The history of South Africa does not make for easy reading. Race, religion, class, sexuality and gender collide in ways that are not always clear-cut. Visually, this has resulted in a photographic over-reach, an evolutionary fast-tracking where photographers have gone beneath the surface to come up with pictures that make sense in a political landscape where the historical image does not always match the contemporary reality. In Figures and Fictions, Tamar Garb puts together a group of contemporary photographers who have gone beyond the obvious to create work that is provocative, dynamic and beautiful.
In her excellent essay on the origins of contemporary South African photography, Garb traces modern documentary practice to the 1950s, when Drum Magazine created a platform for black photographers to provide images that reflected the complexity of South African life and so move beyond "the romantic idealizations and delimiting essentialisms that had been so dominant beforehand."
In the 1970s and 80s documentary photography was given a hardened political edge by the polarized political atmosphere of the apartheid era. But the edge was too hard and photography became a one-dimensional tool for promoting the struggle against the brutality and inequities of the apartheid state. This served well for propaganda purposes but was limited in other respects, a sentiment best expressed by Santu Mofokeng's rueful comment that 'black skin and blood make a beautiful contrast."
This disillusionment with 'struggle photography' is one of the reasons that South African photography became so rich, complex and layered. Mofokeng began incorporating family life, private experience and hidden views into his practice, while photographers such as David Goldblatt sought to highlight the political realities of everyday life in a more nuanced manner.
This visual ferocity and intentional ambiguity with which photographers state their case is what makes Figures and Fictions such a rewarding book. Sabelo Mbalengi examines 'male intimacy and eroticism,' Pieter Hugo cuts across class, race, gender and historical identity in his portraits while Zwelethu Mthethwa's pictures of the Shembe community visualizes layers of history condensed into sartorial form. Jodi Bieber examines the body and Nontsikelelo Veleko captures street fashion South African style.
The mystery of South Africa is how such a small country can produce such a large number of internationally recognized photographers. Figures and Fictions explains why this has happened, placing contemporary South African practice (especially documentary practice) in a political and historical context and also helping us expand our understanding of what photography can be and how it can get under the skin of those who view it.
Colin Pantall is a UK-based writer, photographer and teacher - he is currently a visiting lecturer in Documentary Photography at the University of Wales. His work has been exhibited in London, Amsterdam, Manchester and Rome and his Sofa Portraits will be published as a handmade book early next year. Further thoughts of Colin Pantall can be found on his blog, which was listed as one of Wired.com’s favourites earlier this year.