23 June 2009

Optimism & Pessimism ~ About Africa in Particular

At The Guardian yesterday Jonathan Jones published this provocative post on South African photographer Guy Tillim. Jones seems to start off contentiously:
"You won't often hear me call a photographer a genius. I think there's too much homage paid to an art that's basically just holding up a piece of machinery and pushing a button.

There are great photographs and great photographers. But far too much fuss is made now of average photographs by average artists. It's not so much a cult of the camera as of the run-of-the-mill."
But notice that, having denied the appellation"genius" to anyone engaged in so mechanical a process as "pushing a button," he then more or less immediately takes it back. The alternative would be to appear just plain silly and, of course, to deprive himself of a subject - namely Tillim. The problem is not with photography but with the art world and those who inhabit it as, regardless of medium, tends to push the mediocre work of "artists" in the cause of making a buck.

O.K., let's not use the word "genius." How about talented, insightful, or whatever. Tillim is indeed a terrific photographer. The portraits to which Jones links are pretty ominous. And here Jones really raises some important issues. There has been a push recently to decry "Afro-Pessimism" [1] [2] and how it informs the conventions that frame too much of how photographers depict events and conditions on vast, variegated African continent. It seems fair enough to complain that we too often get predictable images of tragedy, violence, deprivation, and chaos and little more. But it also seems fair to insist that there is too much of such such things across Africa and, as Jones intimates, ignoring them does not make them go away.
"Tillim is a South African photographer whose work is at once a report on contemporary Africa and an artistic image of it. His pictures deliver the shock of classic photojournalism as he traverses the continent, visiting crisis zones such as the Democratic Republic of Congo or, on his home ground, downtown Jo'burg. But they are at the same time chosen and composed images. Tillim photographs Africa in a way that communicates ambivalent and disturbing ideas and perceptions; every one of his pictures is at the same time a record of something seen and something he seems to have thought about for a long time.

Tillim is a provocative artist. At a time when art museums in the rich world often seem to want to create a fictionalised modern Africa – as if by celebrating something that does not exist it can be brought into being – he portrays a continent in chaos. His portraits of child soldiers are particularly scary. In his recent body of work, Avenue Patrice Lumumba, he documents buildings whose modernist idealism dates from the early years of African independence. Today these buildings are in various states of decay and transformation. It is not an optimistic series.

But I don't think Tillim is a dubious gloater over misery and poverty. He is a truth-teller. And it's in telling the truth - directly or indirectly, prosaically or poetically - that photography discovers its artistic power."
The most obvious problem in this discussion, I think, is that it is cast in dichotomous terms ~ optimism or pessimism. I don't think this dichotomy captures Tillim's work. Nor does it capture the work of other terrific African photographers such as David Goldblatt, Andrew Esiebo, Phillip Cartland, Santu Mofokeng or others whom I've commented on here in the past. Nor does it capture the work of non-African photographers who have depicted the continent ~ James Nachtwey, Robert Lyons, Sebastiao Slagado, Ron Haviv and so on. Even when such photographers depict tragedy, violence, deprivation, and chaos, they hardly do so because they think such conditions are irremediable. If they did they would be either wasting their time, or playing the role of voyeur in which critics like Sontag notoriously cast them. If the latter interpretation (or some variation on it) were not so common, it would be too obviously shallow to merit a response.

A second problem is that in thinking of the problems Africans confront and the accomplishments of which they can boast the parties to this disagreement reduce the role of photography to how this or that photographer is representing one or another truth. What about thinking of a conversation among photographers - one that does not rely solely on textless images, which I think is a hackneyed conceit of the profession - as though a picture (or set of pictures) speaks for itself? Different photographers might bring different perspectives and talents to bear on the continent. And we might recognize that there is way more in "Africa" than any one photographer might capture. So we could tack back and forth between the work of the many talented and insightful folks who are working there.

A third problem is related to the last. Photography does not simply depict reality; it does not simply capture some pre-existing "truth." It can also be transformative and prefigurative. And while Jones is no doubt correct to say that we cannot simply bring something into being by celebrating our aspirations (a form of dangerous wishful thinking that does not take the travails off real people seriously), he is way to harsh in his judgement. Why? Because photography can also play a role in prefigurative role in social and political change. It cannot accomplish such change on its own. But it can enter into movements for change and hold out possibilities that will motivate actors and animate movements. Call me naive or utopian. Want an example? Think of Josef Koudleka's (anonymous) photographs of Prague in 1968. Did they stop the Soviet brutality? No. Could they? No. But they entered into the politics of oppositions across Eastern Europe and came back to haunt the Soviets. I am sure you can think of other examples. Chuck your pessimism and cynicism overboard.

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Blogger Tom White said...

Thanks for directing my attention to this post, I have just rekindled my dislike for art critics.

24 June, 2009 02:45  

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