided to buy the exhibition catalogue. The essay by the curator Tamar Garb outlines the way in which the photographers in this exhibition have drawn from traditional approaches in particular the approach of photographers who systematically documented the people of South Africa, categorizing them by the their racial origins.

some vegetarian Shushi before boarding the train home

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