Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Black & Light: Broomberg & Chanarin

ID 5, 2013
It is unexpected and, perhaps, even disconcerting, to be confronted with a large collection of polaroids at Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s new exhibition, To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse, at the Goodman Gallery. This dated photographic product is so diminutive that you have to stand centimetres away from the images to view them. Not that this offers much satisfaction either; the images are split in two, blurred and dark, and the views of the natural vegetation that Broomberg and Chanarin have snapped are so partial that their subject matter – the Karoo landscape – is always beyond your grasp. It’s the worst kind of tease; knowing that something exists in front of you but you’re unable to access it.

This seems to fly in the face of the prevailing fashion of art photographs. They have been steadily growing in scale to conform to this idea that a photograph is more likely to be read as an art object if it large.
As the American art theorist Michael Fried has observed, this burgeoning scale has allowed the photographic image to be constructed – and read – like a painting; it’s absorptive, immersive and can accommodate details that prolong the act of looking.

Yet there is something painterly about this series; it is a visceral and abstract  act of documentation driven by capturing the sensual details of the setting; the warm light, the textures of the plants. In some instances you are fleetingly rooted in the middle of a field of flowers.

This picturesque and pleasing veneer conceals, and is motivated by, an unusual political statement; an effort to reverse, invert the use of the ID-2 Polaroid camera and vintage film from the apartheid era.
The technology of this camera and film was developed to enable black people to be photographed – early colour film was only engineered to ably capture white skin. This actuality is illustrated via a display of test images of “Shirley”, a female model deemed to possess the ideal shade of whiteness upon which to identify the perfect amount of light needed to illuminate the body/subject.

 The exhibition is peppered with a number of historical artefacts pertaining to the history that informs their project, establishing the gallery as a pseudo-museum space, while blurring the boundary between art object and historical document – it’s easy to mistake one for the other in this context.
Strip Test 4, 2012

The display of test shots of Shirley establishes the inherent bias built into photography; the way in which the technology ensured that black subjects were rendered invisible. The twosome present their own “strip tests” with black subjects. A black woman with white paint on her face and wearing a white towel is further “whitened” on a strip test; so, even though she appears to be trying to appear white, she is further “erased”.
Making the gradation of light visible in these images, the duo draw our attention to the constructedness of image-production, the unseen technological laws of light that predetermine not only how a subject is read but how this impacts on how they might view themselves.

Interestingly, when a better technology was developed to capture black subjects, the apartheid state was keen to harness it for the production of passbooks. In this way, the invisibility of black subjects was overturned only in an effort to catalogue and control them. Put plainly; this positive development was used by the South African government towards a sinister end. In typical fashion this transpired via a cloak-and-dagger scheme, in which the American manufacturers of Polaroid where revealed to be both co-conspirators and, eventually, strong detractors against the apartheid state.
Broomberg and Chanarin’s interest and emphasis on the inbuilt bias of dated photographic instruments directs our attention to the complicity that is forced upon its users, regardless of their point of view.
This puts a different spin on the lomography craze, the recent popularity among amateurs to collect and shoot with old analogue cameras. The duo seem to warn against a kind of thoughtless nostalgia for the old; these artefacts (as do all) come with intangible baggage, though in their own reappropriation of the medium, they are seeking out a way of overcoming it.

On a metaphorical level, the duo are quite obviously tackling the nature of racism; this inbuilt feature, a warped lens that perceives reality. As white South Africans they could be confronting their own unwitting complicity while trying to overturn it. Acknowledging that the “photographic eye” is inherently twisted is the first step.

The Polaroid series is an effort to unwrite a history and transcend the racism built into the|technology. In taking the snapshots of the Karoo with this twisted technology they challenge all the rules for its use; they don’t obey the recommended distance, or use “the booster” – the modification that allowed for extra light to capture the black subject. Most importantly, they refuse to apply it to black subjects. Is this a cop-out, in the sense that they aren’t overwriting the history but avoiding it, in a sort of trite and sentimental journey to meditate on the South African landscape? Can absolution and recovery be found in the land, which is not a depoliticised subject either?

Ultimately, perhaps the duo acknowledge that they - as white photographers - cannot “recover” black subjects from the grip of apartheid era-style representation. In doing so they may implicate themselves, as so many of their contemporaries – Pieter Hugo, Guy Tillim – have done. White African photographers’s work is inherently read in a particular way; the photographic eye is perceived to be overwritten by a biological and ideological one, determined by race, racism. So in a way it isn’t just the flaws in technology they must challenge.

Broomberg and Chanarin  attempt to turn the lens inwards with  an intimate and personal exploration of a natural world. It is their own release that they seek, their own identity they wish to overcome, all the while with an awareness that this can never be realised.- published in The Sunday Independent, February 03, 2013

  • The Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light shows at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg until February 16.

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