Wednesday, October 20, 2010

When Historical Documents become Aesthetic Objects: Ernest Cole at JAG

Given that JAG apparently boasts quite a sizeable collection of Ernest Cole photographs one has to wonder why the gallery hasn’t staged a Cole exhibition until now. This Cole exhibition presented the Hasselblad foundation’s collection. It’s a pity it’s not a retrospective, where one could view all his work including his commercial/journalistic work and his early beginnings – he had a camera from a young age. It would have also been interesting to see the photographs he took in the US too; fixated on mapping social inequality he photographed African Americans and the homeless while living there.

I missed the Cole exhibition in Cape Town awhile ago so this was the first time I saw a large collection of his work. Aside from the content it was the size of the images that initially struck me. They seemed inordinately small. Of course, these were standard dimensions for photographs of that era and conformed to photographers’ notion of their craft as journalistic. According to the curator of this exhibition, Gunille Knape, Cole had a very clear idea that his work belonged to this realm of production. The art historian Michael Fried suggests that photography’s transition from documentary mode to art can on a most basic level be observed through the changing dimensions of photographs. Photographs with an art sensibility are considerably larger, he posits.

Nevertheless it seems that Cole did employ visual devices particular to photography designed for display. Some of his images, particularly one that showed people moving across a barren landscape (I discuss it at some length in my review), are incredibly dark. As any one in the print media will know, dark photographs do not print well. And in fact this one would never have made it into a newspaper – which is why it would have been impossible for me to have run it with my review in the Sunday Indy.
According to Gunwille, it was fashionable in the seventies for photographers of a certain ilk to print dark photographs – it was a way of distinguishing their work from journalistic products. It also added drama to the image too. Certainly it is reminiscent of the use of chiaroscuro in painting.

In my review, I tried to present this inbuilt friction surrounding photographs function as either historical documents and/or aesthetic objects, which is made all the more complex when the content maps political and social injustice. Though this discourse is perhaps tired, I am increasingly finding that it is a bit of a cop-out to simply embrace all imagery and photography as art. It’s an expedient way of circumventing this debate but it fails to address the fact that not every visual product shares the same origin, is shaped by the same intentions or is open to a certain brand of readings.

My review:

HERE was some debate around where this Ernest Cole exhibition should be staged. Given that Cole had dedicated himself to mapping the conditions of life under apartheid, some apparently thought it prudent to display this series of  photographs from the Hasselblad collection at the Apartheid Museum. Gunilla Knape, its Swedish curator, was against this suggestion, fearing that the integrity of Cole’s work might be obscured
– in other words that they might be read as dry historical documents rather than thoughtful visual products. Fortunately Knape won out in the end and Cole’s survey of South Africa in the sixties now adorns the walls of the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

The bulk of this collection of images were published in Cole’s seminal monograph, House of Bondage (1967), a book that Cole designed to inform an international audience led to believe that “apartheid is essentially about good neighbourliness”. Consequently, it is difficult to draw a line between the function of the photographs as political documents and aesthetic objects, and to completely embrace them as the latter seems almost immoral given the content.

Cole aimed to thoroughly describe black life under white rule. He captured every understated detail of this existence. In a series of images documenting the lives of  the Mogale family, he shows the daily experiences of the young children: from the four crowded around a single bowl of porridge to studying by candlelight, to sleeping on flat mattresses on the floor. He does not attempt to describe “poverty” in a single image; rather he attempts to show the gradations of impoverishment so that the subjects are never released from their appalling status. When he trains his lens on another child, a boy named Papa, who in one image is said to be caught between sorrow and joy, he seems to be trying to grasp a vocabulary beyond the documentary mode. The image is slightly blurred and the child’s face is frozen in a contorted grimace. The caption, which explains that the line between laughter and sadness is a fine one, really qualifies this image and explains its relevance to Cole.

On the brink of becoming a teenager this young black child is also presumably on the brink of discovering his station in a white-dominated society. This state of transition will mean that he will move from naively surveying the world to seeing it for what it is and realising he has no place in it.

Cole mourns for the future these children will face and perhaps for the loss of his own naivety; the harsh realities he documents have forced him to repeatedly confront the warped sociopolitical reality in which he  dwelled. He cannot live in denial.

Nor can his audience when he confronts them with a barrage of images which so thoroughly map every level of degradation the apartheid state inflicted upon black South Africans. It is hard not to be moved. Cole
demonstrates the ways in which racist laws permeated and corrupted almost every aspect of life. The thoroughness of his project is  predetermined by the thoroughness of this inhumane system.

The text in House of Bondage, with which apparently Cole wasn’t satisfied, doesn’t engage with the formal aspects of Cole’s work or his process – only the political content the images evoked. In this way
Cole’s artistic acumen was obviated. Fact is Cole was a sophisticated photographer with visual savvy. A photograph of people traversing a semi-rural landscape to and from the Mamelodi township is nuanced and evocative, showing people moving towards a band of hazy mist on the horizon. It’s as if they are walking towards oblivion. It is such a dark image – his subjects are almost invisible, succinctly articulating the manner in which black people’s sense of self was perpetually negated.

Certainly Cole understood how to harness the poetics inherent in black and white photography to give expression to the suffering of that era. This is probably why his work has always been viewed through a sociopolitical lens. His wordy captions bear important details that suggest
that as thorough as Cole was in capturing the minutiae of the poor conditions, there were so many aspects that could not be visually described.

In the few lengthy captions that he wrote he doesn’t state the date and location of the photographs as most photographic documenters do. He is concerned with a different set of particulars. The caption for a photograph of a sick man lying in a bed explains that the mattress was a jute bag filled with grass, showing that even the ill and old weren’t afforded any dignity at the end of their lives. The mattress looks ordinary from afar, certainly one cannot see the jute that Cole refers to.

Cole must have been frustrated with the fact that not every detail of life under this repressive system could be captured but he also understood that the dry facts themselves wouldn’t suffice. However, he would not have wanted his photographs to be seen solely as aesthetic objects. Given that poverty, servitude and exploitation are still realities, the subject matter of his work remains an albatross around our necks.

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