In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Matthew Partridge: The Digital Taboo: The De-saturation of the Common Place

David Goldblatt, Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, in the time of Aids. 13 October 2004, 2004, archival pigment ink on cotton rag paper, 99 x 127cm
Fishing with my father off the coast of Durban,just outside the entrance to the harbour on a 4.5m inflatable, semi-rigid rubber duck. Royal blue with yellow trim. A Dorado on the line, a streaking flash of brilliant colours through the water, golden green, azure, a rounded nose, a Winston you would call it on a person. Landed, the 8kg beast thrashes on deck as its gills find themselves unaccustomed to the oxygen that human lungs so readily enjoy. With a cruel blow to the back of its head to relieve this breathless anguish, the colours fade as the life drains. South African photography is not known for its particularly striking or even daring colours. Rather it is the banal, abject and quotidian that has come to characterise photographic representation under our new democratic dispensation. And this is murder. Not murder in the instant, life-ending way. But murder in the sense that one would murder a fish. Beat it over the back of the head and watch as the life drains, as the colour fades.

This has come to typify our way of seeing – South Africa’s photographic vision. Photography, after all, is the most alchemical of the arts, the most elusive, the most subjective. But that’s not what the people behind the camera will tell you. Then again, it’s not they who are most important. Before the pictures get to us they’ve got one more stop to make, one more mediator to go through. And that sir, is the printer. And who’s the man? Tony. Tony Meintjies. There is no single way to look at or even process a colour print. It’s all technical. And it’s got worse. The advent of digital technology has forever altered the possibilities of what we can and cannot do, what we can and cannot see. If the sensory perception of the eye is an incredible thing, like the shutter, then the mind, like the computer, is of an infinitesimal proportion. That’s the nature of memory: we remember things like we want to, not how they happened. Photographs are similar, they are renditions of the world, a distant reality that we use to make sense of things that occurred beyond us, out of our reach.

Stephen Shore, Second Street, Ashland, Wisconsin, July 9, 1973, 1973
As Susan Sontag says, “photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph”. In this version of its utility, she tells us that the camera record incriminates. If this is so then we are all guilty. But what’s more, in another version of its utility, “the camera record justifies”. Justifies what? Experience? How can living ever be justified? How can experience ever be translated. Perhaps the advent of film did that. Moving pictures where we see ourselves, where we vicariously gaze at versions of ourselves depicted by other people.

But still, its other people who decide on what we do and do not look like. And that is the crux. Photographs always used to be in black and white. Monochromatic windows into a world where tonal gradient was the defining gesture. Here was photography in all of its emotive grandeur. But then colour came around and gave us something different to believe in. And the pioneering granddaddy of colour photography is, arguably, the American Stephen Shore. After him, colour photography would never be the same. Suddenly we began to look at so much more of the world, seeing a different reflection, other than that of the confining claustrophobia of the silver gelatine print.

Colour defines the world with a different kind of intimacy. It is a question of visual morality. The world rendered in black and white seems so much more honest, so much more direct. Colour, on the other hand, tarnishes, blurs the boundaries of what is and what isn’t. Yet it brings us closer to what we see, playing on the subjective nature of memory. Here colour helps to communicate the subject matter with a hand that is laden with all the veracity that the spectrum can provide.
Stephen Shore, Presidio, Texas, February 21, 1975, 1975

But what have we come to know? And how have we come to know it? The lone Texan standing to centre right of Shore’s Presidio, Texas, February 21, 1975 looks out at us against an endlessly blue sky cut by power cables. This is Texas. The shadows are long and the earth is scorched. Our eyes grasp the geometry of the image in an instant, something that would take us minutes in real life. Here, there is no periphery. We are invited to gaze, directly. David Goldblatt, arguably, the granddaddy of South African photography, also invites us into the landscape, inviting our stares, asking for our contemplation. Yet colour for him is used to different ends. Here it is as though the light is scorched, not the earth. It is searing and desiccated, revealing all and leaving us desperate for some moisture to quench this insatiable thirst.

The Eastern Cape is experiencing a time of drought. Goldblatt’s image of High Street in Grahamstown,entitled Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, in the time of Aids, October 13, 2004, attests to this. The level of de-saturation is so stark that the tar is virtually indistinguishable from the blue of the sky. The cathedral and clock tower hang ominously in what seems to be a shadowless plain. Here colour does not seduce, instead it scorns as though the light bears a kind of resentment for that which it reveals.

Colour is still relatively new in Goldblatt’s oeuvre, although he has made extensive use of it in his commercial work. Nevertheless, it is still very distinct and not for the predictable emotive reasons,but instead for it sheer muted tonal range, as if the world is dying slowly, like a quietening memory. But it would be unfair to single Goldblatt out alone for this aesthetic. Guy Tillim’s Jo’burg series (2004), Pieter Hugo’s ‘Gadawan Kura’ - The Hyena Men series I-II (2005-07), even the recent work of Michaelis prize winner Rob Watermeyer’s Points of Entry (2008) all spring to mind. Colourfully dry with a hard light.

David Goldblatt, In Boksburg town, corner of Commissioner and Eloff Streets. December
2008, 2008, archival pigment ink on cotton rag paper, 50 x 50cm
This begs the question: What informs these decisions, or is it merely fashion? One following the other, getting that look. Desaturation in photography is not unique to South Africa, yet it has come to define what contemporary South African photography looks like. It is not merely down to just the selective interpretation of the photographer’s eye, but to the final conceit of the print. And that ruse begins with the printer.

Colour is gaudy, even vulgar; it says too much, gets in the way, distracts. Yet it can express so much of the vitality of a scene. Look at Shore’s Second Street, Ashland, Wisconsin, July 9, 1973 for example. The Bay Theatre is bustling with neon life as the night sets in. There is so much that is alive about the picture. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) is showing. The retro façade holds a world beyond which we can only gaze into, bringing our imagination to life. By contrast, Goldblatt’s colour photograph of the Pep store on the corner of Commissioner and Eloff Streets in Boksburg, originally photographed in black and white in 1979 and published in the book In Boksburg (1982), is bleached of any colour. It does not invite you in. The yellow of the Pep logo looks turgid, while the sky is virtually absent of any familiar blue. Even the shadows are absent of any texture.

There is something so seemingly ordinary about this type of South African colour – a pale aesthetic, a distinctive lack, as if the acknowledgement of the full presence of the spectrum would be too extreme for our eyes. Yet this is a choice, done very deliberately and hardly spoken about. Is it because South African photography is dying internally, or is the light merely not strong enough to indicate the
possibility of life?

Matthew Partridge is currently completing his MAFA at the Michaelis School of Fine Art and lectures Art History and Visual Culture at Rhodes University. Thanks to the Centre for Curating the Archive, University of Cape Town

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