marc shoul – brakpan

Hover over the image for navigation and full screen controls

Marc Shoul

Brakpan

play this essay

Brakpan is a small town that lies on the East Rand of Gauteng, sandwiched between Boksburg, Benoni and Springs. A once-prosperous mining community, today there are pawnshops, roadhouses, mechanics, mini casinos and other day-to-day shops lining the two main roads that slice through the town. Brakpan is like going back in time; so many aspects of the town remind me of old images I have seen of South Africa. Despite all the changes in nearby Johannesburg, Brakpan still goes about its business in much the same way it did before.  There is a lack of modern development. You don’t see Tuscan townhouse complexes or buildings with glass facades. It’s all very simple and straight forward – almost transparent, and this transparency can be seen in the people too. You won’t find any airs or graces, no fancy cappuccino shops, sushi cafes or organic goods in Brakpan.

The town does not seem to have benefited from its gold rush glory days, which spanned between 1911 until the mid 1950’s, and it now has very little to show for its’ past. Today, the once flourishing mining town only pulls out a small portion of gold compared to what it used to generate, and some disused gold mines now only sell rubble.

A second factor that has contributed to Brakpan’s sense of preservation is the development of Carnival Mall and Casino, which conveniently lies just off the highway a few kilometers away from Brakpan Central. All the major chains and retail shops have moved to the mall and, as a result, the town centre has been left untouched and undeveloped, stunting it economically and leaving its inhabitants with little opportunities.

And yet there are many faces to modern Brakpan. Young girls push prams while karaoke competition winners don’t get their promised prizes. Pirated DVD’s get sold on the streets, crippling the nearby video shops that rent out older movies. There is a sense of nostalgia that remains and is reflected in the buildings and in the people. This is a place where you can still enjoy school and church fete’s, rugby matches, old bars, sokkie jols, biker rallies, fishing and braaiing at the Brakpan Dam; all of which are a part of the local’s lives.

Here there is a peacefulness and relaxed country town feel, without the stress about what tomorrow may bring.  The people of Brakpan live in the now but are still bound by the constraints of the past.

The images presented here are printed on Multigrade V1 FB Fibre matt photographic paper. Exhibition prints are 40cm by 40cm in size in an edition of 10.

Bio

Marc Shoul lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was born in 1975 in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa and graduated (with honors in photography) from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in 1999. Since then, he has had several exhibitions of his work including group shows at the Arts Association of Bellville, Fusion (1999), Artscape, Mental Health, (2001) Cape Town, Month of Photography, Detour, (2002), Cape Town, Photo ZA, Obsess (2004) and Resolution Gallery, Faces (2008) in Johannesburg as well as at the World Health Organization TB exhibition in India (2004). Solo exhibitions of ‘Beyond Walmer’ were held by the Association of Visual Arts Gallery in Cape Town (2000) and Natal Society of Arts, Durban (2001).  “Flatlands” a solo exhibition was also held at the Association of Visual Arts in Cape Town (2009) with help from the National Arts Council. Shoul was also featured in the AGFA Youth International Photojournalism Publication 1999. He also reached the finals of the Absa L’Atelier 2009.  Flatlands showed at KZNSA in Durban, South Africa and Galerie Quai 1 in Vevey, Switzerland in 2010. Shoul was invited to hold a workshop at the Vevey School of Photography on the 2010. Shoul was also been included in After A at the Report Atri Festival, Italy, June 2010 curated by Federica Angelucci. Beyond Walmer is on show at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Museum June-August 2010. Brakpan (work in progress),Shoul has also been included in the Bonaini Africa 2010 Festival of Photography, Cape Town Castle of Good Hope and Museum Africa, Johannesburg. Brakpan (work in progress) was included in 10 a group exhibition at the PhotoMarket Workshop, Johannesburg, 2010. Brakpan in 2011 won the 1st prize at the Winephoto.

Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Museum added “Beyond Walmer” to its permanent collection (2007).

For the last ten years, Marc has worked for various local and international magazines such as Time, Colors, Wired, Blueprint, Dazed and Confused, Design Indaba, World Health Organization, Mother Jones, Stern, Gala, De Spiegel, Financial Times Magazine, Monocle, Smithsonian and The Telegraph Magazine, He has also shot for many advertising clients and agencies.

He has recently completed a project named ‘Flatlands’ in the Johannesburg inner city.  He is now working on a new body of work in Brakpan on the East Rand where he is exploring the city’s way of life and its people.

He is interested in exploring theams of social relevance and changes within his country and further a field.

Shoul works largely in black and white, using a medium format film camera and natural light printed on Fiber photographic paper.

 

Related links

Marc Shoul

40 Responses to “marc shoul – brakpan”


  • Some very interesting images here… love the Zebra to dog sequencing, the breaking down of the wall… Image #20 is a timeless classic…

  • This is a beautifully constructed essay. Congratulations for being here Marc.

    I liked the simple, factual and non-moralizing or patronizing statement. Somehow long but it marked out a specific place and situation, no more – no less. The images are even more impressive. Some truly stellar ones for me and an altogether well paced and solid story. Got a sense of a slow, quiet life, loads of time spent there by Marc and an honest intimacy with the locals. Superb. Well done and thanks for this Marc.

  • Very nice documentary work. I think it captures something of a universality for western (civ) small towns. Outside of the first pic, it’s largely indistinguishable from the American midwest (of course I associate pictures of zebras with southeastern Ohio, but it goes far beyond that). Or is that perceived universality a mirage? Is the photograph disguising very real and very deep differences?

    I would like the statement a lot more if it ended after the second paragraph. After that, it describes things about the town that are not part of the slideshow. You know the old saw, “show don’t tell.” Goes double for photo essays. But perhaps you have all those photos and they just didn’t fit in a small form factor sequence. And that’s a minor quip about the statement. Overall I think it’s excellent documentary photography.

  • Agree with all of the above. Well done Marc.

  • If it was food , I’d say: ” Delicious”

  • Superb essay, every single image. Funny how it takes MW to the midwest. For me, when I looked at it, it immediately transported me to places that I have been in the Rocky Mountain west – one spot in particular: Eureka, Utah. When I was in college, I went there for a weekend day to shoot a photo “essay” for one of my classes. Marc’s truly fine essay gives me a desire to go back and finish that essay – but that was a long time ago and for all I know Eureka may have well disappeared altogether people wise, or it may have become an artsy, cappucino community.

    I must find out.

    Concerning image #14, I could not help but wonder what Derick’s partner(s) think when they are in the middle of of their pleasure and they look at his tattoo. Maybe they close their eyes. Maybe sometimes Derick looks down at his tattoo instead of his partner. Maybe he finds it more interesting.

    These are the kind of questions good photography causes one to contemplate.

    Congratulations, Mark. Well done!

  • Sorry for the spelling error, Marc…

  • Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    Hmmmmm….. I dont know a single thing about South Africa. And certainly less about Brakpan, a place I would have never heard of it were not for this interesting photo essay. This work is steeped in good photography, finely composed, well exposed, traditional black and white values and sensibilities.

    But I want to bring up something here also. Why do I feel like there is a healthy presence of condescension in this work – like the photographer knows something that the people who fill these well composed frames themselves are not aware of? (And I wont touch the overwrought and self-congratulatory photographer’s statement and bio.) So, a question I always feel the need to have answered, what is the photographer’s relationship to this place and to these people and why is it in his interest and theirs to involve himself in their lives? Stuffed zebras, tigers on couches, grown woman in diaper, funny navel tattoo, Jesus festival – these are irresistible things to the man with a camera. And when told is this deadpan, ‘I’m not kidding – these things exist’ way…..well, of course the well-heeled and thoughtful observer must react and agree. These things must indeed exist; there they are right there in black and white in editions of 10. But I feel like this working is trying to let the viewer in on something which is, to me, a little insincere and relies more on what the photographer thinks about photography and less about what he thinks about his subjects.

    But maybe I just dont know anything about South Africa and that’s why I am not taken along. Or in.

  • I was going to hold onto my comment, but then Jamie put a finger on what I was thinking. The impression that formed in my mind was: “Going nowhere, may or may not realize it.” To me it’s a theme, or cliche, appearing constantly in modern photography.

  • Jamie and Andy,this is a perspective I never thought of. Solid point and it kind of unsettled my initial reaction to this essay. Will have to go back and spend a bit more time with it I guess.

    The very detailed and extensive bio and “edition of 10″ were off putting but the story still worked for me. Or does it? Hmmm…

  • I like #3 quite a lot.
    the rest are Ok for what they are, but seem to have some sort of identity issues.
    The captions are mostly pointless and should either be done properly or removed.

  • JOHN GLADDY…JAMIE

    John, hmmmm, really curious what your “identity issues” are here for Marc Shoul? seems like a photographer with his act quite together imo…you may have a point to make indeed, i just cannot figure out exactly what you mean..identity with the subject? stylistic identity? ..i see a rather classic set of cohesive photographs here…a set i have been anxious to publish here for a long time….i remember seeing this set amongst dozens of others in a recent competition , and these stood out…

    unless this photographer quits the biz , i suspect his work will be around for a long time to come…i had never heard of him nor seen his work nor have i met him that i know of, but one that i will have my eye on for his continuation of Brakpan….generally my tastes run towards a looser approach, but you know when somebody does something right then i tend not to care what style they are or from what era that we may have theoretically moved away from….good is good…

    what is really hard for any photographer is to do something that carries…lifts…sticks to the bone…Marc sort of reminds me of Emily Schiffer…remember her?? or Michelle Frankfurter?

    Jamie, this is always interesting to me when i hear that when pictures are really terrific, that somehow the photographer is more interested in “photography” than in the subject..what in the hell does that mean? i mean really…maybe the photographer is just a damned good photographer..no? aren’t we here to make great photographs, or try to? and if they do cross the line into good (which is rare) or great (which is nigh impossible) then why would that mean not caring about the subject? unless there is some transgression against the subject matter here of which i am not aware, then i just have a hard time understanding the reasoning…so help me please…

    when i see these i sense a total compliance with the subject, but i have never been to South Africa and do not know this subject so i cannot honestly say if these pictures represent Brakpan or not …but just as a purveyor of work , a viewer, a reader, i get hooked with this imagery…yet would anxiously continue this discussion…you may have a point Jamie that i am not interpreting correctly…that happens!!

    anyway John yes , captions are always a problem here…these are labels….labels tend to work in exhibitions and some books, but perhaps not here….i cannot remember a reader here on Burn ever saying “wow, great captions”….honestly, i think that captions are almost never satisfying…they either tell us what we can already see , interpret what we see in a way that is irritating, or are as you say often “pointless”…they are “not there” unless your mouse drags, so i see them as information for some and invisible if you don’t want to read them……so they seem harmless at worst…mostly amigo, just pleased you are here…

    cheers, david

  • DAVID.
    The overall impression I get from this is ‘decline’. A feeling of something passed and something slowly fading. A sense almost of an era gone. this does not seem to be reflected in the intention of the work…in fact almost the opposite. That is what I meant by identity.
    [for instance]
    “Here there is a peacefulness and relaxed country town feel, without the stress about what tomorrow may bring. The people of Brakpan live in the now but are still bound by the constraints of the past.”…watching the essay I certainly do not get this feeling, even though the images on the surface seem to show it. Do others then?

    As for the captions: Of course we are free not to let our mouse wander down to the bottom of the screen, but like a toothache, we cannot resist probing it once we know its there. :)

  • Nice essay and the damn place makes me uneasy, it’s the sort of place I’d need to see in my rear view mirror.

  • JOHN GLADDY

    ahhh yes, i do see what you mean on the identity bit …good point….and yes, well, captions…i do not have an answer for that one…frankly the internet presentation of work still does not have me totally comfortable…i do the best i know how to do here, but it is never what i think of as a “final result”…as you know i am still a print guy at heart and in practice…i feel best about Burn with our print versions….and the last few months working only on my own print presentation…so THAT still seems like the only decent way for me to show my own work and others as well…not sure how you will feel about the Rio pics, but you won’t be able to nail me for my artist statement OR captions….neither exists!!! pictures only…

    by the way, heading for Paris in the morning and staying where i last saw you…i am about out of steam but i just might end up in London….will call if i do….

    cheers david

  • hey does everybody see the shark in the lead picture of this essay?? it is ALL i can see…driving me crazy…no i am not smoking anything (sadly) nor drinking anything, but it really just JUMPS at me…very annoying

  • PAUL

    i do know what you mean…i have been looking at #16 for awhile…very very very strange…hey get some pictures to me…i KNOW you have some…

  • David, before this day ends I am going to send you an email to finally get things moving in response to the communications that I received from you and Diego just before I left, totally bogged down and overwhelmed, for India, etc.

    I know you always get to email eventually, but lease be looking for it tomorrow.

    Yes, I hadn’t before but I now see the shark and now it is the only thing I see when I look at the picture, too.

  • i see a shark
    and
    a
    mermaid…..
    xox

  • David…

    I’ve left a link on Facebook.
    I now see the shark and I now see nothing else. The images are very good, I can’t help thinking this place has been surreptitiously been taken over by a group of aliens. The sort of place one must keep the car engine running and sure to be out of town before the sun goes down. Herbert the factory clearer is spooky and DJ Sokkie and his partner must be the last two survivors of the undercover alien resistance team.

  • David,

    You could have kept that shark thing to yourself !
    I’m going outside to look at clouds….

    Hey do you need a hand with anything in Syd ?
    I will be hanging around for a few days…..

  • WENDY

    i was so busy being attacked by that shark , that i had not seen the mermaid, but of course now do….i guess we really are true beach bums…seeing sharks and mermaids in a landlocked mining town…

    forgive us Marc for hijacking your photograph…i hope you read what i wrote earlier……

    cheers, david

  • Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    Dear David – and I guess by extension Marc as well,

    Just to respond and hopefully clarify what I am picking up from this essay (and in general something I feel is present in a good deal of editorial photography these days); when I say I feel there is a lot of condescension in this work and that it seems more about the photography than the people I mean pretty simply that. Yes, the photography is very good. Clear compositions, nice use of light and shadow, striking images which fall right into the opus of the history of striking images. Which is what we – as the enlightened consumers of ‘good photography’ (we ‘know’ what a good photograph is here, dont we?) – have come to expect and respect. I take no issue with Marc’s ability to make ‘damned good’ photography – though I would really enjoy some discussion someday about what exactly that is – but what I do find a little tedious in this work in frame after frame (not all but many or most) is the sense of near-ridicule in the guise of documentary. I dont feel like the photographer actually respects these people, loves them; I think when he looks at them there is a hint of disdain, in fact, and that this is disguised by the ‘good photography’.

    Now, is it anyone’s responsibility to love their subjects? I guess not. I mean look, I said – there is too much in this work to like; the images I described and the frames are all good. I would be drawn to much of the same things because they are, in fact, very attractive – titillating to the camera even (tigers, stuffed zebras, Jesus, security guy…..). But I find this an oddly old theme, deeply and more-ably explored in many, many, many, many other bodies of work through the decades of contemporary photographic practice and I find it repeated to the point of being completely bored by it – all this clever photography which stands up before us here as a document of a place when it is a document of the the photographer’s technical and aesthetic sensibility. It’s a trick. We’ve become accustomed to mistaking a clever photograph for a good photograph.

    So if Marc is “interested in exploring theams of social relevance and changes within his country and further a field”, maybe a dose of empathy is required. This particular body of work leaves me with no sense of the people in the frames themselves, only of the photographer’s sense of them and I dont think he particularly cares for them.

    But what do I know? Marc has provided a long list of festivals, awards, exhibitions, international magazines and editors who would disagree with my humble perspective. It’s a laundry list of legitimacy that I cant compete with.

  • NOT going to look for the shark, NOT going to look for the shark…dun dun, dun dun, dun dun…aaaggghhhhh

    Sorry,..beautifully done Marc.

    Almost makes me feel like dusting off the Rollei…

  • Jamie
    I can appreciate your point of view. I also felt some of that when viewing this essay the first time. It is certainly true that a more sympathetic portrayal of the town could leave a whole different impression, and that the images from South Africa that have appeared here on burn seem to all leave the same taste in the mouth. I’m thinking of Roger Ballen and the amazing multi-media hotel piece way back.

    I’m not so sure however that I would assume any condescension. This is something very difficult to judge. Just look at the criticisms that Shelby Lee Adams work attracts. What exactly IS his intent? Is he poking fun or just recording what he sees? How do I feel when I look at these photographs? Do I feel superior to these people, or sympathetic? Is this just a kind of “people of Walmart” essay dressed up as art?

    “Good” photography to be sure. Perhaps risky ground to explore. I think this is important work.

  • Strong and strong proof that film is still worth it.

  • Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    Hi Gordon,

    It is difficult to judge – this issue I have raised – and in truth I really hesitated to bring it up. But something in this particular body of work bothers me and I see it in a lot of work by contemporary photographers. And it goes to the issue of power relations relative to who has the camera and, therefore, the voice. So this is my critique.

    I think most people working with media in the public sphere consider, simply, that they are doing their work, doing their job, and doing it to their best possible ability. And, again, I may be dangerously presuming again here but I think people bear a responsibility to the awareness (at least!) of their positions and their relationship relative to this issue.

    It bears discussion. I feel like a lot of photography is simply given a ‘pass’ as good photography because it does all the things that we recognize as being good and seldom with the observation of the politic (sexual, socio-economic, etc.) ingrained in the body of work. The statement and bio of this particular photographer irked me relative to the accomplishment of the work and it seemed to me to bear little relationship to the people whose lives are portrayed here. So this is one thing. I find it a bit offensive actually.

    You mentioned Roger Ballen. Roger hangs himself right out there in the frame. I feel him all over the work and I feel his strong relationship to the material, the ideas, and the people. There is no duplicity in what he does at all. The artifice is real and right and works to elevate both the idea an the work. And it’s original.

    In any case, I dont mean to be too obstinate on this point but I thought it bore recognition in this forum and relative to this work. Perhaps it’s more a measure of my own personality that looks to find what’s good in work people generally find bad and to be more critical of work that people seem to routinely find ‘good’. I do appreciate that this work finds a place here and that we all can weigh in with our opinions in equal and accepted measure. A unique place, this burn.

  • Jamie…

    I also understand your point of view and maybe this is why this essay makes me feel ever so slightly uneasy every time I watch it.

  • JAMIE. and by extension all( well, when in rome…)

    What if a photographer doesnt care at all about the subject?
    What if the photographer has no interest in storytelling?
    What if a photographer objectifies the subject to satisfy his/her own subjective aesthetic?
    What if the sole aim is to make Iconic images, disconnected from time, place or sequence?

    THOUGHT EXERCISE

    Make a pile of ALL your photobooks.
    Go through them picking only the images strongest to you. Stay purely visual.

    Pick preferably images that you know very little about the subjects within but still the image is visually powerfull
    {do you really know the names or fates of any of the people in Salgados mine pictures? Have you ever really thought much about them? as individuals? }

    Make gallery sized prints of this selection.
    Hang them in your gallery/on the walls of your appartment.
    No labels.
    Walk around.
    LOOK.
    FEEL {someone good with words would probably say something like ‘let your eyes talk to your heart without your head interrupting all the time’ }

    Does this room work?
    Does this room need a story?
    Are these images negated by having context removed?

    Have I drunk too much coffee this morning? :))

    [This is in no way a question about the author of this essay. it is directed at Jamie and the other readers here]

  • Seen the essay, read the comments, seen the essay again…

    I like it, I think it falls into the best documentary tradition and it is quite modern. A bit too modern sometimes, I would say, in the sense that there are moments when the aesthetics prevail over content. No.4 or 7, for example, where I’m not sure it is adding anything to the story. Those pictures where I think “but, seriously, there is nothing there” (No. 10 or No. 24).

    Technically it’s delightful. Power to square format!

  • The thing that bothers me about the essay is that there is no sense of place in the images. The photographer tells us that the place has changed little over time, that “There is a sense of nostalgia that remains and is reflected in the buildings and in the people. This is a place where you can still enjoy school and church fete’s, rugby matches, old bars, sokkie jols, biker rallies, fishing and braaiing at the Brakpan Dam; all of which are a part of the local’s lives.”

    But, I see little of that in these images. These are carefully extracted vignettes, individual photos that could have been shot in a hundred places around the world. Which, to my mind, is why the essay fails, if the artist’s statement truly reflects the photographers intent. As others have noted, it seems to me the photographer was more interested in producing compelling individual photographs than with telling a story about a place.

  • JIM POWERS

    nice to have you here Jim….yes, i do see what you and others are missing….i mean i understand what you are missing intellectually …i guess we simply all expect different things from a set of photographs….for me almost every picture in this story is a picture of a “place”…i see lots of environment….i guess you want a pulled way way back air shot or something, and yes i am mildly curious about a long shot, an overview, but not so much that this would be the first thing i would ask for…however, most readers of newspapers and magazine evidently do …for sure at NatGeo the editors generally expect an air shot (except from me – they gave up)…it is all a matter of expectations i guess….and for sure when we put out our print versions of Burn, we think in terms of variety and balance….honestly a straight overall shot tends to bore me on some level, but i do always look ….and i would welcome an essay that was all overall shots well done…anyway i do hear a lot the refrain “this picture could have been shot anywhere” as a parameter for judgement…i personally don’t care, but appreciate that you and others do…i guess if i were editing a whole book on Brakpan, i might wish for one or two super overall/landscape shots…like Koudelka’s Chaos book…or Burtynsky

  • I find the point raised by Jamie very interesting. They are considerations that I make when I work on a project, and think of what I am communicating and what I want to transmit. I believe that being “condescending” is an easy trap to fall into. Although, it is also hard to say if the author is actually being condescending.
    What I have a hard time to see is a connection with the people and the town. I feel like I am just passing by rather than being drawn into the story.
    There are some images that I really like (#7 in particular), and I do see a place where there is a “lack of modern development”. – Oh, and I see the shark too now !

  • JAMIE

    your argument is well made IF you are assuming that artists throughout history have ever “cared” about or had “empathy for ” their subjects…i actually do agree personally with your assessment in those terms, but if that was the parameter for great art( or photography) we would have to throw out most of it….you think HCB had any empathy towards his subjects? or Frank? i do agree with you about Ballen…you KNOW what he’s up to….you do make a good point in the sense that this work is classic….we have indeed seen it before….and i pointed out Emily and Michelle as equally “classic”…but frankly i guess i just never got bored with classic…for one thing there just isn’t so much of it compared to other styles that i probably find classic refreshing after a long hard day of looking at pictures which for me just are not coming together on any level…anyway, this piece has generated a good discussion….must be something to it….

  • NANCY

    that damned shark will haunt you for awhile!! sorry, new story coming soon….

  • Jamie, Alan et al

    My 2c: I think these images are strong. Most are complex enough to come back to, and for me that’s worth something.

    I kinda get where Jamie is going with comments about a lack of empathy: there is a certain distance from the subjects, but I’m not sure that this is a problem — many great photographs come from a stance of neutrality towards the subject, a sort of disinterestedness in the fate of the people being photographed while nonetheless being in close proximity to them and having an intense knowledge of them. If you want your photographer to show that he cares about the future of his subjects, perhaps Marc isn’t your man.

    Places like Brakpan, Boksburg, Benoni, Randfontein and Springs, the dying satellite towns of Johannesburg (dying because the gold mining industry that built them is on its way out) occupy a particular place in the South African identity/landscape, a place very similar to that occupied by Midwestern nowheresvilles, the declining industrial towns in Ohio etc. They are special precisely because they aren’t obviously special. They are the constant butt of bad jokes. No tourist guide would ever tell you to go there. They have no long history and no great conventional beauty, which is why many of us imagemakers/storytellers (I am a documentary filmmaker) are drawn to them. They are, in some sense, the place where the purest cliches of modern South African exist, safe beyond the samplification (simplification + amplification) of journalists, marketers and historians who would want to reduce this astonishingly complex country to a set of iconic places and events.

    These images exist within a tradition of South African documentary photography; some riff off of David Goldblatt’s classic work in Boksburg, a nearby town, a respectful nod to a giant of photography, others resonate with Shoul’s earlier documentary work etc., however any comparison to Ballen’s South African images is facile: Ballen first engaged South Africa as foreigner with deep pockets (an American mining geologist, he literally owned small gold mines here). Ballen started out in the spirit of Walker Evans but soon started using his extremely sophisticated sense of composition, extremely expensive cameras and the marginalised poor white population of the areas that he mined in to play out aspects of his own psychodramas (see the book ‘Platteland’ as the best example of this). This deeply offended many South Africans, including myself, because his carefully crafted images, replete with props that were provided and arranged by the photographer, were marketed among the galleristas in his upper class social circles in New York as *documentary* work right around the time that Nelson Mandela was settling in as the first black President of South Africa.

    Ballen, so the buzz went, had exposed the previously unseen underbelly of Afrikaans-speaking white South Africa: Here were images that proved that the Master Race too had its deranged, racist, mentally-retarded and downright fugly-looking members. Anyone who despised Apartheid could have their views/fantasies vindicated by paging though the masterful images of ‘Platteland’ and feel good that ‘their’ Saint Mandela was now in charge. It was all bullshit — not that virtually every South African was incredibly pleased that the horrors of Apartheid were fading into the past and that a great unifier with a stunning smile now led the country, but Ballen had exposed nothing other than the perfectly-printed tip of his own neurosis-berg.

    In mid-90s pre-Big Internet days the stinging criticisms meted out to Ballen in South Africa by many (including myself) largely didn’t make it overseas. Ballen, it seems, took them to heart though: His subsequent images have become a lot more honest and, I think, a lot more interesting. They are not documentary works and they don’t pretend to be — they are depictions of the profound fears and complex neuroses of an American semigrant who found a way to access his inner world in South Africa. Although they use South African people and props, they are not specific to this place. They are nothing like Marc Shoul’s pictures.

    ‘Nuff sed.

    Goodnight!

  • Even if one tries to transcend or overcome one’s conditioning and expectations, it may not be so easy. And the common wisdom is that the older we get, the harder it is. One of the supposed benefits of aging is wisdom, the kind of wisdom in particular that accepts differences, and accepts that many things and many people will never really change much, and so what? I only offer that as an apologetic prologue, because while I have a view here, it is not a particularly strong one in terms of feeling passionate or wanting to persuade anyone else. I have come to accept that many of the voices here on Burn are who they are and nothing I say will make much difference. Some are more open to entertaining different points of view than others, of course, and as always I am pleasantly surprised by the tolerance and open-mindedness of David in airing and even giving serious consideration to viewpoints other than his own.
    It wouldn’t be fair or honest to make any kind of firm classification or irrevocably place one person or another on one side of a dividing line, but I have certainly discerned over several years here a general falling into two vaguely defined camps… those who are drawn to and value the purely “photographic” or “aesthetic” qualities of images above all else, and those for whom content and context are equally or even maybe more important. (Something else I have noticed is that there’s a lot of black and white on Burn and a lot commenters here who are attuned to black and white, but that’s another issue).
    What John Gladdy wrote just above about an exercise in hanging prints in the room is very interesting and seems to me to exemplify one possible illustration or characterization of the “purely photographic” inclination. Actually, many of the contributors here are probably at least sympathetic to this view, even if they don’t totally identify with it. And judging by much of what he says and has said in recent years here, I think it’s fair to say that David increasingly leans toward this group.
    In other words, they are “photographers’ photographers.”
    All along in my following Road Trips and Burn I’ve been aware that I’m not really in that camp. At times it has occurred to me that being a “photographer” is actually a rather strange and ephemeral calling as a distinct occupation, made necessary for the first hundred years or so of photography by the technical demands and specialized knowledge involved in the craft, but increasingly irrelevant. Kind of like being a “telephonist” or a “car driver” or a “typist”… nowadays just about everyone uses (and is expected to use) telephones, drives cars, and uses a word processor in some form… they are basic everyday entry-level living skills for taking part in modern civilization. And photography, whether with still cameras or iPhones or camcorders or soon-to-be commercialized picture-taking eye apparel or body apparel, is increasingly being performed by just about everyone. My suspicion is that within a decade or two the profession of “photographer” may seem as quaint and obsolete as “stenographer” does now. There will be artists who use cameras, reporters who use cameras, story-tellers who use cameras, poets who use cameras, PR and advertising people who use cameras, teachers who use cameras, etc. and skills in visual communication will be as basic to most third-wave industries as skills in verbal communication and writing are today. And the camera will be only one tool among a variety that such people use. Naturally some people will be much better at it than others, just as some people talk much better than others, some people write much better than others, some people are much better drivers than others, and some people are far more effective over the telephone than others. Of course I could be wrong about this, but I do think that is where we are headed. You can argue that we’re not there yet, but I think things are moving fast in that direction.
    I guess you can infer from that viewpoint that I was never much in the “pure photography” camp, and I have become less so. I was spent some time in art school doing drawing and painting, but my main educational background is in geography and history, biology and environmental studies, and East Asian languages and cultures. I was drawn to photography in parallel with being drawn into my academic career as a geography researcher and geography teacher, and both were motivated by my emotional and aesthetic sensitivity to what is often called a “sense of place” or “spirit of place”. Landscape art and landscape photography are prominent in that, and many of my favorite artists and photographers were people who did, among other things, landscapes. And the kind of distance, overall, establishing shots, and yes aerial photography, that David says he is bored with and has resisted despite pressure at NGM, were bread and butter to that calling.
    But I learned that there are many different kinds of images that can create or reveal a “sense of place” besides aerial photos or wide distance shots… and one of the clearest demonstrations of that can be found in a lot of the work that David and Alex Webb and others have done in the past for NGM. So eloquently showing a sense of place need not imply distant establishing shots or aerial photos.
    But one thing I have to say is that for me personally the experience of place, of places I have lived and traveled, places I have fallen in love with or been bemused by or occasionally hated, is so bound up with the sensations of color… color in the earth and the vegetation, color in the sky, color in people’s faces and skins, color in their clothes, color in their buildings, in their food and the objects they surround themselves with in their homes… and above all the qualities of light and color in the air, which are different everywhere… that is is very hard for me to think about conveying a “sense of place” without color… yes, some people have done it well in the past, like Edward Curtis, Andre Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson, Marc Riboud, Werner Bischof… but why choose to do it now when really accurate and precise control of color in imagery is finally so readily available and so cheap compared to any time in the past?
    It may be an inadequacy of mine, but like some of the other commenters here, I don’t see much “sense of place” in this essay. I do see a few nice images, and a generally adept eye and hand. But if the purpose was to convey a “sense of place” then why choose black and white, to begin with? And even in choosing black and white, weren’t there ways to more effectively communicate something truly unique about the place, even without distant establishing shots or aerial views?

  • SIDNEY

    thanks for your eloquent and well thought out comment….the only thing Sidney i must take exception with is the characterization of two camps…that somehow folks who make really strong photographs are then by nature not content oriented…if i ever gave that impression as being in “that camp”, then i have not presented my views properly…

    while i do value and relish the aesthetic image makers of the world, i do not for a nanosecond believe that precludes having done way more than bit of homework about the subject….my feeling is live it breathe it and get your damned PhD in the subject…become a “method photographer”…know more about the subject than the subject does and feel it feel it feel it…THEN make an image…just because the image does not appear to be didactic does not mean that it isn’t…just because it does not “spell it out” does not mean is not descriptive or even “educational”….viewers “learn” lots of different ways…your interest in geography, environmental studies, and history parallels mine…i think the only difference is that we probably want to say the same thing but have slightly different literary sensibility or language to say it…this does not mean our sense of the substance of something is one iota different..could be, but is not necessarily so….

    i have truly enjoyed our discussion on this topic for the last few years….i do not see you wrong on anything at all…my only suggestion is that instead of looking at it as “two camps” you might just see it as different ways of provoking an interest in a subject so that one might know the subject better….before you make a frisbee out of my upcoming rio book (which will be your first inclination i promise), just look again…you won’t see an academic treatise but you might have a learning experience after all…certainly my intent and with great respect for your integrity towards subject matter….

    cheers, david

  • Sidney,

    Your very last point about the use of black and white is something I expressed in one of the latest essays here….this one:

    Rian Dundon
    A view from inside the other new China

    I don’t mind the use of it in this one to be honest….I cannot tell you why….I just don’t. These are great images no matter what (to me of course). But I totally apply your reasoning to the China essay I just mentioned.

  • Oh that work was good, I’ve got nothing else to say. I could stare at every single one of those images all day.

Leave a Reply

You must login to post a comment.