David Goldblatt's Johannesburg Photographs 1948 - 2010 is the visual element of TJ / Double Negative. The fictional element, Double Negative, is a novel by Ivan Vladislavic. Together the two parts of this jarringly interesting collaborative project that won the 2011 Kraszna-Krausz Best Photography Book Award form a fragmented view of the fractured city of Johannesburg, South Africa, during and after Apartheid. A native white South African of Jewish heritage (his parents immigrated to South Africa to escape the persecution of Lithuanian Jews in 1890), Goldblatt spills the secret of the initials TJ in his brief introduction to his remarkable images; T and J are the letters of the old motorcar-licensing system identifying Transvaal, Johannesburg. It is a place that now only exists as a nick-named memory but one that conveys for the photographer a sense of home as he has photographed the city where he lives -- TJ or Joburg -- for the past 60 some years.
Double Negative is a three-part novel exploring the themes of photography, memory, and truth, which are cleverly woven into the ironies of a coming-of-age story of disaffected youth. In this neurotic and cloying urban story, Neville Lister is disgruntled with the politics and privileges of his solidly middle-class white family and the injustices of the rampant racism he witnesses against Black South Africans. But weak and unwilling to do much about it other than simmer in his own rather unformed intellectual juices, he drops out of university and spends his free time skulking around the fringes of the Anti-Apartheid protests, making sure he isn't photographed and that at least three "friends" buffer him from the front lines. Rather than face mandatory military service under a corrupt government, Nev, as he is affectionately called, eventually hightails it to London where his father has pre-paid three months rent on a shared flat. Prior to his dislocation, his father and uncle arrange for him to meet a "famous photographer," hoping a day spent in the opinionated and tough artist's company will instill in the boy a sense of direction and a way to channel his frustrations into something creative. Against his sulking will, Neville is impressed enough with the photographer that, searching for a way to make a living in London, he allows himself to meander into being a photographer, but does so by happenstance rather than conviction. This lost youth, although likable in a passing-glance sort of way, isn't terribly passionate about anything and instead of aspiring to something more complicated, allows himself to become an accidental photographer out of ease. Later in life, years after he's returned to Joburg, the same curator who championed his erstwhile role model puts several of his images into a group show and an aspiring type-A young journalist comes to spend the day with him for the specific purpose of a "print interview" and for her blog. It is here that the reader finds that the body may be older but the mind is not much wiser -- the man is still as lacking in conviction as was the boy. While this literary device allows a meditation on the haunting power of photographs as they relate to experience and memory, as well as ways of seeing the world through a hazy reverie of the past, it instills little comfort in the reader for the possibilities of redemption or growth as an artist or as a responsible human being as the protagonist admits to his trick of always "willfully excluding myself."
What ties these two books together, positive and negative -- black and white, is that the novel is loosely based on the experiences of the real photographer Goldblatt. In the fictionalized version, Saul Auerback, we later learn, can barely remember his young protégé or the day that they spent together. I read the novel first. Why? Because, as a photo curator, I usually look at the photographs first and I wanted to reverse a well-established order. Having recently returned from a trip to New York City visiting the Metropolitan and MoMA, I wanted to understand something of the irritating experience of being in the company of the crowds who frequent museums and read the labels hanging beside the art work first before they look at the art in order to "know" what they are looking at - even though the label is usually a small 2 x 4 or 4 x 6 1/2 shape with black text in easily readable font printed on it and precisely placed next to a larger and, one would hope, much more visually compelling art object. I realize that to compare this 204-page novel with a 50-word object label is a gross over-simplification and is perhaps not fair, but it provides related opportunity to voice a recent personal frustration regarding how we see and thus know the world.
Reading the novel, I kept wondering if I was going to see the photographs in the other picture-book that are so artfully described in the text. What Double Negative did was instill a heightened expectation of what was to come next when I finally allowed myself to look at the photographs. What I found were stunning photographs that illustrate all-too-well the reasons for Neville Lister's simmering grudge against the status quo and his inability to do anything effectual against the politics and economics of racism. There are several images that obviously influenced the fictional narrative but to point them out is beside the point. The photographs are a reference for the text that becomes a reference to the images that become a reference.... You get the idea. Each body of work stands proudly well on its own. Packaging them together was a brilliant decision as it brings the conditions of Apartheid in South Africa and its impact on Black, Indian, Islamic and yes, the most privileged White cultures to an uncomfortably riveting life. That we, the readers/viewers, are uneasy in our relationship to both the smart aleck anti-hero in Double Negative or any of the portraits in TJ is precisely the point - it all hits much too close to home and we are made uneasy in our own response to the long-standing injustices of the world.
—Mary Anne Redding