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.